Does the fire still burn in Tyson?

Ken Jones on what the future holds for the former world heavyweight boxing champion whose three years in prison come to an end today
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The intense speculation raised by Mike Tyson's release from prison today assumes foolishly a complete resurgence of the powers he brought violently to bear on the heavyweight division.

"Iron Mike'' is the predominate image. There is another, that which the diminished fighter Tyson had become before he was convicted of rape and locked away in the Indiana Youth Correction Center.

In the whispering rush of memory Tyson carries all before him; opponents, even men of considerable skill and experience, avert their eyes in his mean, robeless, presence. The implications of austerity - black shorts, black low-cut boxing shoes worn over bare feet - transfix them. Dramatic victory upon dramatic victory; every movement intimidating.

It obscures the fact that soon there was less of the fire, the savage purpose that could have made an untamed street kid a murderer if Cus D'Amato had not introduced him to the joys of mayhem in the ring. The effects of a rancorous divorce from the television actress Robin Givens and a split with his trainer, Kevin Rooney, resulting from an alliance with Don King were clearly evident when a sensational loss to James "Buster'' Douglas in Tokyo five years ago cost Tyson the undisputed world championship.

Coming back against feeble opposition, Tyson got rid of Henry Tillman and Alex Stewart in one round, but two subsequent victories over Donovan "Razor'' Ruddock, a controversial seventh-round stoppage and a decision over 12 rounds, suggested that he was finding it difficult to reinvent himself. Then came a challenge to Douglas's conquerer, Evander Holyfield, but before the contest could take place Tyson was charged with raping a beauty queen, Desiree Washington, during a Miss Black America contest in Indianapolis.

Tyson's market value, estimated at more than $200m (£126m) if his comeback goes according to plan, is therefore retrospective. Is Tyson for real or has incarceration drained a fighter's instinct from him?

"There is no way of knowing,'' said the doyen of boxing trainers, 83- year-old Eddie Futch, whose last great mission is to establish Riddick Bowe as the undisputed champion. "At his best, Mike was the most devastating puncher in the heavyweight division since Joe Louis. But now it's like he is coming out of a three-year retirement. It's even longer since he's taken a punch and that could come as a startling experience. I always regarded Mike as the type who needs to be kept busy in the ring. The type who gets soft quickly if he isn't kept active. So what has imprisonment done to him? Does he still possess the urge to destroy opponents?''

A comparison with Muhammad Ali, who twice regained the heavyweight championship after spending three years in enforced exile, carries no weight with his famed trainer, Angelo Dundee. "The big difference is that Muhammad was able to spar,'' he said. "No matter how hard Mike has worked to stay in shape he hasn't been trading punches. When Muhammad came back he no longer had that phenomenal leg speed. Watching him train seriously again I realised that he was taking risks, proving to himself that he could withstand heavy shots. Because nobody has taken one better, that worried me. Mike is out of a different mould but his leg speed was equally important. It got him to where he could release those terrible combinations. I was in Trevor Berbick's corner the night Mike knocked him out in two rounds for the WBC title. He just blew Berbick apart. He looked unstoppable.''

Add to that the memory of stunning defences against Larry Holmes, Tony Tubbs and Michael Spinks and you have some idea of where Tyson's many suitors hope he will shortly be coming from.

A big question is whether Tyson's conversion to Islam will intrude on the programme King has laid down for him. Does the ideological kinship advanced by Tyson's spiritual advisor, Muhammad Siddeeq, matter more than King's promises? The biggest question of all is the former champion's attitude. "Mike has to prove himself all over again,'' Futch added, "and this time opponents won't be living in fear of him. They've seen Mike knocked down, seen him struggle.

"The aura was important. It meant that most of the guys he fought were losers before they stepped inside the ring.''

In normal circumstances, Tyson in his 29th year would not yet be at the traditional pinnacle of heavyweight maturity. So did he peak too soon? Teddy Atlas, who works with Michael Moorer and helped in Tyson's early development, suspects that he did. "Even if Cus had wanted to hold Mike that would have been difficult because the kid was so exciting. He had great natural power and after a while, tremendous confidence. Undermine that confidence and what have you got? A small heavyweight? I just don't know.''

Size may prove to be a crucial consideration. Even at his most concussive, Tyson had a problem with the sort of big heavyweights who have come into contention since he was jailed. Riddick Bowe and Lennox Lewis, for example, would have great advantages in height and weight. And prison life has diminished Tyson physically. Coming in at 15st 6lb when he last fought in June 1991, he is reported to be now at least 20lb lighter.

Tyson's attitude may have altered considerably. If so it will bring about a problem in promotion. To maximise the former champion's earning potential, King and his cohorts need to recreate the notion of a primitive force. "If Mike doesn't want to go along with that they could be in trouble,'' the Las Vegas promoter Bob Arum said. Arum, who formed a profitable alliance with the 46-year-old International Boxing Federation champion, George Foreman, is watching things closely. Foreman versus Tyson would draw huge numbers on television. "It's a natural,'' Seth Abraham, of the cable network HBO, said. "George is immensely popular and Tyson still has that aura about him. We'd go with it.''

It is more likely that Tyson will be eased back into challenging for the World Boxing Council and World Boxing Association titles now controlled by King. Immediately upon his release, Tyson will be named as the WBC's No 1 challenger for the championship that a King fighter, Oliver McCall, is defending against Larry Holmes on 8 April in Las Vegas. The WBA will probably follow suit after two other King associates Tony Tucker and Bruce Seldon have fought for their vacant title on the same card.

However, most of what has been heard is conjecture. Arum said: "I've listened to four guys all claiming to have an edge with Tyson. Two of them even raised money on the idea. There are a lot of people jostling for position but none of them will know until Tyson walks out of that jail. That's when the fun will start.''

Soon the truth will be known. What we may be looking at is a crisis of faith.