Lewis fight could be Tyson's last big payday

Tuesday, May 28th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

In the New York office of Mike Tyson's manager, a clock slowly ticks away, counting down the seconds until 11 p.m. CDT on June 8. At that moment, Tyson should step into a ring in Memphis, Tenn., to fight Lennox Lewis.

There's an identical clock in the office of Showtime executive Jay Larkin, ticking toward the same hour.

The countdown is relentless, but it never seems to go fast enough.

When you're counting on Tyson, it never does.

``We're nervous. We're very, very nervous,'' Larkin said. ``And the closer you get the more nervous you get. It's a long walk down the aisle.''

It's especially long when you're walking with Tyson, who in the last few months alone had to dodge two rape allegations and a strip-club fight to keep from blowing what could be his last big payday.

That doesn't even count the New York news conference in January when Tyson bit Lewis, then stood on stage, grabbed his crotch, and delivered a pornographic tirade at an audience member who dared question his stability.

Just when all seemed safe and the former heavyweight champion was sequestered in Maui, he shattered the peaceful quiet by telling a female TV reporter he usually has sex with women who interview him. He told other reporters he would like to ``stomp'' on their children's testicles ``so you could feel my pain because that's the pain I have waking up every day.''

It's no wonder that, less than two weeks before one of the biggest fights in history, promoters are holding their breath.

They know better than anyone that until Tyson actually appears in the ring, nothing is a safe bet. Even then, it's a crapshoot.

``This guy is an idiot. He has no sense,'' Lewis said.

That, of course, is precisely why Lewis stands to make some $25 million or so for defending his heavyweight titles against Tyson in a city so desperate for recognition that it took a fight most others shunned.

Tyson is shocking and vulgar. He's also the biggest attraction in the sport, which might say more about the state of boxing than his ability.

When Tyson is involved, it's more World Wrestling than boxing. The only things missing are the folding chairs to hit opponents over the head.

``It's everything that's wrong about the sport and society,'' longtime promoter Bob Arum said. ``He's had a catastrophic effect on boxing.''

Arum's view might be clouded by the fact he has no stake in this fight, which could surpass Tyson's second fight with Evander Holyfield as the richest ever. People who do have an interest get richer every time Tyson opens his mouth.

All 19,000 tickets were scooped up in just days, though the public got its chance at just a few. With ringside seats selling for $2,400, the fight at the Pyramid Arena will generate a gross of some $23 million, the biggest gate for any arena event.

That doesn't include revenues from 1 million-1 1/2 million homes that are expected to pay $54.95 for the pay-per-view in the United States. In Britain, promoters believe another 1 million households will buy the fight, despite its 5 a.m. Sunday start time in London.

Starved for a winner, the Brits love Lewis, a reserved champion who is sometimes so cautious in the ring he seems to be in the wrong sport. But everyone else is paying to see Tyson in all his glory, waiting to see whether he self-destructs.

Say what you want about Tyson _ and some very bad things are said _ he sells tickets like no other fighter. He did that so well in 2000 he made $48 million fighting three bums who were happy just to get a payday.

``Mike is probably one of the most compelling sports figures in history,'' Larkin said. ``He's also one of the most recognized people on the planet.''

Recognized, yes. But for all the wrong reasons.

At 35, Tyson hasn't fought a real contender since biting Holyfield's ears five years ago. Since then he's fought only five times, going a total of 13 rounds against the likes of Julius Francis, Lou Savarese and Orlin Norris.

If his name wasn't Mike Tyson, he might be on the undercard of club fights instead of holding the No. 1 ranking of the World Boxing Council.

But Tyson can still punch and he's even better at making headlines. He's unapologetic for his life and his actions, and dares people to take him for what he really is.

``I'm just a dark guy from a den of iniquity. I've been there all my life,'' Tyson said. ``I'm a dark, shadowy figure.''

It's hard to disagree with that. Tyson spent three years in prison for rape, has been accused of the crime by several other women and most recently served jail time for beating two elderly men following a Maryland fender-bender.

He tested positive for marijuana after a fight with Andrew Golota in Detroit two years ago, went through two tumultuous marriages and squandered nearly $300 million in ring earnings through lavish spending and bad advice.

Inside the ring, things haven't been much better. Tyson will always be reviled for biting a chunk out of Holyfield's ear, but he also tried to break Francois Botha's arm, went after a referee in his fight with Lou Savarese and hit Norris after the bell.

``I'm the guy everyone wants to say, 'He's the bad nigger,''' Tyson said.

Badness sells, though, judging from Showtime research that showed awareness of the fight jumped from about 70 percent to 95 percent after the New York news conference.

The melee might not have been scripted, but with Tyson in the role of thug it didn't need to be. It's a role he plays easily.

``He's a cartoon character,'' Lewis said. ``He's ignorant, arrogant and an imbecile''

Tyson has some choice words for Lewis, too, saying he should have killed him and that he plans to ``smear his brains around the ring.''

``My main objective is to be professional but to kill him,'' Tyson said. ``That's what it comes to. He should want to kill me, too, because I want to kill him. But I still love him.''

It's the kind of talk that bothers even those who make their living in the sweet science.

``He's the biggest disgrace in the history of boxing,'' Arum said. ``There's never been an insane fighter at the top of boxing. He should be locked up in an asylum instead of people paying money to see him.''

Even some of Tyson's fellow fighters have turned against him.

Oscar De La Hoya, who ranks close to Tyson as a pay-per-view attraction, said Tyson may be selling tickets but is selling out the sport.

