It is not the fists of Mike Tyson that give Brian Nielsen nightmares of what might have been. Nielsen was not the first nor the last heavyweight to find out the hard way that Tyson used more weapons inside the ring than just his two legal ones.
Nielsen insists that a headbutt opened a nasty cut on his eyelid and cost him the chance to end Tyson’s career in their 2001 fight.
“Tyson hit me four times with headbutts,” Nielsen told Sky Sports. “You saw my eye? He headbutted me.
“If I didn’t have the scar on my eye, I would have beaten him. I’m sure of that.”
It sounds like bluster but Nielsen’s claims are not ridiculous – this was the maniacal phase of Tyson’s career, he had already lost three times and would lose his next fight to Lennox Lewis too before unravelling altogether.
Nielsen had an opportunity to accelerate that decline but could not capitalise. Tyson’s punches were a problem, so was his forehead.
Tyson, aged 35, had experienced a tornado two-year period since the turn of the century including a controversy-marred win over Julius Francis in Manchester during which he caused chaos in the days beforehand, and a win over Lou Savarese in Glasgow in which he bulldozed the referee too.
All this, after the episode in which he bit Evander Holyfield’s ear off.
A month after 9/11, New York’s Tyson arrived in Denmark aiming to solidify his position to fight the winner of the Lennox Lewis vs Hasim Rahman rematch.
In his way was Nielsen, who had a 62-1 record and had been polled as the second most famous person in Denmark behind their queen.
“Everyone told me Tyson was very hard but he wasn’t,” Nielsen said of his rival’s fearsome reputation.
Inside the ring, Tyson needed less than three rounds to floor Nielsen. Then in the fourth a bad cut opened on Nielsen’s eyelid which he blamed on headbutts.
Nielsen did not come out for the seventh round which angered Tyson.
“He was tough, he was game,” said ‘Iron Mike’.
Nielsen said post-fight: “No I am not proud because I wanted to go the distance.
“Every time he hit me hard on the left eye, I couldn’t see. He would never have knocked me out, I can take anything. He hits hard but not hard enough to knock me out.”
Four years later Tyson’s career wilted after a lacklustre defeat to Kevin McBride, during which he was docked a point for headbutting.
“McBride beat him because Tyson had no conviction,” Nielsen said.
Nielsen did not win a world title from the four main sanctioning bodies, but made five defences of the IBO belt.
“I had nine championship fights and won all of them. This, I am proud of,” he said from the Costa del Sol, where he has lived for the past decade running Brian Nielsen Golf & Events.
Nielsen, a 1992 Olympics bronze medallist, built an impressive winning record against established names – James ‘Bonecrusher’ Smith, Tony Tubbs, Peter McNeeley, Tim Witherspoon and Larry Holmes were all dispatched by Nielsen in the latter stages of their careers.
“I am very proud of beating Witherspoon,” Nielsen said. “In 1992 we were in a training camp in New York, I sparred with him there. He was a very good guy, a strong guy. Seven years later I beat him in four rounds.
“Larry Holmes threw up in the corner because I hit him in the stomach. He had a very good jab but didn’t like to be hit in the stomach.
“McNeeley was an easy fight, three rounds. He was a crazy guy who fought Tyson.”
The heavyweight that Nielsen lavishes the most praise on? Evander Holyfield.
Holyfield ventured to Copenhagen and defeated Nielsen in what proved to be a farewell fight for both veterans. Nielsen ended a nine-year hiatus to face the man who had twice beaten Tyson.
“Tyson was one of the biggest heavyweights ever but Holyfield is a better fighter,” Nielsen said.
“He was a much better boxer and also had a good punch. I went 10 rounds with Holyfield.”
Nielsen ended his career with a 63-3 record, featuring some impressive scalps and losses to Tyson and Holyfield, two of the era’s best.
“I am most proud of 49-0,” he says.
In 1999 Nielsen, by smashing Witherspoon, equalled the historic undefeated record of the legendary heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano.
“Marciano fought a lot of his opponents twice,” he now points out. “I only fought one opponent twice. Marciano fought a guy twice who had one win and seven losses.”
Nielsen’s achievement was immediately followed by his first defeat, tempering his record at 49-1, but for one glorious period he stood alongside an icon of the ring.
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