Boxing: Chaos and an arrest: Tyson is back

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The Independent Online
EVEN IN Las Vegas, where Mike Tyson was winding up for the second comeback of his bizarre career, everyone knew that the real news was taking place elsewhere. There was one only story in American sport yesterday - the announcement in Chicago of the retirement, for good and all, of its greatest individual performer of modern times, the basketball champion Michael Jordan, sent on his way with dignity and a nation's affectionate good wishes. But who, when the day comes, will stand up to say of Michael Gerard Tyson, as the novelist Saul Bellow did yesterday of Jordan, that "he's a beautiful athlete and an exceptional person, one of the few gentlemen professional sports has produced"?

Reporters and fight people had to tear themselves away from the live telecast of Jordan's press conference to turn their attention to an ostensibly similar event featuring Tyson and his opponent, the South African heavyweight Francois Botha, in Saturday night's 10-round fight at the MGM Grand Hotel. The two events turned out to have as much in common as an evening at the ballet and a night in a lap-dancing bar on the bad side of town.

Prefaced by incidents the previous night in which Tyson had fired aggressive obscenities at reporters from New York and Los Angeles television stations, the Las Vegas conference got off to a similarly elevated start when Tyson's personal cheerleader, Steve "The Crocodile" Fitch, was arrested by officers of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department while the fighters on Saturday's bill and their connections were still assembling on the stage of the hotel's Grand Theatre.

Fitch, dressed in his usual combat fatigues and Versace shades, had barely entered the hall before the officers surrounded and handcuffed him, leading him swiftly away under the astonished noses of the rest of Tyson's back- up team. The Crocodile's crime had been to begin bellowing the battle cry - "Guerrilla warfare!" - with which he customarily announces his employer's impending arrival.

It was a surreal moment, particularly as the event's promoter, Don Goossens of America Presents, was at that moment taking the microphone to welcome those present with a soothing message about the fight game returning to Las Vegas. No doubt the trigger-happy attitude of the police was prompted by the hotel's anxiety about welcoming boxing back to their premises, since it was after Tyson's last fight at the venue that gunfire was heard in the lobby, forcing the closure of the hotel and its casino for two hours on a Saturday night, with a loss to the owners estimated at pounds 5m.

"If Mike comes in here and finds the Crocodile's been arrested, he'll walk right out," said an agitated Stacey McKinley, Tyson's assistant trainer. And Tyson did indeed fail to answer the first call to join the rest of the bill on the dais. After a few minutes, however, and a big build-up from an increasingly tense Goossens, the fighter shuffled with exaggerated reluctance on to the stage and took his place in a seat next to his new manager, Shelly Finkel, before lowering his head to the tabletop and feigning sleep while others delivered the traditional platitudes about giving thanks to God and MGM, usually in that order.

By the time it was Tyson's turn to take the microphone, the Crocodile had been freed to assume his own seat and, having been told to keep his mouth shut, was attempting to make his point with a display of improvised sign language. Tyson himself volunteered few words: "My wife has a new line of clothes called Be Real and Tyson Gear," he said, "and I'm here to sponsor it, too. Allahu Akhbar."

In a brief and chaotic question-and-answer session, Tyson responded to an inquiry about his state of mind going into this fight after two defeats in a row. "Whenever you strive to be the best at something, there are going to be some disappointing moments. You can't stop. You've got to keep on going. If you fight somebody and you lose, and you fight him again, you have to fight like you beat him the last time you fought. It's just life, man. Life is beyond boxing, beyond good and evil. It's just doing what you do, man."

Did Tyson think that Botha, who stood up to a lot of punishment in his defeat by Michael Moorer, would be able to withstand his punches? "I don't know. I'm not Michael Moorer, I guess." Did he still have the hunger that characterised the youthful Tyson? "Come Saturday night, I really... they put a muzzle on me, so I really can't express what I want to say today, you know, because I had an incident on television with a gentleman from New York, but if you come on Saturday night you'll get a treat. Or a trick. Trick or treat, one."

Had he been able to put the Holyfield fight out of his mind? "No, I haven't put it out of my mind. But hey, I'm not fighting Holyfield." Did he stand by the notorious comment about expecting Botha to die? "Implicitly."

Perhaps it is merely the effect of the absence of Don King's antic huckstering, but there has been something mechanical about the build-up to this fight, which repeats the formula tried in 1995, when Tyson returned after his three-year jail term to see off another white heavyweight, Peter McNeeley, in a fight lasting barely 100 seconds in front of a capacity crowd of 16,000 people in the Grand Theatre.

Claiming the sale of 10,000 tickets so far, Don Goossens claims that the hall will be full on the night, and Francois Botha thinks he knows why. "Black people and white people, they're all looking for a white heavyweight champion," he said, a contention almost as hard to support as his claim that his qualifications for a place at the top of the rankings include "charisma".