Ken Jones: Bankrupt and beaten, but Tyson is still the biggest draw

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The Independent Online

In 1986, the year this newspaper was launched, Mike Tyson began a reign of terror in the heavyweight division. Time moves on but the memory remains vivid. Included in a series of fights staged to unify the title, he went from one violent victory to another, ruthlessly applying the dictates of his mentor Cus D'Amato. Within in the space of eight months Tyson, a fugitive from a New York ghetto, possessed the belts of the World Boxing Council, the World Boxing Association and the International Boxing Federation. He quickly went on to destroy Larry Holmes in four rounds. Michael Spinks went in the first, Frank Bruno in the fifth. Nobody, it seemed, could live with Tyson's power.

The outcome we know. The twists and turns of Tyson's career, the scandals, the terms of imprisonment, the decline from awesome force to empty hulk are documented in a million words leading to this week's news that from ring earnings estimated in excess of £150m he is left with only £3,000 and has debts amounting to £5.5m. So many fighters have ended up broke, their fortunes frittered away or bled from them, that Tyson's plight is nothing new, nor is his apparent intention to resume boxing as a means of solvency.

Plenty of boxers have been forced back into the ring by financial imperatives, invariably with sad consequences; so what can Tyson hope to achieve from renewing an alliance with his manager Shelley Finkel, who is looking for a television date in May to stage the 57th fight of his controversial career?

Encouragement for this dubious enterprise came last week with the retirement of Lennox Lewis, who described the beating he gave Tyson in June 2002 as the defining contest of his own career. Perhaps someone should show Tyson pictures of that night bearing the awful truth about what happens to former heavyweight champions who forget that their best is behind them. It would make no difference, of course. Tyson is broke, officially bankrupt, and with Lewis's wise departure, heavyweight boxing has entered its most parlous state. None of the present figures - not Vitali Klitschko, who was Lewis's final victim, nor the WBO champion, Corrie Sanders - have box office appeal, forcing the television companies to concentrate on other weight divisions.

If, as seems certain, Tyson returns to the ring we will see all but a shadow of the heavyweight who ranks in the top 10 of all time and, in his prime, would possibly have beaten Lewis. The truth is that Tyson still sells. For all the squalor, he continues to fascinate. When introduced to the crowd at a recent boxing promotion in Atlantic City he received a thunderous reception. "It's the uncertainty; not knowing what he will do next," an American friend says. "As the fights against Evander Holyfield and Lewis proved, he has long been a shot fighter but he continues to have a hold over the public."

Tyson hasn't fought since February last year when he knocked out Clifford Etienne, and he has since been embroiled in a costly divorce from his second wife, bankruptcy proceedings and a court case against his former promoter Don King, from whom he is claiming £54m in unpaid earnings. Time moves on and Tyson is still news.

In defence of Tyson, admittedly a hard call, all he wanted was to be the best heavyweight of his era. Until a sensational loss to James "Buster" Douglas in February 1990 he was on schedule. Tyson was 37-0 and had made 11 successful defences in an extraordinary 39 months. Beat everybody they put in front of him. Usually beat them good. The key to what happened next was the death of Tyson's manager Jimmy Jacobs, a calming influence. From then on, Tyson made some terrible headlines. Divorce from his first wife, the prison terms, first for raping a beauty queen, then for road rage.

Even so, he continued to be boxing's biggest draw card. His two contests with Holyfield in November 1996 and June 1997 pulled in record pay-per-view figures, each with a gross of more than £54m. This showed in striking fashion how much the public were still hooked on Tyson's combustible nature.

That was then. Now 38, Tyson cannot hope to dredge up more than a fleeting reminder of the percussive powers that once sent tremors throughout the heavyweight boxing. Despite everything, however, he remains, perhaps for all the wrong reasons, an attraction. What he and Finkel see is what the television companies see: a division bereft of marketable contenders.