Trapped Tyson must satisfy the paymasters

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Four learned Danish linguists yesterday spent some time explaining the real meaning of the word ''abekat'', which was allegedly applied to Mike Tyson by his opponent here tonight, the large and normally amiable local heavyweight Brian Nielsen. Tyson's camp took it to mean ''monkey-man'' and screamed that their fighter had been the victim of a racial slur. Tyson himself was said to be ''appalled'' that there was still such ignorance in the world.

In fact, the linguists said, the word had no racial implications. It is the kind of thing you say to a mischievous kid. ''Brat'' was one suggested approximation.

Sadly ''mischievous kid'' would never have been a workable euphemism for Tyson, not this side of the cradle – or more precisely the time he first put on a ski mask and starting his mugging career in Brooklyn, the favoured modus operandi of preying on old women. Mischievous kids make mischief. Tyson, one way or another, creates mayhem and it is a talent which shows no signs of decline even in his 36th year. Whether he will do it in the ring tonight – or in the hearts of executives of the American television company Showtime – is the $100m question.

Showtime, to whom Tyson has literally mortgaged the rest of his professional life, is sweating profusely on both the quality of the former world champion's performance against Nielsen at the Parken Stadium and Lennox Lewis's ability to win back his World Boxing Council and International Boxing Federation titles when he fights Hasim Rahman in Las Vegas next month. Jay Larkin, Showtime's chief executive, says: ''Tyson-Lewis is still a huge fight, really big money, but the two parts have to fall in place. Mike has to win here and look good and Lewis has to beat Rahman. For once, I'm rooting for Lennox.''

Larkin's new liking for the property of his fierce rival, Home Box Office, is, he admits, entirely due to the fact that the TV companies have, after years of acrimonious argument, managed to negotiate a working deal which would see Lewis and Tyson fight at least once, and possibly twice, in the New Year with the companies sharing the profits – and Tyson reducing his massive debt load to Showtime. ''If Lewis loses to Rahman,'' Larkin adds, ''we could have a real problem. We are not so sure about Rahman's position if he comes through the winner.''

Lewis was quick to reassure the television man yesterday. Speaking from his training camp in the Pocono hills on the New Jersey-Pennsylvania border, he said: ''Anyone who worries that I'm lacking intensity, or I'm complacent because I think I'm the superior fighter, has got it wrong. I do think I'm a lot better than him, and in my mind I'm still world champion, but, boy, my intensity level couldn't be higher. I want to make him pay for what happened in South Africa, where, I do accept, I could have prepared a lot better.

''I want the fight with Tyson to happen for a lot of reasons, including from the point of view of boxing history. You never quite know what's going to happen with Tyson but I don't expect him to have any problems in Copenhagen. To tell you the truth I think he's fighting a blimp. One of the frustrating things is that, after I beat Holyfield, Tyson kept saying that he needed another fight, but he took fights which didn't really mean anything.

''You just hope now that he keeps his head. You can never be sure whether he is going to keep within the rules. But the rumours are that he is running out of money. That might have some affect.''

Given Lewis's knock-out defeat by Rahman in Johannesburg earlier this year, you might think Tyson's collision with the big, slow Nielsen would be one of the least of Larkin's worries, but that illusion was expelled quickly enough when Tyson got on the scales on Thursday night. He came in 16 pounds heavier than when he last fought, against Andrew Golota in Detroit a year ago, and though both camps complained that the weighing machine was inaccurate there was no doubt about the basic meaning of Tyson's mark of 17st 1lb.

It said that everything was not right in his preparation for a fight which in some ways, including the quite vital one concerning the style in which he may be able to spend the rest of his life, is the most important of his career. There were two possible explanations, and neither of them did much for Larkin's peace of mind. Either his training behind largely closed doors in America had been much less thorough than he had claimed or he had let himself go since since arriving here in Denmark two weeks ago.

The implication of either possibility is nightmarish for the Tyson camp, If he is unable to remove the 6ft 2in, 18st 7lb Nielsen in the first round or two, he will be obliged to display both stamina and patience. Neither quality is his long suit, and the added complication is that the local crowd is likely to became impassioned by the possibility of an upset for their hero ''Super Brian''. Nothing in Nielsen's superficially impressive record – 62 wins, one loss and 43 knock-outs – suggests that he is capable of fighting with the finesse which carried the South African François Botha successfully into the mouth of the Tyson cannon for five rounds nearly three years ago before the big mistake of lapsing into cockiness and walking into a short, straight and utterly disabling Tyson right hand. But since then Tyson has bounced from one crisis to another, including a fresh prison stint, and he has fought just six rounds.

The fuss created by Tyson's camp over Nielsen's remark was rather bizarre, given Tyson's long history of trash talk and sinister pre-fight speculation, but one interpretation is that they are indeed desperate to kick-start the motivation of their man. Earlier in the week he was saying the time-honoured things, including the deadpan declaration ''I will destroy Nielsen,'' but without much of the old vigour. He sounded much more like a man facing a chore rather than a mission.

His trainer, Tommy Brooks, naturally contradicts this impression, saying: ''Mike is as mean as a hungry bulldog chasing a meat truck. He's a pro and he's ready to go. He knows the dangers when a fighter has to take a long lay-off, he's been through all this before and I can tell you that he is as sharp as a tack.'' The message from the weighing machine, even an eccentric one, comes up with a different verdict, but Tyson is dismissive of the charge that he has allowed his fitness to slip. He says: ''When I feel good physically, I enjoy my work and I'm looking forward to this fight.'' He suggests that the Nielsen ''insult'' has primed him for a burst of the old ferocity, saying: ''This will make me punish him even more than I had planned.''

Students of Tyson will know readily enough that Tyson's pre-fight bombast often comes in inverse proportion to his confidence that he can make a show, though it is hard to imagine Nielsen, in racist mode or otherwise, is capable of making too many inroads into Iron Mike's psyche.

Tyson was certainly more vulnerable when he went into the lacerating experience of fighting Evander Holyfield five years ago. Before the first fight, his entourage waged incessant psychological warfare. They talked about the possibility of Holyfield leaving town in a coffin, and Tyson's then manager John Horn stared at Holyfield before drawing his hand across his throat. Holyfield shook his head and said: ''Why would they try to intimidate someone who can't be intimidated?''

Holyfield had won one battle with Tyson long before they met in the ring. It was when they were both members of the United States Olympic squad and Tyson was reluctant to give up his place on the pool table in the team quarters. Holyfield simply walked up to Tyson, took the cue out of his hand and said: ''Rack the balls.'' Tyson racked the balls.

Here he will seek to established such authority over Nielsen. He should do it quickly and without the kind of misbehaviour which Lewis yesterday dryly categorised as ''monkey play''. Lewis will of course say that his remark was simply mischievous. Tyson's paymaster, on the other hand, will very much like to think it was the first shot in another, and hugely profitable, fight campaign. The truth is Tyson is obliged to do rather more than win a fight here tonight. He has to pick up the most horrendous bill in all the crazy days of heavyweight boxing.