LAS VEGAS -- Intimidation is Mike Tyson's trump card, the biggest weapon he will carry against Canada's Donovan "Razor" Ruddock in their heavyweight elimination bout at The Mirage tomorrow night.
Most of Tyson's 39 victims to date probably lost before the opening bells, left terrified at the prospect of having to withstand Tyson's first ferocious charge across the ring.
Even Michael Spinks, the first light-heavyweight champion to challenge successfully for the heavyweight title, had second thoughts before Tyson disposed of him in 1 minute, 31 seconds in summer 1988.
"It wasn't really fear," Spinks recalled recently. "But when I looked across the ring and saw this massive tree staring back at me, I said to myself, 'What am I doing here?' "
That same dread was written across the face of Tyson's most recent challenger, Alex Stewart, who was knocked off his feet in the first eight seconds of their brief encounter in Atlantic City, N.J., last December.
Those at ringside that night heard Stewart's trainer, Edwin Viruet, yelling "Run!" when his fighter staggered to his feet after the first knockdown. But Stewart's rubber legs could not move fast enough to avoid two more collisions with Tyson.
When the fight was mercifully ended, Don King, Tyson's promoter and confidant, raced around the press section, screaming, "We're back. We're smoking again."
Veteran trainer Lou Duva, who helped cart Tyrell Biggs back to the corner after a younger Tyson flattened him in October 1987, said Stewart wanted to be anywhere but in the same ring with Tyson.
"This guy was hoping he'd be knocked out," Duva said. "I watched the fight at home, and I said to my kids, 'This isn't going to last.' Stewart looked like he was in a daze. If Tyson had said, 'Boo,' Stewart would have fainted."
Since suffering a shocking knockout and the loss of his heavyweight crown to Buster Douglas in Tokyo 13 months ago, Tyson apparently has tried to soften his fierce image. We see Tyson working with retarded children. We hear of his donating huge sums to the USO and Red Cross. We watch him at play in the gym with his 10-month old son, D'Amato Kilrain Tyson.
"Mike is a very nice guy," said King. "A lot of people don't realize that."
King made that statement after Tyson paid $100 to clear a molesting charge by a New York woman. But, in recent months, Tyson has been able to avoid creating headlines in the tabloids. There have been no early-morning street brawls or other kinds of odd behavior that occurred during his marriage to actress Robin Givens.
"Have I mellowed?" Tyson said last week. "Maybe. But I'm still basically the same. I won't take ---- from anyone.
"I still have a wild streak in me, and I think that's good. That's the Mike Tyson the public understands. And that's why I'm the highest-paid athlete without a title."
A number of boxing analysts believe that losing to Douglas was the best thing to happen to Tyson, who began to believe in his own invincibility. He had turned sloppy and complacent in his training regimen without fiery trainer Kevin Rooney to push him.
His baleful pre-fight stare had not been enough to intimidate Douglas, who got off the floor to give the previously unbeaten Tyson an old-fashioned butt-kicking.
"That setback to Douglas woke Mike up to reality," said veteran trainer Eddie Futch. "He's got that attitude back. He's knows now that he's not Superman, and if he doesn't pay the price, it could happen again. But Tyson's style needs regular work."
Tyson's arrogance remains intact. A month before the fight, he glowered at the taller Ruddock, an imposing specimen in his own right, and said, "It only counts if I kill him."
Ruddock seemed offended.
"That shows no respect," he said. "A champion doesn't carry himself that way. It's not professional."
Maybe not. But it is Mike Tyson. The rage is back, and everyone is searching Ruddock's eyes for the slightest hint of fear.
Main event: Mike Tyson (38-1) vs. Donovan "Razor" Ruddock (25-1-1) in a scheduled 12-round heavyweight elimination fight
When: Tomorrow, under card begins at 9 p.m., main event about 10:30 p.m.
Where: The Mirage, Las Vegas
Promoters: Don King and Steve Wynn
TV: Cable pay-per-view