It's hard to take any one fight in boxing and single it out as
the most cynical promotion of all time. But if you're going to
make a list, you'll want to put last Saturday's Mike Tyson
Return real close to the top. His bout with Peter McNeeley, all
89 seconds of it, had all the important aspects of a confidence
game. There was the long setup, the suspension of disbelief
among the yokels and then the actual con. Leaving the MGM Grand
arena in Las Vegas, having seen a fight that was disappointing
even by heavyweight standards of the day, you had to shake your
head, laugh at yourself and feel once more for your wallet.
Looking back on it, the calculation involved in the con is
revealed. You seem to remember a lot of people winking. The
choice of opponent was much derided, of course. But who thought,
looking back, that it was McNeeley who planned to use Tyson as a
stepping-stone, not the other way around? Watching McNeeley's
manager rush into the ring to disqualify his own fighter, who
seemed neither too hurt by Tyson nor overly disappointed at the
interruption, confirmed their agenda. This opponent, this
promoter's mascot, was saved for another payday with Don King as
his promoter; and Tyson, as far as that goes, got the predicted
victory without proving anything important, thus maintaining the
curiosity factor for another of his paydays.
You felt like calling the bunco squad, or whoever it is that
investigates consumer fraud these days. This made The Sting
look transparent by comparison.
That said, you have to clear Tyson of wrongdoing. He is
implicated in this tawdry affair only as a result of his
continued association with King. Although calls from angry
viewers of Showtime's pay-per-view event focused on whether the
fight was wired, you cannot really blame Tyson for the
suspicions raised by its near-total lack of competitive zeal or
its near-zero entertainment value. In his first fight in four
years, the last three spent in an Indiana prison on a rape
conviction, Tyson performed earnestly. If he wasn't as sharp as
a tack--and why would he be?--he nevertheless did knock McNeeley
down within six seconds, and again seconds before the fight
ended at 1:29 of the first round. Yes, he missed some punches.
Yes, he was wild. But McNeeley's ring generalship, such as it
was, did not permit Tyson much finesse or even the use of his
power. More to the point, McNeeley's manager, the wily Vinnie
Vecchione, did not allow Tyson the space or time to confirm
anything but the survival of some very basic reflexes: Tyson
will still throw a right uppercut at any target as large and as
motionless as a stop sign.
That's as much as anybody learned from this fight. A few other
things were suggested by Tyson's condition--he was well
ripped--and his intensity: At the age of 29 he appears focused
on regaining his stature, perhaps on reclaiming the undisputed
title he let get away, and he seems committed to the sport. His
postfight comments were guarded and evasive, but the only
heartfelt emotion he evinced was his passion for boxing. "I
forgot how much I really love this sport," he said afterward.
This is encouraging for Tyson's fans, who hope his ferocious
talent has not been squandered and that his trademark terror is
returned to a sport that so badly needs anything dangerous at
all. But nobody should get carried away. Remember that Tyson,
when he entered prison at the age of 25, was in a state of
decline and his capacity to menace the division had been more or
less removed in his shocking loss to Buster Douglas. His stay in
prison may have helped to restore the gangster image that his
promoters and managers have always thought played so well for
the cable operators, but he still has a lot to prove in the
ring, and he admits it. "I did O.K.," he said Saturday night.
"But I have to continue to cultivate my skills."
McNeeley, unfortunately, did not allow him to show just which
skills need improving and which remain in place. Nobody believed
McNeeley would last more than a round or two, but a quick
stoppage in itself would not have been a terrible
disappointment; it was expected. What was expected, exactly, was
that Tyson would simply overpower McNeeley and demonstrate the
concussive power that rattled the heavyweight division nearly 10
years ago. That was why people were paying as much as $50 to
watch a nontitle fight on pay-per-view TV, or $1,500 to be at
ringside. It didn't have to be long, just spectacular.
