Nevada says "No" to Mike Tyson

By Thomas Hauser
The Nevada State Athletic Commission has denied Mike Tyson's request for a license. The decision came after a two-and-a-half hour hearing with Tyson present and was by a 4 to 1 vote. The sole dissenter was commission chairman Luther Mack. The decision came after days of intense lobbying. During the past week, pro Tyson forces repeatedly made the argument that the Las Vegas economy needed the proposed championship bout between Tyson and Lennox Lewis. Sources close to the NSAC report that Jesse Jackson was even called upon to do some last-minute lobbying on the questionable grounds that Tyson's civil rights would be violated if he were denied a license. But Tyson's history of antisocial behavior, past and present, was too much to overcome.

The rallying point for those opposed to licensing Tyson was a January 22nd press conference in New York intended to announce the fight. According to the Lewis camp, Tyson and Lewis were to stand on platforms on opposite sides of the stage at the Hudson Theater and glare at one another. Because of the uniform black-curtain background, split-screen television technology would make it look as though they were engaged in a staredown in close proximity to each other.

Tyson was introduced first. Dressed in black, he strode onto the stage and took his place, as planned, on a small platform. Lewis was introduced next. At that point, Tyson left his platform and walked in menacing fashion toward Lewis.

"He definitely was coming to sucker-punch me," Lewis said later. "I could see it in the way he was moving and in his eyes."

Lewis's bodyguard stepped between the two men. Tyson threw a left hook at the bodyguard, and Lewis retaliated with an overhand right. During the scuffle, Tyson bit through Lewis's pants and into his thigh, causing significant bleeding. At the instruction of Lewis's attorney, the wound was later photographed and Lewis was given a tetanus shot.

After the combatants were separated, Tyson moved to the front of the stage, grabbed his crotch, thrust his hips back and forth, and began screaming obscenities. Someone in the crowd hollered, "Put him in a straight jacket." Tyson shouted back, "Fuck you, you white faggot. I'll fuck you up the ass, white boy. I'll fuck you till you love me," and other obscenities.

The press conference was terminated. An hour later, Lewis issued a statement that read, "As a result of today's events, I will re-evaluate my options after the relevant boxing commission has ruled."

The commission referred to, of course, was Nevada. Tyson's license had been revoked by the NSAC after he bit Evander Holyfield twice during their 1997 rematch. Fifteen months later, it was reinstated. Thereafter, Tyson fought in Las Vegas against Frans Botha and Orlin Norris. In the Botha fight, he tried to break Botha's arm off at the elbow. Against Norris, Tyson hit his opponent on the break twice; the second time, clearly after the bell. Norris fell to the canvas and injured his right knee. The bout was ruled a no contest. The NSAC then held a hearing on the matter and decided that Tyson should be allowed to receive his purse. At that hearing, then commissioner Lorenzo Fertitta told Tyson's promoter to, "pack Mr. Tyson's bags up and take this act on the road. I'm not so sure we need him here in the state of Nevada."

Last weekend, Larry Merchant of HBO framed the core issue. Noting that the Nevada State Athletic Commission had told Tyson to clean up his act before reapplying for a license, Merchant cited a long list of subsequent transgressions and queried, "Is this a serious discussion of whether Mike Tyson abided by the terms of their mandate to clean up his act? Because, clearly, he didn't. So either they condone his behavior or they punish him for it. There's perfect clarity to the issue."

There are five commissioners on the NSAC. Luther Mack (who owns several McDonald's franchises), Flip Homansky (a physician), Amy Ayoub, (a political consultant), Tony Alamo, Jr. (also a physician), and John Bailey (an attorney). Since Tyson's meltdown, two of them -- Homansky and Ayoub – were believed to be leaning "no." Mack was considered a "yes" vote. Fairly or unfairly, the public perception was that Alamo would vote whichever way his father told him to. Tony Alamo, Sr. is a vice president at Mandalay Bay. And even though Lewis-Tyson was to take place at the MGM Grand, all of the Las Vegas casinos stood to benefit from the bout. That left John Bailey as the likely swing vote.

Surprisingly, a number of major Nevada media players opposed Tyson's license request. A January 23rd editorial in the Las Vegas Review-Journal declared, "Even if the MGM or some other Nevada venue is desperate enough to risk its reputation in hopes of cashing in on a Tyson fight, now is the time for the Nevada Athletic Commission to do its job. Mike Tyson is not mentally fit to step in the ring. He should never again be licensed to fight in this state."

