Boxing: Tyson gets to grips with $4m in the ring of make-believe

Glyn Leach reports from Boston on a boxing legend's entry into the wacky world of wrestling

IF SPORT is theatre, then pro wrestling is its pantomime. But does that really make Mike Tyson an ugly sister?

On Sunday night at the Fleet Center, Boston, some 19,000 Americans welcomed the former heavyweight boxing champion into the wild and wacky world of the World Wrestling Federation at the WrestleMania XIV extravaganza.

A freak show for a freak? A safe haven for a misfit? Preferable, at least, to the Indiana prison where Tyson served three years for rape. And also to boxing, it seems. "I've been screwed there, but at least I haven't been screwed here," said Tyson, who refused to discuss his former field of excellence.

Beggars cannot be choosers. And for Tyson, who has discovered a huge hole in his bank account caused by alleged career mismanagement, it is a case of any port in a storm. And nothing Tyson does surprises anymore. Wrestling? Why not? It is a well paid job and at least no one gets hurt.

Tyson boosted his bank balance by some $4m (pounds 2.4m) through serving as an enforcer - WWF-speak for an official - for the match between the organisation's heavyweight champion, "Heartbreak Kid" Shawn Michaels and blue-collar crowd favourite "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, aka "The Texas Rattlesnake", "The Toughest SOB in the WWF", and so on and so forth.

Tyson, contractually obliged, one supposes, has been taking part in WWF promotions over the past two months and his level of performance, if it could be called that, has improved significantly by the big night. But his efforts could hardy be called impressive.

Wrestling is a world of heroes and heels; guess what role Tyson was cast in? Introduced as the "Baddest Man on the Planet", he entered the arena to a crescendo of boos and cat-calls. Doing his best to milk the crowd's displeasure, he climbed into the ring prior to the main event's start and sneered a lot, which presumably was enough to please the WWF.

When the Austin-Michaels bout began, Tyson strolled around ringside, ostensibly attempting to keep order.

One sensed that the crowd, if not the WWF, expected more. There were attempts to goad the boxer into meaningful participation, but chants of "Holyfield, Holyfield" did not cut the mustard and for long periods it looked as though he was surplus to requirements. In short, he sneered all the way to the bank.

His boxing licence, suspended until July due to last year's savage biting of Evander Holyfield's ear, Tyson could hardly afford to turn the job down.

And the WWF needs Tyson as much as he needs them. The organisation is losing a TV ratings war with its rival group, World Championship Wrestling and many of its biggest names have deserted, including veteran star Hulk Hogan.

Wrestling embraces rebirth, which must be attractive to Tyson. Austin, for one, has previously been billed as "The Ringmaster" and "Stunning Steve" before finding an identity that worked.

It is also OK to be confused. An ideal home, in fact, for a faded and jaded 32-year-old boxer who has been a Catholic, a Baptist and is currently a Fruit of Islam.

The original script had Tyson fighting Austin, but that was amended to have the boxer act as an enforcer for the main bout.

However, and much to the "consternation" of WWF owner Vince McMahon, Tyson aligned with DeGeneration X, an outlawed wrestling faction comprising Michaels and other wrestlers with miscreant attitudes.

D-X rules the WWF. Or did until Austin defeated Michaels by a pin fall. But guess what? Tyson was never one of them anyway. He was in cahoots with Austin all along.

It simply had to be that way because the impressively athletic Michaels, easily the best stunt man/actor on show, was the only wrestler who could be relied on to make Tyson look convincing when the time finally came for Iron Mike to throw a "punch". Down went Michaels, as though poleaxed. One could almost believe claims that Michaels had suffered two ruptured discs. Well, almost.

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