Lewis-Tyson draws closer

By Thomas Hauser
Two months ago, Mike Tyson came back to New York to visit with Zab Judah. Over the years, the two men have developed a close relationship. And while some observers question whether Iron Mike has been the catalyst for changes in Judah's conduct, Zab notes that Tyson has changed, too. When Mike got out of jail, says Judah, it was like, he was different from when he went in. He came out a different person.

Generally, when the two men are together, Tyson leads and Zab follows. This past March, Tyson led Judah to a cemetery in Queens to pay homage to Abe Attell (the legendary featherweight who reigned as world champion for nine years in the early 1900s). Attell lost only nine times in a 171-bout career. He is also widely believed to have been the bag man who carried cash from gambler Arnold Rothstein to the Chicago White Sox baseball players who participated in the fix of the 1919 World Series.

It was weird, Judah recalled later. Mike sat at the grave and talked to a dead man for six hours. He just sat there and talked. Sometimes he got up and walked around; but mostly, he just sat and talked. Six hours!

The upcoming heavyweight championship bout between Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson has engendered a lot of ugliness, a lot of anxiety, and a lot of passion. Most of that emotion is about Tyson. The whole world is familiar with the story of how Mike went from custody to Cus back to custody again. It has grown accustomed to his bizarre behavior. And it has learned that, when Mike Tyson speaks, words of wisdom don't necessarily reverberate throughout the room. Indeed, given Tyson's past declarations (e.g. I can sell out Madison Square Garden masturbating), it has been suggested that the traditional tale of the tape for Lewis-Tyson include the size of each fighter's male organ. One half expects Tyson to enter the ring on June 8th with suckmycock.com painted on his back.

Everyone has an opinion about Tyson. Various scribes have suggested that he's the ultimate celebrity psycho in the midst of a public breakdown . . . a behavioral retard . . . (and) unfit for any public appearance at all, whether in the ring or out of it. Oscar De La Hoya calls Tyson The worst role model in the world, and adds, I think he's seriously sick. Tim Graham of ESPN opines, Good old Mike; never disappoints. He's often a boor, but never a bore. That's because he's insane.

Dr. Robert Butterworth (a Los Angeles-based clinical psychologist) recently put his two cents into the mix with the critique, We all have impulses. The brain is the mediating factor. It puts the breaks on. For Tyson, it's like an old Western. Someone shot the driver off the stage coach and no one is holding the reins.

Olympic super-heavyweight gold medalist Audley Harrison (who had his own problems with the law and spent 18 months in prison when he was young) observes, Mike's problem is, you get to a certain age in life and you should know what you want. Then you stay away from the things that make you unhappy and go to the things that make you happy. But Mike doesn't know that yet.

Tyson's defenders claim that he's endlessly provoked by a poke the beast, get him to growl mentality that pervades the media and general public. They also suggest that much of his conduct is clever marketing designed to hype his fights. But that view is credible only if one believes that Tyson spent three years in prison for raping Desiree Washington, went back to prison for assaulting two motorists after a traffic accident, and bit off a piece of Evander Holyfield's ear as part of a long-term marketing plan.

HBO has a slogan, It's not TV; it's HBO. Showtime could adopt the slogan, It's not an act; it's Tyson.

Iron Mike's most recent rantings have been catalogued at length on this site in an article entitled Lewis-Tyson: The Gathering Storm. Tyson is in remission at the moment, but could erupt at any time. Meanwhile, his conduct is reinforced by Team Tyson; a group of enablers ranging from advisor Shelly Finkel to co-trainer Stacey McKinley.

Finkel isn't stupid, although there are times when his loyalty to Tyson compels him to act as though he is. Shelly is one of the most knowledgeable people in boxing, and it's sad to see the contortions he goes through in seeking to justify, defend, and explain away his fighter's misconduct.

McKinley takes things a step further. I respect Mike's views on life and everything he does, he told reporters recently. Then McKinley added, The boxing ring is what we call a killing floor. I won't be satisfied unless Lewis gets some broken ribs or a broken jaw. That's what I'm looking for; I want to see something broken. We practice on how to cave in all his ribs, break his jaw, crack his skull. I've told Mike, 'You've got to break something.'

Properly admonished, Tyson told Sky Television, I wish Lewis was dead. I wish I could kill him now.

Lewis, in return, has labelled Tyson a puppy with some problems. Meeting with the media earlier this month at his training camp in the Poconos, the champion opined, I think, a lot of times, Tyson is talking for his own benefit. He's trying to make himself out to be some kind of bad man, that he can say and do whatever he wants. But he's going to learn that there are repercussions.

