Bloody Good Treated to a royal reception in England, Mike Tyson proved that he's still a contender with a brutally efficient second-round knockout of Julius Francis

February 07, 2000

All Mike Tyson needed, in this latest career rehabilitation, was
a change of venue. Nothing was working in the United States,
that's for sure. Judges, commissions, even washed-up boxers like
Evander Holyfield kept going against him. Fighting in the U.S.
was a public relations disaster, among other things. He needed
to go someplace where he was still viewed as a larger-than-life
figure, and where it was still possible to earn $10 million for
short work. He needed to go to England.

One other thing: He needed to fight somebody exactly like Julius
Francis.

Those requirements met, Tyson's repackaging as gentleman fighter
is off to a sensational start. True, protests from women's
groups upset over what they saw as glorification of a rapist
briefly threatened to keep Tyson, as a convicted felon, from
entering the country. But the government, citing millions of
pounds committed in ticket sales and the anticipated attendant
revenue, stamped his passport, and the boxer went on to wow a
highly uncritical British population, sweeping through London
and then Manchester, leaving mobs of adoring fans in his wake.
His behavior--there were old ladies he found time to cuddle,
babies to kiss--was such that all of England had to wonder what
the fuss was about. Then there was his visit to Brixton, a tough
section of South London, where he used a bullhorn to calm the
overexcited crowd. The man was practically a missionary.

Then came fight night in Manchester, when his recent missteps in
the ring--in his previous outing, on Oct. 23 in Las Vegas, he
had decked Orlin Norris with a left hook after the bell, earning
a no-contest ruling and virtual exile from the Nevada boxing
commission--were swept aside by a powerful performance. In less
than two rounds, using throbbing punches to the body and
righteous uppercuts to the chin, Tyson dropped the outgunned
Francis five times before the bout was stopped.

Even Tyson's critics were forced to admit that his night's work
was encouraging. There is no getting around the fact that
Francis, 21-8 and the British champion, had no business in the
ring with the former heavyweight champion, even if, at 244 1/2,
he outweighed Tyson by 20 pounds. Yet the power that Tyson
displayed, which had the sellout crowd of 21,000 whistling in
awe, was real. "Those short punches to the body," said Francis,
"all those punches hurt me."

It has been a long time since one of Tyson's crowds whistled in
awe. In the States, events conspired against a fully realized
performance. Tyson undermined his promise with one outrageous
gaffe after another until it came time to shoo him out of the
country for repositioning as a charismatic and still dangerous
heavyweight.

His popularity in Europe may have as much to do with his
spending as his behavior, however admirable the latter might be.
While in London for publicity-friendly workouts, he conducted
his camp as if it were a buying trip. A rare McLaren F1 was
considered. A gem-encrusted watch was purchased for roughly
$800,000, which even Britons thought high for a timepiece that
was not called Big Ben.

Still, Tyson would have been welcomed anyway. His face, a little
older now at 33 and topped with mini-dreadlocks (a Lennox Lewis
starter kit), was mostly a smiling one. He did not have to dodge
the skepticism he lives with back home or explain anything
beyond his intention to maul Francis. He seemed truly happy
(most of the time) to be there.

The success of the event is likely to keep Tyson, now 47-3, with
that one no-contest, on a kind of world tour, visiting the great
capitals of Europe. His next assignment, which was set for March
25 at the New Jersey Meadowlands, may take place in Paris
instead. This has less to do with the economics of boxing--which
favors big bouts in Las Vegas--than with Tyson's newfound
comfort abroad. Imagine: At his Manchester arrival hundreds
thronged outside his hotel and were not dispersed until Tyson
leaned out of an upper-floor window, somewhat like the Pope, and
addressed them.

Would this happen in Las Vegas? Not for a while, anyway. Tyson
is still trying to atone for his last debacle there. At what
point he'll be encouraged to return (the "ban" handed down by
the commission after the Norris bout is highly unofficial) and
enjoy the rich site fees the casinos put up is undetermined. But
reports of great sums of money having been lavished upon Tyson's
latest venue--a Manchester civic leader said the fight would
mean $32 million to his city, not counting the souvenir trinkets
Tyson might have bought--may play a role in Vegas's decision.

Wherever Tyson goes there will be the odd bump in the road, and
no city can insure itself against the kind of disappointment
Tyson is capable of generating. For as much as he shifted the
international trade balance on this trip, he very nearly made
Manchester a laughingstock. On the day before the bout Tyson
fled the still-besieged hotel for the airport with the clear
intention of bolting the promotion (though he later said,
incredibly, that he went to pick up his children). He was
supposedly upset that because of security concerns, his family
was not joining him. Once at the airport, however, he calmed
down, visited a prayer room, bought some periodicals (including
a copy of the venerable British humor magazine Punch, whose
title may have misled him) and returned for the delayed
weigh-in, during which he twirled one of his mini-dreads with
his watch hand, smiling as if he were the happiest guy in the
world.

This unpredictability is part of Tyson's marketing power, and it
is intriguing right up to the point at which he destroys
everyone's night out. In fact, his volatility is something he
advertises. In an interview with Sky TV he said, "Michael and
Tyson are two different people. To my children and to my wife I
am Mike and Daddy, but I'm Tyson here." Going on, he explained,
"Tyson is nothing, Tyson is a freak. Tyson is just someone who
generates a ton of money.... I'm the guy who makes the freak
show happen."

This is not so much a claim to bipolar disorder as it is a
business model, one that has earned him and his promoters well
in excess of $200 million. It is why, despite having boxed just
21 full--and largely unsatisfying--rounds in the past eight
years before last Saturday, he still commands top dollar.
However unlikely it may be, a bout with heavyweight champion
Lennox Lewis, says Showtime's Jay Larkin, who has Tyson under
broadcast contract, would dwarf all others, drawing more than
$100 million--even though Tyson may be far from ready for such a
challenge.

But Tyson has long since traded his boxing potential for a life
as a doomsday entertainer, well-paid but no longer
well-intentioned. His bouts now represent shopping
opportunities, not the chance to achieve the greatness that was
at hand 14 years ago when he was first heavyweight champion.
Julius Francis? Wasn't that the fight in England, where he
bought that shiny doodad and examined new autos at the
Rolls-Royce factory? Only an American cynic would suggest it
wasn't, in fact, the beginning of a brilliant comeback.

He can't live his life abroad, though, and Tyson knows it. He
was good-natured when he said that, the glittering watch back on
his wrist immediately after the fight, but he was sadly correct
when he predicted the Stateside reception: "Now I go home to be
treated like a monster."

Well, not as a monster, let's hope, but, for whatever it's
worth, as somebody who's beaten Julius Francis. That would be a
start, right?

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ADAM BUTLER/AP IRONED OUT Tyson flattened Francis with whistling combinations and heavy body shots.
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)