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COMMENTARY : Truth Is Hard to Find in Many Instances

June 18, 1989|WALLACE MATTHEWS | Newsday

It was 11 a.m. Thursday in the ballroom of one of Donald Trump's favorite hotels, and there was no truth to be found. No, not "T-r-u-t-h," as in Carl Williams; he had shown up a few minutes earlier to hype his July 21 fight against Mike Tyson in Atlantic City, N.J., nearly two hours late and muttering something about getting stuck in traffic.

The truth that was missing was the lower-case variety, the one sometimes followed by the words "justice and the American Way." That truth was clearly absent as Tyson and his bosom buddy, Don King, took their turns at the microphone.

King, a man shackled by his own verbiage, said "The truth shall set you free." Tyson, a man shackled by King, was floundering when asked to explain where he would be Friday night, and why.

The subject was Friday night's Boxing Writers Association of America annual awards dinner in New York, the guest of honor at which is none other than Michael G. Tyson, undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.

A few weeks ago, I wrote that Tyson, who was voted his second Edward J. Neil Award as the fighter of the year for last year, would skip the dinner on the orders of King, who resents the fact that the BWAA has never seen fit to award him its James J. Walker Award for long and meritorious service.

Thursday was the first time that I -- as president of the organization -- had the opportunity to ask Tyson face to face whether he would show up to accept boxing's equivalent of baseball's Most Valuable Player award. Let me emphasize that my eagerness to assure Tyson's presence at the dinner had nothing to do with ticket sales; the dinner has been oversold for weeks. The reason was simply a desire on the part of the BWAA to hand Tyson his trophy directly for a job well done.

I first tried to broach the subject with Tyson privately. I sidled up to him and asked, "Mike, are you showing up tomorrow night to pick up your award?"

A sideways stare. "No."

"Why not? It's a great honor."

"I just can't make it, man," he said, and walked away.

Feeling somewhat unsatisfied, I decided to try again, only in the public forum of the news conference, where Tyson would not be able to run away. Or so I thought. "Mike," I began, "why have you decided not to accept the fighter of the year award from the Boxing Writers Association of America?"

Jaws dropped open on the dais. Tyson, who generally tries to keep his composure, looked for a moment as if he might club me into puppy chow. "As you know, I'm training," he snarled. "It's more important that I train than I accept the award. And when did you start caring if I accept the award or not?"

At this, King and his assorted flunkies in the audience began clapping and yukking it up, as if Tyson had suddenly become Henny Youngman. Encouraged, Tyson continued. "There have been other fighters who didn't show up. What's the big deal? If you're taking it personally, I don't mean it that way. Give it to someone else, if you think they deserve it. I'm not going to be there, I'm going to train."

At that, King took charge and led the conference in a different direction to insure there would be no follow-up questions. And, hence, no exposure of the truth.

But here is the truth: On Monday night, at ringside for the Sugar Ray Leonard-Thomas Hearns rematch, I was given a message by a reporter for another New York paper who has become known as a King emissary. The emissary said, "Mike has to fly back to Cleveland after the news conference Thursday morning because he has a commitment Friday morning. But he's willing to come to the dinner if you will provide transportation for him from Cleveland to New York and back again" -- meaning an athlete who earned some $30 million last year wanted a non-profit organization to pay his airfare.

The BWAA has never paid expenses for any of its honorees, not even the members of its own fraternity, boxing writers who have won its coveted Nat Fleischer Award for excellence in boxing journalism.

Throughout the 61-year history of the Neil Award, not one fighter -- not Jack Dempsey, the first winner, nor Henry Armstrong, nor Joe Louis, nor Sugar Ray Robinson, nor Rocky Marciano, nor Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali or Sugar Ray Leonard -- has asked for so much as a nickel for coming to accept the award.

In 1972, middleweight champion Carlos Monzon paid for himself and members of his family to fly to New York from Buenos Aires to accept his award in person.

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