Protest taints Saint Mike's second coming

The convicted champion's Harlem road show heralds his imminent return to the ring, writes David Usborne in New York
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On the streets of Harlem yesterday, blanketed in a sticky heat, Mike Tyson was the man. More than man - God would be closer. Very few were those who could be found on Lennox Avenue who had not forgiven or forgotten his recent past. The mantra of this day: "We all make mistakes."

Tyson, convicted for raping a black beauty contestant in 1992 and jailed for three years, has done his time, they say; now he has the opportunity to start again. Redemption and second chances mean a lot on these streets.

This is the day when the much vaunted "homecoming" of the former heavyweight champion is upon black New York. At half-past twelve, exactly as promised, the limousines pulled up outside Sylvia's restaurant on Lennox and decanted the champ and his entourage.

Towering above us, Tyson looks relaxed, apparently untouched by the controversy of recent days. Showing no outward signs of his prison conversion to Islam in a white, brashly cut suit, he saunters through the crush of several hundred fans. Behind him follows Don King, his promoter with the electric shock hair and the Rev Al Sharpton, his biggest backer in this community. As much politician as preacher, Mr Sharpton has pulled off a coup here. It is the Reverend who for the past few days has defended the Tyson welcome home party against a storm of protest from a grassroots coalition of mostly black Harlem women. With great ferocity, they offer a different interpretation of what is happening. Tyson is a convicted rapist who has not apologised. To fete him is wrong, they argued

The confrontation has roiled black New York. Some black leaders and the Mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani, found themselves disassociating themselves from Mr Sharpton's plans. Leading the rebellion was a group created solely to oppose the Tyson homecoming, called African-Americans Against Violence. Their message evoked sympathy around the country, in editorial columns and television discussion programmes.

But today, the members of the group are nowhere to be seen. They were here on Monday evening, however, in a march and vigil along Lennox Avenue to protest violence against women. Tyson was invited to join with them in their demonstration, but declined. Instead, he went shopping in an swish clothes shops in a more fashionable part of town.

"I'm deeply offended", responded the spokeswoman for the protest group, Jill Nelson. "It goes to show that he's not on the path to redemption, but on the path to pay-per-view."

Repentant or not, Mike Tyson is headed for new big-bucks earnings. And that is what this event in Sylvia's is all about. In a tent erected on the pavement Mr King attempts to instill order to a frenzied crush of journalists from around the world.

Only Bill Tatum, editor of the local Amsterdam News is ready to make direct reference to the furore of the previous week, which, he admits, had "divided blacks in this city". His own standpoint is not in question. Tyson, he declares to deafening cheers and whoops, is "after all a hero who has come home. He is one of our brothers".

King's purpose, however, is to plug the upcoming return of Tyson to the ring. It will happen on 19 August in Las Vegas and big money had been shelled out by per-per-view television to broadcast the fight against "Hurricane" Peter McNeeley

Tyson is the antithesis of loquacious King. All he wants to do is "pray and fight". Someone asks if he has changed. "I have, I hope it is for the better." Is he sorry for his crime? That is too much for King, who butts in: "Sorry - for what?" The women of African-Americans Against Violence were looking for an apology today. It does not look like they will get it.