BOXING: Tyson struggles to punish a game no-hoper

Ken Jones in Philadelphia sees former champion fail to impress despite a quick win in his latest fight
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It was never more than a matter of time but, until what will go down in official history as 27 seconds from the end of the third round, Mike Tyson looked less than he had been in rehearsals.

The no-hoper, Buster Mathis Jnr, was still there, staying low, head planted on Tyson's chest, rolling beneath ferocious hooks, clinching, holding, causing one of the most devastating hitters in heavyweight history to miss with practically every punch.

Then it was over suddenly. Stunned by a right uppercut that punctured his mouth and emptied his eyes, Mathis had the good fortune to avoid a left-right combination that might have had grievous consequences but went over, gratefully it seemed, from a glancing blow to his midriff. The message evident in the vanquished soldier's unprotesting acceptance of defeat as decreed by the referee, was that he knew the limit of his expectations.

Watching at ringside, Frank Bruno, who is defending the World Boxing Council heavyweight championship against Tyson at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas on16 March, was greatly encouraged. Usually it is the challenger who carries the burden of proof but until Saturday's contest at the Spectrum, in Philadelphia, it was felt generally that Bruno could not improve on a fifth-round stoppage almost seven years ago when going in against Tyson for the undisputed title.

Of course, there was little chance that Bruno would adopt an inferior position, but he had the air of a man who senses immortality beckoning. "I didn't see anything that made me feel I can't beat Tyson," he said. "In fact I think I can take him in five rounds. What I see in Tyson is what I see when making visits to prisons. You only have to be in there for an hour to realise what being banged up does to people. Tyson was away for three years and they didn't allow him to put gloves on. That's why I think the time is perfect for me. I don't have to worry about Tyson, he has to worry about me."

That Mathis came crashing down, his face as blank as a hypnotist's stooge, didn't impress Bruno either. "Buster didn't give himself any chance of winning the fight," he added. "He was only looking to survive long enough for people to think that he put up a good performance. The punch I hit Tyson with is history. Henry Copper knocked down Muhammad Ali but he got up. I can't go around saying, 'I rocked Mike Tyson, I nearly knocked him out.' I've got to do it again and make it count and I'm convinced I will."

While both men were in the vicinity of their corners, going through the ritual of being presented, Tyson prowled around under the eyes of associates so numerous in numbers that there was barely room in the ring to perform customary calisthenics. The crowd, if modest by comparison, cheered him remembering previous battles; throughout a spectacular reign he had never taken a step back so Don King's prohibitive prices had not entirely deterred them.

When the bell rang, Tyson came out to prove himself - an odd psychological fix for a former undisputed champion who had set off shock waves in the heavyweight division. If Tyson thought at all of the $10m (pounds 6.5m) coming his way as a result of Saturday's exertions, it was only as a means of establishing status.

Tyson at that point may have made the wrong guess. Easy it may have seemed, all those sparring partners subsiding in the gym, but Mathis proved to be a different proposition.

The idea uppermost in Tyson's mind was to punish Mathis so severely from the opening bell that the official judges would not be held accountable. Understandably, Mathis did not appear to be enjoying the role his trainer, Joey Farrielo, had expounded, but he employed it dilligently.

Hands held high in front of his face, sliding from side to side, Mathis prevented Tyson from moving in the right direction. The object was to take out Mathis quickly, but Tyson found the style disconcerting. "I think I kept my promise to make this an exciting night for the people of Philadelphia who came out to support me," he said, but the performance had not been entirely convincing.

It was about half an hour after the contest and Tyson was dressed formally. He wore a double-breasted blazer with gold buttons and a low-crowned homburg that is at present fashionable with his Muslim associates. There was a new authority in his manner. Interrupting the flow of Don King's relentless oratory, he said, "I think I've fulfilled my promises to the people of Philadelphia. They've seen what I can do," he said. "I can't articulate what I felt in there tonight but it felt good. To Buster's credit, he made things difficult, and it convinced me that I mustn't stop learning."

A problem for Tyson is that his violent style is widely anticipated. "I'm expected to blow people away," he said, "prove I'm the best there's ever been in boxing, but there is always somebody trying to track you down."

After the contest was over and the time and circumstances of the stoppage had been announced, Tyson, who had been much disparaged since his comeback performance against Peter McNeeley in August, was a model of politeness. "Buster put up a good performance," he said. "He didn't make things easy."

Because of the negative strategy he came up against, Tyson wasted a great deal of motion in securing victory. You have to read him closely, the desire, the temptation to prove that all things in the ring are possible.

Expectation is Tyson's burden. Unless he shows aggressive intent, the audience thinks less of him. He is supposed to be irresistible. This is far enough removed from reality to be questionable. "I'm not smart enough to articulate what I sometimes sense in a fight," he said.

There was, of course, no doubt about the decision of the referee in deciding that it would be exceedingly dangerous for Mathis to continue. In boxing, nobody should be of the permissive school. And if Mathis was the centre of sympathetic attention, the cheers were for Tyson's relentless aggression.

As for the idea of an upset, it never amounted to very much anyway.