Tyson does Las Vegas

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Look at him," said Tommy Brooks, gesturing across the room at the squat figure in black T-shirt, black boots and lime-green bikini briefs standing next to a rack of punchbags, in animated conversation with a group of friends. "See how happy he is? The guy's happy. Before, there was a lot of turmoil. He was always looking over his shoulder. He was unhappy. But he was telling me the other day - he said: `Man, things have been going so great that I just know something wrong is going to happen.'"

"Happy" is not a word generally associated with Mike Tyson, the man in the lime-green briefs. For almost 10 years now, ever since the night in Tokyo when Buster Douglas knocked him down and took away his immortality, the name of Tyson has been exclusively linked with trouble. Think of Tyson and you no longer think of a supremely gifted boxer. You think of guilt, rage, shame, retribution, scorn and disgrace. You think of things going wrong.

Tommy Brooks is the latest trainer charged with the responsibility of overseeing Tyson's attempt to regain his lost crown. On Saturday night in Las Vegas, the former undisputed heavyweight champion of the world meets Francois Botha of South Africa, christened The White Buffalo by the man who once managed both fighters, the egregious Don King. There are no titles at stake this weekend. Yet Tyson's drawing-power is such that he will earn around pounds 15m for his night's work, the result of his continuing ability to persuade cable television subscribers that when he enters the ring, something memorable happens.

It is, after all, a reasonable claim. This is the same ring in which, during his last fight 18 months ago, Tyson lowered himself to a new level of infamy by taking a bite out of each of Evander Holyfield's ears - for which he earned a disqualification, a fine and a suspension. The same ring in which, the previous year, he had stopped Bruce Seldon in the opening round before rushing from the arena to the emergency room of the nearby University Medical Center to see his friend Tupac Shakur, the rap star, die after a shooting incident en route to a post-fight party.

But Tyson is unlike any other contemporary sportsman or woman in the way that the narrative of his career diverts observers into consideration of matters that have nothing at all to do with sport. Throughout this decade his behaviour has consistently raised social and moral issues that go far beyond the questions raised elsewhere by mundane displays of cheating, bad manners and the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

Not least, his existence reminds us - us white people, that is - of a world to which we cannot belong, a world with its own codes and language, a parallel and self-sustaining world born of 400 years of exclusion and alienation and now fiercely, truculently, proud of its survival.

When Tyson was sentenced to three years in the slammer for raping the teenage beauty queen Desiree Washington, the case aroused debate over issues including the relationship between black men and black women, male-female sexual etiq-uette in general, the use and abuse of celebrity, and the distorting effect of such celebrity on an individual's behaviour.

And you would still have trouble finding two people to agree on whether or not he did it, or at least whether what he did was, in the circumstances, a crime. Tyson's white admirers have long tried to defend him against the legion of sceptics by emphasising his intellectual curiosity, as exemplified by a profound knowledge and understanding of boxing's history, picked up from his first trainer, Cus D'Amato, and his early managers, Jim Jacobs and Bill Cayton - the team that took a teenage hoodlum from the Brownsville housing projects and turned him into the most formidable prizefighter on earth. The argument goes that a man who talks with such intense and sympathetic eloquence about his heroes can hardly be the brute presented to the public; he must, instead, have been brutalised by his environment.

By itself this is not much of an argument (although its conclusion may be accurate), but it does give Tyson an undeniably appealing side. He showed it again this week, when drawn into a conversation about the era in which title fights lasted 50, 60 or even 100 rounds. The sheer endurance of the men who underwent such tests clearly fired his imagination, and he talked enthusiastically about the fights between Joe Gans, a black lightweight from Baltimore, and Battling Nelson, a white man, before the First World War.

He spoke of being inspired by a photograph of the victorious Nelson standing in triumph over his victim's prostrate body. "Quintessential arrogance", Tyson called it, and there was a thrill in his voice. "So inspirational. Beautiful in a graceful way." He had copied the pose, he said, when he knocked out the great Larry Holmes in Atlantic City in 1988, while making his second defence of the undisputed title.

Another reporter mentioned the Sonny Liston biopic being made by Hollywood later this year. "An interesting cat," Tyson responded. "He wasn't like people thought he was." Liston is, of course, the heavyweight champion with whom the young Tyson has most often been compared, in terms of elemental dark menace. "Sonny Liston is the big black negro in every white man's hallway, waiting to do him in, deal him under for all the hurts white men, through their arbitrary order, have been able to inflict on the world," the poet and black militant LeRoi Jones wrote in 1963. "He is the underdeveloped, have-not (politically naive), backward country, the subject people, finally here to collect his pound of flesh."

