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Tyson still grabbing attention, this time with softer side


WASHINGTON - The scene surrounding this next Mike Tyson fight, taking place Saturday night at MCI Center, is the same scene that has surrounded nearly every Tyson fight for the past decade.

With one significant exception: Tyson himself.

Not only has the former heavyweight champ refused to play his usual role of headliner/sideshow attraction this time, but he's also gone out of his way to show a mature, introspective, reflective side of himself to a public accustomed to - even expecting - a spectacle every time another of his bouts approaches.

Tyson showed that side to a half-dozen reporters yesterday afternoon in a musty locker room in the basement of Howard University's Burr Gymnasium, shortly after showing that side to several hundred spectators in an impromptu question-and-answer session after his workout upstairs.

There was a sense among the onlookers at the workout that an outburst or outrageous act wouldn't have been a shock or a disappointment. The new side of Tyson, though, was so unrecognizable, a cynic might think it was an act to throw a curve to jaded ticket-buyers and pay-per-view purchasers.

No, Tyson kept saying, it's real. It's the guy who couldn't stay off the gossip pages or police blotters for far too much of his career, but also the one who is approaching 39 and in his 20th year as a professional, financially bankrupt and responsible for five children who already may have a sense of how the world perceives their notorious father.

"We're all different people at all different times in our lives," he said as he sat relaxed between rows of lockers, clad in a pair of towels and explaining himself to reporters who, in some instances, he had previously cursed to their faces, both in private and in full view of the public. "It's all about being a good person. That's what I believe. Respect is more powerful than love."

His perspective on massive wealth and fame has done a 180-degree turn. "That's the American way. That's the high point of society - 'let's get that money,"' he said. "But it won't make you a better person. I've had everything. I've been to the top. The fact is, that doesn't make me who I am.

"I don't have money now, but I'll give somebody the shirt off my back. Having money's not going to make you a decent person, that won't make people get respect for you. You give something away, that makes you somebody, that makes people respect you."

All the physical and verbal battles with managers, ex-wives and opponents, altercations and manic acts inside and outside the ring over the years, were fair game for Tyson to dissect yesterday - because he wanted to express that the person who did those things doesn't exist anymore.

In fact, he may be closer to the person who first charmed the world in the mid- and late-1980s. He even spent part of yesterday's 40-minute chat talking boxing history, a trait that endeared him further back in his youth, but something that later gave way to, for example, threats to eat Lennox Lewis' children and barrages of profane insults spewed in every direction.

"Tyson hasn't always been erratic during his training camps; when he has been erratic, he hasn't been very effective," noted Rock Newman, former manager for ex-champ Riddick Bowe and an adviser for this bout. "When he's been in this state of mind is when he's been his most ferocious." The last time he was, Newman figured, was back in the early days, when he was stringing together first-round knockouts.

But why now? "Sometimes the light goes on," Newman said.

Tyson agreed. "I guess that at some point in my life, I would learn the game of life," he said. "The game of life has rules, and if you don't go by those rules, it'll be like any other game. You'll lose. [Now,] I'd rather be a decent person than be the heavyweight champion of the world."

Now, with a deal in place to put Tyson up against Vitali Klitschko eventually, he likely will get a chance to be both. No one expects much drama Saturday against the underwhelming Kevin McBride, but even that will be a distinct departure from the histrionics surrounding his previous two fights, a win over Clifford Etienne and a loss last year to Danny Williams.

This time, Tyson said, he's "enjoying" training for the first time under Jeff Fenech. He appeared far more fit in his workout than he had in years. He's ready to commit himself, he said, in ways he hasn't in several years.

"It's not going to be easy," he said. "I have this foundation. I have the experience, but it's not going to [happen] overnight."

The new persona likely won't sink in with the public overnight, either, yet Tyson has stayed on message for several months. His current manager, Shelly Finkel, believes he's not doing it because he feels he has to or because someone is making him do it.

"He loves doing it," Finkel said. "Right now he's enjoying it, and I want him to. Hopefully he'll perform well on Saturday and it continues for him." Right up to a title fight, he added.

Along the way, Tyson insisted, you won't see the madman, the villain, the carnival freak or the caged beast many have believed him to be.

"I don't want to be that guy anymore," he said. Later, he added, more concretely, "I'm not that person anymore."

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