TUNICA, Miss. -- Mike Tyson playfully nibbled on the arm of his baby boy, who didn't seem all that interested in the new tattoo on his father's face. For those who were, a university instructor was on hand to explain its significance.
The atmosphere surrounding Tyson's fight with Clifford Etienne was already circuslike. The carnival officially opened for business Thursday at a news conference goofy even by Tyson's standards.
The former heavyweight champion played with his 9-month-old son, chatted amiably with the media and acted surprised that there was such a fuss about his tattoo.
Behind him, Tonya Harding flexed her muscles, while University of Memphis instructor Kya Reaves talked nearby about the Maori warrior roots of the design on Tyson's face.
''It's indicative he wants it to represent the warrior in him,'' Reaves said.
Tyson, meanwhile, appeared to be healing rapidly from whatever ailed him earlier in the week. He split the lip of a sparring partner before making a jovial appearance to promote a fight he desperately needs to rescue his floundering career.
''They offered me more money. That makes you very, very well real quick,'' Tyson said. ''If I don't get it, I get sick rapidly real quick.''
Tyson was to get more than $5 million to fight Etienne -- huge money unless you're Mike Tyson and used to purses that routinely top $20 million. The free-spending Tyson needs as much as he can get because he is low on funds and owes his ex-wife $6.5 million from his future earnings.
''I'm just thinking about what I'm going to buy myself with the cash I get,'' Tyson said.
Tyson's manager, Shelly Finkel, denied his fighter got any more money and said Tyson was just joking about his illness.
Though various reports from Tyson's camp have described him as being sick and bedridden over the weekend, he showed no ill effects when he went five rounds with sparring partner Stan Allen and sent Allen to the hospital to get stitches on his lip.
That could be bad news for Etienne, who came nattily attired to the press conference and then threw a playful jab at Tyson.
''I'd like to thank Mike for finally showing up,'' Etienne said.
Tyson's tattoo was the center of attention.
''I just wanted to put something on my face,'' Tyson said. ''I didn't like the way my face was looking.''
He got the tattoo last wee but said he has been thinking about it for two years. He said there would be more to come.
''A tattoo is personal. You guys know everything about me,'' he said. ''There's billions of people outside with tattoos. This is nothing. This isn't even halfway done.''
Tyson stopped training after getting the tattoo, then a few days later came down sick. He didn't return to the gym until Wednesday, when he sparred four rounds and went back Thursday for five more.
''It was a great workout. I was real happy,'' trainer Freddie Roach said. ''Mike hit his sparring partner with an uppercut and busted his lip in half.''
Still, Roach was wary about a fighter who missed so much work.
''I'm still worried about his conditioning if the fight goes into the later rounds,'' he said.
Tyson wasn't as worried.
''I don't really think it will bother me,'' he said. ''I know how to fight. I go in there to fight.''
In Tyson's prime, someone like Etienne wouldn't worry him at all. But Tyson has been exposed in recent fights -- particularly his loss to Lennox Lewis -- as a fighter with declining skills and dwindling dedication.
Tyson weighed in Thursday at 225 3/4 pounds to 222 3/4 for Etienne.
Oddsmakers had made Tyson a 7-1 favorite, but that dropped to 4-1 after a week of missed workouts and illness. At the Stardust sports book, most of the money was on Etienne until he vowed not to fight on Tuesday, only to change his mind the next day.
''His reversal and hesitation leads me to believe he's very intimidated,'' said Doug Castaneda, a supervisor at the Stardust.
Through much of the formal press conference, Tyson played with his son, Miguel, taking off the boy's shirt and letting him play with a microphone.
''I want him to be a fighter so I want him to get accustomed to what's going on,'' Tyson said.
The boy sat quietly, watching as his father spent half an hour affably answering questions about his tattoo, his illness and his desire to keep fighting.
In between, he accused promoter Don King of trying to sabotage the fight by claiming Tyson shouldn't be allowed to fight sick and with a fresh tattoo. Tyson was scheduled to be examined by a doctor for the Tennessee boxing commission just before Thursday afternoon's weigh-in.
''We've got to fight. This is our business,'' Tyson said. ''We're in a hurt business.''
Tyson's been the biggest draw in the business since the days he was the most feared heavyweight around. He has earned tens of millions of dollars, but most of it is now gone -- spent, given away or stolen from the former champion.
Tyson earned $20 million last year to take a beating from Lewis, but most of that went to pay debts. Now he must look good against Etienne to get a Lewis rematch.
Etienne doesn't have such problems. He came out of a 10-year prison term for armed robbery to become a boxer and is getting nearly $1 million and the opportunity of his career to fight Tyson.
Etienne was seemingly groomed to be a perfect Tyson comeback opponent because he fights straight in front of his opponent and has a tendency to go down -- seven times in one fight alone.
''He made a mistake by picking me,'' Etienne said. ''He should have gotten someone who doesn't pose a threat. ...
''I think I'll probably knock Mike out around the fourth or fifth round.''
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