'Can you imagine me, with my pride, being told, "Get back in your cell, nigger, and count." I know about humbleness'

Mike Tyson has talked in public for the first time since his release from prison. Ken Jones reports on a man who has had three years to reconsider his values
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The Independent Online
There are varying reports on how much work Mike Tyson has put in since serving three years for rape, how seriously he is taking a comeback next month in Las Vegas, but according to a vastly experienced observer of boxing the former undisputed world heavyweight champion is again an immense physical presence.

Tyson's first interview after his release in March from the Indiana Youth Correction Center was granted this week to Ed Schuyler of the Associated Press, who has been casting a cynical eye on fighters for more than 30 years. Schuyler saw the old Tyson. A huge neck at one with massive shoulders. Arms like church buttresses. "It was as though Tyson had only been out of the ring for a few months, not four years," Schuyler said.

The interview, at Don King's home in Las Vegas, took Tyson from boxing to music, to his new heroes, Mao Tse-tung and Arthur Ashe, and, inevitably, back to his prison cell. "Can you imagine me with my pride being told, 'Get back in your cell, nigger, and count,' '' he said. "I'm basically stable at this stage of my life. You can't grow holding grudges and being bitter. I know about humbleness."

Tyson confirmed that he had thought seriously about turning his back on the sport in which, at just 20, he began a reign of terror, unifying its most coveted and richest title in barely six months of brutal activity. "That I would even think that shows how low I was. Then I thought, 'Who am I going to hurt by retiring? I'm going to hurt myself.' I was miserable back then. No matter how many people I saw, I always felt alone."

He claims that his conversion to Islam was crucial. "That's the only thing that got me through," he told Schuyler. "People have the wrong perception about Muslims. Most Muslims are humble, God-fearing people. I don't have a Muslim name but all the brothers call me Abdullah."

If Tyson's reading in prison was not as extensive as some chose to report, he was exposed to a number of serious writers. "I read this guy Voltaire. Voltaire said that all organised religion is a scam." He read also about Mao. "I like his persistence, his perseverance. He had more balls than anybody in the world."

Bearing tattoos of Mao and Ashe on his arms, Tyson has also developed an interest in jazz. "The blues are No 1, but not contemporary blues. They have no feeling. I like Fats Waller and Satchmo Armstrong, Billie Holliday and Ella Fitzgerald. When you listen to the blues or jazz you feel other people's pain."

Tyson was reluctant to reveal much of his prison experiences. "It was a bad time," he said, "but there were some funny moments. Sometimes we were allowed to stay up late and watch karate and kung-fu movies. Everybody loved them and would go wild. It was like freedom."

In his formative years as a fighter Tyson would spend hours with fight films owned by one of his mentors, the late Jim Jacobs. Now he is more inclined to read about the great champions. Recently, he visited the graves of Joe Gans and Joe Louis.

The suspicion that Tyson's rehabilitation may be cosmetic is dispelled by the Nevada State Athletic Commission's executive director, Marc Ratner, who watched him spar five rounds on Monday. "He looked very impressive," Ratner said. "It looked like he's ready to fight right now."

If so, and allowing that Peter McNeeley won't be carrying much of a threat when he goes to his corner against Tyson at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas on 19 August, it indicates considerable improvement.

By all accounts, when Tyson sparred for the first time in more than three years he looked awful, justifying the secrecy that has surrounded his preparation for McNeeley. "After that session I was depressed," he admitted. "No timing, no real speed. Nothing. I looked like crap."

While Tyson has conformed to a regimen of muscle-building and strict diet, he has scorned the appointment of a trainer. He has not, in fact, been trained by anyone since the split with Kevin Rooney seven years ago. "I've been around boxing long enough to prepare myself properly," he said. Nevertheless, a head cornerman - Angelo Dundee's name has cropped up - will be appointed before the contest.

A grin crossed Tyson's face when Schuyler asked for confirmation that he has been making a habit of knocking over the hired help. "That's the name of the game," he said wickedly.

Meanwhile a ridiculous situation has grown up around the date of Tyson's second contest, possibly another comparatively easy match, against Buster Mathis Jnr in Las Vegas on 4 November. It is the very date on which Riddick Bowe and Evander Holyfield are scheduled to meet for the third time, across the Strip at Caesars Palace.

Jay Larkin, the executive director of Showtime, the cable television station that has a contract with Tyson, insists that nothing will persuade them to alter their plans. Seth Abraham of the rival network, Home Box Office is equally adamant that Bowe-Holyfield will go ahead as arranged. "KingVision and Showtime can do what they want," he said this week. It makes sense for one of them to budge, but when did common sense ever prevail in boxing?

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