Saturday, January 16, 1999

You don't want to watch, but you can't help it




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Mike Tyson is a train wreck. He is awesome power, easily derailed. A locomotive gone loco.

        Try as we might, we can't look away. There is simply too much to see. There have been better boxers in the heavyweight division, but only Muhammad Ali has been as riveting as Iron Mike. Tyson is distilled fury and random rage, a fine young cannibal with an appetite for ears. He is, in short, must-see TV.

        Nineteen months since he was suspended for nibbling on Evander Holyfield, Tyson returns to the ring tonight as the only active fighter whose exploits interest anyone beyond boxing's ever-narrowing base. It is a morbid fascination, for the most part, but undeniable.

        “I don't understand it,” Tyson said during a media conference call last week. “Maybe they hate me more than they hate anybody else. They want to see my demise. It makes them happy.”

        Maybe so. Many of the country's pay-per-view providers (including Time Warner Cable) are charging $45.95 for tonight's bout between Tyson and Francois Botha, though none of boxing's abundant titles are at stake.

        The blubbery Botha does not figure to put up much of a fight. Yet if Mike Tyson were matched against an inflatable doll, some people would tune in for fear they might otherwise miss something memorable.

        “People will watch him fight in the same way they watch car races, to see the wrecks,” says Jay Larkin, the Showtime executive who is producing tonight's broadcast from the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

Tyson vs. anybody
        This is a reasonable assumption. Seven of the 10 highest rated pay-per-view events have featured Tyson, including his farcical fight with Peter McNeeley. Dennis Holzmeier, Time Warner's local vice president of sales and marketing, observed that Tyson's appeal is so strong that Botha does not even appear in the advertising for tonight's bout.

        “We think there will be somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000 on our system alone,” Holzmeier said Friday. “Tyson has always pulled the most out of any fighter in the last five years. I think a lot of it is because of his bad boy attitude. Holyfield is an excellent boxer, but it's not the same.”

        Holyfield is dignity, Tyson is danger, and the difference between them is about as stark as the difference between Michael Jordan and Dennis Rodman. After three years in prison, and his latest exile from the ring, Tyson's violent streak remains reckless and remorseless. Next month in Maryland, he will be sentenced for assaulting fellow motorists. That is, of course, unless he's facing more serious charges somewhere else.

        Asked what he expected Botha to do against him in the ring, Tyson's cold-blooded reply was: “Die.”

        “Did you mean that?” he was asked later, in Botha's presence.

        “Implicitly,” Tyson said.

        Some of this may have been show. Because Tyson's payday is largely predicated on the pay-per-view audience (and will be largely consumed by back taxes), he needs to provide as much hype as possible.

"Became an animal'
        Yet what sets Tyson apart from other bellicose boxers is how little of his menacing is premeditated. The man has some serious issues, and did long before he confused Holyfield's ears for an entree.

        “I haven't died yet, but I've been to hell,” he said. “In that (prison) cell, people brutalize you. You become an animal, and people expect you to be domesticated when you get out.”

        This was self-pity speaking, for no reasonable person would expect Mike Tyson to reform. Because he has fought so little and so indifferently in recent years, it is hard to expect anything specific of him anymore. We count on him, instead, for the unexpected, the bizarre, the spontaneous combustion of strength and savagery.

        “If they change who I am, they're not going to like me,” Mike Tyson said. “You can't change anyone; you have to accept them for who they are. I have friends who are scholars, bums and crackheads. The fact is, I can sell newspapers.”

        The fact is, he's a freak show.

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com

Latest update on Tyson-Botha fight from Associated Press

        SULLIVAN ARCHIVE