Boxing: Mike Tyson's transformation through literature: Can 20 months in prison change a man? The intellectual and spiritual rebirth of the former undisputed world heavyweight champion is examined by Ken Jones

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WHEN it appeared likely that Muhammad Ali would serve a prison sentence for refusing to be drafted, a stand that took three years from the most remarkable career in boxing, typically he made light of the threat, entertaining friends with a comical description of the scene that would greet his release.

Off on another flight of fancy, Ali rolled his eyes and said: 'There will be millions on the streets chanting 'Here come the champ', all trying to reach me. Then I'll say (pitching his voice high), 'I don't wanna fight nobody'.'

Even for one so brazen, levity never crossed Mike Tyson's mind in Indiana 20 months ago when he was found guilty of rape - a crime he insists he didn't commit - and was sentenced to six years in jail. An appeal fell on deaf ears, suggestions that the conviction would be overturned have come to nothing and failing the unlikely event of a new trial Tyson will remain in prison until at least the spring of 1995.

What then? In an interview conducted by Pete Hamill for the current issue of Esquire, the former heavyweight champion unsurprisingly confirms that he has every intention of returning to the ring, a prospect to disturb sleep patterns in the division. 'I'm a fighter,' he told Hamill. 'That's what I do. I was born to do that.'

Cynicism arises when Hamill reaches deeper into Tyson's psyche, seeking out the effects of confinement and coming across evidence to suggest a transformation. If Tyson was never the primitive people imagined from the crudeness that erupted when restraining influences disappeared from his life, especially that of his mentor, Cus D'Amato, the intellectual progress Hamill reports cannot be less than astonishing.

'A lot of things Cus told me, they are happening now,' he told Hamill. 'But at that time I didn't keep them in mind because I was just a kid. Cus tried to store everything in my mind so fast. He didn't think that he was gonna be around. He tried to pack everything in at one moment, you know what I mean? I'm trying to be a fighter, I'm trying to have some fun on the side, and I'm just running crazy. Now I think about him all the time. Like, damn] Cus told me that. And God] He told me this too. And Oh] He told me that.

'I miss him. I still think about him. No, I don't dream about him; I don't dream much in this place. But I miss Cus, I still take care of him, make sure that nothing bad happens, 'cause I promised Cus before he died to take care of Camille (D'Amato's sister-in-law and Tyson's mother figure). I was young, I was like 18, and I said, 'I can't fight if you are not around, Cus'. And he said, 'If you don't fight, I'm gonna come back and haunt you'.'

Hamill sees a better man, concluding that Tyson may at last be responding fully to the respect for knowledge and the value of discipline D'Amato tried to awaken in him. That having embraced Islam ('being a Muslim isn't going to make me an angel in heaven, but it's going to make me a better person . . . I know I'll be a better person when I get out than when I came in.') he is trying to acquire some humility. 'Remember, when I accomplished all I did (between November 1986 and August 1987, spreading terror throughout the division, Tyson violently unified the heavyweight championship), I was just a kid doing all that crazy stuff,' he said. 'I wanted to be like the old-time fighters, like Harry Greb or Mickey Walker, who would drink and fight. But a lot of the things I did I'm so embarrassed about. It was very wrong and disrespectful for me to dehumanise my opponents by saying the things I said. If you could quote me, say that anything I ever did to any fighters that they remember - like making Tyrell Biggs cry like a girl, like putting a guy's nose deep into his brain, like making Razor Ruddock my girlfriend - I'm deeply sorry. I will appreciate their forgiveness.'

Contrition is not something easily associated with Tyson at his foul-mouthed worst, the sexual predator whose excesses went unchecked even after the aura of invincibility dissolved in a sensational loss to James 'Buster' Douglas in Tokyo.

Hamill reports: 'He (Tyson) reads constantly, hungrily, voraciously. . . He has been poring over Niccolo Machiavelli. 'He wrote about the world we live in. The way it really is, without all the bullshit. Not just in The Prince, but in The Art of War, The Discourses. . . He saw how important it was to find out what someone's motivation was. What do they want? he says. What do they want, man?' '

Voltaire and Alexandre Dumas are also on his reading list. 'I'm reading this thing about Hemingway and he says he doesn't ever want to fight 10 rounds with Tolstoy. So I say, 'Hey, I better check out this guy, Tolstoy]' I did, too. It was hard. I sat there with the dictionary beside me looking up the words. But I like him. I don't like his writing that much because it's too complicated, but I just like the guy's way of thinking.'

Biographies, too: Mao, Karl Marx, Genghis Khan, Hernan Khan, Hernan Cortez. 'When you read about these individuals, regardless of whether they are good or bad, they contribute to us a different way of thinking. But no one can really label them good or bad. Who knows the actual definition of good or bad? Good and bad might have a different definition to me than it may have in Webster's Dictionary, than it may have to you.'

This from a man who didn't get beyond the sixth grade and is studying for a high school equivalency examination that possibly carries the reward of being released a year from now.

Significantly, Tyson makes no reference to Don King, the ubiquitous promoter who stood by while he self-destructed and holds power of attorney over his remaining assets.

There is no reason to question Hamill's integrity and perception. But is Tyson's apparent eagerness to better himself genuine, an escape clause in the contract life drew up? If so, can he cope with the crescendo of expectation that is bound to come with freedom and the temptations that brought him down?