Boxing: Holyfield faces the unholy truth

Harry Mullan explains why he fears for the health of Tyson's next rival
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The Independent Online
Those summonsed to face the executioner Albert Pierrepoint on bleak mornings in Pentonville or the Scrubs must have felt something akin to the bowel-churning, brain-freezing, leg-shaking terror which afflicts so many of Mike Tyson's opponents.

Bruce Seldon, who surrendered his WBA heavyweight title in 109 cowering seconds last Saturday, was only the latest in a long list of top-grade fighters who found themselves numb with apprehension when the time came to back their bluster with deeds. Frank Bruno, from whom Tyson ripped the WBC title in March, talked the talk but conspicuously failed to walk the walk, while Mike Spinks, as brave a man who ever ducked through the ropes, moved like a zombie and was flattened in a minute and a half after Tyson demoralised him by punching a hole through the (hardboard) wall of the Atlantic City dressing-room in which Spinks awaited his call to action.

Cus D'Amato, Tyson's early mentor, had a much-quoted metaphor about fear in the ring. "It is your best friend and your worst enemy. It's like fire. If you can control it, it will cook for you, heat your house. If you can't control it, it will burn everything around you and destroy you." So it was with Seldon, who was so petrified that he fell over without observing the customary formality of taking a punch first. When a man from his street-tough, jailhouse background chooses to humiliate himself like that in front of a world-wide audience of millions, it is eloquent evidence of the stark terror which Tyson is capable of inducing in otherwise hard men.

Maybe we judge fighters too harshly, or expect unattainably high standards of heroism from there. It is easy to forget that, for all the tough talk and macho posturing, they feel exactly the same fear that we would were we about to undergo extreme physical pain - but in their case, there is the exquisite refinement of the prospect of very public humiliation. I have been in dressing-rooms before a fight and seen men rigid with apprehension, sometimes barely capable of speech . . . and, 20 minutes later, watched them perform with a level of courage that still brings a lump to my throat to recall. Boxers either conquer fear and feed off it, or, like Seldon, they drown in it.

Even allowing for Seldon's lack of resistance, this was a hugely impressive performance from a champion whose grip on the division is, once again, in danger of becoming suffocating. Around 11 years ago, before Tyson had emerged as a contender, I remember the late Jim Jacobs, his team-manager, telling me that the master plan was for him to win the title, wipe out all the contenders and then retire for six or seven years to allow a new generation of opponents to emerge, so that he could then come out of retirement and do it all again. That, more or less, is what happened, although Tyson's enforced absence from the ring was not quite of the nature Jacobs envisaged. (Jacobs, though, would not have been astonished by Tyson's rape conviction: he had bought him out of too many scrapes to be surprised that a woman was involved in his downfall.)

Tyson the Intimidator is back, harder than ever, and the list of believable opponents is shortening by the day. Riddick Bowe, once the obvious choice, performed disgracefully in his disqualification win over Andrew Golota and forfeited his credibility. Maybe he can beat Golota in their rematch, but if he doesn't then the big Pole, the dirtiest fighter in the division, would move to centre stage. He has the added advantage of being white, which in the politically incorrect world of heavyweight boxing is worth another couple of noughts on the cheque.

Lennox Lewis is Tyson's mandatory challenger for the WBC title, but the champion seems to be going to extraordinary lengths to avoid him. Lewis will probably have to be content with picking up the vacant WBC belt, which Tyson is expected to relinquish soon.

But the Tyson money machine has to be fed, which is why, with breath- taking cynicism and disregard for an old champion's welfare and reputation, Evander Holyfield has been recruited to be the fall guy on 9 November. Holyfield has recently undergone a series of tests at the Mayo Clinic to prove his fitness, after earlier scares about a heart condition and was passed fit only on Friday. But that is not relevant. He is a "shot" fighter, as was shown in his last outing when he had Bowe on the floor and a punch from defeat, but was himself too far gone to finish him off. Even more frighteningly, Holyfield is a man of legendary courage. He will not be intimidated or lie down obligingly.

The possible consequences of such bravery are chilling. As Seldon proved last weekend, wise men can fall over and live to fight another day. Heroes, however, can get hurt.

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