LAS VEGAS -- Trying to understand what makes Mike Tyson tick can be a ride on a runaway carousel.
The former heavyweight champion inspires awe, shock, fear and loathing. As boxing's albatross, he is treated like a freak-show exhibit, with his mounting problems only adding to the public's fascination.
Tyson's bizarre ear-chomping affair with Evander Holyfield in fall 1997 prompted the Hollywood Wax Museum in Los Angeles to move his likeness from the Sports Hall of Fame wing to the House of Horrors, alongside the cannibal Hannibal Lechter from "Silence of the Lambs."
Spend a few days in Tyson's intimidating presence, and his wild streams of consciousness reveal a sensitive side and an untrusting nature.
While training in Phoenix for tomorrow night's fight here with Francois Botha, he received a call from one of his accountants.
"He told me I had an IRA account in a New York bank worth $200,000," recalled Tyson, who reportedly still owes $7 million in back taxes, despite having earned more than $100 million since being released from prison in 1995. "I didn't know anything about it."
Further investigation revealed that the money had come from Tyson's former manager and surrogate father, Cus D'Amato, who died before his protege became champion for the first time in 1986 at 20.
"Back then, I thought I was already a grown man," said Tyson. "Money gave me a false sense of security. I was living crazy and could spend $200,000 on belts and underwear and champagne for girls I met in bars.
"Cus was always trying to get me married early, like when I was 16. Of course, if I did that," Tyson said with a sardonic laugh, "I would have probably killed everyone in my family.
"But the longer you live, the more you find out about people. Before Cus died, he must have known I could blow all my money. So he probably put away $5 or $20 a week in this account that grew in 14 years to $200,000."
That may seem an insignificant sum compared with the $30 million Tyson can make for what is expected to be a brief encounter with Botha. But the account has great meaning to Tyson beyond its monetary value.
"I never thought anyone would love my black behind," he said. "They told me I'm only getting 5 percent interest, but I'm leaving the money there forever. You couldn't give me a billion dollars for that account now. What Cus did for me was truly overwhelming."
In Tyson's suspicious mind, D'Amato might have been his only true friend. He underlined this feeling in a conversation he recalled having with a room-service waiter at his Phoenix hotel.
"When he brought my food, he called me 'Mr. Tyson.' I said, 'Call me Mike.' He said, 'No, you're Mr. Tyson, and I'd love to be you.'
"I told him, 'Don't say that, brother. You don't want to be me.' And he said again, 'Yes, I would. I've got six kids and only one paycheck.' And I told him, 'I've got millions, but no friends.' You can always get money, but you can't buy friends."
If anything, Tyson has been more wary of people trying to befriend him since his release from an Indiana prison in 1995 after serving three years for rape.
"I haven't died yet, but I've been to hell," he said. "In that cell, people brutalize you. You become an animal, and people expect you to be domesticated when you get out."
Despite the trappings of fame and fortune, Tyson said his only happy moments occur in private times with his wife, Monica, and his children.
"You know, I'm not supposed to be here now," he said Monday after a brief training session. "If you listen to my ex-wife [actress Robin Givens], I'm supposed to be Thorazined-out or on lithium.
"I have to deal with my problems in front of the whole world. If I fight with my wife, the whole world knows about it. I'm constantly being sued by women I've never met.
"People like to see Mike Tyson screw up. That's the truth of humanity, and I deal with it by accepting it. I took boxing back to its raw form. That's what people paid to see, but they're afraid I'll unmask them as hypocrites."
He talked of his affinity for Sonny Liston, the menacing former champion who died under mysterious circumstances and is buried in Las Vegas.
"I expect the worst to happen to me," he said. "Some day, probably a black man, will blow my brains out over a wife or girlfriend I don't know exists. If I'm accused of something, they say, 'Yeah, Mike's capable of that.' "
Tyson has always been reluctant to accept blame, be it for the rape conviction or the recent incident in Maryland, where he was accused of hitting two middle-aged motorists involved in a multi-car collision.
Tyson, who pleaded no contest, faces sentencing Feb. 5 in Gaithersburg. He could be found guilty of violating his parole.
Still, there are rare occasions when Tyson takes responsibility for his troubled past.
"I've been a real jerk," he told the New York Times. "I don't know how my wife has stayed married to me. She's so dignified and not used to the stuff I put her through. Maybe she's too embarrassed to leave, or she loves me too much. I don't know.
"Everyone wants to be loved. It's just that we all have different definitions. My definition is being responsible for the people I care for. But people judge me with their eyes. If they had a chance to know me, to touch me, maybe they'd feel differently about me."
Perhaps Dr. Elias Ghanem, the chairman of the Nevada Athletic Commission, summed up Tyson's dilemma at the conclusion of hearings on his relicensing when he said: "I know sometimes you think you're the victim, but most of your problems are of your own making."
Tyson said resuming his oft-interrupted boxing career will help stabilize his life and bring a semblance of respect from his critics.
It is within the confines of the ring he feels most confident. In fact, he bragged that the two present champions, Holyfield and England's Lennox Lewis, were only supporting actors in his presence.
"When they're champions, I'm the king," he said. "They can't make money without me. Holyfield gets $20 million to defend his title, and I'm making $30 million for a 10-rounder. Muhammad Ali set the stage, but there has never been a fighter bigger than Mike Tyson."
It's an arguable point, but his public image may not improve until he stops blaming the world for bringing so much grief into his life. It might happen before he finally hangs up his gloves.
As Tyson recently concluded after some soul-searching: "I'm the only one who has to carry the weight of the fool."
Who: Mike Tyson (45-3, 39 KOs), Catskill, N.Y., vs. Francois Botha (39-1, 24 KOs ), Witbank, South Africa
What: Scheduled 10-round heavyweight bout
Where: MGM Grand Hotel, Las Vegas
When: Tomorrow night
TV: Showtime pay-per-view, estimated charge $45.95. Telecast begins 9 p.m.
Roberto Garcia (31-0, 24 KOs), Oxnard, Calif., vs. John John Molina (45- 5, 30 KOs), Fajardo, Puerto Rico, for Garcia's IBF junior lightweight title
Goyo Vargas (38-6-1, 28 KOs), Mexico City, vs. Ben Tackie (18-0, 11 KOs), Accra, Ghana, for Vargas' WBC Continental Americas lightweight title
Tale of the tape
Age 32 30
Height 5-11 6-2
Weight 223 233
Reach 71" 74"
Chest normal 42" 42"
Chest expanded 44" 46"
Bicep 17" 17"
Forearm 14" 14"
Waist 34" 38"
Thigh 26" 26"
Calf 17" 17"
Neck 20" 18"
Wrist 8" 8"
Fist 12" 13"
Pub Date: 1/15/99