December 25, 1995

The three heavyweight champions sat ringside at the Spectrum in
Philadelphia, trying very hard not to look like ducks in a row.
They were dressed splendidly and radiated confidence in their
royalty. But, for all that it matters, they might as well have
been introduced to last Saturday night's fight crowd of about
8,000 as Huey, Dewey and Louie. With Mike Tyson's sputtering
preliminaries now behind him, champs Frank Bruno, Bruce Seldon
and Frans Botha suddenly had the look of obvious targets,
becoming dates on a calender, victims in waiting. Lined up, all
of them, one after the other, quacking in their boots.

Tyson's comeback--his quest to unify the division that he once
dominated--now begins in earnest. His third-round knockout of
Buster Mathis Jr. announced an end to his ring rehab and,
whether he's ready or not, guaranteed that his next fight would
be against a world titleholder. Don King, who patiently
assembled a makeshift cast of champions under his promotional
umbrella while Tyson was inside an Indiana prison serving a
three-year sentence for rape, has already said that first up is
Bruno, the WBC champion, on March 16 in Las Vegas. Next is
Seldon, the WBA champ, on June 22, same place. Finally, on an
unspecified day in September, Tyson is expected to fight Botha,
possibly in the IBF champion's native South Africa. Then, with
the titles presumably consolidated, a Nov. 2 fight back in Las
Vegas, perhaps against Riddick Bowe or Lennox Lewis.

So circle those dates, put aside some money for the pay-per-view
(forget about this free-TV deal you just enjoyed) and pretty
much get your year in order for Tyson's return to glory. This
thing is planned. Face it. If there were even one more duck in a
row, the fight would have to be sanctioned by the Fish and Game
people, not a boxing commission.

This all assumes you are sufficiently encouraged by what amounts
to 10 minutes of boxing by Tyson over the last 4 1/2 years to
size him up as a guy capable of doing what he did eight years
ago in picking off the three heavyweight champions. Of course,
Tyson was just 21 then, a force of nature, an X-Files kind of
creation. He was promoted more as a monster than a boxer in
those days, and he did little, in or out of the ring, to dispel
that image. But he's 29 now, has known defeat in the ring and
humiliation in public. He's altogether more human and perhaps a
little less dangerous to all that pugilistic poultry out there.

However, his Mathis fight was somewhat persuasive. In the ring
with a proven fighter this time instead of an opportunist, Tyson
displayed the kind of power that causes fans to cheer his
comeback, to return their faith to a badly damaged sport. Tyson
was wild, yes, almost in the same way he was against Peter
McNeeley last August, Tyson's first fight after his release from
prison. In fact, he may not have connected with a single hard
punch in the first round last Saturday. "I was lullabying him,"
he said afterward. But every missed right hand promised Mathis's
eventual demise. Tyson wasn't going to miss every one of them.

Mathis, however badly outgunned in this match, at least knew how
to protect himself. From the opening bell he bore in on Tyson,
choosing the safety of an inside game where he could alternately
clinch and pepper Tyson with quick but light hands. This was his
announced strategy, and he kept to it and was effective, bobbing
and weaving, for two rounds. "The problem," admitted Mathis's
trainer, Joey Fariello, "is Buster fires BBs and Tyson fires

And in the third round Tyson unloaded one from the right side,
an uppercut that landed squarely on Mathis's cheek and did all
the damage. Two punches later Mathis was on the seat of his
pants, wondering what had happened. "When I looked up," Mathis
recollected pleasantly at the postfight press conference, "the
referee was at five. I thought, Damn, this man is counting
fast." Referee Frank Cappuccino was at 10 before Mathis could
properly formulate an action, and the fight ended 2:32 into the
round. A half hour later Mathis still seemed a little goofy.
Following Tyson into the press conference, where the winner was
holding forth under a black homburg, all Mathis could think to
say to Tyson was, "You O.K.?" Tyson smothered a smirk and
assured him he was fine.

If this was evidence of Tyson's old concussive kinetics, great.
He was back. Even Tyson seemed to take pleasure in the event, as
if finally satisfied that he still has what it takes. At times
he remained suspicious and irritable, as he was when asked about
the final combination. He said, "It just manifested itself. I
can't articulate the particular science of it." But at other
moments he seemed very comfortable with himself. Talking about
missed haymakers, during which he was "lullabying" Mathis into a
false sense of security, he said, "It was a plot, a setup. Just
like society." He was pleased with that remark.

Predictably, not everybody was taken aback by Tyson's
dismantling of Mathis. Huey, that is to say, Bruno, thought
Tyson was "very, very rusty." Tyson KO'd Bruno in the fifth
round in 1989, but Bruno, who won the WBC title from Oliver
McCall last September, says the rematch will be different. "He
will not live with me for five rounds."

Dewey, or rather Bruce Seldon, thought Tyson lacked timing, but
he was too respectful of the millions a Tyson fight would bring
him to say anything more. Louie, who is promoted as the White
Buffalo (but whom we know as Frans Botha, the Luckiest Man on
Earth, since his IBF title, won in a controversial decision over
Axel Schulz on Dec. 9, puts him in line for some of the Tyson
loot), chose not to lurk during the press conference.

Mostly everybody seemed relieved that this phase of Tyson's
buildup was over. Mathis, who earned $600,000 to Tyson's $10
million, was an able boxer if not a powerful puncher; his record
of 20-0 included just six knockouts. In short, he was
respectable. But his credentials got overlooked in the fight's
postponement (the original Nov. 4 date was lost when Tyson
revealed a broken right thumb) and the ensuing search for a new
site. On top of that, Mathis suffered some bad-natured razzing.
He grew up fat and unpopular--he weighed 300 pounds by the age of
14--and only got his self-confidence later in life through
boxing. And so here were people making fun of him at the
weigh-in ("Take off your shirt, Buster," a photographer yelled),
and of his admittedly squeaky voice ("Put some bass in it,
baby," said someone from Tyson's entourage. What? Tyson sounds
like Barry White?). It got so bad that Mathis was finally
withheld from the press. His manager said he was tired of
hearing his fighter being called a "boiled chicken wing."

Of course, all of Tyson's opponents bear some resemblance to
poultry now. The prelims over, they're all ducks in a row.

COLOR PHOTO: GEORGE TIEDEMANN Tyson lullabied Mathis into a false sense of security, then turned out the lights with a crushing uppercut. [Buster Mathis Jr. being hit by Mike Tyson]

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)