Haunted Facing what seems sure to be his last chance at boxing redemption, Mike Tyson struggles to lay the storms and shame of his past to rest

January 18, 1999

For one reason or another he doesn't fight much anymore. Just 22
rounds in the last seven years. When he does box, what
transpires is highly unpredictable in any athletic sense. Highly
unpredictable in the theatrical sense, too. Between bouts there
are, for one reason or another, long layoffs filled with the
kinds of distractions that have a lot more to do with tabloid
entertainment than sports. And always there's the feeling that
his once brilliant career--his life, really--has become nothing
more than a spectacular display of dissolution, a
late-20th-century parable that warns us all how tenuous our
talents are, how fragile our contract with civilization.

Yet when Mike Tyson steps into the ring on Saturday to fight
Francois Botha, we'll all be watching, won't we? As we line up
for our $1,200 ringside seats, as we pay $49 for our
pay-per-view, we might ask just what it is that's so damn
interesting about all his...confusion. Tyson is 32, he hasn't
fought in 18 months, he's coming off two defeats (the second
more horrific than the first), and he's got litigation pending.
For that matter, he's got his own doubts about his place in the
scheme of things. Yet he's still the most galvanizing performer
in sports--witness the $10 million he'll get just to jump into
combat with a lackluster opponent.

No sense asking why, unless we're ready to search our souls with
the same zeal we've searched his. It has to be something about
us, too, that reacts to his perverse charisma, something beyond
our appreciation for the animal domination he used to--used
to--personify. Face it if you can: Nothing is quite as fascinating
as human devolution, especially when it's portrayed at a
comfortable remove.

Tyson is haunted by his past, of course. The rape, the prison
time, any of several assorted and sordid out-of-the-ring
incidents, the very betrayal of his sport when he bit Evander
Holyfield's ears and was banished from the game. He's haunted,
too, by the lingering atmosphere of paranoia and cynicism that
he didn't create but did suffer during his last--$100
million--comeback. There's also the residue of humiliation, of
submitting to state authorities recently just to regain his
license to box.

It's a horrible history, and it couldn't help but follow a
person and poison his future. So Tyson sits on a stool in a
Phoenix gym, a cinder-block building where space heaters are
fired up each morning, and steels himself for the hatred he's
certain is out there, at times resenting it, at times embracing
it. He's so steeped in the sulfuric fumes of his own making that
he can scarcely breathe.

"Nobody likes me," he says, measuring his listener for his
melodrama threshold, the amount of gloom he might find
reasonable. Nobody at all? "Nobody. I haven't been liked in so
long, I'm just accustomed to it." Around him, however, are a
fully functional family and some loyal, well-meaning supporters
and advisers. Nobody at all? That's too much gloom for even these
circumstances, and he realizes it. He adjusts the spin a little.
"Kids like me," he says. But then he adds, "They don't know any
better."

It's a practiced form of self-pity, a useful self-defense
mechanism. Yet as he continues to hone it, there's less and less
call for it. As boxing continues to profit from Tyson's hugely
marketable malevolence, the truth is, he's not that malevolent
any longer. He can still go off--his camp is an insecure one in
that respect, its members fully aware that tents can be folded
at a moment's notice--but he's more inclined to seek approval
than the disdain he once devoured.

This is certainly reflected in his new management. Don King, who
masterminded Tyson's postprison comeback by projecting Tyson as
everyone's worst nightmare, is gone. Co-manager John Horne,
whose combative approach to public relations established Tyson
as...everyone's worst nightmare, is gone too. Indeed, those two,
along with another former co-manager, Rory Holloway, have been
sued by Tyson for taking more than their share of his purses,
although that might be the least of their sins. Gone, as well,
are the yes-men trainers, Jay Bright and Richie Giachetti, who
failed to connect Tyson to his youthful style, in which the
accumulation of punches, not the single haymaker, spelled
spectacular doom for opponents.

In their place is a retinue at odds with previous Team Tysons.
Shelly Finkel, a New York businessman who managed Holyfield for
10 years, is the principal caretaker, and his optimism sometimes
infects even Tyson. Tommy Brooks, who was in Holyfield's corner
in both demolitions of Tyson, is now Tyson's no-nonsense
trainer. Although Brooks says he realizes he's moved to "the
edge" to train the still volatile Tyson, he's enthusiastic about
restoring Tyson's power, that ability to "peel somebody's wig
back."