``He's a circus act and he's killing boxing,'' De La Hoya said. ``He's disgusting. It's sad and depressing. There are so many good boxers and he ruins it for everyone.''

Oddsmakers believe Tyson's best days are over, making Lewis a 2-1 favorite to retain his World Boxing Council and International Boxing Federation titles in the scheduled 12-round fight. British oddsmakers went a step further, offering 4-1 odds that Tyson would be disqualified in the ring.

Tyson's own trainers warned earlier this month that the fight needs a strong referee to make sure he doesn't get out of control.

``Mike Tyson's not going to defraud any fan of his money,'' assistant Tyson trainer Stacy McKinley said. ``But he may not hear the bell and you may need someone to pull him off Lewis.''

That annoyed Lewis' camp, which tried unsuccessfully to get a clause inserted in the contract after the New York news conference that would have made Tyson forfeit part of his purse to Lewis if he committed a foul.

At 36, Lewis understands he needs to beat Tyson to cement his legacy as a great heavyweight.

That's why Lewis waited patiently as the fight was shopped across the country before landing in Memphis. The money is nice, but the opportunity to beat Tyson and stake his claim to the high ground in boxing is even better.

``I have to take him out to help clean up boxing,'' Lewis said. ``The way I look at it, the good guy has to win on June 8.''

Tyson comes into the fight with more baggage than usual. He's broke, engaged in a bitter divorce with his wife, and is taking on Lewis after first saying he needed two more tuneup bouts to get in shape.

Nevada boxing authorities deemed him unfit to fight in Las Vegas, and other states rejected him as morally bankrupt. His only good news came when prosecutors declined earlier this year to file charges in two cases where women said he sexually assaulted them.

``That made me look bad. I went to prison for rape so I've got this stigma,'' Tyson said. ``I didn't do anything, but they wanted to make a point and blame Mike Tyson.''

Tyson's life, of course, is always in shambles. He's training in Maui so his handlers could keep him out of nightclubs and strip clubs where he might get into even more trouble.

Though Tyson converted to Islam while in an Indiana prison and says he prays every day, he admits he doesn't let religion get in the way of his desire to drink, smoke and have sex with as many women as he can.

That image disgusts many people, and Tyson probably will be the target of protests by women's groups in Memphis. His own public relations firm dumped him earlier this month after the interviews in Hawaii, where Tyson is surrounded by a group of yes-men whose livelihood is tied to the money he will make against Lewis.

Sitting on a couch in his $1,500 a night ocean villa earlier this month, Tyson said he's only being honest to his fans.

``I would love to be Tiger Woods, I would love to be Will Smith and I would love to be Michael Jordan,'' he said. ``I'd make a lot in endorsements. People want to be lied to. People don't want to believe their idol is a freak.''

While Lewis seems destined to be defined by this fight, Tyson's image was defined long ago as he bared his troubled life to the public.

A third stint as heavyweight champion would be nice, but what Tyson really needs is money _ and lots of it. So does Showtime, which reportedly advanced him $13 million to pay off tax and other debts so they could keep him as their star boxing attraction.

``Suffice to say we've been very supportive of Mike Tyson through several events of his life,'' Larkin said.

Tyson made some $110 million in five fights with promoter Don King after his release from prison in 1995. But he spends it faster than he makes it, and he's suing King, accusing him of taking $100 million more that he should have.

Even if Tyson makes $30 million for fighting Lewis _ a realistic possibility if pay-per-view sales meet expectations _ he might be doing no better than breaking even on his debts. And that's before he settles with Monica Tyson, who Tyson claims is holding their children hostage to get more money.

That doesn't stop him from engaging in one of the most expensive training camps ever in Maui, where he spends his spare time in the Internet looking for racing pigeons to buy.

There's still plenty of cars in the garage at his home in Las Vegas, where he recently bought the place next door to keep house guests who don't fit in the 11,000-square-foot main cottage.

``I'm a foolish man,''' Tyson said. ``I don't take any responsibility. I'm the most irresponsible man in the world.''

He could become one of the richest again, too, if he happens to catch Lewis with some punches to a chin that has already proved vulnerable to lesser fighters such as Oliver McCall and Hasim Rahman.

With all his troubles, Tyson remains a feared puncher who could become heavyweight champion again.

``Tyson is very quick and when he hits a guy the impact and the quickness gets you off your feet,'' Holyfield said. ``What scares people is they don't see it.''

Because he has been so inactive for the last decade _ three years in prison and another 18 months under suspension _ Tyson could conceivably fight several more years.

If he loses, those years could be lean by Tyson standards, with a million-dollar payday here and there. Former trainer Tommy Brooks worries Tyson could snap when faced with the end of his career.

If he wins, though, Tyson rules the division again, 16 years after he became the youngest heavyweight champion ever by knocking out Trevor Berbick.

``Mike Tyson wants to go down as the greatest heavyweight of all time and this fight will help him do it,'' said McKinley, the assistant trainer. ``Once he gets those belts around him, it's going to be hard to take them from him.''

That's why people like manager Shelly Finkel and Showtime's Larkin stick with Tyson. The payoff could be huge.

``Mike as the heavyweight champion of the world, coming off a definitive victory over Lennox Lewis, transcends anything boxing has seen in terms of awareness and popularity,'' Larkin said.

Many in boxing hope that never happens.

``Everybody is paying money to see a mentally defective fighter,'' Arum said. ``My hope is that Tyson gets blown away by Lennox and he just fades out of boxing.''