No one wants a tamed Tyson

Originally Published: July 29, 2004
By Tim Graham | Special to ESPN.com

Stop me if you've heard this before.

Mike Tyson is a changed man. He's venturing into his latest comeback fight as a kinder, gentler soul. Take a few minutes to chat with him and you'll discover he's not the savage that he's constantly portrayed. He's misunderstood. He's actually intelligent and penitent and amusing and erudite and ...

Oh, sorry. I didn't hear you screaming.

Tyson always has been a degenerate, but nobody wants a cuddly heavyweight champion. We crave volatility, dominance, malice, destruction. We want to see a flexing hulk atop a heap of carcasses.

Over the past few weeks we've been inundated -- yet again -- with accounts of how much demented, ol' Iron Mike has mellowed, that his recent financial problems have matured him in a way hitting rock bottom only can, that his life is pointed in the right direction once and for all.

When Tyson slips through the ropes for the first time in 17 months Friday night against anointed fall guy Danny Williams in Louisville, Ky., we're supposed to see a warm-and-fuzzy boxer, genteel enough to make a soccer mom proud.

Whatever. We've heard it all before and, frankly, nobody outside of grandstanding politicians and polemic activists are interested in a toned-down Tyson. You've never read any feigned indignation over Tyson's previous antics in my columns. I've always liked Mike just the way he was, mercurial and compelling.

Tyson always has been a degenerate, but nobody wants a cuddly heavyweight champion. We crave volatility, dominance, malice, destruction. We want to see a flexing hulk atop a heap of carcasses.

Pound-for-pound list
  • Here is Tim Graham's top 15. In parentheses are Graham's rankings from June 8 (nr = not ranked):
  • 1. Bernard Hopkins (1)
    Record: 44-2-1, 31 KOs
    Division: Middleweight (undisputed champ)
    Last fight: UD over Robert Allen, 6/5/04
    2. Floyd Mayweather Jr. (2)
    Record: 32-0, 21 KOs
    Division: Light welterweight
    Last fight: UD over DeMarcus Corley, 5/22/04
    3. Antonio Tarver (nr)
    Record: 22-2, 18 KOs
    Division: Light heavyweight (WBC, WBA champ)
    Last fight: KO2 over Roy Jones Jr., 5/15/04
    4. Winky Wright (4)
    Record: 47-3, 25 KOs
    Division: Light middleweight (undisputed champ)
    Last fight: UD over Shane Mosley, 3/13/04
    5. Manny Pacquiao (5)
    Record: 38-2-2, 30 KOs
    Division: Featherweight
    Last fight: D vs. Juan Manuel Marquez, 5/8/04
    6. Juan Manuel Marquez (6)
    Record: 42-2-1, 33 KOs
    Division: Featherweight (WBA, IBF champ)
    Last fight: D vs. Manny Pacquiao, 5/8/04
    7. Cory Spinks (7)
    Record: 33-2, 10 KOs
    Division: Welterweight (undisputed champ)
    Last fight: UD over Zab Judah, 4/10/04
    8. Oscar De La Hoya (8)
    Record: 37-3, 29 KOs
    Division: Middleweight
    Last fight: UD over Felix Sturm, 6/5/04
    9. Erik Morales (9)
    Record: 46-1, 34 KOs
    Division: Super featherweight (WBC champ)
    Last fight: UD over Jesus Chavez, 2/28/04
    10. Rafael Marquez (10)
    Record: 31-3, 28 KOs
    Division: Bantamweight (IBF champ)
    Last fight: TKO2 over Peter Frissina, 1/31/04
    11. Oscar Larios (14)
    Record: 52-3-1, 35 KOs
    Division: Super bantamweight (WBC champ)
    Last fight: UD over Jesus Perez, 6/11/04
    12. Kostya Tszyu (11)
    Record: 30-1-1, 24 KOs
    Division: Light welterweight (IBF champ)
    Last fight: TKO6 over Jesse James Leija, 1/19/03
    13. James Toney (12)
    Record: 67-4-2, 43 KOs
    Division: Heavyweight
    Last fight: TKO9 over Evander Holyfield, 10/4/03
    14. Roy Jones Jr. (13)
    Record: 49-2, 38 KOs
    Division: Light heavyweight
    Last fight: KO2 by Antonio Tarver, 3/13/04
    15. Antonio Margarito (15)
    Record: 30-3, 21 KOs
    Division: Welterweight
    Last fight: TKO2 over Hercules Kyvelos, 1/31/04
    Boxing craves that menacing figure now more than ever. It has been absent from the heavyweight division since the early 1990s, when Evander Holyfield, Riddick Bowe and Tyson were overwhelming forces and a young Lennox Lewis was still undefeated.

    Unfortunately for fight fans, Tyson truly may no longer possess that spellbinding rage at a time when the sport desperately needs a captivating heavyweight to resurrect it. Tyson is showing signs that he really could be a changed man.

    He seems to have lost his edge. He appears indifferent about his legacy and passive on most other matters.

    His massive debts have rendered him virtually an indentured servant. He has gone from having about 200 paid employees to three. He filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last year, reportedly having squandered $400 million in career earnings and owing $19.4 million in taxes alone. He used to own multiple mansions but now lives in a friend's two-bedroom home in downtown Phoenix.

    "I was reckless with money and the people I trusted, a complete jackass," Tyson said. "Now I don't have the entourage. They've gone, and I guess that makes me kind of ordinary."

    Tyson's image makeovers have become such tired PR ploys even Ricki Lake and Maury Povich denounce them. The "New and Improved Tyson" usually gets trotted out whenever he needs primping for a pay-per-view telecast that can't be sold on its competitive merits.

    Tune in to see Tyson like never before, placid enough to repress your vomit reflex!

