The sinner regains his edge

Rupert Cornwell provides an American view of a fighter whose aura remains intact
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THEY claim it's a meaningless main event that should be relabelled the Non-Event of the Century, a walkover that may be spun out for a couple of rounds before the ex-con despatches the no-hoper into the Land of Lethe. But if so, where does that leave the five world title fights on the undercard, which aren't the reason why pay-per-view subscribers are being asked to shell out an average of $50 to watch the show, more than for any in the history of US boxing? The answer runs to two words: Mike Tyson.

It would be unfair to suggest that America is on tenterhooks over his bout with Peter McNeeley in Las Vegas: greed, corruption and manipulation that would insult the intelligence of a three-year-old have long since consigned the noble art to the status of a quasi-sport here. But even when its potential saviour is an unrepentant wife- beater and rapist, the moralisers shouldn't be taken too seriously.

Many people will nod approvingly at the columnist Robert Lipsyte in the New York Times: "I won't support his return to the ring under these circumstances. Unless he apologises and speaks out about rape and violence against women, I won't watch the fight. I hope you won't either." One in five Americans, according to a recent poll, felt that Tyson shouldn't even have had his licence back. But a substantial pinch of salt should also accompany protestation from the other end of the spectrum, about debts paid to society and all that.

The simple fact is that despite Don King, despite the fakery and for all the devaluation which has been inflicted upon it, Tyson's old title still has an aura. Just as the Olympic 100 metres champion is the world's fastest man, the heavyweight king is the world's toughest and meanest. Any credible claimant to that distinction must first dispose of Tyson. Americans want to see him fight. More than that, they want to know: has he still got it ?

Next Saturday, unless McNeeley turns out 10 times the man he's cracked up to be, will provide only part of the answer. But the vibes from the ex-champ's entourage are nothing but good. Few of his 42 fights have been punishing, and he is only 29, the prime for a boxer. True, Tyson hasn't fought since June 1991, and three years in the Indiana Penitentiary dulled the edge. but the PR men maintain that the lay-off was just what he needed.

"He's in the best shape of his life," said his strength and conditioning coach Carlos Blackwell. "I guarantee you've never seen Mike Tyson the way you'll see him now." Tyson was 224 or 225lbs when he left prison, but had ballooned to 239 when he began serious training in early May. He's now down to 222, and Blackwell expects he will go in at around 220. Tyson's body-fat ratio, 24 per cent when he left prison, will be down to eight per cent by fight time. "He's going to throw a better punch because he's not going to carry the excess weight, and he'll take a better punch because his muscle structure is going to be much harder." And Tyson's workouts have been suitably fearsome, with four sparring partners carted off to hospital already.

But America loves its prodigal sons, and the beast has learned from his sins and seeks, if not forgiveness, at least understanding. Tyson still maintains he should never have been convicted of rape, but we are told he is a wiser, kinder man. A busload of kids from a local housing project was invited to watch his first public work-out. As always, the Tyson torso glistened like ebony steelplate. But this time it bore an intellectual varnish.

In jail Tyson spent much time reading, and Mao Tse-Tung and Arthur Ashe were two of his favourite authors. Their faces, etched into his skin by the prison tattooist, now ripple across his right and left biceps respectively. Quite possibly too, it won't be Mike Tyson much longer; Islam helped him survive prison. "I'm a Muslim in the purest sense, and I will change my name."

Americans are watching these antics with professed indifference; a poll found that only one in 10 sports fans plan to watch the fight. But it's a safe bet that, come Sunday, the first thing the other nine will ask themselves is: how did he get on?