Mike Tyson and the Art of Intimidation

Written by Mark Weber at Aug 23, 2012 - 04:41PM ET in News
Mike Tyson once stated most of his opponents got intimidated before the fight and, as a result, were losers before they absorbed the first punch.

"Iron Mike" claimed he used his intimidation as psychological warfare to give him an added advantage prior to and during the fight.

Tyson eyed his opponents from the moment they entered the ring, often sensing fear. Once he discovered that vulnerability, he looked to exploit that weakness from the opening bell.

It may seem a little crazy to believe a fighter could gain a monumental advantage by staring into an opponent's eyes, but the concept is not very far fetched.

If a fighter can invoke fear into his opponent, any normal pre-fight jitters the intimidated fighter will have will obviously be exacerbated.

To further understand how intimidation works, we first must understand what is intimidation.


Intimidate, verb : to make timid or fearful : frighten; especially : to compel or deter by or as if by threats; implies inducing fear or a sense of inferiority into another. 

Intimidation can be an important factor in all sports; However,it is best utilized in combat sports such as boxing, MMA, and kickboxing due to the violent nature of those sports and the one-on-one combat.

Fighters, like most individuals in general, show fear by their body language and facial expressions - And there's nothing like involking pure intimidation to deflate an opponent's confidence and his deter his ability to focus on the task at-hand.


Boxing and MMA, although very physical in nature, are arguably even more psychological. As a result, it's very important for fighters to exude self-confidence. It's the one equalizer to intimidation,

Jack Dempsey
One of the first high-profile prizefighters to use intimidation as a weapon was the great Jack Dempsey, Mike Tyson's idol. The "Manassa Mauler" was known for being a ferocious individual.

Dempsey, who had a tough life as a child, displayed his anger and aggression through his fighting. According to Edwin Pope of the Miami Herald, a young Jack Dempsey would frequently bar-hop. But Jack didn't drink, he wanted to fight. Legend has it Dempsey would ask bartenders, "Do you have any bad customers that you want to get rid of, and if you do, I'll fight him and we'll split the pot."

Even a young, green Jack Dempsey feared no one.

Dempsey's illustrious career included an spine-tingling 24 first round knockouts. On June 4, 1919, the '6'1" 187 pound Dempsey brutalized 6'6" 245 lb monster Jess Willard to win the World Heavyweight Title.

The "Manassa Mauler" was not physically imposing nor scary-looking - But he was the classic "blood-thirsty gentleman" and possessed a killer instinct second to none. Well aware of Dempsey's ring rage and relentless aggression, Dempsey's mere presence in the ring was enough to strike fear in the heart of an opponent.


Dempsey's blood-thirsty nature along with his fighting style, which was revolutionary for the time, inspired many future stars who patterned themselves after the 1920s icon, most notably Mike Tyson.

Sonny Liston
In the late 1950's and early 1960's, heavyweight great Sonny Liston took intimidation to an entirely different level. Not only was he intimidating in the ring, he was every bit as frightening outside it.

Like many fighters before him and since, Liston had a hard upbringing. Its believed his Liston's father physically abused him as a child, leaving scars were still visible decades later. 

After failing out of school, Liston became a gangster and turned to crime. . After being caught and convicted, Liston was sentenced to five years in Missouri State Penitentiary where he was introduced to boxing.

Liston always wore a scowl and developed an incredible ability to terrorize his opponents with his stares. And unlike Jack Dempsey, Liston actually looked intimidating. At only 6'0" tall and weighing a well-muscled 215-220 lbs, Liston gave the appearance of a much bigger man.

Couple Liston's ferocity in the ring, mind-numbing punching power and imposing physique with his evil scowl, well-documented criminal past and alleged connections to organized crime and you had one of the most intimidating fighters to ever enter the ring.


But even intimidation has its short-comings. A young 7 - 1 underdog named Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali),  self-confident and overly zealous, failed to allow intimidation to be a factor in their bouts and would hand Liston back-to-back defeats and ultimately banish him from the division's elite tier.

George Foreman
As Tyson idolized Dempsey, a teenage George Foreman revered Liston. And the similarities between Foreman, in his first stint as a fighter, and Liston were striking.

Big George adopted Liston's blind stare and wore a menacing scowl inside and out of the ring. Moreover, the 6'4" Foreman was an intimidating physical presence who seldom exhibited a human side - even out of the ring. And lastly, Foreman, like his idol, was one of the hardest punches in the history of boxing.

At the height of their careers, Liston and Foreman were thought to be invincible and neither man was short on intimidation tactics.

Understanding the art of intimidation, Foreman would use the pre-fight stare-down to gain a psychological advantage over his opponents. Joe Frazier and Ken Norton were just two of Foreman's unfortunate foes who were seemingly victimized by raw intimidation prior to the fight and pulverized by lefts and rights during it.


But once again, even the most intimidating of fighters can't physiologically impose their will on an opponent who reeks raw confidence. Enter Muhammad Ali... again.

Seemingly not intimidated by Foreman's prowess and punching power , Ali would derail Big George at the height of the latter's career, shocking the world via an 8th Round knockout.

Other boxers capable of intimidating their opponents include Marvin Hagler, Roberto Duran, Tommy Hearns, a young James Toney and Felix Trinidad. But perhaps no boxer, or even athlete, has ever possessed the level of intimidation of Mike Tyson in the late 1980s and early to mid 1990's. Tyson, arguably the most feared man in the world, exuded a tremendous amount of anger and electricity and was truly one of the most intimidating personalities in the history of boxing and all of professional sports.

Intimidation is a beautiful thing. It is great to watch a physically intense battle, but it is arguably equally as intriguing to watch a fighter use psychological warfare via intimidation, whether on purpose or by nature, to gain a strategic advantage.


Who are today's Intimidators?
Who today is capable of gaining that an all-important advantage by striking fear into the heart of his opponent? Does is intimidation, on the level of Dempsey, Liston, Foreman and Tyson, even exist in today's game?


Mike Tyson Demolishes a Seemingly Fearful Alex Stewart in 1990 

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