Boxing: The twilight of Tyson

He may be nearing 40 and washed up as a fighter, but Mike Tyson remains the biggest draw in boxing
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Mike Tyson, who will be 39 at the end of this month, visited the Walter Reed Medical Center here this week. He talked to the soldiers back from Iraq, amputees, paraplegics, the blind and profoundly traumatised, and then he went among the young black people of the ghetto.

He was mobbed, as he once was in Brixton, south London. He may be shot through to his core as a fighter but, still, no one comes close as a patron and manipulator of despair.

The other day he announced to USA Today, America's nearest thing to a national newspaper, "I've wasted my entire life." Do you have to guess what they did with it? No, it wasn't a wry, sad note hidden away under the baseball box scores. It was a front-page story, with a huge picture of Tyson back in a pigeon coop, an image that seemed almost as old as Sugar Ray Robinson riding down from Harlem in a pink Cadillac.

Boxing is a sport that has fallen through the American floor, but Tyson continues to hit a vein in a still golden arm.

Why does he remain head and shoulders above any other of today's fighters in the public mind? Why is it a possibility that he will sell out the MCI Arena here on Saturday night when he fights Kevin McBride, a 32-year-old Irishman who is generally reckoned to be his feeblest opponent since a bar-room scuffler from Boston, Pete McNeely, was unearthed by promoter Don King as a "welcome home" ring present for Tyson after he had served three years for rape? It could have its roots in something Tyson reported long before his descent into $55m (£30m) worth of debt. "A truck driver pulled up beside me at a stop light," said Tyson, "and he yelled, 'Tyson, I love you, because you're the only guy I know who has made a bigger mess of his life than me'."

When Tyson this week walked into the basketball arena of Howard University, the city's black college, he was greeted by an adoring crowd and a bank of television cameras. It was a small irony that Howard's basketball players are known as the Bisons - another threatened but, just, enduring species.

Maybe it is this resilience that is now the key to his attempts to pay off the last $30m (£16m) of his debt, a project which his manager Shelly Finkel believes can be achieved under an extraordinary arrangement in which Tyson fights on for a basic $2m (£1m) a contest, with the rest of his wages going to his creditors. All he needs to do, it has been calculated, is stay fit enough to dispose of three or four opponents of McBride's ultimately threadbare quality and then position himself for another title shot.

This, it is agreed, would not involve fights with Vitali Klitschko, the big, technically competent man from Ukraine, or the knowing Chris Byrd, but someone of the deep mediocrity of a John Ruiz or Lamon Brewster, alphabet soup champions who might just be susceptible to a round or two of aggression from a fit Tyson.

No doubt this is a doomsday campaign in terms of what it says about heavyweight boxing, but it's money, sure-fire money, and so it carries its own deep momentum. Tyson's earnings on Saturday night are guaranteed at $5m (£2.7m). What is happening here this week has little to do with boxing. It is another chapter of Tyson's unlikely graduation into early middle age. "Will I be fighting at 40? Hell, yes, that's practically tomorrow," he says.

When he became the youngest heavyweight champion of the world, and King crowned him in a grotesque ceremony in the ballroom of the Hilton Casino Hotel in Las Vegas, the fight man Richard Giachetti, a trainer of the fine heavyweight champion Larry Holmes, made public a growing theory within boxing. It was that Tyson would never make middle age, and indeed he might be lucky to reach 30. "The best bet is that Tyson will die young, maybe shot in some bar late at night by a jealous boyfriend or husband, or someone Tyson has pushed too far, or frightened too much. He's like a bomb waiting to explode," said Giachetti.

Here this week you can hardly hear a tick. He was asked whether he saw the McBride fight as his second chance to rescue something to carry him through the rest of his life. "No, no," he laughed, "I've had 30,000 chances, not like Sonny Liston, who had no chance."

Sonny Liston, now that is a name to conjure despair. Before committing his ear-biting atrocity on Evander Holyfield nine years ago, Tyson visited the poorly tended grave of Liston in a cemetery under the flight path of Las Vegas airport. He took flowers and talked about the sadness that engulfed him when he thought of the end of the sullen champion widely believed to have been killed by order of the Mafia. For some there was poignancy in that scene. Others saw it merely as another step along the way of merchandising a dark preoccupation with violent death. In the build-up to the Holyfield fight, Tyson's camp talked of the challenger being taken home to Georgia in a coffin.

When you thought about it even then, nearly a decade ago and with Tyson not just 30, such imagery had long been the dominating motif of his life and his career.

As the newly crowned champion of the world in 1987 he visited a high school in Brooklyn, stood on a stage and talked about the ravages of drugs and how many of his companions at school or in the street were either in prison on dead. He was painting the story of a life defined by pain and forces over which no individual could truly exert control - yet buried away was the fact that his brother had escaped the scabrous streets of Brownsville and lived peacefully as a chemist in California.

Notoriously, the young Tyson speculated on the pleasure he would get from driving the nose-bone of an opponent into his brain. When he fought Tyrell Biggs, a team-mate in the American Olympic team who had delivered cruel jibes about his awkward manner and his lisp, he brought the deepest chill to ringside by nursing his opponent to new levels of pain. Later Tyson said gleefully that Biggs had screamed like a girl.

Always there was the carefully created impression that Tyson was beyond salvation; like Liston, who was not so much a hero as a morbid obsession, he did not have the power to step off the road to perdition. "America would hate to have him living next door," said one observer, "but is still fascinated by him. In some ways he is the worst nightmare, but you have to know how it ends."

In that fascination, America and the wider world scarcely noticed that he had ceased to be a truly significant boxer when, wild and dissipated, he was shockingly defeated by James "Buster" Douglas in Tokyo in 1990.

Now it seems that the emphasis has changed. Now we have the impression of a thrust for survival from a man who a few years ago wryly reflected on the swift passage of time. He said it had made him "old too soon, smart too late." He says that he will indeed fight to leave something for his five children, if not a good name, then at least a little financial security. He was asked to compare Mike Tyson at 20 with the one nearing 40. "When I was 20 I was invincible, but I was not a good person. Now I'm a better person, I understand things a lot more, and I'm still a good fighter." How good? "I'm fit enough and capable of beating Kevin McBride," he said with the hint of a smile.

Plainly, he is all of that. He walked into the Howard arena shirtless, confirming with his good shape reports that he has worked hard under the driving influence of his friend and new trainer, the former Australian world featherweight champion Jeff Fenech. "I'm doing the things now that made me successful all those years ago," Tyson claims.

Lost years, maybe, but not a matter for despair. Except, of course, for when it makes for still another headline. Pay-per-view sales are said to be doing well.