A strongly worded column by Royce Feour, the most influential boxing writer in Nevada, followed. "Why shouldn't Tyson be licensed?" Feour asked. And then he answered, "The health and safety of his opponent and the referee, for starters. And the safety of the spectators, should he start a riot. How much more evidence does the commission need? There is only one proper thing to do: deny Tyson's application. If that means the Lewis-Tyson fight goes to another state or country, so be it. That would be the new site's problem."

Other sports columnists such as Kevin Iole, Dean Juipe, and Joe Hawk followed suit. And behind the scenes, HBO also reportedly weighed in.

HBO, of course, is tied to Lewis, while Showtime is tied to Tyson. The two cable giants had agreed to finance, publicize, and televise the fight as a joint venture. But after Tyson's press conference behavior, HBO decided it wanted out. How to get out legally and gracefully was the issue. HBO didn't want to do anything that would render it liable for breach of contract. But a clause in one of the many bout contracts relieves HBO of certain obligations if Tyson can't get a license to fight in Nevada. Accordingly, HBO discreetly let it be known to the powers-that-be in Las Vegas that it wouldn't be displeased if Tyson's request for a license were denied. That would make Tyson exclusively Showtime's problem.

The hearing on Tyson's license application began at 1:35 p.m. Pacific Coast time. Tyson was represented by Las Vegas attorney Bob Faiss. Also present on his behalf were attorney Elizabeth Brennan, business manager Matthew Johnson, physical conditioner Keith Kleven, and advisor Shelly Finkel.

Faiss co-ordinated Tyson's presentation, which consisted largely of videotapes and expository argument. The attorney began by telling the commissioners that Lewis-Tyson would take place whether it took place in Nevada or somewhere else. He also criticized the "unceasing media pressure" on his client, and said he would forbid questions regarding allegations of rape and other criminal conduct currently pending against Tyson in order to "preserve Mr. Tyson's constitutional rights." He then likened Iron Mike's obscenity-laced press conference tirade to John L. Sullivan's boast, "I can lick any son-of-a-bitch in the house." And he drew an analogy between Jack Dempsey's ring savagery and Tyson biting off part of Evander Holyfield's ear.

Faiss's explanation regarding the press conference debacle was as follows. At the last minute, Tyson was advised by a member of his team that the Lewis camp had agreed to a face-to-face staredown. Indeed, Faiss claimed that "Mr. Tyson's intent was to play an assigned role in another production of boxing theater." Thus, Tyson crossed the stage and was surprised when he was shoved by Lennox's bodyguard. Thinking that they were "play-acting," Iron Mike threw a left hook in response, deliberately missing his target. Then Lewis "suckerpunched" Mr. Tyson. In other words, Mr. Tyson was "a powerless non-participant." He was "shaken, beaten, and bloodied," and believed he had been "doublecrossed." Furthermore, Feiss said in closing, "Mr. Tyson states he did not bite anyone."

Returning to the obscenities, Faiss likened Tyson's use of what he referred to as "the 'F' word" to The Sopranos and added that it was constitutionally protected speech. He also claimed that none of the offensive language would have been uttered but for the fact that Tyson had been provoked by a reporter. This overlooked the reality that the reporter's insult was occasioned by the fact that Tyson was standing on the stage, already screaming obscenities and simulating masturbation.

Faiss's presentation ended at 2:40 p.m. PST. Then the statements and questioning by commissioners began.

Tyson had an answer for every allegation. To hear him talk, none of the chaos that has marked his life has been his fault. Referee John Coyle got punched in the Savarese fight because "he didn't stop the fight in an appropriate way." Tyson tried to break Frans Botha's arm in a clinch because Botha was "fighting dirty." The Lewis-Tyson press conference fisticuffs were the result of Lennox's camp not following the agreed-upon script. The obscene diatribe that followed occurred because, "After the mayhem, a gentleman said something humiliating and embarrassing to me, and I tried to inflict similar pain on him. He violated me as an individual, and I violated him. He was at liberty to say what he wanted to say to me, and I was at liberty to say what I wanted to say to him."

Tyson also stated that he was not on medication, hadn't been for six months, and that his psychiatric therapy ended last spring. "I'm no longer in need of treatment," he said in response to a question. That seemed to trouble the commissioners. "How are you controlling your tendency toward violence without medication?" Amy Ayoub wondered. "Whatever the [psychiatric] plan was," John Bailey offered, "It didn't work."

