His comeback has been conducted as controlled mystery, little
pieces of him appearing in odd corners of the public
consciousness. Nothing substantial, you understand. Snippets of
conversation in a hip-hop magazine. An appearance on Larry King
Live. Unrevealing interviews in the New York Times and the Los
Angeles Times. A cover photograph (but no Q and A) in Vibe. He
has been positioned as an enigma, silently jumping rope in a
hotel ballroom in one unveiling or smiling blankly from behind
podiums in others. He gives three-word answers to boxing
questions, behaves inappropriately at others. What little he
does or says in public merely confounds. He appears to us as an
This is an article from the Aug. 21, 1995 issue
The marketing genius here: You fill him with meaning, you take
his violent history, his horrifying success, the perverse
glamour of his prison term and construct your own terrible
attraction. This betrays a canny understanding of today's boxing
fan, whoever he or she is. The contender promoted as inkblot.
Neither style nor substance is offered, only just enough memory
to provoke our imaginations. Mike Tyson is back!
A newsreel unspools in our minds: The spartan warrior stands
center ring, no socks, only a white towel with a hole in it for
his sullen head; a slab of malevolent muscle bores in on an
opponent like a pneumatic drill, producing sudden and
breathtaking dispatches; a convicted rapist mocks justice,
wriggling his handcuffs for the camera; a converted Muslim
leaves prison in an Indiana dawn, promising a prayerful
humility; the rebuilt contender, three years gone, resumes his
place in boxing yet refuses comment on his intentions. The
effect of this docudrama, so slim it almost becomes interactive
as we struggle to project significance onto it, is remarkable. A
foe promises to wrap Tyson in a "cocoon of horror," and Tyson,
sitting quietly nearby, only arches his eyebrow. It is funny, it
is chilling. The empty vessel seems to fill with menace right
before our eyes.
The fascination we have with Tyson is undeniable, heightened by
failures of character and hints of redemption. He would not be
nearly so interesting had he not lost to Buster Douglas, his
invincibility shattered by a one-hit artist of modest
credentials. What intrigue would there be if Tyson's life had
not been derailed by his casual decision to force sex upon a
beauty-pageant contestant? Could he command this attention if he
had regained his heavyweight titles instead of going to prison,
unrepentantly, for three years? It's odd; Tyson did not seem
very complicated before, yet now--defeated and humiliated--he adds
wrinkle to Greek tragedy as he struts across the world's stage
sockless, a white towel over his shoulders.
The first of his comeback fights is Saturday, although few
others besides Showtime and the sponsoring MGM Grand in Las
Vegas insist upon it as an athletic event. This is simply
another appearance, a matchup not much more dangerous than
Tyson's coupling with Larry King and probably not as
interesting. His brush with Peter McNeeley, termed "ritual
slaughter" by a rival in the boxing business, does not figure to
tell us whether Tyson can long remain on the stage, or even if
he remembers how to box. It is a scheduled 10-round mismatch of
epic proportion, even for a man who has been out of the game
four years and was, even before, in apparent decline.
"This is total and complete fraud," says promoter Bob Arum, who
happens to be a bitter enemy of Tyson's and McNeeley's promoter,
Don King, and also happens not to have any promotional
association with arguably the biggest draw of the '90s. "You
have to understand: he's fighting somebody even I can beat.
McNeeley is not a real pro fighter. When we did shows on ESPN in
the Northeast, and the local promoter would ask for [McNeeley],
we'd hide him from TV. He can't beat anybody. He's the stiff of
stiffs. This is the equivalent of Tyson going into the gym and
hitting the heavy bag or doing sit-ups. It's not even the
equivalent of watching him spar."
Anybody gone from his game as long as Tyson was deserves some
kind of setup, but most boxing people feel McNeeley, a genial
fellow (he did give us "cocoon of horror"), does not even
qualify as that. McNeeley's 36-1 record is a beguiling
statistic, but his last four opponents had a combined record of
45-113-11. "I don't want to belabor the point, but I have rarely
seen anybody worse," says Arum. "This, this is really demeaning.
A scam, a bill of goods."