Then Lewis turned his attention to the brawl that occurred at the now infamous January 22nd kick-off press conference in New York. "I was punching him, and he was biting me. I'm a fighter; he's a biter. Everybody knows Mike Tyson is a dirty fighter. I'm going to insist that he have a big lunch and dinner. I'm going to have my hair pinned up, so he can't pull my hair.

But after that, Lewis turned serious. Bite on the leg; bite on the leg. That changed everything. Up until that, Mike Tyson was just another guy I was going to fight. Now I feel like anyone beating him would be a victory for decency in boxing. Tyson talks about being a victim, but anyone could say that. I could say that. I never grew up in a nice place, a nice world, but look how I turned out. Tyson can choose how he turns out. He's got to stop using his background as an excuse. It's such a silly excuse because, when you look at it, it doesn't mean anything; especially to me. I'm tired of Tyson's talk, of the attention he gets for simply being someone who can't take any control of his life. I'll be glad to see him coming into the ring because that's where it gets hard, where whatever you say doesn't mean a thing and you have to be honest and just fight.

The architect of Lewis's fight plan will be trainer Emanuel Steward, who has been with the champion for sixteen fights. Steward projects an aura of confidence when talking about Lewis-Tyson.

When you fight Tyson, says Steward, you have to be assertive. You cannot fight a cautious fight. Tyson is used to fighting people who run from him. This time, he'll be fighting someone who wants to knock him out; who is going to be aggressive in a certain way. It could be a very exciting fight early because, even though Lennox has a great advantage technically and physically, he's liable to get excited and end up going toe-to-toe to try to knock Tyson out. It could end up being a slugfest. Tyson might land a few blows, but it won't be enough to hold Lennox off.

Lennox isn't afraid of Mike, and Mike knows it, Steward continues. I've watched Tyson. He's always had this thing about Lennox where Lennox intimidates him a lot. Mike has admitted that. In fact, he's continually making comments about Lennox intimidating him and picking on him. That's a role that Mike isn't used to. That, plus the fact that Mike doesn't want to fight Lennox, has him in a terrible state of mind. Tyson doesn't want to be at this fight. You can see that in the man’s face when he speaks. And Lennox has no fear of Tyson. Lennox almost laughs at Mike Tyson. He's going to knock Tyson out. I don't think the fight will go four rounds. It will be a total mismatch after the first 45 seconds or so.

But at times, the river of Steward's confidence seems more wide than deep. Tyson will be the best pure puncher Lennox has fought, he acknowledges. I have a lot of respect and, to some degree, a little fear of Tyson’s punching power. When Mike was young, he was the most devastating heavyweight I've ever seen in my life. And he still brings a certain rage, intensity, and punching power that no other heavyweight brings into the ring. Tyson is very dangerous when he gets inside. And he's particularly dangerous with short punches. He does a great job with those little short arms once he gets in close. And Tyson is a smart fighter. He doesn't just go in there and throw wild punches. He knows where his punches are going and gets in good position. He does something that's really beautiful. He doesn't just take one step to throw a punch. Sometimes, he'll take two steps to get into position to throw a punch. He waits until he gets right under you and then, when you hold your hands out, he knows how to go up in between them. I think Tyson is going to come out and attack Lennox with more intensity and viciousness than anyone Lennox has ever fought, Steward says in closing. And trying to get sparring partners to prepare for Tyson is very difficult because no one bobs and moves his head or has the speed and intensity that Tyson has when he's right.

I respect one thing about Tyson, Lewis acknowledges. I know he has power in his punch. And Tyson is a desperate man, which can make him dangerous but it also makes him very vulnerable. I'm going to turn it on. I'm going to say to the Americans who have not shown me much respect over the years, 'Hey, I'm really the very best.' I'm going to ask, 'Why haven't you people given me my acclaim?' And then I'm just going to take it. Tyson was a good champion once, no doubt. He matured very early, while I matured late. But when they talk about him now, they're really talking about the past. I'm operating in the present. I've answered a lot of questions about myself, fighting people like Morrison, Golota, Mercer, and Holyfield. There were all kinds of questions about me; my chin, my stamina, my heart, whether I could take it when the going gets tough. Throughout my career I've answered all those questions. Mike Tyson is the last question. This is about the history of boxing in my time.

That, of course, leads to another question: Is Lewis-Tyson good or bad for boxing?

