King twists the Philadelphia story

Harry Mullan reports on the latest blow to the credibility of Mike Tyson

IT IS appropriate that the last important heavyweight fight anyone can recall being staged in the Spectrum, Philadelphia, featured Rocky Balboa defending his celluloid championship against Apollo Creed - or was it Ivan Drago, pride of the Evil Empire? There are many who will tell you that the saga of the Mike Tyson v Buster Mathis encounter, which happens there on Saturday, has already surpassed Sylvester Stallone's epic for absurdity of plot and improbable twists, but then nothing should surprise us in boxing.

This is a naturally cynical business, where face value is rarely the one to accept. The pair were originally due to meet at the MGM in Las Vegas on 4 November, on the same evening that Riddick Bowe and Evander Holyfield clashed for the third time in one of the great rivalries of the modern ring. Don King, Tyson's self-effacing promoter, opted for the head-to-head confrontation in the belief that it would upstage the Caesars Palace show and underline his man's position as boxing's hottest draw, but the gamble misfired. King scaled the ticket prices for what was a fairly uninspiring event at $1,000 ringside down to $100 in the top tier of the hotel's 15,000-seat Grand Garden Arena, and waited for the punters to get their wallets out.

They did - but at the box- office down the Strip at Caesars, whose promotion was a virtual sell- out a week before the show. By the same stage, advance sales for chapter two of the Tyson comeback had stagnated between 1,500 and 2,000. A serious humiliation loomed for the world's biggest ego . . . and then, by an astonishing stroke of luck, Tyson broke his right thumb on the Tuesday before the fight and King was able to cancel the show. The hacks were unconvinced: the most-asked question was "Whose thumb was in the X-ray?" - a reference to the evidence King produced of the ex-champion's injury.

King was off the hook yet again, but at a price. Rupert Murdoch's Fox Sports Network had put up $10m for the fight, and lost heavily through the cancellation. The Network president David Hill said: "It was trick or treat, since it happened at Hallowe'en, and it was Fox that got tricked. All the marketing we've done . . . you can't recall that." They are now said to be considering sueing King for breach of contract, which would wipe out his 12-show deal with Fox for 1996. The MGM, too, were sorely embarrassed by the fiasco, especially as the rival promotion was such a success.

Tyson's morale must have been at rock-bottom as he learnt of the comparative ticket sales. For a man who for over a decade had regarded himself as the biggest name in boxing, it was humiliating to find he was being outsold by more than six to one. The reason was simply that Bowe v Holyfield was seen as a "real" fight, while Tyson's 89-second farce against the hapless Peter McNeeley in his first comeback outing dissuaded even the Vegas punters from gambling that the Mathis match would be significantly better. The message was clear: we stood for one McNeeley; now it's time to get serious.

They chose to ignore it, and rescheduled the Mathis fight for Atlantic City. The switch brought King further humiliation. The State Athletic Commission, following King's acquittal on charges of defrauding Lloyd's of training expenses allegedly paid to Julio Cesar Chavez for a cancelled fight, refused to sanction the promotion. Never a quitter, the indefatigable King landed in Philadelphia. It has been an extraordinary spectacle: the world's most powerful promoter and the sport's best-known name being run out of state after state like old-time medicine men.

Assuming no further calamities befall Tyson between now and Saturday, he should dispose of Mathis (the United States Boxing Association champion) in fairly short order. Mathis has a decent record of 20-0 with one no- contest, when Riddick Bowe whacked him on the floor but was spared disqualification. A similar moment of temporary insanity seems the only way Tyson can lose, but then this story is improbable enough already.

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