The fight wouldn't be worth Arum's vitriol or our notice if not
for the fact that King, who negotiated a $36 million contract
for Tyson to fight six times at the MGM (against opponents and
on dates of Tyson's and King's choosing), is pricing the
Showtime telecast exorbitantly. The pay-per-view show is being
delivered at the worst possible time (PPV events are rarely
scheduled during August, when viewers are presumed to be on
vacation), but it will still cost the curious as much as $50.
Buyer beware: McNeeley could be gone faster than the 91 seconds
it took Tyson to knock out Michael Spinks in 1988.
But nobody is selling competition here, or even pretending to.
The point of the promotion is to showcase Tyson and to satisfy,
only by degrees, the public's fascination with him. If the first
punch does knock McNeeley out? History is not made, but image is
at least partly restored. A second fight, against somebody else,
is sold, maybe.
Still, the drift of this comeback troubles many. The stink of
easy money is in the air, and it makes even Tyson fans queasy.
The question hangs in that polluted atmosphere: Does Tyson mean
to make history or just the dough?
Teddy Atlas, who trained Tyson as an amateur and who has trained
former heavyweight champion Michael Moorer, thinks he knows the
answer. "With this group it's just money," he says, speaking of
King and Tyson's co-managers, John Horne and Rory Holloway.
"They're hitting all the buttons, tapping into all the things
the public's imagination is susceptible to. Like being in jail,
as if coming out of prison after three years has made Tyson
mean, angry and better. The Return of Godzilla, that's their
plan. Mike's whole agenda, and this is no knock, is about taking
advantage of corporate America and the public. He's playing on
their weakness to believe in this monster."
That Tyson can carry this off probably says as much about the
public as it does about him, because it has been a while since
he has been a monster in the ring. "Amazing," says Emanuel
Steward, who has trained Thomas Hearns, Julio Cesar Chavez
and a number of other champions. "All of a sudden, the machine
of 1988, the guy who beat Michael Spinks in 91 seconds, is back.
It's not so much Mike, it's that boxing is sorely in need of a
hero. We're at a point where anytime a boxer wins two fights in
a row, he's called the best, pound for pound." His return is, to
put it mildly, opportunistic.
Certainly our memories of Tyson have been clouded by time, our
doubts stripped away during his exile. Says Lou DiBella, who
buys fights as HBO Sports vice president but had no chance at
Tyson's after the former champ reunited with King: "People have
this image of him savagely brutalizing opponents, even though
they don't remember that the majority of his fights were not
really like that. They forget him getting battered, ring post to
ring post, by Buster Douglas. They forget how unimpressive he
was in the two Razor Ruddock fights."
DiBella marvels at Tyson's appeal but wonders if it doesn't
simply represent the taste of the times. "It's very 'in' to put
the bad guy on the pedestal, this whole gangster image," DiBella
says. "He's the outlaw, that's the attraction."
Tyson's appeal has given his camp enormous leverage. The huge
casino contract demands very little in the way of guaranteed
entertainment (Tyson could fulfill the contract without fighting
anybody outside the King stable, which includes two of the three
heavyweight "champions") and allows Tyson and King to set the
parameters of his exposure. The fighter's camp recently refused
to agree to an interview for an ESPN show if the network's
boxing reporter, Charley Steiner, was involved. ESPN countered
with two other choices. They too were rejected. Tired of the
haggling, ESPN finally decided it could live without the Tyson
interview. King and Horne have similarly refused to allow Tyson
to have any dealings with SPORTS ILLUSTRATED.
But this is small intrigue. The larger question is what Tyson
will do after this fight, and the next, and the one after that.
Does his return amount to a calculated money grab, or does he
intend to take back his place in ring history? For that matter,
can he? Inevitably, it has been noted that Muhammad Ali, a
charismatic boxer when he was politically exiled at the age of
25, came back at 28 to become a truly great fighter. Can the
29-year-old Tyson, whose career was interrupted and resumed on a
nearly identical time line, duplicate the feat?
Steward doubts it. "Ali's style permitted longevity," he says.
