By Bill Simmons
Page 2 columnist

You never know. That's the beauty of boxing. You never know.

Mike Tyson
Remember when Mike Tyson was a wrecking machine instead of a circus sideshow?

During my sophomore year in college, my buddies and I tossed a mammoth party that coincided with the Buster Douglas-Mike Tyson championship fight in Tokyo. Remember those invincible Taiwanese Little League baseball teams in the '80s, or the dominance of the original Dream Team in the '92 Summer Olympics? That was Tyson, multiplied by a thousand. In the words of Mickey Goldmill, he was a wrecking machine, the real-life Clubber Lang. He didn't just knock out his opponents, he psyched them out, bludgeoned them and ripped out their hearts, a bully in every sense of the word.

Back then, it never occurred to anyone that Tyson could lose in his prime, that a variety of outside forces would inevitably distract him, that such a troubled, misguided soul would have trouble maintaining the focus that a championship fighter so desperately needs. The guy was a walking 24-hour therapy session; we didn't care. We only knew that Mike Tyson delivered the goods. He was a wrecking machine.

So we geared our party around him as a side attraction, mounting a 19-inch television atop a kitchen cabinet, just for that 20-minute interlude when the party would stop, everyone would huddle around the television and Tyson would deliver one of his highlight film knockouts, practically on cue. After he finished his work, we would turn off the television, crank up the music and keep the kegs flowing.

But when the fight started, something weird happened.

Douglas was fighting back.

Mike Tyson & Buster Douglas
Buster Douglas' knockout of Tyson in 1990 ranks as one of the greatest upsets in sports history.

The second round passed. Then the third. Then the fourth. If anything, Douglas was controlling the fight, giving Tyson everything he could handle. We couldn't believe it. Buster was a journeyman boxer, a nobody, a 30-1 underdog. Few of us had even heard of him. Now he was controlling the fight with his left jab and two-punch combinations, moving deftly around the ring, looking like a poor man's version of Ali. Tyson was growing more frustrated by the minute, lunging and missing, unable to mount an offensive. He almost looked -- gasp! -- helpless.

And the party stopped. I'm not kidding. Everything stopped. I attended hundreds of parties during my four years in college (as my GPA can attest), but nothing approached this one on The Surreal Scale.

It was like Frank Santos came in and hypnotized every male in the room. The girls were standing in one corner of the apartment, drinking flat keg beer, gabbing among themselves and getting increasingly agitated about everything that was happening. Meanwhile, we were huddled in the kitchen, absolutely mesmerized by a 19-inch TV. We looked like the people during the final scene in "Close Encounters," when the alien spaceship lands and renders everyone speechless and motionless. That was us.

Douglas kept taking it to Tyson. The tension kept building; we were suffering a collective heart attack, hanging on every punch. By the sixth round, Tyson's right eye was swelling shut; the females in attendance could have been performing bachelor party routines on the sofa and we wouldn't have noticed. Tyson looked increasingly disheveled, even disoriented, the stereotypical bully who couldn't handle someone actually belting him back. And we kept saying to each other, "This isn't happening, is it? Is this really happening? This is happening, right?"

Buster Douglas
After Buster Douglas became the world champion, the heavyweight division went into a major tailspin.

You could feel it coming. Everyone could. In the 10th, Douglas landed a thunderous combination, and Tyson went sprawling backward, like an oak tree, thudding to the ground... there he was, sprawled on his knees, awkwardly groping for his mouthpiece... and there we were, whooping it up like inmates during a prison riot.

I wouldn't have even believed it, except I watched the whole thing. Buster Douglas knocked out Mike Tyson. Absolutely, positively, the most improbable sporting event of my lifetime, as well as my favorite party in four years of college. Sure, every girl in the apartment was gone by the eighth round ... but that's beside the point. When boxing is working -- when it's really working, which isn't often anymore -- it's still the most exciting sport in the world. Warts and all.

***** ***** *****

We were reminded of this again last Saturday night, when Irish Micky Ward and Arturo Gatti re-enacted the Drago-Balboa fight at the Mohegan Sun, with Ward prevailing in a dramatic majority decision that left everyone breathless, including me. Boxing needed one of these old-school battles, just two guys pounding the crap out of one another, utterly fearless, pushing themselves toward that sacred place where skills don't matter anymore, when it's all about determination and heart and nothing else.

I can't even remember the last time I watched a fight like this. Honestly, I'm stumped.

Remember that scene in "Godfather III," when Pacino pulled the "Just when I think I'm out, they pulllllll me back in" routine? That was the Ward-Gatti fight. I thought I was out of boxing, but that fight pulled me back in.

Whether I want to be back in ... that's another story.

After more than two decades of following boxing, I'm still not sure what to make of the sport as a whole. It's impossibly corrupt and horribly governed, an outright mess, maybe the only professional sport that doesn't seem to have any semblance of a collective clue (name another sport that doesn't offer unions or even health benefits).

Opportunists and crooks permeate the higher levels -- gangsters, shyster lawyers, sleazeball promoters, corrupt officials, greedy television networks. Nobody personifies boxing quite like the deplorable Don King, who turned boxing into his personal territory, like a glorified Mafia don. There are some baddddddddddd people in boxing. And maybe there always will be.

