Question 'if Tyson is right' more about life than boxing

THE BALTIMORE SUN

PHILADELPHIA -- Mike Tyson is back. Again. And this time, to promote his fight with Francois Botha, they ran television spots with Tyson slurping a bowl of cereal, grinning mischievously, making crunching sounds.

Rice Krispies? Cap'n Crunch? Granola? No cereal crunches that loud. Maybe that's the sound ripped cartilage makes? Bones breaking? Yeah, that's it.

Gotcha. They want you to think that at age 32, coming off two emphatic, humiliating losses to Evander Holyfield, creaky with 13 months of rust, Mike Tyson is still capable of smashing somebody's nose back into his brain.

"I put guys in body bags," Tyson bragged at a recent news conference. Then he paused, and added, "When I'm right."

When's the last time he was right? It had to be before he served three years in the joint for raping a teen-age beauty pageant contestant. And now, Richard Hofer has written a tough, revealing book called "A Savage Business -- the Comeback and Comedown of Mike Tyson" that might help you understand why Tyson was paid $140 million for six fights after he got out of the joint, and how he's going to get paid $23 million for fighting Botha, even though he's coming off those two dreadful losses and a one-year suspension for biting Holyfield.

"I'm a human being," Tyson moaned recently. "I've never been perceived as a human being. I've always been perceived as a freak, an animal."

Animals bite, fighters fight. Muhammad Ali once said, "I don't have to be what you want me to be." Tyson seems to be saying, I'll be whatever you want me to be as long as I get my $30 million a pop.

That's what he was getting, $30 million a pop, facing more stiffs than an undertaker, once he got out of the joint. Doing three years for rape didn't hurt his drawing power, didn't disqualify him as a pay-per-view commodity.

Hofer, who covers boxing for Sports Illustrated, guides us through the swamp that surrounded Tyson as he waltzed past Peter McNeeley and Buster Mathis and Frank Bruno. Bruce Seldon, true to his South Jersey connections, splashed like the Steel Pier diving horse the first time Tyson scowled at him.

Hofer provides some fascinating insights into Holyfield, who opened as a 25-to-1 underdog for that first fight with Tyson. We find out where that courage came from, the junkyard dog meanness, that enabled Holyfield to tug on Superman's cape and reveal the shuddering bully beneath.

Was he ever an authentic bully, despite his willingness early on to brag about a youth spent mugging little, old ladies in Brooklyn, N.Y.? Ted Atlas, the trainer, who once held a gun to Tyson's head after the fighter pawed his adolescent sister-in-law, says, "Those things I don't believe they ever happened. He lied."

Cus D'Amato had rescued Tyson from a reform school and it made for a heartwarming story. The old man and the kid, people ran with that story, Atlas says.

But it wasn't really like that. The old man had an agenda -- everybody did -- but his was to leave this world with another champ. It was all compromised because of the shortness of time. So enforced conduct as far as establishing better character habits didn't happen.

D'Amato died before Tyson did, indeed, become the youngest heavyweight champ in history. And then co-manager Jimmy Jacobs died. And then Don King swiped Tyson away from Bill Cayton at the funeral, and the rest is a tawdry history that Hofer tells well.

He repeats a story that Atlas likes to tell of a dinner in the Catskills hideaway when Tyson, having eaten his spaghetti, reached for another kid's food. Camille Ewald, D'Amato's companion, told Tyson to leave it alone. Cus told him, "Go ahead, take it. You're gonna be the next champion of the world."

Does that episode explain Tyson's perplexing career, his thuggery outside the ring, his once-fierce loyalty to King, surrounding himself with punk advisers, buying 10 BMWs, four Rolls-Royces, $20 million homes he abandons?

Does it explain what became of the awesome potential Tyson possessed as a young fighter, the electricity he generated? Hofer spent years studying Tyson, listening carefully to hear what makes him tick, and, in the end, derides him.

When difficulty arose, Hofer writes, he could not come up with anything heroic. In fact, presented with the shame of repeated failure, Tyson reacted with a perverse cowardice, defining himself in animal behavior when a loftier kind was required. In the end, he did not get the job done.

If any revisionism was necessary, it was in the matter of his character. He had none. His character was neither bad nor good. There just wasn't any.

Tyson got scant help from King, who milked the cash cow Tyson became, with both fists clenched. Hofer has praise for King's cunning, his deal-making. Meanwhile, Larry Holmes has written a book called "Against the Odds," which is one final plea for respect that eluded him despite a seven-year reign as heavyweight champion.

Holmes spends a lot of time ripping King and Howard Cosell as front-runners. He describes King shorting Ali by a million dollars after Holmes reluctantly pounded Ali in their Vegas fight. And how Ali settled for $50,000 in cash. "The King of trickeration had struck again," Holmes writes.

Holmes answers the inevitable question of why he stuck with King as long as he did. "While I knew King was exploiting me," Holmes writes, "I was reluctant to make the switch to [Bob] Arum. Not out of loyalty as much as habit. And maybe a susceptibility to his racial jive -- the black solidarity line he ran on you."

And when Holmes insists he intends to talk to Arum again, King warns, "If you do, I'll have your legs broke."

In the twilight of a career that has gone on too long, Holmes agreed to fight Tyson. "The impression I got from meeting Tyson," Holmes recalled, "was that this was a kid whose bad attitude was going to land him in a jam. A big jam. I told reporters that someday down the road, Mike Tyson was bound to end up in jail."

Tyson returns, once again, this time a slight favorite over the lumbering Botha. Tyson has new management, a new trainer, that same old whine about being misjudged.

A team of psychiatrists tells us he's fit to fight. If he's right, he will win, before a sellout crowd. When was the last time he was right? Was he ever right? The questions tell us ominous things about the sport, and about America.

Pub Date: 1/17/99

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