"Tyson, his kind don't have long careers. Everything he does is
instinct, aggression. But that tapers off at 26 or 27, like with
Joe Frazier. The ferociousness declines, and that was Tyson's
And if Tyson has been truly reformed by prison, well, that may
be a factor as well. "Ali, his mind never went through emotional
change," Steward says. "Ali stayed Ali. But if Tyson went
through this great metamorphosis, changing religion, getting
tattoos of Chairman Mao and Arthur Ashe.... The ring is no place
for a philosopher. It might make him better for society but hurt
him in the ring."
Ali, who was able to train during his three years of political
exile (for refusing induction into the Army during the Vietnam
War), was able to change as a fighter when he came back to the
game. He had suffered a tremendous erosion of the skills that
once made him untouchable, but he demonstrated the horrifying
ability--and even more horrifying willingness--to take a punch.
Coming back, Ali did not sign up for a joke fight, either, but
took on Jerry Quarry, a tough top contender. Tyson, who was not
able to train in prison, likely has suffered the same erosion of
skills as Ali, though given the matchmaking at work here, it
might not be apparent for a long time. Certainly McNeeley won't
give him much practice.
Tyson's ability to evade punches was becoming suspect at 26; his
speed was diminished. It is not likely to be restored, even in
the five-step training program devised by the mysterious Carlos
Blackwell, the diet and exercise guru who steadfastly refuses to
name one athlete other than Tyson he has ever worked with.
However, Tyson is not likely to lose his power. George Foreman
hasn't lost much of his at 46. However steep Tyson's decline,
his harshest critics do not doubt his ability to wade through
most of today's heavyweights. Tyson may even be, in his own
word, "breathtaking" as he scatters the likes of McNeeley, then
possibly Buster Mathis Jr. and even the WBC champion, Oliver
But what happens if Tyson makes a play for destiny instead of
money? Who's to say he won't? Who's to say the public, fed too
many Peter McNeeleys, won't eventually demand a legitimate
fight? What happens if Tyson ventures beyond the King stable to
take on the likes of Riddick Bowe or Lennox Lewis, as the laws
of boxing commerce (or perhaps Tyson's pride) may demand?
Atlas, a Cus D'Amato protege like Tyson, doesn't know what will
happen, but he says you can't use Ali's second career as a
guideline. "Ali went away for a principle, Tyson for a lack of
one,'' Atlas says. "Ali was never the same fighter coming back,
but he went on to another phase of greatness because, I think,
of his principle. Ali was ready to die professionally, to give
up his worldly possessions, for three years. He was practicing
character, character he would have to use when he lost to Joe
Frazier. He believed there was some great meaning to his being,
a statement he could make to his people only by becoming
champion. There was that purity to him. He had the character to
endure that loss and become champion. Does Tyson? Or does he
unravel in self-pity? You can't buy character at a five-and-dime."
However, if character can somehow be hammered in the forge of a
public life, Tyson may still have a chance. His critics were not
impressed when, at a recent press conference, Tyson was asked
what he might say to his rape victim, Desiree Washington, if she
were present, and he laughed, clapped his hands and said, "Just
enjoy the fight.'' Was this a total lack of remorse, or, more
likely, Tyson reacting out of frustration to what he perceives
as tabloid journalism.
Yet, it might be said on his behalf that he seems determined to
return to his roots (his trainer, Jay Bright, is a D'Amato
protege), and his few public utterances have not been frayed by
bitterness. His jail term was deserved, he has said, not for a
rape he still insists he didn't commit but for the life he had
led up to that point. "I don't know if prison was a blessing in
disguise, but I do know I made it a blessing," he told the
music magazine The Source.
But for now, Tyson remains a blank slate, ready to take on
whatever meaning we assign him. He's a convicted rapist, he's
the prodigal son, he's a primordial force, he's the
Voltaire-quoting Muslim, he's the washed-up fighter. He's
boxing's debris or its deliverance. All those things or none of
them. Poor Peter McNeeley will look into Mike Tyson's eyes
Saturday night and try to decide for himself, and some of us
will pay $50 and hope, from the safety of our couches, to see
whatever it is he sees.
the majority of his fights were not really like that."