Don King
It's difficult to like boxing when you think about the people who run it.

As for the boxers themselves, the talent pool seems to be dwindling, as the same world-class athletes that once gravitated to boxing -- strong guys with superior hand-eye coordination, lower-class backgrounds, looking for a way out -- now gravitate toward basketball, baseball and football (where top stars earn more money and escape with their brains intact).

For every fighter who climbs the ranks, beats the odds and becomes a contender, hundreds of failures are strewn along the way. Many fighters absorb serious punishment, especially in the latter stages of their career, and those damaging effects are usually permanent and inevitably fatal.

And if that's not enough, the ultimate goal of every fight is for one man to punch another man senseless, which makes any good-hearted person at least a little uneasy. As a lifelong boxing fan, I always find myself straddling the invisible line between passion (for everything that happens inside the ring) and guilt (that my passion implicitly condones the sport as a whole). It's like a dance. You hop back and forth. No other sport crushes your self-esteem quite this way, makes you doubt yourself, makes you ashamed just to admit you're a fan.

I feel like an unwitting accomplice every time a boxer finishes his career with a bank account as empty and useless as his brain. I see Muhammad Ali mumbling his words, and it breaks my heart. I remember fighters like Gerald McClellan -- once a wonderful middleweight, now blind and handicapped, just five years older than me -- and never want to subject myself to another fight. I watch great boxers return again and again after their primes, almost like a mandatory rite of passage, their skills slipping a little more every time, the joyless repercussions too painful for any true fan to accept.

On the other hand, there's boxing itself. The buildup. The hype. The drama. The machismo. Those suffocating minutes before the first bell when your heart pounds, when you wouldn't want to be anywhere else but sitting in front of your television set, when the potential for greatness hovers over everything you're about to watch.

No other sport has a ceiling quite like boxing. That's the bottom line. You never know. You never, ever, ever, ever know.

***** ***** *****

Arturo Gatti, Micky Ward
Arturo Gatti, left, and Micky Ward clearly brought out the best in each other.

On Saturday night, we had a pretty good idea. Throw Gatti and Ward in the same ring -- two bona-fide warriors with no regard for their own safety -- and the odds of a LaMotta Era donnybrook were off the charts. Gatti controlled the fight for the first four rounds, ultimately making the crucial mistake of hitting Ward below the belt (losing a point in the process). That seemed to awaken Irish Micky, who turned up the pressure in the middle rounds, almost like he found an extra gear.

Everything built toward the improbable ninth round, when Ward knocked down Gatti with a vicious left hook to the body, nearly polishing him off before wearing down midway through the round ... and then Gatti came roaring back, punishing an exhausted Ward with combinations, almost like target practice, to the point Ward looked headed for the canvas. Then Gatti punched himself out ... and here came Ward again, throwing bombs and nearly ending the fight in the final 20 seconds, as Gatti was practically out on his feet, wobbling like a bad actor in a second-rate boxing movie. But Ward had punched himself out twice in the same round; he couldn't even muster enough strength to pucker his lips and blow Gatti over.

Catch Gatti-Ward
If you missed the fight between Arturo Gatti and Mickey Ward, you can catch the replay Tuesday at 11:05 p.m. on HBO2.

The round ended like that, the fans on their feet and screaming for more, the fighters staggering back to their corners like drunks. This was stuff on the level of Hagler-Hearns, one of the five or six greatest rounds of my lifetime. It didn't matter that, at this breakneck pace, neither guy will have enough brain cells to successfully bag groceries in 20 years. All that mattered was the fight. Two boxers were bringing out the best of one another, regardless of the cost.

Between rounds, it seemed Gatti's corner wanted to stop the fight, but Gatti (a renowned comeback specialist) convinced them otherwise, finding renewed life in the final round, stunning Ward with combinations again and again. The fight ended with both men holding each other up, one of Gatti's eyes swollen shut, blood streaming from a cut under Ward's eye. As it turned out, Gatti boxed well enough to win the round, but Ward's decisive ninth round won him a majority decision. Both guys seemed satisfied with the result, both of them saying during the post-fight interviews that "The fight could have gone either way."

And it could have. I'm sure Gatti and Ward will meet again down the road, even if they will never be as good as they were Saturday night. Nobody makes it through that kind of war without losing a little something along the way. How much remains to be seen.

None of that matters now. Boxing made another comeback last weekend. For the first time in recent memory, a fight became a water-cooler topic Monday morning for all the right reasons, not because somebody had gone insane, or somebody had bitten somebody else, or somebody had stopped something too soon. With the much-anticipated Tyson-Lewis bout looming in three weeks, this was the best possible hype for that promotion, a subtle reminder that boxing remains the sport with the highest ceiling. The Tyson-Lewis telecast costs $54.95, and if it delivers anything close to the excitement of Gatti-Ward, that will be the best money you ever spent on a sporting event.

Maybe the fight will stink. Given that Tyson hasn't fought a memorable fight in more than seven years, that's a pretty good bet.

Then again ... you never know.

Bill Simmons writes three columns a week for Page 2.