Tyson talking of place in history

Ken Jones reports from Las Vegas on the complexities of a heavyweight rematch
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The Independent Online
If Bob Waters were alive today, perhaps he would be as baffled as anyone who is required to arrive at a conclusion about the rematch between Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson. Somehow I doubt it.

Waters, who wrote about boxing for Newsday in New York, was from the old school. A chain smoker, frequently a victim in the Las Vegas casinos, he drank the most ferocious dry martinis. When ordering he applied the Archimedes principle. "No fruit," he would growl.

A useful amateur middleweight in his youth, Waters knew a great deal about boxing. A US Marine tail gunner during the Second World War, he was once persuaded to box an exhibition with the great champion, Tony Zale, on the deck of an aircraft carrier. Returning to his corner at the end of the first round Waters, who had taken a liberty with Zale, asked for his gloves to be removed. "That mother says he's going to kill me, and I believe him," he said.

It was always wise to engage Waters in conversation before major fights because many of his predictions were quite sensational. The legend of Waters' prescience dates back to June 1959 when he alone forecast Ingemar Johansson's knock-out of Floyd Patterson for the undisputed heavyweight championship. When Patterson reversed the result a year later, with another knock-out, Waters called correctly again. What is more, he named the round and the punch, a left hook.

When Waters chose the boy braggart, Cassius Clay, over Sonny Liston in 1962, it was felt generally in the trade that Waters had finally ridden out his luck. Clay, soon to become Muhammad Ali, so demoralised Liston that the ogre quit on his stool. Joe Frazier over Ali, then George Foreman. It went on and on. "Getting to be a burden," Waters said one day when were driving to a bar on Long Island. "One of these days I'm going to get a big one wrong and my editor will put it down to the booze." A few minutes later, mistaking it for the sky, Waters drove into the blue-painted wall of a parking lot, which may tell you something about him.

A personal regret is that I did not pay enough attention to Waters when logic persuaded him that Ali would again overcome the odds to knock out Foreman in Zaire. The Irish in Waters brought about the one serious blemish on his record: Gerry Cooney to take the heavyweight title from Larry Holmes. For once, Waters went with his heart instead of his head, which is never the way to bet.

What I am coming to is the bafflement that surrounds Tyson's attempt to reverse the sensational defeat Holyfield inflicted last November, after opening as a 25-1 underdog in the betting emporiums. On these occasions, it is a custom of the Las Vegas Review Journal to print the conclusions arrived at by boxing writers. When approached yesterday, I had to admit that the imponderables continue to have a narcotic effect on the cerebral process. "It's the same for all of us," Jay Larkin, of cable television's Showtime, said. "All the pre-fight stuff we are putting out is conjecture. I come away from watching Tyson convinced that he is going to win, but Holyfield is equally convincing. I've never known a fight that was more difficult to pick."

Holyfield, when consulted, appears to have an edge in confidence. "I respect Tyson," he said after a light work out yesterday, "but he will not bring anything to the fight I haven't seen before."

It was early in the afternoon of a very hot day and Holyfield was sitting on the apron of a ring in a tent behind the MGM Complex, the venue for Saturday's contest. He had on a white T-shirt and black trunks. Every now and again he towelled away trickles of perspiration. "I've been doing this for 26 years," he said, "and I haven't gone to the ring scared since I was a boy. Until Tyson fought me, even allowing for the loss to Buster Douglas, the reputation worked for him. The four guys he'd fought since coming out of prison looked terrified."

Holyfield made much of his condition, physical and mental. "This time I'm in even better shape," he said, "stronger, more confident. I feel I can't lose. There's less pressure than before the first fight. I won't be going in there with the intention of avoiding big shots - but everything that Tyson throws at me."

Before the first fight, Holyfield was mailed get-well cards. "I'm not getting any of that stuff now," he added. "Everyone knows that I look after my body - and I don't feel any different than I did as a 21-year- old. I want to show the world that the first fight wasn't a fluke. Tyson says that he had a bad day but I made it a bad day for him. I'm convinced that what I did before I can do again."

Tyson's tactic so far has been to deflect all questions about the fight. Instead he wanders through boxing history, indentifying with Liston, who also served time and had frequent brushes withe law. "People appreciated Liston's ability," he said, "but he didn't get the respect he wanted."

Respect figures prominently in Tyson's thinking. "Those people who run the boxing hall of fame. They don't respect me, so fuck them. I don't need it."

Tyson's tangential shifts in conversation make it even more difficult to predict the outcome of an intriguing contest. There's still time, but I wonder what Waters would have made of it.