Boxing: Tyson fights a real heavyweight

The stakes were high but the trust was low for a champion in King's care. Harry Mullan reports
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AMID all the hypocrisy and half-truths, rumours, denials, claims and counter-claims generated by last week's bust-up between Mike Tyson and Don King, one piece of ostensibly trivial evidence is beyond contradiction: King's interview with Sky Sports Ringside programme on Thursday was conducted in sound only, with a photo of the promoter's familiar (and unbattered) features as backdrop. Since King is a man who would step over his Granny to get in front of a TV camera, we are entitled to conclude from his uncharacteristic bashfulness that the injuries allegedly inflicted by Tyson in their street scuffle at the weekend were extensive and visible enough to cause him grave embarrassment. Certainly, they were sufficiently serious to force the cancellation of his scheduled trip to Britain to announce the series of world title fights which are the first fruit of his new partnership with Lennox Lewis's manager, Frank Moloney, who has nipped smartly into the seat vacated by Frank Warren.

Boxing alliances are laughably volatile. King once printed an entire magazine devoted to abusing Moloney as "a mental midget" and a "pugilistic pygmy", while Warren's U-turn has been equally rubber-burning. Six months ago, Warren was a vigorous defender of King's reputation, but today, he says, with as straight a face as this inveterate joker is capable of maintaining, that "if Don shaved all that hair off, you'd find the numbers 666 tattooed on his skull".

The only surprising aspect of Tyson's split with King is that it has taken so long to happen. In the 10 years since he allowed King to seduce him away from Bill Cayton and Kevin Rooney, who had guided him to the title, Tyson has seen two vast fortunes evaporate and his boxing reputation - which would once have been more important to him than money - devalued from being potentially the sport's greatest champion to a discredited, undisciplined bully.

Tyson has always needed a tight rein, yet King allowed him to surround himself with back-slapping parasites in place of competent trainers and management. Team Tyson proved as efficient at spending their employer's money as they were inefficient in their professional duties, so that by the time he went to jail in 1992 his ring earnings were sorely diminished and his boxing talent a thrilling memory.

Unbelievably, Tyson gave King power of attorney over his affairs while he was in prison, which is rather like putting the wolf in charge of the hen house, and to no one's surprise, Tyson announced on his release in 1995 that he was, in effect, broke. But that was soon solved: King's hugely lucrative links with the MGM in Las Vegas and with the Showtime pay-per- view channel meant that he could deliver big pay-days quickly, and in the course of his six-fight comeback Tyson grossed over pounds 70m.

Yet he remained a championship class spender, who thought nothing of taking over a designer label store in Las Vegas for an afternoon and allowing his entourage unlimited access to the goods without the tiresome necessity of paying for their selections. King is no angel, but neither - despite Warren's mischievous suggestion - does he bear the Mark of the Beast. If Tyson is down to his last pounds 2m, as one report has it, or his last pounds 93,000 according to an even more pessimistic estimate, then he has to take a large share of the responsibility himself. King may have created the moral climate around Tyson, which encouraged that kind of profligacy, but he didn't spend Tyson's money for him.

Nor, I believe, will he attempt to block Tyson's application for restoration of his licence in July. A third fight between Tyson and his nemesis Evander Holyfield would be worth $100m (pounds 63m) and upwards, and whatever the state of his contract with Tyson, King can still deliver Holyfield and thus will not do anything to jeopardise his share of that mega-earner.

The King camp are putting a brave face on it by insisting that "Mike just can't walk away from a contract" but this is the most one-sided agreement I have ever seen. Bill Cayton, still officially Tyson's manager at the time, showed me the contract in New York in 1991. It gives King "the sole and exclusive right to secure, arrange and promote all boxing bouts requiring Tyson's services as a professional boxer"; forces Tyson to indemnify King against all legal proceedings; and denies Tyson the right (often exercised by boxers who are unable to afford to challenge their contract legally) to retire until the term has expired. The agreement is merely "frozen" until Tyson reactivates his career, and King can then sue the boxer for not fighting. It is hard to imagine a greater restraint of trade, particularly as Tyson apparently signed it without the benefit of independent legal advice.

Contrary to King's wishful thinking, Tyson can simply walk away - but where he walks will determine whether this magnificent performer still has a future in the legitimate ring, rather than the tawdry world of the World Wrestling Federation with whom he has recently flirted. In the right hands, there may still be time for Tyson to salvage his career, but what he does in the next few weeks will be crucial.