BOXING: Iron Mike awaits the gold rush

As prisoner 922335 prepares to take on the world again, boxing's heavyweights are queueing up for a piece of the action
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SOMETIMES going to jail can be a brilliant career move. While it didn't work for his fellow sex offender Oscar Wilde, a lengthy stint in the slammer has done wonders for Mike Tyson. But then, excepting Muhammad Ali, there's always been a considerable difference between poets and prize- fighters.

As we rapidly close in on Tyson's 25 March release date, the benefits of Iron Mike's enforced absence from the ring are becoming increasingly obvious. In February 1992, when he was convicted of raping a beauty pageant contestant, Tyson's boxing career seemed to be in decline. He was an overweight ex-champion who seemed more interested in enjoying the fruits of his labour than the actual labour itself. This is a deleterious state of mind in any profession, but particularly hazardous when your livelihood depends on trading blows with men intent on rendering you unconscious.

True, he had signed a multi-million-dollar contract to fight the then champion Evander Holyfield, but by then the ferocity that made Tyson the most famous heavyweight since Ali appeared to have lost its animal-like intensity.

Oddly enough, his being convicted of an odious crime did not turn the bulk of the American public against him. Far from it. There was considerable sentiment to the effect that he had been railroaded, set up by a woman who should have known better than to visit Tyson in his hotel room during the early hours of the morning. While the jury in Indianapolis found him guilty, the verdict of the general public, if such a thing can be accurately gauged, was that Tyson was guilty of nothing more than stupidity.

From a boxing perspective, ensuing developments couldn't have worked out better for inmate number 922335. Consider the merry-go-round of title changes that followed Tyson's exit from the fistic stage. Holyfield faltered against Riddick Bowe, Bowe blew it in a return match, and then Holyfield lost again, this time to Michael Moorer. Moorer, in turn, crumbled in his first defence against a 46-year-old grandfather named George Foreman. Meanwhile, the WBC version of the title was picked out of a garbage can by Lennox Lewis, who eventually lost the belt he'd never won in the ring to Tyson's old sparring partner Oliver McCall.

So who better suited to put all the pieces back together again and restore a semblance of sanity than Tyson? He did it before, when he unified the title by methodically beating every other claimant to the throne. But best of all, from Tyson's point of view, is the fact that the present situation has created an opportunity to cash in big time.

When Tyson was indicted, the only mega-match on the horizon was Holyfield. Now, his prospects are practically unlimited. Let us count the ways he can rebuild a bank account that has been gutted by staggering legal expenses. First and foremost is Foreman. The second coming of Big George has been unparalleled in boxing history. Not only is he the oldest man ever to win the heavyweight championship, he is also among the most popular. So popular, in fact, that he will earn approximately $8m for his first defence, on 22 April, against the German no-hoper Axel Schulz, in what should amount to a gym workout. People in the boxing industry have estimated that a Tyson- Foreman match could very well turn out to be boxing's first $100m fight, a statistic that certainly hasn't escaped Foreman's notice.

"I would love to fight Tyson," Foreman said. "That would definitely prove that age is no barrier. It would be the greatest happening since P.T. Barnum. It would be like the elephant standing on two legs, the man being shot out of a canon, the woman with a beard down to the floor. It would be the greatest show on earth."

But far from the only show, McCall has an 8 April date with boxing's other Methuselah, Larry Holmes. If McCall, the "Atomic Bull", is still wearing the WBC belt following that one, much will be made of his former position as Tyson's hired gym-mate. McCall has already fired the first shots in a campaign to get Tyson back in the ring with him, this time in a real match.

"I used to beat Tyson up in the gym, man," McCall said. "I used to bust him up. I had him going to the hospital. I have a photograph of him with a big ice pack on his eye after I beat him up this one Sunday. I don't care how much you try to pump him up, when Tyson closes that door and is sitting by himself, he's going to be thinking: `Damn! Oliver used to beat me up'."

Holyfield, who retired after the loss to Moorer because he was diagnosed as having a heart condition, is also back on the scene after passing a battery of medical tests. He makes his first start in more than a year against Ray Mercer on 20 May and if all goes well in this and subsequent comeback bouts, it won't be long before the public will be clamouring to see his twice- cancelled bout with Tyson rescheduled.