There was also one moment of pathos, when Tyson was asked if he had any friends (as opposed to business associates) who he could sit down and talk things out with.

"I don't have one friend in my entire life," Tyson answered. "I was never successful with friends."

The questioning ended at 3:25 p.m. Then, after a seven-minute break, each commissioner made a statement and the pattern of votes became clear:

Amy Ayoub: "We respect the presumption of innocence until proven guilty, but there's also guilty when proven guilty. Why have laws if we're not going to enforce them?"

Flip Homansky: "From the bottom of my heart, I wish things had gone better. We're all losers here."

John Bailey: "When everything is at stake, you're unpredictable and capable of the very worst conduct. When you have uncontrolled rage, you put peoples' lives in jeopardy. And ultimately, you're the one who is responsible.”

Bailey was articulate and thoughtful. His statement was a moment of high drama, and it sealed Tyson's fate.

At 3:55 p.m., Faiss asked for a ten-minute recess. When the hearing resumed, Tyson, Shelly Finkel, and Matthew Johnson were no longer present. Faiss sought to withdraw the license application, but his request was denied. At 4:05 p.m., the vote was taken and Mike Tyson went down to defeat.

So what comes next?

For starters, Madison Square Garden is out as a possible site. Previously, MSG pushed hard for the fight, and Garden officials had discussions with New York State Athletic Commission personnel that left them confident Tyson would be licensed to fight in New York. But a New York license is far less likely now. And in any event, MSG chief operating officer Seth Abraham says, "Madison Square Garden will no longer take the fight. We closed the book on Lewis-Tyson as of Monday, January 21st, [when Abraham learned that the fight was slated for the MGM Grand]. Also, Abraham acknowledged, "When the Garden was putting together its bid, we contacted our biggest sponsors and had difficulty getting sponsor support. Our sponsors were concerned about participating in a Tyson fight, and that was before January 22nd."

Also, it's unclear that Lewis still wants the fight. Last Saturday at Madison Square Garden for Shane Mosley versus Vernon Forrest, Lennox was non-committal when asked on-camera. Off-camera, he was slightly more revealing.

"Do you still want to fight Tyson?" someone queried.

"We already fought," Lewis answered. "Although I only hit him a glancing shot; he didn't feel my full power."

But then Lennox grew more serious.

"There are rules of conduct that all people are supposed to follow," he said. "I follow those rules. I follow them outside the ring, and I follow them as a boxer. I try to beat a man down fairly with my hands. Not bite him, not headbutt him, not try to break his elbow."

"Lennox genuinely has not made up his mind yet as to whether or not he will fight Tyson," Adrian Ogun (Lewis's business manager) said that night.

The ambiguity remains; although shortly after the NSAC vote, Lewis issued the following statement: "Prior to today, I've made no public statements concerning the events of January 22nd. I remained silent at the direct instruction and insistence of my attorneys, who advised me that revealing the truth about what occurred would have undoubtedly led to a lawsuit by Mike Tyson claiming that I interfered with the licensing process. In addition, I believed that the Nevada State Athletic Commission, for whom I have the greatest respect and whose integrity is beyond dispute, should make its decision in the best interests of boxing without regard to what I may or may not have wanted. However, now that the licensing proceedings are over and a license has been denied, I am no longer bound to remain silent. The fact is that Mike Tyson bit through my trousers and took a significant piece of flesh out of my thigh. I was particularly disturbed by the fact that he went before the commission today and did not tell the truth by denying what he knows occurred. I have made no decision yet about the possibility of fighting Mike Tyson in another jurisdiction that may license him because I want to consider carefully the reasons expressed by the commission in denying the license. In addition, I am still consulting with my attorneys as to the legal consequences should I declare that I will not go forward with the bout. I know that all of my fans were looking forward to the Lewis-Tyson fight, as was I. I am sorry that the situation has not yet been resolved."

None of this means that the chaos is over. Unless Mike Tyson is indicted for sexual assault (which could happen next month), he'll be licensed somewhere. Maybe he'll even get a title shot. Jose Sulaiman will most likely rule that Iron Mike is still the WBC's mandatory challenger. Or Tyson could wind up in the ring with WBA "champ" John Ruiz. But Lewis-Tyson won't happen.

Is that a disappointment for boxing fans? Sure it is. But no one fight or athletic contest makes or breaks a sport. And more importantly, the Nevada State Athletic Commission sent a crucial message today. The way to dispose of Mike Tyson isn't to beat him up in a boxing ring. It's to resolve his fate as a matter of law.

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