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Is it worth $44.95?

Sport Views

Posted: Friday, July 30, 2004

Mike Tyson already has used up more reincarnations than Shirley MacLaine.

So let's be upfront about this: the 200,000 of us who will fork over good money to the local pay-per-view operator to see him fight a scared-stiff Englishman named Danny Williams on Friday night aren't doing it to find out whether this Mike is really a changed man.

Or whether this comeback, unlike the last one, is for real.

That would be too much to ask.

After all, Tyson has done hard time in prison, swallowed fistfuls of mood-levelers, undergone anger management and emerged from all of it, to borrow a phrase, like a roadrunner going through a car wash.

He says hitting bottom has really changed him, and we can take his word, at the very least, about the first part. Tyson can't sink much lower. Age has stolen much of his speed and most of his menace, and Don King took just about everything else. His pockets have been turned inside out, his bones picked over, his mink bedspreads packed in storage boxes and shipped back to creditors.

All Tyson has left is a punch.

But, this isn't really about boxing, either. It's been 17 months since he stepped into a ring, 16 years since he beat someone who could fight and a half-dozen years since Tyson even scared anybody. The days when he could knock over a cardboard cutout like Bruce Seldon with a punch to the hair are gone forever.

And maybe it doesn't say much about the state of the racket when its biggest draw is not just broke, but broken.

''I'm not at square one,'' Tyson said in a recent interview with ESPN. ''I'm at subzero.''

Which might be the real reason it's worth tuning in.

Tyson has been at his most compelling precisely when he's been at his most desperate. It leads to frustration, which leads to recklessness, which in Mike's case, could lead to anything.

It's why he bit Evander Holyfield, tried to break Francois Botha's arm, almost cold-cocked a ref and inadvertently wound up knocking out WBC chief Jose Sulaiman at a news conference. It's why he's been sued more times than even Don King, gone through a few wives and more than $300 million. It's why he took a severe beating from Lennox Lewis two years ago with no real chance of fighting back.

And now there's no doubting he's desperate.

''I don't care how much money I blew,'' Tyson told The Associated Press last month at his training base in Phoenix. ''The reason why I'm in my situation is I get in one of my bratty moods and things happen. But if I fight for a year I get $80 million.

''If I fight for a year,'' he added, ''I'll break every record of any athlete making money in one year.''

Assuming he lasts even that long.

Tyson says he found serenity in not having the mansions or the posse around, and that he understands this is a last chance. And either way, he was never smart enough for subterfuge.

Heavyweight-turned-writer Jose Torres, a one-time Tyson intimate, told an interviewer a few years ago that, ''We fighters understand lies.'' He was talking about feints and jabs, about the whole package of moves a fighter uses to disguise his real intentions. But on another level, Torres was referring to all those self-deceptions a boxer employs to screw up his courage, to stand in front of another man whose intention is to take his head off.

With those kinds of lies, Tyson has no problem, even now. We know this because he was never the same fighter after leaving prison in 1995, yet Tyson dutifully and very profitably put himself back in harm's way inside the ring every chance he got.

And here he goes again.

Do the math and you'll see why Tyson has no other choice. He still owes $38 million and will be lucky to walk away from this one with $2 million. As part of his bankruptcy court proceedings, Tyson's lawyers submitted a seven-fight schedule to dig him out the hole. He might not need even that many to set himself up with a shot at the title in a division that features plenty of question marks at the top.

Vitali Klitschko is probably too tough, but Chris Byrd, for all his skill, has yet to prove he can punch hard enough. And if Tyson works his way up the WBA ladder, you don't think he's got enough left to pulverize John Ruiz? Please.

So it would be nice to think Tyson would latch onto this chance, that he'd put away Williams, that he'd put an honest effort into every fight that follows and that he'd put some money back in his own pocket. His is the only presence that can turn boxing's bum-of-the-month club into an entertaining diversion, and a third go-round with Holyfield, crazy as it sounds, might be the most entertaining sideshow of all.

Tyson will never again draw anything like the 2 million pay-per-view buys his ''bite fight'' against Holyfield did. But right now, he's one of the few things in the sport where there's even an outside chance of getting something for your money. Besides, he isn't just going to go away.

''I'm like Babe Ruth,'' Tyson said near the end of his conversation last month. ''I'm not going to fight until I drop, but I'm going to fight until I almost drop.''

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press.



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