Well, it wasn't long. Tyson, who had entered the ring sockless
with that simple cutout towel over his shoulders, was
comfortably stripped of ornament and compassion. In the first
six seconds of the fight, with McNeeley charging him, Tyson
flash-floored him with a right hook. Then after a minute or more
of McNeeley's charging him still, with Tyson briefly frustrated
by the crowding, he connected with a right uppercut. McNeeley
was spilled anew but was up quickly. Referee Mills Lane pushed
McNeeley back for a mandatory eight count and turned his
attention to Tyson, motioning him to a neutral corner. McNeeley
backed into the ropes, seemed to slide just a little, and the
ever-hatted Vecchione, to everyone's enormous surprise, was
immediately up in the ring to force Lane to stop the fight.
The confusion was great. The crowd, sensing the fight had ended
with a whimper instead of a bang, began to boo. Tyson, perhaps
sensing that nothing good had happened as far as his own
reputation was concerned, quickly exited the ring. McNeeley
welcomed his mother, father and girlfriend into his corner. All
got a relieved kiss. Lane, meanwhile, was shaking his head.
Later he said, "In my opinion, he could have gone on. No doubt
in my mind he could have gone on."
The ending was probably not crooked, but it was dispiriting
enough that the Nevada State Athletic Commission decided to
reach for Vecchione's wallet. After watching tapes of the fight,
the commission withheld Vecchione's portion of the fighter's
purse--$179,820--and gave him 30 days to respond to its request
for an inquiry.
If Tyson was not sullied by this unpleasant event, everyone else
was. Promoter Don King will not live this down for a long time.
Nobody expected Tyson to be matched with an able contender, but
for King to have reached so low and charged so much for this one
bespeaks an arrogance that will likely undo him even before his
October trial on wire fraud. But King is not entirely to
blame; he never promised matchmaking here, just a Tyson event.
There's blame aplenty elsewhere.
Certainly, there is such a thing as building up a fighter, an
admitted and admired practice, and there is such a thing as a
quick score, not so much admired. Vecchione recognized this
fight as a no-lose situation. If McNeeley were to lose? "No
problem," Vecchione said. "He's 26 years old, he's got a great
future, he will have lost to one of the top fighters in the
country." After such a loss, they would regroup and use
McNeeley's new name recognition to wrangle a fight with a champ
down the line.
That is why you felt so angry watching Vecchione bounce onto the
ring apron. You'd like to think it was simply to protect his
fighter. But it looked like he was simply maintaining an
investment, preventing an inevitable destruction that would
devalue his attraction. The trouble with watching a fight like
Saturday's is that you begin to suspect the worst of people.
Then again: Tyson would surely have knocked McNeeley down again,
thus stopping the fight with the three-knockdown rule in effect.
Ultimately, of course, this was not a fight at all but just a
high-priced demonstration, a Tyson road test that was worth at
least $25 million to him, a sort of preview of coming
attractions. And this much must be admitted: Whatever the
fighter he is or will become, Tyson still has enormous charisma.
He is for the moment badly promoted and managed--his paranoia may
be earned by his recent vilification, but it also seems fed by
King and co-manager John Horne. The softening effects of his
Islamic conversion, or the maturity gained from experience, have
not been allowed to shine through. Anyone who has ever known
Tyson, even a little bit, has found him intriguing and winning.
Yet lately he complains more about jealousy and envy and is
shielded from nearly everyone. His public perception is
contrived, but not by him. Still, to see Tyson occupy the ring,
walking back and forth with a barely concealed contempt, is to
witness one of the largest personalities of our generation.
There is a purity to his ring rage that is impossible to deny.
He hasn't lost that.
However, nobody is so attractive that he will survive many more
promotional disasters as profound as this one. As distasteful as
this fight was, it will probably be forgiven. There is a larger
reserve of goodwill than the persecuted Tyson believes. But
another event as careless of the public's right to receive
entertainment value for its buck, and even Tyson will begin
sharing the blame. There are only so many times, after all, that
we'll walk from the arena, feeling for our wallets, before we
stop walking to the arena.