LAS VEGAS -- When a boxing buff was reminded of last night's heavyweight title fight, he asked, "When's Tyson getting out?"
Not a word or a thought or an opinion about who was to be in the ring at Caesars Palace; instead, a question about the future of Mike Tyson, who wasn't there.
But the Mike Tyson mystique was here.
Boxing's popularity usually thrives in direct proportion to the mystique of its heavyweight champion. At their best, Muhammad Ali, Rocky Marciano, Joe Louis and Jack Dempsey transcended the not-so-sweet science. Just about everybody seemed to be nTC aware of them. And just about everybody still seems to be aware of Tyson, for better or for worse, despite his rape conviction.
Riddick Bowe, who was to defend the International Boxing Federation and World Boxing Association titles Saturday night against Evander Holyfield, has yet to make himself aware to just about everybody. If Holyfield were to regain the championship he lost to Bowe a year ago in a unanimous 12-round decision, the heavyweight doldrums would be even deeper during boxing's longest count: the 17 months until Tyson walks out of his Indiana slammer.
But until Tyson again climbs into a ring in his black trunks and black shoes, the heavyweight division might be the weakest it has ever been.
Lennox Lewis, the World Boxing Council champion, lost luster in two vague victories over Tony Tubbs and Frank Bruno. Tommy Morrison was exposed as a pretender by Michael Bentt's first-round knockout. Michael Moorer looms as a virtually unknown mandatory challenger.
Pernell Whitaker is now boxing's most celebrated artiste, but a welterweight doesn't stir the public the way a heavyweight champion does.
If Bowe demolished Holyfield quickly, yes, it would have added a 30th knockout to a 35-0 record but it would subtract from his appeal. Any heavyweight champion is only as credible as his competition.
Muhammad Ali needed Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier and George Foreman. Rocky Marciano needed Jersey Joe Walcott and Ezzard Charles. Joe Louis needed Max Schmeling, Billy Conn and Walcott. Jack Dempsey needed Jess Willard, Luis Firpo and Gene Tunney.
If Holyfield were to fall quickly to Bowe, after Michael Dokes fell in one round and Jesse Ferguson fell in two, the champion's competition would be virtually nonexistent.
Bowe needs Tyson for credibility, but Tyson also needs Bowe. For all his savage knockouts, Tyson never cemented his stature against a respected rival, and his credibility collapsed when Buster Douglas dethroned him in Tokyo in a stunning 10th-round knockout. And whatever credibility Douglas had, it vanished when, flabby and lazy, he was quickly dethroned by Holyfield in a third-round knockout.
Shortly after a Tyson-Holyfield showdown was scheduled, Tyson complained of sore ribs. Before the fight could come off, Tyson was convicted of rape.
In various jail-house interviews, Tyson has talked of maybe never boxing again, of settling in Africa or going to college. But when he's offered possibly as much as $25 million for a title extravaganza, he'll surely return to the gym.
If Tyson is released from prison on schedule in April 1995, he will be 29 years old. Young enough to resume a career, as Ali did at 28 in 1970 after a 3 1/2 -year exile for refusing induction into the armed services during the Vietnam War.
And just as Joe Frazier was waiting for Ali to return, chances are Riddick Bowe will be waiting for Tyson to return.
On paper or on canvas, about the only boxer who looms as a threat to Bowe now is Bowe himself. At the weigh-in Thursday, he was a hefty 246 pounds, somewhat overweight and somewhat overconfident.
"He's too small; he's not that strong," Bowe keeps saying of Holyfield, who weighed 217. "He just can't win."
But if Bowe didn't stop Holyfield by the middle rounds, if he wasn't in shape to go 12 rounds because he took Holyfield lightly and hadn't trained properly, the champion could have found himself dethroned in a 12-round decision. Or even stopped or knocked out.
"Bowe is a front-runner," Holyfield has said. "If he ever gets in trouble, he'll drop. He gives his all until he gets hurt. When I was using him as a sparring partner in 1987 and early 1988, he got hit in the eye one time. I could see him wimping."
But no matter what happened Saturday night, the boxing public will be waiting for Mike Tyson to happen.