Ali forfeited three years of his career on a point of principle - his refusal to participate in the Vietnam War - and when he was finally cleared to box again in 1970, Georgia was the only state prepared to license him. Tyson lost three years because of a rape conviction, yet when he emerged from prison in Plainsfield, Indiana, yesterday there was a stack of mega-million dollar offers to wade through and a roomful of heavyweights eager to give him a crack at their titles.
It took Ali four years to regain the crown, and he did it by a dramatic change in style. He no longer had the legs or the timing to be the dancing master who dazzled us in the Sixties, so he developed a new technique, never better displayed than on the unforgettable night in Zaire in 1974 when Ali confused, bewildered and ultimately defeated George Foreman.
Ali was the greatest improviser in heavyweight history, a boxing scientist who could devise the right tactics to beat any opponent. Tyson does not have that gift. He was always a one- dimensional fighter, even in his terrifying prime. His technique, devised by Cus D'Amato and refined by the trainers Teddy Atlas and Kevin Rooney, was dic- tated by his physical limitations. A 5ft 10in man cannot hope to outjab a 6ft 3in opponent, so Tyson made the most of what he had by coming in on his man in a crouch, minimising the target for counters and utilising his low centre of gravity to launch nerve-numbing lefts, part hook and part upper-cut.
So long as he had the discipline to work at his trade, itworked, but then his life started to unravel and the result was the shambling figure who wasknocked out by Buster Douglas and struggled twice to get past Razor Ruddock.
If he has used his three years' incarceration sensibly, and reflected on where, how and with whom he went wrong, Tyson can view his boxing future with reasonable optimism.
Even the man who faced Douglas and Ruddock would have a chance of beating most of today's mediocrities. If Tyson can regain his edge and venom, with a different trainer and corner-team than the amateurs he had last time around, he is still young enough at 28 to recapture 80 per cent of what he was in 1986-88.
But there is much work to be done. He has been keeping himself fit in jail, but that means only fit in the "civilian" sense. Boxing fitness is another matter entirely.
Not only must he build up the strength to survive 12 rounds, he has to get used to the feel of punches again, of adjusting to the shock and the pain. Barry McGuigan, once a superbly competitive champion, said that the hardest part of his comeback from an 18-month lay-off was that he had forgotten just how hard it all was.
There is, too, the question of his weight. Mickey Duff, a shrewd observer of fighters, sees the former champion's 3st weight loss as a potential problem. "When I remember Tyson he didn't have an ounce of fat on him - he was like a ton of granite," Duff said. "It was all muscle. The old Tyson didn't have that amount of weight to lose."
Duff has obviously never savoured the gastronomic delights of the Indiana penal system: I suspect there is nothing wrong with Tyson that a couple of decent meals won't put right.
But clearly, he will need time to build up his weight and regain his fighting edge. The first sacrificial offering is already lined up - Peter McNeeley, an Irish-American brawler from Boston with a theoretically impressive record of 35-1, compiled against some of the most inept and obscure heavyweights in the world. Danny Wooford, his latest opponent, gave him one of his toughest fights, yet had lost his previous 14 in a row. The real tests - Bowe, McCall, Lewis and Foreman - must wait.
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