Tyson determined but no longer assured

Ken Jones reports from Las Vegas with a revealing insight into the state of mind and body of a title challenger
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The Independent Online
When Mike Tyson was first shown a video of the contest that saw Frank Bruno outpoint Oliver McCall in London last September to become the World Boxing Council heavyweight champion, he questioned immediately the notion that the British hero might be too dangerous a proposition. "You can't be serious," Tyson said scathingly to his co-managers, John Horne and Rory Holloway.

Since the titles held out by the major boxing organisations were in Don King's pocket, the grand plan of unification could have taken a different, less hazardous direction. Tyson says now that he did not opt for Bruno, merely went along with what King, Horne and Holloway decided, but in view of the independence he established upon being released from prison and fixed up with a six-fight deal so far worth around $60m (pounds 40m), this takes some believing.

It is more likely that when Tyson looked again at the fighter who became one of his many battered victims seven years ago, surviving only until the fifth round, he did not see much in the way of improvement, certainly not enough to worry him.

Personally, there have been plenty of occasions in this town when it seemed advisable to proceed with caution, and I do not mean when engaging in games of chance or on visits to the vast betting emporiums.

In attempting to predict the outcome of prize-fights you run the risk of being made to look foolish. Quite remarkable upsets have put a strain on the process of logic and given credibility to naive thinkers.

Going back more years than I find comfortable to remember, it was impossible to imagine that Leon Spinks, a 15-1 outsider, had the beating of Muhammad Ali but he capitalised sensationally on the great man's slovenly preparation. You can throw in George Foreman's defeat of Michael Moorer too. Few gave Foreman much of a chance against the World Boxing Organisation's title holder, but when a distance adrift on the official scorecards he knocked out Moorer to become, at 46, the oldest heavyweight champion in history.

This week, Bruno is at 10-l to defeat Tyson inside the distance, surely his only means of victory, so what is it that casts doubts on the outcome of Saturday's proceedings at the MGM Grand entertainment complex in Las Vegas? Is it Bruno's relaxed air, his confident utterances, or a suspicion that Tyson may be only a shell of the fighter who brought a reign of terror to the heavyweight division?

Some of Tyson's statements suggest the affliction of uncertainty, as though he can no longer find the fearsome purpose that characterised the first phase of his career. "Really, I don't know," he said recently. "I look at boxing differently now than I did back then. Back then, I looked at it like it was fun. It came so easy. Everything is more of a burden now, more responsibilities. I don't know if I should use the word burden. But I'm just not a happy type of guy. As a Muslim my main objective as far as beliefs go is to have the most respect for humanity in general. My religion gives me a broader perspective. It enables me to be at peace with myself and lets me know that life is not necessarily about being successful and making a great deal of money, but conducting yourself in a way God will appreciate."

When people hear Tyson say those things they wonder about him. What goes on in his mind, what sort of future does he imagine for himself? The meanderings have a cosmic quality, but not so that they are easily dismissed as mere flights of fancy. "There's always pressure," he added, "and it increases with maturity. Hopefully, and praise be to God, I'll be able to deal with it."

Inevitably, Tyson's worst memories concern the loss of his freedom, the three years he spent banged up in the Indiana Youth Centre after being found guilty of raping a beauty queen contestant. "It was a bad experience," he said, "took away my dignity. But prison gave me time to reflect on what happened to me. You sit down and try to read and it just all flares up again. In time you understand the angles that were placed in your life and how the puzzles were put together to place you in that position. And you say, `Wow, how could that have happened?' Then you leave your cell and you are surrounded by other problems and you think, `What is all this about?'."

One of the things that can be sensed in Tyson is frustration, brought about probably by difficulties of timing that were clearly evident in the two contests he had undertaken since returning to the ring. "Sometimes it feels as though I'm getting there, then I'm all over the place again," he confided this week. "I've got back my power and speed but I still miss with too many punches."

A safe conclusion is that reports of mayhem in the gymnasium are more than slightly exaggerated as they have been throughout boxing history. However it is unquestionably a truth that one of Tyson's sparring partners was utterly sickened by a hook that arrived with alarming suddenness. "In that moment Mike looked his old self," a reliable witness said. "The impact was frightening and if Bruno feels just one of those shots Mills [the referee Mills Lane] won't have to do any counting."

In his young prime, when a bleak glance was enough to make opponents tremble, as even the old warrior Larry Holmes did one night in Atlantic City, nothing appeared to intrude upon the grim purpose implanted by Tyson's mentor, the late Cus D'Amato. He was, as Lennox Lewis is fond of saying about himself, "entirely focused". There was a terrible certainty about his victories. Nobody at the time, not even the big heavyweights he sometimes found troublesome, were given a chance of interrupting his raging progress.

Then the effects of a flawed nature. A dissipation of his powers. "By the time I fought Bruno I was almost out of control," Tyson admitted. Confused, he was no longer the fighter D'Amato fashioned.

Now, Tyson looks determined but sometimes conveys an impression of uncertainty. Maybe he is trying to remember all the things D'Amato told him to do.