It has been fifteen-and-a-half years since Mike Tyson first won the WBC heavyweight crown. And rather than be elevated by the sport, there are times when he seems determined to drag boxing into the gutter with him. Thus, Lewis says, For a long time, there has been a need to put an end to the Mike Tyson story. It has become increasingly bad for boxing. People look at the sport; they see Tyson; and they wonder how could this man, who doesn't respect women, doesn't really respect anything, become some kind of icon? The sooner the Mike Tyson story is over, the better. And the end is coming on June 8th in Memphis, Tennessee, at the end of my fist.

But the truth is, Tyson could win. And if he does, Lewis-Tyson will send a message that contradicts a lot of what society hopes to teach about standards and accountability. It will be one of those rare sports events that has a trickle-down effect. Thus, a lot of people don't want Lewis-Tyson to happen. Bob Arum expresses their view when he says, Mike Tyson is the biggest disgrace in the history of boxing. It's everything that's wrong about the sport and society. He should be locked up in an insane asylum instead of having people pay to see him. Everyone is catering to an insane man.

Arum, of course, doesn't have a stake in the promotion. But HBO does. And, at times, even HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg seems ambivalent about the event. There was tremendous pressure put on us by the Lewis camp to make the fight, Greenburg acknowledges. We would have had one very unhappy heavyweight champion if we hadn't allowed Lennox to fight Mike Tyson.

So to repeat the question: Is Lewis-Tyson good or bad for boxing?

We'll know the answer to that on June 8th, Greenburg answers. It could energize the sport. But if it's not a sporting event, if it becomes a circus, if something miserable happens . . . His voice trails off; then picks up again. But I'm hopeful. That's why we made the deal.

Life will be simpler for a lot of people if Lewis wins. Meanwhile, another question has surfaced surrounding the fight: Will it really be as big as those in charge claim it will be?

There's a time-honored promotional tactic. Create a buzz that a particular sporting event or concert is where everyone wants to be; and suddenly, because of the buzz, everyone wants to be there. Lewis-Tyson has fascinated the boxing community. Sports editors are in a frenzy over it. But it appears as though ticket sales aren't exactly what they've been reported to be.

Initially, it was announced that the fight had quickly sold out. Among the ticket purchasers were HBO ($1,000,000), Showtime ($1,000,000), and Team Tyson ($500,000). The largest bloc of tickets ($4,000,000 worth) went to the Lewis camp, which intended to resell them as part of travel packages.

Then came some interesting news. Several brokers who were shut out of the initial ticket distribution were approached by other brokers with tickets to sell. Some brokers were even reported to have forfeited deposit money rather than pay full price for tickets that had been assigned to them. That led one broker who normally does a thriving business on big fights to acknowledge, The Lewis fans have always travelled well, but they're not travelling to Memphis the way we thought they would. And the other fans aren't travelling there either.

Why not?

It's a combination of things, explains the broker. The tickets are unusually expensive. Twenty-four hundred dollars is a lot of money for a fight. There was a short lead time between when the tickets went on sale and the fight itself. Given Tyson's erratic behavior, there's uncertainty as to whether the fight will actually take place. The World Cup soccer tournament is competing for customers. And Memphis isn't a particularly attractive destination.

At one point, the Lewis camp went so far as to seek to return $1,000,000 worth of tickets that it had bought on a non-refundable basis. In so doing, it claimed that it had the exclusive right to sell fight tickets in the United Kingdom and that this right had been breached by various ticket brokers. But no such exclusivity existed and the request was denied. Then, on May 23rd, it was announced that one thousand previously unavailable tickets would go on sale to the general public. The official explanation was that additional seats had been freed up once the television production set-up in the arena was finalized.

In the end, the site will sell out. The more compelling question is, How many pay-per-view buys will Lewis-Tyson engender? No one knows with certainty what the state of the industry is right now. But the last show to total one million buys was Oscar De La Hoya versus Felix Trinidad three years ago.

So what should boxing fans look for in the days ahead?

With Mike Tyson, one should expect the unexpected. Anything can happen. And once the bell rings, there's no script. But one final point is worthy of mention.

There has been a lot of talk lately about how Lewis-Tyson is Tyson's last chance. That's nonsense. The public fascination with Tyson is such that people will always pay to see him fight. Even if Tyson is decimated by Lewis, he'll be able to fight three punching bags in a row, pronounce himself rededicated to boxing, and get an infinite number of title shots. The winner of Ruiz-Johnson would fight him in a heartbeat. There's big money in a Tyson-Holyfield rematch. And if Tyson falls to the level of an aging Leon Spinks, people will pay just to see him get beaten up. Mike Tyson will fight for big money as long as he stays out of jail and wants to.

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