In the late Eighties, as Tyson bludgeoned his way to the undisputed world title, you could have switched his name for Liston's. He was indeed, to adopt Jones's meaningful tautology, a black negro - one who refused to conform to any of the optimistic stereotypes.

Liston was a Las Vegas resident, and after falling for the second time to the fists of Muhammad Ali he lived an increasingly marginal existence until he was found dead in 1970, aged 38, in mysterious circumstances and with heroin in his veins. Tyson, who has a house on the outskirts of town, has been known to visit his grave, which is marked by a small plaque set into the lawn of a cemetery just off Paradise Road, under the path of jets carrying thousands of holiday-makers every day into McCarron Airport.

Tyson's Las Vegas mansion is one of six homes bought with the estimated pounds 120m that he has earned from boxing since turning pro in 1985, aged 18. Most of that fortune has gone, and now several of the houses are on the market, including the one in Vegas, on which he spent around pounds 7m. The taxman is on his back, to the tune of pounds 9m, and he in turn is on the back of Don King, who promoted his fights from 1988 until last year, when Tyson severed their relationship. Tyson is suing King for a sum believed to be in the region of pounds 65m in unpaid earnings, and has begun similar proceedings against "Candy John" Horne and Rory Holloway, the two King-approved homeboys who looked after his day-to-day management until shortly after the Holyfield debacle.

Now Tyson is listed as managing himself, although he has a new adviser, Shelly Finkel, whom he first met when he was a 15-year-old amateur, and who was once Holyfield's manager. Only two members of his old team - Steve "Crocodile" Fitch, his combat-suited personal cheerleader, and Stacey McKinley, his cornerman - are still around. He has prepared for this fight at a gym near one of his other homes, in Phoenix, Arizona, where he lives with his wife Monica, a paediatrician, and their children, and where he is registered with the police as a convicted sex offender. Since the problems associated with earning vast sums of money began to erode the fighter's willingness to maintain proper attention to his craft skills, his training has been supervised by Tommy Brooks, a calm, watchful Californian in his mid-forties.

At 32, Tyson has lost little or nothing in pure physical terms. But there comes a time in the lives of most athletes when the mind begins to make its own decisions. Although Tyson is certainly capable of persuading his limbs to produce the kind of elusive movement that was so noticeably lacking in his post-prison fights, does his brain want to be bothered? He is, in any case, a complicated man in psychological terms, seemingly able to justify to himself the massive internal contradiction between affection and malevolence, between humility and arrogance, and lacking - understandably, it must be said - any belief in the availability of social justice, which explains why he responded to Holyfield's unpunished headbutting by taking the law between his own teeth.

When Tyson was invited to predict the outcome of the fight last week, he proclaimed: "I expect him to die." The shocked reaction was inevitable. Hadn't he learnt anything? There are reliable witnesses, however, who claim that he said this with a smile on his face, in a conscious parody of a much loved moment from a James Bond film. Bond (about to be sawn in half): "Surely you don't expect me to talk." Goldfinger (turning to leave): "No, Mr Bond. I expect you to die!"

Well, he said it again on Monday, in response to the same question, without a smile this time but with a resolute air which did not, I think, mean that he expected to see Botha lying lifeless on the canvas on Saturday night, but that he had noted the response to his first version and had concluded that it was up to us to learn to accept and interpret his choice of language, because he was not about to compromise it.

Since there is no law that Tyson respects, he must be a law unto himself. That view is unlikely to stand him in good stead when he appears before a court next month to answer accusations of having assaulted a fellow road user and thereby violated his parole. If found guilty, he will be lucky to escape a further jail term.

He has a new tattoo on the vast expanse of his upper arm, where a likeness of Che Guevara has joined those of Mao Tse-tung and Arthur Ashe. "An incredible individual," he said on Monday, in response to an inquiry.

"Someone who had so much but sacrificed it all for the benefit of other people." Che and Mao, worshipped by a man raised in the projects and moulded by lawlessness, who now finds himself with six houses, a fleet of Rolls-Royces and Bentleys and a writ in every post? No wonder there are contradictions.

"I see a guy that's still not really sure of himself," Tommy Brooks remarked while Tyson was gladhanding the reporters clustered around the temporary gym, smiling and chatting freely, as if no one had ever written a nasty word about him. "He wants to do the right thing, and he's trying to do the right thing, but it remains to be seen whether he can do it."