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A LOOK AT THE HEAVYWEIGHT DIVISION : Mike Tyson, Only 19, Is Boxing's Baby Bull

May 11, 1986|RICHARD HOFFER | Times Staff Writer

GLENS FALLS, N.Y. — Boxing nervously awaits its next sword-carrier, a 19-year-old lad with a bad haircut and short arms and an unpredictable hormonal system.

This is the guy, the boxing world has shrilly insisted for a year now, a certifiable cross-over talent. This is the kind of fighter, like Muhammad Ali or Sugar Ray Leonard, who will reach beyond the sport and restore its peculiar glamour and excitement. The next breakout boxer.

If only he stays away from girls, from a bad crowd, from trouble, from bright-lights in the big city, from . . . what else? A left uppercut?

That's the thing when saviors are anointed in their adolescence.

Never mind the uppercuts, which the thick-necked Mike Tyson appears to absorb with only the mildest annoyance. He is comfortable and confident inside a ring. But what of life outside it, a turbulent thing, wouldn't you say, when you are just 19, out of reform school?

Here's a kid being asked to save the floundering heavyweight division, at an age when his peers are being asked, tops, to take out the garbage.

Of course, it doesn't immediately occur to people that this 215 pounds of broadly sculptured muscle is really a teen. Seeing him inside a ring, however briefly he is ever in one, incites a certain wonder. Also an inclination to double-lock doors and call the National Guard.

He is exaggerated manhood, a fearsome apparatus, a terrifying device of destruction, and all topped with a modified Mohawk. He's such a single-use piece of equipment that it's not even surprising that he doesn't wear a robe into the ring, or even socks. Did you ever see an attack tank with a hood ornament or chrome trim?

Stripped down, made for mauling--that's it--a distilled, purposeful menace.

And to our astonishment, he is exactly as frightening in deed as in appearance. To have seen him knock out his first 19 opponents, 12 within one round, is to appreciate an awesome power at work.

His short arms, which occasionally operate in a blinding flurry, deliver the savage impact of wrecking balls to fighters' midsections. You can see the opponents flinch at the terrible smacking sound; important organs have been displaced.

It is no wonder, having seen him in the ring--even in his 20th straight victory, when he had to settle for a decision for the first time, a disappointment all around--that boxing has gone gaga over him. In the last month, four boxing magazines had him on their covers.

But excitement has been building for some time. Sports Illustrated sensed something special last December and put him on the cover, even though Tyson's most impressive victory to that point was over somebody named Slammin' Sammy Scaff, a man whose face was nearly entirely removed in one round, by the way.

Boxing, the heavyweight division in particular, has been desperate for some time, what with the dismal turnover of champions in three different organizations--there are at least 10 former champions still active. It needs somebody to believe in, and Mike Tyson is touted as that somebody.

Not only does he win, he wins excitingly. His straightforward destruction of opponents is so spectacular that even the nonboxing fan must slow to consider him, much as a motorist must slow to see a wreck at the roadside.

And, too, he just doesn't win excitingly or simply a lot, he wins often. In 12 months of boxing, he fought and won 19 times, nearly once every two weeks. This is unheard of in modern boxing.

The resulting impression is of a locomotive gaining steam in the distance, steadily accelerating, entirely unmindful of whom or what might still be on the tracks ahead. You can feel the earth rumble in the anticipation of his arrival.

All this, and a wonderful tale of a troubled childhood and the eventual rehabilitation by a cantankerous old man named Cus D'Amato, whose spirit guides Tyson's every move, has conspired to put Tyson, the rawest, most unproven of rookies really, into our living rooms in an amazing number of ways.

ABC signed him to five fights--for $850,000--and cable television's HBO, mindful that its heavyweight tournament doesn't have an attraction until it has Tyson, has signed him for three at about the same price.

And you no longer have to be a sports fan to be aware of him. He has been featured on "The CBS Evening News" and "The NBC Nightly News." He's been in magazines from People to Advertising Age to Rolling Stone. In fact, even if all you're interested in is eating, you still might have heard of him. A sandwich has been named for him at New York's Stage Delicatessen.

And he's just 19.

Given all this, it is possible to understand the palpable anxiety that attends the young millionaire's career, an anxiety that verges on a somewhat controlled hysteria. So much is at stake, and all in the massive fists of a youth who would like to date a little, see something besides his Catskill camp, where he constantly trains for his twice-a-month fights.

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