LAS VEGAS -- F. Scott Fitzgerald, a famous author Mike Tyson enjoys quoting, once wrote, "There are no second acts in American lives."
But Tyson, a tormented soul at 32, proved Fitzgerald wrong Saturday night when he launched his second ring comeback in eight years with an electrifying knockout of Francois Botha at 2: 59 of the fifth round.
Until his short, chopping right hand brought down the curtain, Tyson's performance was hardly worthy of accolades from the announced crowd of 12,519 at the MGM Grand that, on occasion, even laughed at his futile attempts to finish his hulking South African rival in a few short rounds.
The former champion was quick to criticize his first outing after a 19-month layoff that resulted from his suspension by the Nevada Athletic Commission for chomping Evander Holyfield's ears in their rematch here in June 1997.
"I'm a little embarrassed," he said. "I wanted to shine tonight, but I didn't prove anything. I was very rusty."
His new trainer, Tommy Brooks, was more succinct. He gave Tyson a C-minus for what was his first victory since he starched Bruce Seldon in one round on Sept. 7, 1996, before losing consecutive fights to Holyfield.
Tyson looked too eager to silence his critics who suggested that he was lurching out of control with his repetitive, X-rated interviews in the weeks leading up to the fight.
But he may have also been experiencing some anxiety over whether he still possessed the explosive power that made him undisputed heavyweight champion by age 21.
As George Foreman, a ranking authority on the subject, said: "A true puncher lives in a world only punchers inhabit. It takes a lot of fear to really be a puncher."
Tyson tried to dash these fears early against Botha with little success.
"Mike was excited and trying to hit the guy with one home run punch, but that never works," said Brooks, who attempted to get the fighter back to basics in their training sessions. "But he's been off a long time. He's human. He makes mistakes."
In fact, Tyson was trailing badly on all three judges' cards after the first four rounds, when he was clearly frustrated by Botha's holding tactics and light combinations. Dave Moretti and Dalby Shirley favored Botha, 40-35, and Bill Graham had him ahead, 39-36.
And had there been a less tolerant referee than Richard Steele, there was a chance that Tyson might have been disqualified as early as the end of the first round, when it took all the corner men and the security guards to separate the two fighters and restore order.
"It was like an alley fight, that's what it was," Steele said.
Tyson, who threw an elbow into Botha's neck after the bell, said he was goaded by the South African, who might have been hoping Tyson would self-destruct as he did against Holyfield. The strategy almost worked. Tyson was penalized a point for throwing another elbow in the second round.
Asked if he had attempted to break Botha's arm in the first-round ruckus, Tyson said, "That's correct."
Botha, with limited skills and punching power, did everything possible to make a fight of it.
If anything, he proved too brave. Sensing some success in avoiding Tyson's heavy punches, he fought at close range in the fifth round. Just before the round ended, he fired a slow right hand, but Tyson got there first with his own short right that exploded squarely on Botha's broad chin.
Botha rose on rubbery legs just as Steele completed the 10 count. Still dazed, Botha almost toppled out of the ring, but Tyson came to his aid.
Asked about this uncharacteristic show of compassion, Tyson said: "He's my brother. Hey, this is just a boxing match."
Manager Shelly Finkel is already lining up Tyson's next opponent for a pay-per-view bout April 24.
The short list includes Germany's Axel Schulz, Vaughn Bean, Lou Savarese and Shannon Briggs.
Schulz is the favorite candidate, having lost to Botha for the then vacant International Boxing Federation title in 1996, only to have it declared "no contest" when Botha tested positive for steroids.
A boxer without a lethal punch, Schulz would not pose a serious threat to Tyson, whose fragile mental state is more likely to cause his ring demise than his eroding boxing skills. He suggested he might quit fighting after three more fights even if he fails to get another title shot.
And in another outburst, he said: "I'm not afraid to die. When I die, I'm going to go to paradise. But no one is going to disrespect me. They're trying to get the judges in Maryland and Indiana upset with what they write and say about me."
Tyson's next big test comes in a Gaithersburg court room Feb. 5. He has pleaded no contest to hitting two Maryland motorists with whom he was involved in a multi-car accident last August.
Tyson could be found in violation of his parole in Indiana after his three-year imprisonment for rape in 1992 and returned to prison.
Then F. Scott Fitzgerald might have the last word, after all.
Pub Date: 1/18/99