Boxing: Tyson's return to the ring of ire

The ex-champion cannot cope with the concept of decline.
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The Independent Online
THE dark, unacceptable, horribly compelling side of boxing surfaces next weekend. In other words, Mike Tyson returns to the Las Vegas ring.

It is 18 months since Tyson chomped on Evander Holyfield's ears, was disqualified from the contest and banned from the sport. While Holyfield has gone on to sign for a showdown with Lennox Lewis, Tyson has faced further humiliation in the shape of psychiatric reports and questions about his emotional stability.

After regaining his licence to compete from the suspicious Nevada commissioners, he has signed a huge TV contract with the American company Showtime, which should help clear his tax debts. To the same end, he has put his homes in Las Vegas and Connecticut on the market.

He has moved to Phoenix, Arizona, where he has registered as a sex offender - a mandatory requirement following his 1992 conviction for rape, which led to three years behind bars in Indiana.

Tyson appeared to have things under control as he prepared for his comeback against the California-based South African Francois Botha. His meetings with the media in Phoenix were polite, even friendly; he handed out turkeys to the local poor at Christmas; he visited young offenders in detention, warning them against a life of crime.

His trainer Tommy Brooks, who had been in Holyfield's corner for the infamous fight in June 1997, seemed genuinely pleased with the progress they were making. In fact, everything seemed to be going swimmingly well... until the 32-year-old former champion lost his patience during a phone- in press conference last week and blurted out a litany of obscenities. When a journalist asked him what he expected Botha to do - meaning what tactical plot he might use - Tyson bit back nastily: "Die".

To most moderate folk this is crazy, pathetic talk. It's yet another throwback to Tyson's first major misdemeanour in the 1980s when he said he had intended to hit opponent Jesse Ferguson with such force that he might drive the tip of his nose into the base of his brain.

Yet to some extent we've become immune to this kind of sick-speak. Over the last dozen years or so, movies are more openly violent, the language of film and TV more routinely aggressive, athletes increasingly disparaging about opponents and boastful about their own achievements. Suddenly, the weirder Tyson seems, the better he fits into the world of the hard sell.

Tyson understands this unpleasant truth more readily than most of us on the outside. "Maybe they [the public] hate me more than anybody, they want my demise," he said.

This is the brooding, bitter, trustless Tyson we have seen so often, which was suppressed during the commission hearings when he pleaded for his licence to fight. When he was a rising star almost a decade and a half ago, his co-managers Bill Cayton and Jim Jacobs created the image of the boy-monster, who was the terrifying "Iron Mike" inside the ropes and no more than an under-privileged misunderstood youth outside them.

When Tyson switched to Don King in 1988, the mask was discarded. His relationship with the media became a raw wound that has never healed. He blundered along, through a disastrous marriage to Robin Givens, and eventually into jail for the rape of the beauty contestant Desiree Washington.

In the ring the technical subtleties of his early years vanished as he cut corners in training. More and more he relied on his speed and power. In Tokyo in 1990 Buster Douglas knocked him out.

When he returned to boxing, following his jail term, in 1995 he won four relatively uncompetitive fights, and was soon recognised as heavyweight champion by the World Boxing Association. King's unification plans fell apart, however, when the fragile nature of Tyson's skills was exposed by Holyfield in November 1996. In a fight he was expected to win Tyson was punched to a standstill in the 11th round.

Holyfield, as solid mentally as he was physically, was prepared to go deeper, last longer, take more than Tyson, who was no longer accustomed to competitive action. Holyfield summed it up well: "The pain must be worth the prize."

I was in Las Vegas for the week preceding the rematch, which ended so crazily with a piece of Holyfield's right ear lying on the canvas and Tyson thrown out on his in round three. As the week unfolded, Tyson seemed to be deeply affected by the pressure, while Holyfield was uplifted by it. Whereas Tyson came out with the routine litany of threats, Holyfield offered common sense: "I know I can take his shots. Can he take mine?"

Tyson took the punches - for nine minutes at least. Emotionally, however, he couldn't cope and found a way out that would allow him to keep his psycho image, and spare him humiliation in the only place that matters to him beyond the confines of his immediate family.

Outside he takes what he has to, from doctors, commissioners, probation officers, and sticks to his belief that the world is against him as a man. Perhaps that is why, as fights come closer, his outbursts are likely to become more extreme, more suited to his faded "Iron Mike" image: he cannot contemplate boxing leaving his life, for it's there that he is most comfortable. And yet he cannot face the truth of his declining skills, as demonstrated by his two defeats by Holyfield.

Tyson should account for Botha, formerly promoted as "The White Buffalo" by King and now guided by Frank Warren. The South African is strong, brave and not without ability, but is unlikely to be fast or hard-punching enough to keep Tyson at bay for more than four rounds.

The real story will come after this fight. For how long can Tyson hold things together outside the ring? And how long will it be before his backers make a mistake and he bumps into another Douglas or Holyfield?