Tyson's short, sharp shock

Harry Mullan in Las Vegas sees a fall-guy take the money and run into the iron man
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PETER McNEELEY has the kind of broad, innocent features which register emotion easily. Last Saturday, from my seat a couple of yards from his corner in the MGM Garden Arena in Las Vegas, I watched him run through the range. There was the adrenalin-pumping, let's-get-it-on intensity with which he entered the ring; the lip-licking apprehension as he looked across at Mike Tyson and realised precisely what he had got himself into; the bite-the-gumshield bravery with which he hurled himself at the most intimidating heavyweight of the modern era; the look of outrage when he saw his manager, Vinny Vecchione, duck through the ropes to stop the fight; and finally, the sheer relief and exultation as it registered with him that the nightmare was over, he was relatively unhurt and $400,000 to the good.

He punched the air, embraced everyone in sight, grinned hugely and conducted interviews as though he had just knocked Tyson out in the first round, while the winner slunk away to the dressing-room almost unobserved by the 16,700 crowd, who were too busy chanting "Bullshit, bullshit" to notice his departure.

Later, the party resumed as the McNeeley faction took over the Betty Boop Bar, cultural centre of what is, or so MGM love to boast, the world's largest hotel. While the Boston Irish got down to some serious drinking, the world's largest collection of lowlifes, pickpockets, exquisite and impossibly expensive ladies and their gold-encrusted "managers" jammed the hotel lobby so totally that it took me 40 minutes to find the exit to the world's largest car park, where a further hour was needed to locate my hire car. God it's Hell at the front.

Iron Mike is back, and Vegas had not seen a night like it since Thomas "The Hit Man" Hearns used to bring a regiment of Detroit's more colourful citizens to watch him go to work. The sighs of relief from the MGM management were almost loud enough to drown the chants from the disgruntled punters; the hotel has not been doing well lately and 700 jobs were recently shed.

One of the casualties was Dennis Finfrock, the executive responsible for negotiating Tyson's fabulous six-fight contract. The rumour was that Finfrock had neglected to include a "get-out" clause in the event of Tyson losing, which would have left the hotel with a huge and unprotected liability. In the days when Las Vegas was run by men with somewhat more direct business methods, Finfrock's alleged oversight might have resulted in a one-way trip out to the Nevada desert, rather than the offer of an inviting golden handshake.

Tyson's pay-out for a job which was never going to occupy more than five minutes of his time was a mind-blowing $22.5m and, if he really wanted to do his new employers a favour, he could have taken the lot down the road to their rivals at Caesars Palace and snapped up the even money on offer there for a first-round victory. As a guide to his chances of regaining former glories the fight was worthless, but at least we know that the former champion can still discipline himself sufficiently to get into better physical shape than since that unforgettable night in Tokyo in 1990 when Buster Douglas shattered his aura of invincibility.

McNeeley's cheque shrunk during the week from an opening $800,000 to a "best-guess" $540,000, out of which $40,000 represented training expenses and a further $100,000 was reportedly paid as a so-called finder's fee to Al Braverman, a New York manager and matchmaker who, by a truly amazing coincidence, is also employed as "director of boxing" for the Don King Organisation. That left McNeeley with $400,000, but as George Kimball, a veteran Boston sports writer who is closer to the McNeeley family than any other reporter, suggested. "If Peter McNeeley gets $400,000 from Don King, it'll be a bigger upset than if he knocks out Mike Tyson."

The McNeeleys made themselves popular with the huge media gathering during the build-up. They are an engaging pair, raw-boned, grizzled ex-contender Tom and his son, whose roughneck image belies a sharp brain which gave him a university degree in Political Science.

Tom went into the prison service on retirement, and regaled the hacks with tales of the characters he had met inside. "First jail I went to, a guy comes up and introduces himself: `Mr McNeeley, my name's Albert DeSalvo [the Boston Strangler.] I just want you to know I was a big fan of yours - I used to go to all your fights, and sit right behind your wife'."

But it was the third member of the team, the trainer-manager Vinny Vecchione, whose actions proved decisive. He had given clear notice of his intentions in an interview on the Monday before the fight, when he told a reporter "If my guy looks to be in serious trouble, I'll be in there to stop it a split second ahead of [the referee] Mills Lane or anyone else.'' Standing semi-conscious and defenceless in front of Mike Tyson constitutes being in serious trouble by even the most demanding standards, especially as McNeeley had already been on the floor twice in the 89 seconds which elapsed before Vecchione's dramatic scramble through the ropes.

The crowd's anger was ugly to hear: they had been denied their ritual execution, and cheated of the sight of Tyson standing arms aloft over yet another man he had battered into unconsciousness. There were allegations of a fix, that Vecchione had been involved in a betting coup on the time of the stoppage, and the Nevada Commission ordered an inquiry into the episode.

But those who heard Vecchione talk about his son, Vincent Shawn, who was born with chronic brain damage, would have credited him with a nobler motivation. "I have to get up every morning and change my son's diaper, and he's 32 years old," he said. "Believe me, I know about brain damage."

The overwhelming majority of the fans who packed the superb arena were not true aficionados, as was proved by the fact that around 14,000 of them left as soon as the Tyson fight ended and thus missed what was always going to be the best fight on the card - Quincy Taylor's thrilling sixth- round stoppage of Julian Jackson for the WBC middleweight title.

One could have forgiven the mugs who seriously believed they were going to see a competitive fight for their callous lack of understanding of precisely how serious was the danger in which McNeeley stood, or rather wobbled, at the moment of Vecchione's intervention, but somehow I expected more from the real boxing fans who cared enough to stay behind to watch the ever-exciting Jackson go to war for probably the final time.

Yet even that knowledgeable hard core were unforgiving towards McNeeley. I eavesdropped on two of them afterwards in the rest room, comfort station, bathroom or whatever euphemism Americans devise to avoid using the word "toilet".

"At least Jackson had a go," one of them said, "not like that bum McNeeley. All he did was take the money and run."

Sure he did . . . straight at Mike Tyson.