Boxing: 'Sick' Tyson heads into cul-de-sac

Illness puts Iron Mike's fight in doubt as well as Lewis' hopes of a big-money pushover

There are times when even those of us who retain an old-fashioned fondness for the remnants of the noble art feel distinctly queasy when examining our consciences. One such disquieting moment looms in Memphis next Saturday night.

There Mike Tyson is scheduled to re-invent himself at the same Pyramid Arena where, last June, Lennox Lewis inflicted torture and humiliation, brutally exposing him as a shot fighter who should not have been permitted in the ring on medical or moral grounds.

"Scheduled" seems the operative word because last night Tyson, said to have broken training during the week, has now reported sick with flu, bronchitis and a bad back. TV promoters Showtime say they are awaiting medical reports before deciding whether his bout with Clifford "The Black Rhino" Etienne goes ahead.

The contest was designed to convince his TV paymasters that he is worthy of a second chance against Lewis, a match that already has the world heavyweight champion rubbing his hands in anticipation of another painless, profitable pushover. But if Saturday's fight is now scrapped, it also puts this in jeopardy.

He knows there is far less risk in meeting Tyson again than either of the Ukrainian Klitschko brothers, particularly Wladimir, who has the tenacity and the power to cause him serious concern. After 15 high-octane years in the game Lewis may no longer be hungry but he still has the appetite for easy money, and there are bundles in a Tyson rematch, such is the eternal blood-lust of the business.

The fact that he even contemplates fighting Tyson again does Lewis no credit. The score was settled in Memphis when the biter was bit, chewed up and contemptuously spat out. What happens next is simply a gift-wrapped charade. Their first fight may have been one for the fans; the second is strictly for the ghouls.

The last one was already a fight too far. Lewis left Tyson looking as if he was auditioning for a carry-on part in Casualty. They may have patched up his face, he may have licked his wounded pride, but what cannot be repaired is the further damage to his already unhinged psyche. Tyson now claims he wasn't really fit, he had not trained properly and his heart wasn't in it. If so, that was a crazy philosophy, but crazy is a word that is uncomfortably associated with Mad Mike.

Sadly, it is the same old story. The one trotted out whenever a humbled gladiator fancies a shot at redemption. "I'm not making excuses, but..." Next time it will be different.

Tyson is said to have been in pugilistic rehab and planned to return, at 36, with fresh inspiration and another new trainer. He has already had more conditioning Svengalis than David Beckham has had haircuts. Freddie Roach is his umpteenth guru, albeit not a bad one, a disciple of the late, great Eddie Futch. He says his job is to help a slimmer Tyson "get back on the horse again", a horse that is tethered outside the Last Chance Saloon.

Yet despite this new-found redemption Tyson reportedly threw another wobbly last week on learning his purse might be only half the $3.5 million promised (ticket sales have not gone well), allegedly quitting training to indulge in a wild sex and drugs party which, together with the convenient outbreak of illness, apparently puts the bout in danger. Yet cynics may wonder if it is all a Tyson ploy to up the ante. As Showtime's Jay Larkin says: "The rumours usually start about 10 days out from a Tyson fight. And that's when we are hearing this stuff."

Yet Tyson surely needs to fight Etienne come hell-raising or high water, because, sadly, that is all he can do. An artist paints, a soprano sings, and Tyson fights. He cannot afford not to, with debts to his TV creditors Showtime and a multi-million- dollar divorce settlement.

And how about this? A percentage of the Pyramid's proceeds are earmarked for the local police force's sports facilities fund, an appropriate gesture from combatants who are experienced in paying their dues to the law. Iron Mike and The Black Rhino have done so much time between them that maybe instead of "The Star Spangled Banner" they should play "Auld Lags' Syne". Tyson's four years for rape and road-rage are well chronicled. Less so is Etienne's heavy stretch for armed robbery and kidnapping. As a 17-year-old he was sent to the Louisiana State pen for 40 years' hard labour, but won parole after 10 when he found God and boxing.

Since his release Etienne, now 31, has had 24 fights, winning 17 by KO. He is a heavyweight who strikes often but falls easily. In his only losing fight, against the useful Fres Oquendo, he was floored seven times in eight rounds. This, plus a double knockdown when he drew in his last fight with South African François Botha, suggests that if Tyson hits him, he'll go.

Tyson stopped Botha when they met three years ago, but it was a different Tyson then. We suspected against Lewis ­ and it was subsequently confirmed ­ that he was encouraged to take "calming" medication before the fight in order to keep him mentally stable while in the ring. The result was a performance which suggested he could not have been more restrained had he been in a straitjacket. This time, it seems he has already left the tranquillisers on the bathroom shelf, which may account for an apparent recurrence of the irrational behaviour that has so viciously scarred his life.

But as his wayward legs carry him deeper into the final cul-de-sac, it may not only be Tyson who has caught a cold.

Comments