Like the others before them, these handlers are in it for the
money. Unlike the others, they're not in it only for the money.
"You don't need to treat him like some kind of cash cow," Brooks
suggests. And if they are in it only for the money, they're in
it for less. Finkel says his fee will work out to less than 10%
of Tyson's purses, maybe closer to 5%. "That's still a lot of
money," he points out. But it's far less than the 50% that King
and Horne and Holloway pocketed.

Finkel, in addition to his other good works, has negotiated a
contract with Showtime and a four-fight deal with host casino
MGM Grand that will pay Tyson enough to make all his IRS
problems--he is $13 million in arrears to the feds--go away
before the first punch is ever thrown.

It makes for a much more pleasant camp, for both the entourage
and visitors. Motivator-fool Steve (Crocodile) Fitch, one of two
holdovers from the last and most disastrous campaign (the Croc
is the one wearing fatigues and shouting, "Mystique is a
powerful force!"), says what Tyson won't: Just not having Horne
around is enough to restore anybody's belief in humanity. "That
guy," says the Croc, "I mean, you don't disrespect an athlete
like Holyfield, saying he danced like a bitch!"

The other holdover, assistant trainer Stacey McKinley, says
having Brooks in Tyson's corner has made all the difference. As
the guy who has to wear the pads in the ring while Brooks calls
out combinations to Tyson, McKinley says, "I can feel the
difference in Mike."

Tyson's speed is still there for the trainer who cares, or
dares, to cultivate it. Brooks, who says he has enough "dollars
in my pocket" that he can afford to get in Tyson's face, seems a
good fit. When Tyson has challenged him, Brooks has stood his
ground. Tyson has responded to Brooks's call for a return to
fundamentals, appreciating Brooks's philosophy of methodical
destruction of an opponent. "They talk about the art of boxing,"
Brooks snorts. "People want to see a fighter get stretched."
That's pretty much what Tyson wants, too.

Whether that happens on Saturday is anybody's guess. Botha, from
Witbank, South Africa, who briefly held the IBF title, is an
upgrade over Peter McNeeley and Buster Mathis Jr. of a comeback
ago. As he proved in 1996, during his leather-eating 12th-round
TKO loss to Michael Moorer--his only defeat in 40 fights--Botha is
tough and gallant and hard to flatten. Then again, he did eat a
lot of leather.

Altogether, the new presentation of Tyson is remarkably upbeat.
At Finkel's urging, presumed media enemies have been invited to
Phoenix for exhaustive interviews. Though still capable of
moodiness, even danger, Tyson has welcomed the inspection. In
spite of himself, he even enjoyed the attention as ESPN, USA
Today and CNN trooped through. When a reporter asked if Tyson's
court-mandated telephone chats with Georgetown psychiatrist
Richard Goldberg did any good, Tyson said just talking to the
reporter probably did him good.

It's as healthy an atmosphere as Tyson's been in since he left
the Catskills, where he was first nurtured by Cus D'Amato 20
years ago. Where there was exploitation, there's now protection.
And, in cases, trust. His relationships with his wife, Monica,
and their toddlers, Rayna, 2, and 17-month-old Amir, seem to
amuse him. Still sitting on his stool in the Phoenix gym, Tyson
leans in to an interviewer as if to share a surprising
confidence. "You know," he says, "me and my wife have become
friends now. We talk."

But there's all that history, a past in which he was victim as
well as predator. "I'm not blaming anybody," he says. "Anything
bad, I probably brought most of it on myself. Did I screw up or
what? But there's different standards for me; it's politically
correct to hate Mike Tyson." His screwups nearly cost him his
career, and may yet. Although he overcame the Nevada ban for
biting Holyfield--and he was fatalistic enough never to have
thought he'd get his license back until the votes came in--he
again could lose his license, and much more. When he's sentenced
on Feb. 5 in his Maryland road-rage case, in which he pleaded no
contest to two misdemeanor assault charges stemming from an Aug.
31 traffic incident, Tyson could be sent back to prison for
having violated the conditions of his parole.