    This time, however, he actually could be an evolved life form. He is carrying himself as though he were seeking George W. Bush's nod to replace Dick Cheney on the Republican ticket. Tyson's not spewing as much profanity as the vice president, and lately the erstwhile "Baddest Man on the Planet" has been eerily affable.

    There's reason to be suspicious that after only a few weeks of this refined demeanor he could very easily return to the brooding golem he was before.

    Let's wait a few months and see how many times Tyson implodes before we label him a choirboy.

    It was barely a year ago he sat down for a particularly venomous interview in which he again denied raping Desiree Washington in 1991, but stated he wished he had -- and her mother, too. Around the time of that macabre revelation, he was involved in a street fight with some autograph seekers and was charged with three counts of assault.

    Tyson reeked of marijuana when I stood shoulder-to-shoulder with him eight months ago in Madison Square Garden at the postfight news conference for Vitali Klitschko's annihilation of Kirk Johnson. Tyson is an admitted pot smoker, whose 2000 victory over Andrew Golota was wiped out because he tested positive for weed.

    He was amazingly -- and understandably -- meek that night in the Garden. He was smiling and tranquil, just like he has been in recent weeks.

    Tyson, who has taken antidepressant and antipsychotic medications in the past, isn't on any mood-altering prescription drugs, according to venerable trainer Freddie Roach. Although it's uncertain if Tyson was drawn to Roach by his surname, the Boxing Writers Association of America's reigning Trainer of the Year routinely gets mentioned as a calming influence on Tyson ... but maybe not as much as sparking up a fat spliff.

    That could be another reason Tyson and Williams (no relation to Ricky) landed in Louisville. Not only is the Ohio River port city the hometown of Muhammad Ali and shady promoter Chris A. Webb, but also the lax Kentucky Athletic Commission doesn't have policies regarding illegal narcotics or performance-enhancing substances. So it's safe to assume drug tests won't be conducted.

    Tyson's mild-mannered behavior and dire financial straits raise the question of whether or not he's hungry enough, munchies not withstanding, to regain command of the ramshackle heavyweight division.

    Recurring back spasms indicate his 38-year-old body can't handle the grind forever. It's easy to imagine he's fighting only for the cash. His manager, Shelly Finkel, has outlined an ambitious plan for five fights by November 2005 to help satisfy Tyson's myriad creditors.

    "People who don't see my ranting and raving probably don't think I'm a hungry fighter anymore," Tyson said. "But I was just a foolish person who ran away with himself. ... I may be calmer before this fight than usual, but the fire will be there come Friday."

    Tyson, despite his clearly deteriorating skills, could dethrone any or all of the current world champions: Klitschko (WBC), Chris Byrd (IBF), John Ruiz (WBA), Lamon Brewster (WBO).

    And while there's no one Tyson cannot defeat, there's no one he cannot lose to. The only characteristic more constant than his unquestioned power is his questionable psyche.

    Both attributes were summed up in his last fight. Tyson, citing the flu and intimating he would pull out, skipped a pair of scheduled flights to Memphis for his February 2003 bout with Clifford Etienne. Tyson finally arrived with his new facial tattoo three days before the match. Then one flush punch rendered Etienne supine 49 seconds after the opening bell.

    "He still likes to rely on his power," said Roach, who first worked with Tyson for the Etienne fight. "We are trying to curb that with repetitive training. I hope it will show a little bit in this fight, but I think he needs to do those things to step up to the next level. It is a work in progress and it is not quite there yet, but it is getting better.

    "You cannot knock everybody out. I want him to go out in this fight -- not like the Etienne fight, because he went out swinging -- and box for a while. Mike needs rounds, so I want him to break this guy down first and then take him out. Hopefully, that will happen. But if Mike goes out there and whacks him in the first round, that could happen also."

    Tyson is a 1-to-14 favorite to beat Williams, a noted underachiever. The former British and commonwealth champ is 31-3 with 26 knockouts. His losses were to former Tyson foil Julius Francis in 1999, plodding prospect Sinan Samilsan last year and fellow British pedestrian Michael Sprott six months ago.

    Francis has predicted a Williams victory, and there are elements to support an upset.

    In addition to lingering doubts over Tyson's motivation, Williams boasts a respectable uppercut, which Lennox Lewis proved effective against Tyson two years ago. Williams also has a history of dirty tricks (low blows, in particular) that suggests he could goad his foe into DQ territory.

    "Mike Tyson has had his day," Williams said. "Now it is time for Danny Williams to take over. Trust me. Tyson will be as vicious as ever when he gets into the ring, but so will I. He has tremendous power, but I am ready for that and anything else he has to offer.

    "Tyson is hungry, but I am hungrier. He is here just to pay his bills. I am here to make a name for myself."

    Said Roach: "Williams is a little bit dangerous because he does have pretty good power. I expect Williams to be at his best because this is the biggest fight in the world for him. I want Mike to go in more scientific and use his boxing ability more than he did in his last fight."

    The gameplan for Tyson in the coming months, after tallying some rounds against Williams, is to fight a similar opponent as soon as possible and then go after a high-profile contender. If Tyson can win all three, a title fight could be made for the first half of next year.

    Yet Tyson doesn't appear to be in a rush to get back on top. He's carrying himself in a laissez-faire manner, living one day and one fight at a time.

    The remnants of his legendary ability, combined with a sense of urgency, are precisely what the sport could use right now.

    Maybe it's too much to ask that Tyson not only realize that, but also act on the opportunity before it's too late.

    "I'm a maniac," Tyson said. "I don't know what's wrong with me, but right now I'm just a fighter who's trying to make a buck."

    Tim Graham covers boxing for The Buffalo News and is a contributor to ESPN.com.

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