Boxing: Timebomb self-destructs

A career whose menace went beyond the ring may be over. By Bob Mee; The most famous fists in the world are manacled as Tyson is led off to a year in jail
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WE ARE witnessing the public disintegration of a human being, Mike Tyson. There will be those who will take vicarious pleasure in Tyson's jailing in Rockville, Maryland, on Friday. They will say he had it coming, that he is indeed, as the prosecution claimed, a ticking time bomb and a real danger to the public.

Judge Stephen Johnson handed down a surprisingly stiff sentence: two years in jail, one suspended, with a $5,000 fine, two further years probation and 200 hundred hours of community service. As the state lawyers said, professional boxers cannot go around using their bodies as weapons in public, particularly in circumstances as trivial as the minor traffic accident which led to this case.

Tyson had pleaded no contest to accusations that he struck 62-year-old Abimelec Saucedo with his fist and kneed 50-year-old Richard Hardick in the groin. He was led away in humiliation, his hands cuffed behind his back, as his wife Monica watched in tears. She has been foremost among those who had pleaded his case. "My husband is a good, kind person. He's got his life together and he's doing the right things."

In a letter to Judge Johnson, Tyson said poignantly: "Jail would mean I lose everything." He will not, one assumes, lose his wife and children but his boxing career may now be over which means that his huge debts may be impossible to clear. His houses may be sold.

He has around $5m outstanding to his former trainer Kevin Rooney, who won a court judgement against him last year. He is also involved in multi- million dollar suits with his former promoter Don King and former co-managers John Horne and Rory Holloway. Who knows which way those cases will go?

Tyson the boxer is in rapid decline as his comeback fight with Frans Botha illustrated last month. He was way behind after four rounds before finding a knock-out punch in the fifth. That was his first fight back after the Nevada State Athletic Commission had given him his licence to box again on a controversial 4-1 vote in October. At the original, adjourned hearing in September, the commissioners had been deeply concerned by what had happened in Maryland, and Tyson's lawyers had suggested it was a minor incident blown out of proportion. Eventually, with the exception of the stubborn James Nave, the commissioners relented.

Nave's doubts have proved justified and it seems inevitable that at some point the Nevada commission will again sit to debate whether or not Tyson is mentally equipped to box.

Their decision to withdraw Tyson's licence dates back to his disgraceful disqualification for biting Evander Holyfield's ears in Las Vegas in June 1997. This was perhaps the moment when it became absolutely clear to boxing people that Tyson the fighter had come apart. It was the panic-stricken act of a man under siege - mentally more than physically.

Holyfield had hurt him in their first fight, which Tyson lost in 11 rounds. In the re-match he was bleeding from what he felt was a deliberate butt to his eye and, angry with the referee Mills Lane for not acting to stop this nonsense, he took the situation out of boxing and into the broader realms of human behaviour.

There were those who felt he was lucky that the Indiana authorities, where he is still on probation following the 1992 conviction for rape which led to three years in jail, chose not to get involved. After all, in or out of a boxing ring, men who chew off a piece of another's ear are normally subject to criminal investigation. This time the court papers will inevitably be forwarded to Indiana.

Back to his fight with Botha: even if we ignore his silly, tasteless pre-fight comment that he expected the South African to die, we cannot avoid his recklessness in the ring when he twice locked Botha's arm in a clinch and wrenched it violently. When afterwards Botha accused him of trying to break the arm, Tyson bleakly agreed, as if amused.

Tyson must know that the "Iron Mike" of his great years between 1986 and 1989 has been a myth for most of the 1990s. His vast ability was based on the speed and desire of youth - and as a boy, let alone a man, he was old before his time. Myths, of course, sell tickets. And he would be a commercial viability at some level if and when he were allowed to box again.

His mental state, however, remains uncertain. During his incarceration in Indiana, he said: "My life is worthless." His first wife, Robin Givens, claimed he was manic depressive. Later doctors have said he is not, but on Friday his defence lawyers said he was not taking his prescribed anti- depressants when the incident happened. Psychiatrists asked to examine him by the Nevada Commission last year said he had a combination of a substantial ego and low self-esteem.

As a boxer Tyson probably peaked in June 1988 when he demolished the previously unbeaten Michael Spinks in one astonishing round. It was, and will always remain, a privilege to have been there.

Now in a jail cell again, this extraordinary but so very sad and complex man faces an enormous challenge to cope with what he is and what he might eventually become. One can only hope that the side of him which his wife knows - good, kind, doing right - somehow eventually prevails.