Boxing: Demon who 'slept with the devil' cuts out the bile and the bullshine

Plenty of lip before Louisville but Mad Mike has become Mellow Mike for Williams bout
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The Independent Online

Broke he may be, and a busted flush to boot, but Michael Gerard Tyson remains the biggest name, and the biggest draw, in boxing. What's more, as he says himself, he's still crazy after all these years. "I'm a maniac. I don't know what's wrong with me but right now I'm just a fighter who's trying to make a buck."

Tyson was speaking last week during a break in training for his scheduled 10-round bout with Britain's Danny Williams in Louisville, Kentucky, the place where Muhammad Ali first unbuttoned his lip. Uncharacteristically, there was no raging bullshine. Tyson was calm, composed and apparently at ease with himself as he discussed the upcoming fight, his turbulent past and his clouded future on the apron of the ring at the Central Boxing Club near downtown Phoenix, Arizona.

This was not Mad Mike, but Mellow Mike, a reminder to those who have charted his chequered career since he became the world's youngest heavyweight champion at 20 that on a good day he can be a gentleman as well as something of a scholar. "Don't rob me of my hate, it's all I have left," he once said, quoting Alexandre Dumas.

In that hate-filled past Tyson has served time for rape, bitten off Evander Holyfield's ear, tried to break Frans Botha's arm and threatened to eat Lennox Lewis's children after gnawing on his leg. He has raged on the road and brawled in the streets. He has blown $300m ("it might have been more, I never counted it") and now he is $25m in the red, which is the main reason he's back in the hurt business, complete with a tattoo half-circling his left eye that makes him like an understudy for Shrek.

"When I had money, I was an animal," he reflects. "My life has been a total waste. I know I was a tough, bad-ass-talking fighter but I ain't no mob figure. I did my time, I paid my dues."

So, after 17 months out of the ring the man in black returns to fight his fourth Briton, an opponent who some reckon is as much a headcase as Tyson himself. Although in a different manner.

Tyson's victim Julius Francis may have sold the soles of his boxing boots for £30,000 but Tyson, by his own admission, sold his soul to the devil. "It's true," he says. "I've slept with the devil. I'm addicted to chaos. It has been a big influence on me."

Now a couple of weeks past his 38th birthday, Tyson, splattered and spreadeagled by Lennox Lewis two years ago, maintains that boxing has missed him more than the other way round. He went walkabout after his one-round comeback against Clifford Etienne. "I was just hanging out, I wasn't really thinking about boxing. Then one day I saw a picture of myself. I saw stuff hanging off of me, and a double chin. I thought, 'It's time to get back into the gym.' When it comes to it, I'm just a fighter. It's what I do. I'm not looking for a place in history, I'm just here to fight.

"I was reckless with money and the people I trusted, a complete jackass. Now I don't have the entourage. They've gone, and I guess that makes me kinda ordinary."

So, more Mr Nasty Guy? With Tyson you just never know. One day he can be as nice as ninepence, the next he will tear your head off - or bite your ear off.

Now he refuses to bite even when given the news that Williams was threatening to "smash him to pieces" and terms him "the dirtiest fighter who ever lived".

"Well, he's entitled to say that. Good luck to him. I'm looking forward to facing him." But he did manage a chilling grin when told that Williams is a fighter who has problems getting his head right. "He'd better get it right on the night or he's going to be in an awful lot of trouble."

Tyson explains his new-found tranquillity thus: "People who don't see my ranting and raving probably don't think I'm a hungry fighter any more. But I was just a foolish person who ran away with himself. Now I don't see the point of badmouthing opponents."

Fool and felon he may be, but it says much about the state of the game that boxing still has to feed off his notoriety now that nemesis Lewis has elected to concentrate on fatherhood.

Tyson hasn't actually beaten up a meaningful opponent for 15 years yet, just as he did so tantalisingly before the Lewis fight, he seems in great shape, sporting a six-pack rather than swigging one. "He's never looked better," says his dutiful trainer, Freddie Roach. Tyson adds: "I may be a fool, but I'm not a damned fool. I have not come back to boxing to get obliviated [sic]."

He really believes he can become heavyweight champion for the third time. There is already talk of him meeting the WBO champion, Lamon Brewster, light-heavyweight champion Antonio Tarver, conqueror of Roy Jones or, heaven forbid, a third fight with Holyfield.

The fight that could wipe out all his debts would be against the giant Ukrain-ian WBC champion, Vitali Klitschko. But first Tyson, 1-14 in the betting, must resharpen his fists on the 31-year-old Williams. Tyson may be a shot fighter but he is no dead body. There is still stunning firepower in his armoury, even if it is more miss than hit.

"Tyson likes to give it but he can't take it," argues Williams. "You've got to stand up to him. You can't let him run at you. I just think he's taking me too lightly."

Apparently Williams, who, like Tyson, has lost to three opponents in his career, has been "looking inside himself" and meditating as part of his psyching-up process while training in New York. He has also been sparring with Etienne, though it is hard to see what sort of inside knowledge the Black Rhino could impart after his 49 seconds in Tyson's company, except, as Williams's promoter Frank Warren says, it hurts when he hits you.

"It's all down to Danny," Warren says. "If he can keep Tyson at the end of his jab, take the centre of the ring, keep him off-balance as Botha did but not get clipped, he has a magnificent chance."

However, making Tyson even more unbalanced than he already is could be a dangerous ploy for a fighter who is prone to freeze under pressure. Those investing £14.95 on Friday's Sky Box Office presentation can expect an explosive night, as it includes the delayed screening of British heavyweight champion Matt Skelton impatiently filling in time while awaiting Audley Harrison's pleasure with a 10-rounder against experienced American Al Cole at London's York Hall. This may not be a night for those of nervous disposition. Unfortunately, easily wobbled Williams falls into that category.