Boxing: Tyson pulp fiction takes ugly twist

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The Independent Online

When Kevin McBride enters the ring against Mike Tyson here tomorrow night - a pale, gauche nobody facing a self-described "icon and international star" - it will be, almost to the day, 100 years since James J Braddock was born of Irish heritage in a tenement on the Lower East Side of New York.

It will also be 70 years, to the week, since he dethroned the heavyweight champion Max Baer in one of boxing's great upsets.

For his feat Damon Runyon christened Braddock "the Cinderella Man", a nickname the Hollywood producers of the current smash movie have been happy to borrow. However, the golden carriage appears to have gone missing here, along with the possibility of Braddock's title being transferred to the big man from Barry McGuigan's home town of Clones. The problem is that Tyson has smashed the idea to pulp - or maybe purée.

All week the former undisputed world champion had been encouraging the belief that what happens here tomorrow is a significant step on the road to his redemption as an authentic fighter. But this was before he gave his assessment of McBride. "He's a tomato can," sneered Tyson.

It is American boxing's worst insult and the force of it was redoubled by the fact that McBride was sitting just a few feet away wearing a hat which carried the legend "Pug".

A tomato can does not register on the competitive graph. He is a body, a convenience, someone who takes any money on offer and hopes that the resulting beating is not too severe. Rock Newman, the manager of former world champion Riddick Bowe and the high-profile front man of this promotion, gulped when Tyson so thoroughly trashed his opponent - and then added, "I'm going to gut him like a fish."

Even with the 39-year-old Tyson's talent in a state of terminal erosion, this was an uncomfortable truth in a moment of rage. Tyson is earning at least a guaranteed $5m (£2.8m). McBride is on $150,000. Tyson's anger, which fortunately on this occasion stopped short of any biting of body parts, was provoked by a swiftly curtailed speech by one of McBride's promoters, Rich Cappiello.

Mr Cappiello was wearing a considerable amount of jewellery and to Tyson's mind far too much front when he said that McBride was not only going to win the fight but also expose the myth that Tyson was involved in a serious comeback attempt. "You had better sit down," said Tyson, "you'll get Kevin killed."

Such assertions are routine Tyson but none of the boxing crowd could remember when an "opponent" had been given quite such little respect. However, the 32-year-old McBride absorbed the insults - and the fact that his fight fee is believed to be inferior to that of Muhammad Ali's daughter Laila, who has second billing for her contest with Erin Toughill, an opponent also of striking appearance but with just eight fights under her designer belt.

"Here," said one experienced fight man, "is where you see the failure of boxing today. Mike Tyson is earning $5m out of his notoriety... The Braddock movie is doing gangbusters, and Ali's daughter is earning big money that real contenders cannot dream of. Fighters like Ricky Hatton and Miguel Cotto have their big followings, but they don't reach out and touch the whole world of boxing. So what do we have? Tyson living on his past and somebody like McBride being led into the ring as if he was heading for the abattoir."

When McBride was summoned for the eye-balling ritual he stood his ground, and kept his gaze, and then he smiled and gave the thumbs up sign to his loudest supporter, the mayor of Clones, Patrick Mulligan. The mayor is an undertaker and said that if he had any measuring up to do after the fight it would be on behalf of Tyson.

McBride's main difficulty is in explaining away the four defeats which disfigure the rest of his record of 32 wins and one draw, compiled mostly against opponents who would purr with pleasure to hear themselves described as journeymen. The worst defeat came at the Elephant and Castle in 1998, when he suffered a technical knock-out in the third round against Michael Murray. That gave Murray his one victory in 18 fights. For McBride it was not so much a mishap as a career-long branding.

Seven years on he still bitterly regrets losing a fight which he says he should have withdrawn from three days before. "I was told that my father, Kevin, was dying of cancer. I just couldn't get my head right for the fight. My father died six years ago and I will wear his name on my shorts on Saturday night. He shared all my dreams of fighting someone like Tyson, and he told me that if I worked hard enough, one day I could make the dream a reality."

Now he says that he has emerged confidently from a brutally hard training camp supervised by the veteran Goody Petronelli, who nurtured the career of Marvin Hagler. McBride did his running with Patrick Collins, brother of former world champion Steve, and said he was helped by such close contact with somebody who had seen every aspect of the growth of a world-class fighter. McGuigan had filled the legends of his youth, along with Tyson, and now he was in position to knock out Tyson and demand the chance to become the first, Irish-born world heavyweight champion - a man who, unlike Gentleman Jim Corbett and Braddock, had the soil of Ireland on his shoes as well as its blood in his veins.

He says he will fight for the pride of his country as well as the welfare of his family, partner Daniele and their daughter Grainne, whose name is the Gaelic word for grace.

McBride displayed some grace of his own on the day his opponent called him a tomato can and a big room cheered and whooped. "I'm a big man and I have a big punch and when Mike Tyson's people said that I've only dreamed of fighting him I thought, 'Yes, that's true, but I've done my work and there are only two ways I will lose ... if I die or I give up'. The second thing is not a possibility. I either win or I'm carried out of the ring on a stretcher."

For McBride there is maybe a little encouragement in the story of the Cinderella Man. Braddock had a spell of losing 16 fights against just 10 victories. The glamorous but hard-hitting Baer was the heaviest of favourites. But when Baer landed two heavy shots early in the fight, Braddock stood back and asked, "Is that the hardest you can punch?" Later he reflected, "Max was a nice guy, but he should have been an actor.

"I wasn't sure he liked fighting that much. You got to like it to be in there. It's one business you got to like if you're going to be in it."

While rummaging for encouragement this week McBride recalled the comment of one of his conquerors, Axel Schulz, who was widely seen as the victim of a robbery when he lost a decision to George Foreman in Las Vegas. "Schulz said that I punched harder than Foreman and that's what I want to prove against Tyson."

One thing he knows for sure. He, like James J Braddock 70 years ago, has nothing to lose but the status of a tomato can.