Boxing: Tyson's primitive appeal primes fascination

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A PRETTY SAFE bet is that more airtime and column inches will be given this weekend to Mike Tyson's plea for the restoration of his boxing licence than world title defences by two of the sport's leading champions, Evander Holyfield and Oscar de la Hoya.

In drawing almost as many reporters to Las Vegas as would be expected there for a major fight promotion, Tyson's appearance before the Nevada State Athletic Commission 15 months after it suspended him indefinitely for sinking teeth into one of Holyfield's ears tells boxing more than it wants to hear.

Never in a more parlous state than it is presently, lacking genuine personalities and beset by mainly spurious championship contests, professional boxing has no figure with the appeal of an utterly discredited former heavyweight champion who was twice outfought by Holyfield.

Much admiration was held out for Holyfield in those contests, but general indifference to a defence of the World Boxing Association and International Boxing Federation titles against Vaughn Bean at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta on Saturday confirms that he is not automatically a crowd puller.

The same can be said about Lennox Lewis, who is putting up his World Boxing Council heavyweight championship against Zeljko Mavrovich, of Croatia, in Connecticut on 26 September. Mavrovich is unbeaten but as the combined total of victories recorded by his 30 victims is no higher than 27 per cent indifference to this one is even more understandable.

In the same ring - both camps can be held to account for failing to agree on a unification bout - Holyfield and Lewis would post healthy pay-per- view numbers but their presence individually does not guarantee an audience. That Lewis is defending on a native American reservation, not one of the main boxing centres, speaks for itself.

The remark of a veteran American ringside reporter that neither man can draw flies over there without going at each other or walking naked along Fifth Avenue is too cynical even for my taste, but his view that Tyson still dwarfs them in public estimation is more fact than opinion.

Discouragingly for anyone who was drawn to the rough old game by impressions of inherent nobility, fascination with Tyson springs more from his violent assaults on decent behaviour than anything he has achieved in the ring.

Since there is no doubt at all that the return of Tyson's licence would restore him as boxing's most marketable figure, the relevant question is whether the sport has a future in the coming millennium.

The signs are not good. Hostage to television and therefore explosions of ludicrous hyperbole, boxing attempts to serve a generation that places it in the thespian realm of professional wrestling.

De la Hoya's defence of the World Boxing Council welterweight title against Julio Cesar Chavez in Las Vegas tomorrow calls the sport further into question.

One of the great modern champions with more than 100 victories and only two defeats, Chavez, now 36, is given no chance against De la Hoya, who stopped him in four rounds two years ago.

Two weeks ago a bloated Roberto Duran had to be rescued from a battering by William Joppy in a forlorn challenge for the World Boxing Association middleweight championship. Arguably the greatest lightweight in history, Duran is 47 years old. The once terrific Ghanaian super-featherweight Azumha Nelson is still fighting in his 40th year, losing more often than he wins.

History shows that plenty of champions have gone on past their time - Sugar Ray Robinson is the saddest example - but never before in such numbers.

If boxing's ills relate directly to the proliferation of self-serving organisations and television's pre-occupation with mainly bogus titles, then public taste comes into it, too.

In Tyson's case it is what a friend with many hours logged at ringside refers to as the "King Kong syndrome". It is not Tyson the fighter people see but Tyson the primitive.

The word is that Nevada will look favourably on Tyson's plea. That is a compromise, not a solution.