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Image: David Rosenblum/Icon SM/imago images

Tyson makes boxing comeback at 54 — a medical faux pas?

Julia Dorny
November 23, 2020

At the age of 54, boxing legend Mike Tyson will make his comeback in the ring. Boxing fans are looking forward to his duel with Roy Jones Jr., but are the health risks associated with the bout too great?


"On November 28, it will be brutal," Mike Tyson writes on Instagram. "In life I may lose sometimes, but I will not lose in the ring that day!"

The former heavyweight world champion will compete against Roy Jones Jr. in Los Angeles on Saturday — an exhibition fight between two boxing icons and the double comeback of the year. "Iron Mike" is 54 years old, his opponent, who was world champion in five weight classes from middle to heavyweight, is only three years his junior. Tyson's last professional fight was 15 years ago when he lost to Irishman Kevin McBride by technical knockout after six rounds. Following this bitter defeat, he announced his resignation.

Jones, on the other hand, fought for the last time in 2018. Against the Canadian Scott Sigmon, he achieved a unanimous points victory. Jones is well aware that he could have more problems in the upcoming fight of the two over-50 boxers than he did then. On the podcast of comedian and ring moderator Joe Rogan, he admitted: "If you get hit by Mike Tyson, anything can happen! He's no ordinary puncher!"

However, the organizers have done a lot to mitigate the health and injury risks: The show fight, which is also intended to raise money for charity, is scheduled to last eight rounds instead of twelve, with a round time of two minutes instead of three. The boxing is done with more padded gloves than usual, and the referee can stop the fight at any time if he thinks it is getting too rough: 

Slower reflexes, slower recovery

However, boxers run a health risk when they enter the ring at an advanced age: "If boxers don't get their act together, serious damage can occur," sports physician Walter Wagner tells DW. The 69-year-old is Germany's most famous ring doctor and has examined and treated countless boxers in his long career. "I didn't give a license to one of them at 40," says Wagner.

Young fighters recover more quickly from punches, explains Wagner. This applies to joints, muscles and the brain. "With age, these things decrease continuously. The reflexes and reactions slow down, even if unnoticed." The ability to suffer for the blows also decreases, he explains and therefore has a clear opinion regarding the "Frontline Battle": "From a medical point of view, the comeback of  Tyson against Jones should be cancelled.

USA Las Vegas | Mike Tyson besiegt Trevor Berbick 1986
Tyson achieved 22 of his 44 knockout wins in the first roundImage: AFP/dpa/picture-alliance

"At Tyson's age, boxing is generally too dangerous, even though he looks extremely fit in his training videos," says Wagner, who has been an accident surgeon for over 40 years and is a medical officer with the Bund Deutscher Berufsboxer (BDB). "In the past it used to be said over 40s should only fight in exceptional cases. But for this, everything must be medically clarified 100 percent".

To illustrate what happens inside the skull of the boxers, Wagner uses a plastic model: "Take an apple and a hammer and hit it 20 times. What happens? Yes, it turns brown - and that's how it is in the brain," he says, but admits directly that the brain-apple comparison cannot be proven on an evidence basis. "But I know a lot of boxers," says Wagner, "who get dementia at the age of 50, or almost 60, even though they have lived a healthy life. The brain changes, boxing dementia and damage to joints are simply collateral damage of this sport.

Apart from the health risks that Tyson and Jones are exposing themselves to, the fight has its good points. The slogan and symbol of the "Black Lives Matter" movement are emblazoned on the "Frontline Battle" belt of the WBC world federation. Tyson and Jones will join the significant number of athletes who use their platform to make a clear statement against racism and police violence against black people.

Tyson achieved 22 of his 44 knockout wins in the first round and, while most boxing fans will hope for a longer duel between the two veterans, Tyson is considered the clear favorite. Despite the dangers of this fight, Jones will enjoy the duel. "I love boxing," he says. "So if I die in boxing, I die a happy man."

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