Boxing: Tyson's freak show on road to oblivion

Vegas cuts its loses as suspicion grows that fear of a final unmasking by Lewis prompted former champion's latest excesses
Click to follow

Here, as America prepares to celebrate Super Bowl XXXVI, it is easy to measure the decline of Mike Tyson as one of the most compelling anti-heroes in the history of sport. His rejection as a fit person to fight in public by the Nevada State Athletic Commission has provoked no more than a shrug. He is yesterday's outrage, today's embarrassment.

And tomorrow? His tomorrow is the streets he came from, a fate which in his peculiarly dark way he evoked almost casually when, after hearing the commission's verdict, he said: "Lennox Lewis is a coward. I'm going to fight him any time I see him in the streets."

The chances are they will not meet, either on a sidewalk or in a boxing ring. Lewis is not of the streets. Tyson is the streets, and he would, we know now, remake them in Shangri-La.

For a while there was a voyeuristic thrill, and good box office, in watching a shockingly violent man careering off his head. But when Las Vegas says the spectacle is too hard to stomach, you know the show is coming to an end.

What happened on Tuesday when the commissioners voted 4-1 against granting Tyson a licence to fight the world champion, Lewis, on 6 April was, in all but the sweep of the voting, not a drama but the most oppressive of déjà vu. Tyson, as he was five years ago when he appeared before the commission after his biting of Evander Holyfield's ears, was more arrogant than contrite. He needed to beg but instead he blustered, crudely and alarmingly. Las Vegas, the city that lives by percentages, finally decided to cut its losses.

It wasn't much to do with nobility. It was, in the final analysis, business. Vegas decided that it couldn't go on selling a freak show, and for Tyson and his people that was the real blow. Five years ago, the commission had the chance to say that the fighter had gone too far, but only one member had the nerve to say that, and Tyson took his relicensing not as a reprieve but as reinforcement of his belief that he could do anything without detriment to his commercial appeal.

Now even that reality is near to the end of its shelf-life. One boxing man said yesterday, "Nevada has more or less written Tyson's obituary as a fighter, and Lewis is obviously cooling on the idea of being part of his circus. He's right to be doing so. He doesn't deserve to be caught up in this. What's left for Tyson? It hardly bears thinking about but if he stays out of jail he will just have to get someone to dig up a bum he can fight somewhere to pay some bills."

Enthusiasm for rescuing the fight is also believed to be plummeting in the New York offices of the deal-makers, Home Box Office and Showtime Television. They still have a few options. Under the terms of the contract the fight had six possible American locations – Nevada, New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Texas and California – but now it is felt the other states will take their lead from Nevada, the main underwriters of the boxing industry, which leaves Denmark and possibly Canada as foreign contenders. England has been mentioned, but the chances of Home Office approval would seem remote in view of Tyson's escapades – including an alleged assault on the promoter Frank Warren – on previous visits to Britain to fight Julius Francis and Lou Savarese.

What the TV men have to consider all over again, as the Nevada commission was obliged to, is the sheer volatility of Tyson. He says he has been off medication for six months, and was doing "magnificently" before he erupted at the New York press conference to announce the fight. He rambles, often obscenely. A moment of insight into his own condition flashes, coruscatingly in the gloom, but soon enough he is flailing in the dark once again.

The idea that he held up a mirror to the uglier side of life, that his rampaging nihilism was a source of fascination to many who operated under rather tighter restraints, was viable for a time. Certainly it was possible to see that in his life Tyson had received as much abuse – and manipulation – as he had delivered. A New York policewoman was moved to tears when she described the conditions in which Tyson grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn. She talked of rat-infested tenements, of drug dealers handing out doctored "sweeties" outside the primary school as they primed their market, and it is believed that Tyson, a lisping loner, was a victim of rape when he was sent to a reformatory. But then it is also true that Tyson had a brother who went to live in California to earn a living as a pharmacist.

As Tyson waits to hear if he is to be indicted on charges of sexual harassment in Las Vegas, and as he appears incapable of controlling himself from one day to the next, it might be thought that he has become desensitised to the prospect of any disaster, a sense that is heightened by his apparent ambition to blow away the chance to earn the $20m (£14m) which would clear all his debts.

But then, perhaps, there is one potential horror which has haunted him to the last days of his fighting career. It is the one of being beaten: soundly, squarely in the ring. He has known all kinds of self-inflicted humiliation. Trial by television when his marriage to the actress Robin Givens unravelled, and he allowed himself to be dragged on to the big Barbara Walters Show, where he sat, gauche and defenceless as his character was publicly dissected. Hard time in the Indiana prison where he did three years for rape. Another jail stint in Maryland, for road rage. The derision of the world when he bit Holyfield's ears. All of this was absorbed, and perhaps the last débâcle most easily of all, because it allowed him to leave the ring after facing Holyfield not as a beaten man for a second time but as a violent wrong-doer, which was something that can be accommodated more easily on the street.

Now a suspicion grows, and it is the only one that makes some kind of sense of Tyson's sabotaging of the Lewis fight. It is that he knows in his bones that he cannot beat Lewis and that to walk away from the fight would represent a cruel unmasking of his last strength as a fighter without a fear, a man who could at least create an echo of the days when he claimed, with some justice, that he was "the baddest man on the planet".

Those were the days when he talked cheerfully of driving a man's nose bone into his brain. When he gloated that his victim Tyrell Biggs, who had slighted him when they were members of the US Olympic squad, had screamed "like a girl" in a fight he claimed to have extended for the sheer pleasure of inflicting pain on a hated opponent. If Tyson, deep down, is appalled by the idea of being stripped down in public by Lewis, how better to avoid the fate than by once again playing the wild, uncontrollable warrior?

It is a persuasive theory, but here in New Orleans you would win little applause for expounding it. America, for a multitude of reasons, has moved beyond the agonies and the tumult of one disturbed and disturbing fighter. Some believe he is as mad as a hatter. Worse than that, others say he is simply old hat. Either way, it is hard not to believe that the curtain has come down on Mike Tyson.