The consequences for such screwups seem monstrously out of
proportion to Tyson, not unlike his three-year prison sentence
for what he still insists was consensual sex with a teenage
beauty-pageant contestant. "They tried to take away my only sense
of independence," he says of his suspension following the
Holyfield debacle. "Without boxing, I have no security."

He seems resigned to losing it again. "I'm getting ready to go
to jail in March or February," he says casually, as if his doom
has long since been spelled out. He wants to show he's shrugging
it off, that's how heroic he is. But then, without the
melodrama, he lapses into genuine despair: "It's tough, man. I
know you're supposed to tough it up, but how much can somebody
take?"

As Tyson's blue Rolls-Royce begins to pull into a fenced area
behind the gym, he spots the ESPN crew. He's suddenly furious,
altogether unhinged, and asks to be driven around the block so
he can cool down. He'd already done a lengthy interview with Roy
Firestone and, though he wasn't scheduled to, might have spoken
on camera for the waiting ESPN crew, which was doing a prefight
feature on Brooks. But while channel-surfing the night before,
Tyson happened to catch the commentators on ESPN2's Friday Night
Fights trashing him. "Charlatans," he later called them.

Tyson doesn't care to distinguish between the two ESPNs or among
ESPN's personnel. In his eyes it is hypocrisy, to court him on
the one hand and degrade him on the other. Justice has to be
upheld. Consistency has to be maintained. When he finally enters
the lot, not very much cooled off, he angrily orders the network
crew from his gym. When they remain, he flies into the face of
one of the crew members, producing a truly frightening and
familiar moment and reminding everybody invested in this
comeback that there's still going to be plenty of risk for their
reward.

Everybody agrees that, most days, Tyson is trying to do the
right thing. Truth is, he has always, most days, tried to do the
right thing. He holds himself to rigid standards, same as he
holds networks, and is more disappointed in himself than others
are when he falls short. But it's tough to do the right thing,
day in and day out. Who does?

The next day, as it happens, offers Tyson the chance to do the
right thing. He's scheduled to visit some critically ill
children. It's reflexive to dismiss such a visit as some kind of
prefight photo opportunity, one of Finkel's attempts to
rehabilitate Tyson's image, but Tyson truly enjoys children,
sick or well. They line up after workouts, and Tyson hugs them,
kisses them, loves them right back. Neither, it seems, knows any
better.

Tyson is piloted into an intensive-care unit, where it's obvious
that big medicine is going on and that it's not doing so well,
and where there isn't that much interest in the healing powers
of boxers. Thrust to the bedside of a failing teen, Tyson is
shocked by what he's facing. A young girl, supposedly
anticipating his visit, begins coughing spasmodically. There are
tubes running every which way. Anxious parents beyond the bed.
The young girl is racked so violently that covers cannot be kept
on her.

Tyson will leave the unit stricken, as if he has been clubbed
with a two-by-four. He will ask Finkel if he really belonged
there, if he wasn't intruding on their privacy. But at the
moment the young girl below him is coughing helplessly,
uncontrollably, and her covers are flying off.

There's not much that Tyson or, apparently, anybody else can do.
The photographers seem aghast at this idea of publicity, and
they quickly slither out of the room. The girl coughs and
coughs. Tyson gently lifts the sheet back up to cover her. It's
the least he can do, it's all he can do. It's no big deal,
repairing so small an indignity. Not really. Probably anybody
would do it, it occurs to you, any human being.

COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER [Mike Tyson--T of C] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY HEINZ KLUETMEIER Phoenix rising? At his Arizona training camp, Tyson stoked the fires for this week's comeback bout against Francois Botha. [Mike Tyson] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY HEINZ KLUETMEIER Catching hell Mitt man McKinley says he can feel the power returning to Tyson's combinations. [Mike Tyson sparring with Stacey McKinley] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY HEINZ KLUETMEIER New team Tyson's camp includes realist Brooks (left) and holdovers Crocodile and McKinley. [Tommy Brooks, Mike Tyson, Steve (Crocodile) Fitch, and Stacey McKinley] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY HEINZ KLUETMEIER Turn, turn, turn Tyson was convinced the system had him on the ropes, that he would never get his license back. [Mike Tyson jumping rope]

Tyson steels himself for the hatred he's certain is out there,
at times resenting it, at times embracing it.

"Anything bad, I probably brought most of it on myself," says
Tyson. "Did I screw up or what?"

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)