Boxing: Fight for slice of Tyson: Harry Mullan anticipates the scramble for control of a lucrative heavyweight comeback

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IF MIKE TYSON walks free this week, as his legal team are confident he will, the real heavyweight champions of professional boxing will jump to action stations. Stand easy, Michael Moorer, Lennox Lewis and even Herbie Hide, the Brit who bravely bears the tattered standard of the World Boxing Organisation; we're talking about the money men. There was a time when it would have been no contest. Don King 'owned' Mlke Tyson, body and soul, to the extent that the fighter gave him power of attorney over his bank accounts.

But two years in jail for rape have changed Tyson, and the new man may not welcome King. For a start, there is the matter of money, and the conspicuous absence thereof. He went to jail as one of the richest athletes in the world, yet according to his former manager Bill Cayton - not, admittedly, a disinterested witness - this week's appeal was financed by the cashing in of the last two annuities Cayton had organised for him in the golden years, which would have paid dollars 250,000 a year for life, starting at age 28.

Where has all the money gone? King, the master of the convoluted construction, may have to stretch his verbal dexterity to hitherto uncharted heights to talk his way out of this one. There is also the question of religion. According to insiders (and rarely has the word been so apt), Tyson has become a Muslim in prison, and will do business only with other Muslims.

Despite the popularity of the faith among black American boxers, the only leading Muslim promoter is Murad Muhammad. He lacks King's instant recognition factor among non-boxing people, but has the experience and contacts to guide the comeback which, as Tyson's only quick means of replenishing his bank accounts, is inevitable. Do not bet against the ever-adaptable King, though: if that's what he has to do to get on Tyson's side again, be sure he's already bought a prayer mat and taken a compass reading on Mecca.

Harold Smith, the fraudster who took Wells Fargo for dollars 20m in the early 1980s, is back on the boxing scene and rumoured to be a contender for the Tyson job. At least they have their prison background in common. The struggle for control of the comeback may be almost as interesting as the strategy itself, and the selection of opponents. That will be a delicate operation, a high-wire act where one slip-up wipes out everything.

Nobody knows how much, in boxing terms, Tyson has left, and the dilemma is that we will not know until he fights someone potentially good enough to beat him. So at what stage of the comeback will that test be faced? The kind of money which Tyson and his connections will require can only come from the American TV market, and will not be paid for easy knockovers. The curiosity value of the event might persuade enough pay-per-view subscribers to watch him flatten a lukewarm body first time up, but thereafter rather more competitive opposition will be demanded.

Many observers, including this one, felt that Tyson was irredeemably on the slide even before he went to prison. He looked like a 'shot' fighter in his last appearance in the ring, a laboured 12-round points win over Razor Ruddock who, only three fights later, was taken apart in two rounds by Lennox Lewis. The searing trauma of the rape conviction and jail time may have altered Tyson's attitude to life for the better, but his boxing skills will have been eroded even further by the lay-off. As the great trainer Eddie Futch once succinctly remarked on the subject of comebacks: 'There are certain things you can't get back, like the elastic in your socks.'

The division has ached for a fighter of his stature. In the little over four years since he lost to Buster Douglas in Tokyo, a total of 11 men have claimed one version or another of the championship which, had he been mentally strong enough to keep control of his own life, would surely have been his unchallenged possession even yet.

Maybe he is still good enough to beat who is left. The reluctant warrior Michael Moorer had to be shamed into continuing his title-winning fight against Evander Holyfield by trainer Teddy Atlas, who looked after Tyson in his teenage prodigy days. Moorer is a decent perfomer on his night, but could easily be intimidated by a mean and hungry Tyson. Lennox Lewis's moral fibre is not in question, but his true worth has yet to be established and Tyson would face him with reasonable confidence. Big Riddock Rowe is still potentially the man they all have to beat, if he can master enough willpower to walk past the fridge without stopping for a snack.

As a group, they are no better or worse than the rival champions in the field when Tyson last set out to unify the title in 1986-87. Like their predecessors, maybe they cannot beat him, but they will all get richer against him than they ever would have done against each other. Tyson's tarnished, shop-soiled money machine is cranking into gear again, and the competition to get aboard will be ferocious.

(Photograph omitted)