Who remembers the hype surrounding a possible bout between then heavyweight champion Mike Tyson (then 37-0) and NFL first-round draft pick, 6’6″ 315 lb athletic freak Tony Mandarich 25 years ago?
Mandarich was touted as the greatest offensive lineman prospect ever… He was going to change the game. And he was thought to be an athletic phenom with freakish strength and explosive speed, and a killer instinct to boot.
In 1989, 23-year-old Michigan St. tackle Tony Mandarich was drafted by the Green Bay Packers, second overall behind quarterback Troy Aikman and ahead of running back Barry Sanders, linebacker Derrick Thomas, and cornerback Deion Sanders.
On the eve of the draft, Mandarich burst into the U.S. mainstream thanks to Sports Illustrated who donned him on its April 24th cover, labeling him ‘The Incredible Bulk.’
Mandarich was a hit overnight as that publication became one of the hottest in Sports Illustrated history.
“That SI cover was like a HUGE launch,” Mandarich asserted 20 years later.
Enter Mike Tyson.
Also 23, Tyson was in his prime and had cleaned out the heavyweight division, sans Evander Holyfield who was still working his way up the heavyweight ranks, and George Foreman who was not yet considered a credible opponent.
Given Tyson had no megafights immediately on the horizon, boxing promoter Shelly Finkel and trainer Lou Duva, perhaps seeing an opportunity to capitalize off Mandarich’s five minutes of fame, offered the football star $5 million to face the champ. Today, that would equate to $9.6 million.
The public was so consumed by Tony that many were actually excited about the prospects for this farce.. er.. fight, even though Tony had not boxed a day in his life. Some even quipped Tyson vs Mandarich would be the biggest pay-per-view event ever.
Mandarich was a monster on the football field who simply just didn’t block other linemen, he pancaked them. A big bully and arguably the most intimidating athlete in college football history, he often toyed with All-American defenders.
His arrogant persona, freakish feats of strength, incredible speed, and ferocious style of play (in college) only fed the public’s intrigue about prospects for Tyson vs Mandarich.
So how did he get so strong and so fast?
Back then, the college star attributed his athletic feats to intense workouts and his 12,000-calorie-per-day diet, but his medicine cabinet, receding hairline, and back acne suggested Mr. Mandarich was benefitting from a lot of extra help from other (illegal) sources.
NFL Offensive lineman
Weight: 315-330 pounds
Weight at birth: 13 pounds
40-Yard Dash: 4.65 seconds
Standing Long Jump: 10’3“
Vertical Leap: 30″
Bench Press: 550 pounds
Boxing Training: 9 months (if it was to happen)
225-pound Bench Press: 39 reps
Bench Press: 550 pounds
Boxing Training: 9 months (if it was to happen)
“Well, Lou Duva [a prominent trainer] and Shelly Finkel [a boxing manager] came to me right after the SI cover,” stated Mandarich.”
They said, ‘Would you be interested in fighting Mike Tyson?’ And I said, ‘Of course, I’d consider any offer.’ “
Lou Duva worked with me in the ring, and he said, “We need about nine months of training, and you’ll be ready to do it. The fight won’t last three rounds, and only one of two things will happen: You will kill him, or he will kill you.”
“When he (Mandarich) hit the heavy bag, I thought the roof was going to cave in,” Duva told Sports Illustrated.
Yeah right, Lou.
In Summer 1989, the sports world was abuzz about what was next for Tony Mandarich. Was he going to report to the Green Bay Packers training camp or Lou Duva’s boxing gym?
Tony held out of the Packers training camp, demanding more money. He also dangled the prospects of a showdown with Mike Tyson in front of the NFL organization until they finally relented, realizing if their investment stepped in the ring with Tyson, he may never step out.
Undisputed and undefeated World Heavyweight Boxing Champion
Billed Height: 5’11.5″
Fighting Weight: 220
Boxing Record: 37-0, 33 KOs
Tyson vs Mandarich: What if?
For starters, the WBC, WBA, and IBF would have not sanctioned such an obvious mismatch so Tyson’s titles would have not been on the line. The big question is: Would any state commission have approved of such a fight?
But because the masses were so naive and both men were fearsome forces of nature in the eyes of the mainstream public, Tyson vs Mandarich, if promoted well, would have been a box office smash and the promoters knew it.
As a result, they would have found a way to make the fight happen, even if it meant taking it overseas.
So how would Mandarich have faired against Mike Tyson?
He would have not only gotten knocked out in the first round, but he may also have gotten seriously hurt. It would have been just another over-hyped promotional freakshow.
I was thinking, “I’m going into the ring with a killer at the top of his game,” Mandarich said years later. “He’s probably going to destroy me. So I better get paid for it.”
“I asked for more money, which helped put pressure on the Packers to get my contract done, and that’s what happened. And we never talked about it again”.
Mandarich had secrets
As a pro football player, Mandarich never lived up to the very high expectations set for him. After three seasons of dismal performance, Mandarich was cut in 1992 by the Packers. That same year, he would reappear on the September 28, 1992, cover of Sports Illustrated who labeled him “The NFL’s Incredible Bust.”
Twenty years after the draft and rumors of fighting Tyson, Mandarich would admit what many surmised all along. The Tony Mandarich Express was a ‘hype machine fueled by steroids.’
While in college, he allegedly took a cocktail of steroids including Dianabol, Winstrol, Testosterone, Anadrol, and Equipoise as well as growth hormone. He was literally a walking pharmacy.
After the hype… Revival
After getting cut by the Packers, Tony went back home to Michigan for two years. Addicted to prescription drugs and alcohol, he checked into a rehabilitation clinic and eventually conquered his addictions.
Mandarich returned to football for three years between 1996 and 1998 with the Indianapolis Colts. He had a more successful career in Indy and started all 16 games during the 1997 season before retiring from football in 1998 due to a shoulder injury.
He now runs Mandarich Media Group and tells about his steroid use and addiction in his book, My Dirty Little Secrets—Steroids, Alcohol & God. (2009).
What the scouts said about Tony Mandarich in 1989
MIKE LOMBARDI, BROWNS: “A freak of nature.”
JOE WOOLLEY, EAGLES: “He’s a man among children.”
MIKE ALLMAN, SEAHAWKS: “I don’t remember anything coming out in the last 20 years like him. This kid is faster and stronger than Anthony Munoz.”
JERRY REICHOW, VIKINGS: “No reservations at all. We’d jump on him in a minute. But there is no perfect guy.”
ANONYMOUS AFC SCOUT: “When he gets off the ‘roids, and comes down to 280 or 290, he’s still going to be outstanding.”
GIL BRANDT, COWBOYS: “They’ll be getting a player that probably will be in the Pro Bowl for the next 10 years.”