Then there's Bowe, an under-achiever who many believe has the ability to be the best of the lot, and, of course, Lewis. If Lennox's new trainer, Emanuel Steward, can rebuild his confidence and bring out his latent aptitude for the game, and "Big Daddy" Bowe can rediscover the form he displayed beating Holyfield, Tyson will have two more attractive opponents waiting for him.

And let's not forget Frank Bruno, still in the hunt after several failed bids to win a world title. Interestingly, Tyson claimed that he was poorly conditioned when he stopped Bruno in l989. "I was out of shape for that fight," Tyson said. "I was living high on the hog."

Things have reached such a point in the surreal Tyson saga that nothing comes as a shock. Even Buster Douglas, who astonished the world by knocking out Tyson in February 1990, is interested in a re-match, and reportedly back in training for the first time since he lost the title to Holyfield in October 1990.

"I was on top of the boxing world. I was fulfilling a dream," the 33- year-old Douglas said. "You have an idea of how you want it to end, and it doesn't end that way. This is an opportunity for me to go back and make right what went wrong."

But regardless of the tantalising array of fights and fighters awaiting Tyson, the battle over who will control Tyson's destiny figures to be just as vicious, in its own way, as anything seen inside the ring.

"Everybody is going to want a piece of Tyson," said Bowe's manager, Rock Newman. "They're going to be all over him like vultures on a T-bone steak." Speculation about who will promote, manage, and train Tyson has been running rampant for months now. Officially, Tyson already has a manager, two of them in fact. They are John Horne and Rory Holloway, a couple of homeboys that Tyson anointed from his cell, via faxed press release, last summer. How much legal weight this agreement, signed in prison without the benefit of legal counsel, will carry after Tyson's release remains to be seen.

Naturally, Don King is the odds-on favourite to win the promotional derby, and the fact that Horne and Holloway are on his payroll certainly indicates he has the inside track. But nothing is etched in stone at this point, and even the normally verbose King has been unusually cautious when speaking about the subject. Of course, that may have something to do with the fact that King is at present under indictment for insurance fraud, and, if convicted, could very well replace Tyson as America's second most famous inmate. (OJ Simpson figures to hold down the top spot for some time to come.) Still, King is far from the only promoter with high hopes.

"Not only do some other promoters think they'll get Mike but there are people on the streets trying to get investors to put up money to promote Mike's fight when he gets out," reported Butch Lewis, the man who guided Michael Spinks's career. "At least half a dozen people, maybe more, think they have a chance to manage or promote Mike."

The question of selecting a trainer is even more wide open. Among the most frequently mentioned candidates are Steward, Panama Lewis, and Tyson's old trainer Kevin Rooney. But that's all rumour and media speculation. When I visited Tyson at the Indiana Youth Center in August 1994 to conduct an interview for the Ring magazine, he sounded very bitter towards trainers in general. "Trainers get more credit than they deserve," Tyson said. "Trainers are glorified cheerleaders, the majority of them, anyway."

My 90-minute visit with Tyson was a unique opportunity to try and peek inside the mind of a fallen celebrity. He clearly felt alienated and angry about what had happened to him, and claimed to "hate the world". He repeatedly stated that he didn't trust anyone. But I sensed that behind the defensive wall of animosity there lurked a hurt and confused human being who wanted, more than anything else, to find somebody who loved him for who he was, and not for what he could do with his fists.

After the formal interview was over and the tape recorder switched off, we had a brief conversation about our families and how everyone makes mistakes in life that they later regret. We were no longer reporter and boxer, just two guys talking. To me, this seemed to be the real Tyson, the man behind the ferocious facade. At one point, he reached over and straightened the lapel of my jacket, an intimate gesture from a person I've known only on a professional basis.

As Tyson turned to leave the room and rejoin the rest of the inmate population, he paused, hand on the doorknob, and looked back over his shoulder. "Write a good story," he said. "I trusted you."

Mike Tyson is not a monster, just another human being with the same hopes and fears as the rest of us. He's done some bad things, but he has paid a price and, it is to be hoped, learnt a few lessons. No one knows what will happen once he leaves prison, but Tyson, just like anyone else, deserves a second chance. For the sake of society, the sport of boxing, and most of all for Tyson himself, let's hope he makes the best of it.