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Tyson Has Been Behaving Like Southern Gentleman

Boxing: Memphis sees a different side of the controversial former champion as he prepares for fight against Lewis.

June 07, 2002|STEVE SPRINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Here on the banks of the Mississippi River, far from his big-city roots, in the town where the civil-rights movement underwent one of its darkest moments 34 years ago, Mike Tyson has found what he claims he has been looking for all his life: love, gratitude and support.

Who knew?

As Tyson entered the Cook Convention Center in downtown Memphis on Thursday afternoon to weigh in for Saturday's heavyweight title match against champion Lennox Lewis, marchers walked back and forth outside with signs.

Signs of appreciation for Tyson.

One read, "Thanks Mike, For Saying It's OK To Be Gay."

Another read, "Tyson Opposes Homophobia."

The genesis of this sentiment came Sunday when Tyson stepped out of a van in front of the Six50 Fit Club in suburban Cordova for a workout. In his path was local resident Jim Maynard, who was holding up a sign protesting Tyson's tendency to demean opponents by referring to them as homosexuals.

Tyson gave Maynard a smile, a hug and told him, "I'm not homophobic. My remarks are not aimed at gay people."

That's all it took, apparently, for Tyson to become a hero to the local gay community.

"It was an unlikely statement coming from Mike Tyson," said Beth Good, who held up one of the signs of support Thursday. "It's a good step, one more athletes need to take."

Said Maynard: "He needs a positive reward for what he said. But he still needs to address his views toward women. He needs to be absolved of his sins."

After a Wednesday workout, Tyson agreed to take questions from a group of schoolchildren and answered in a friendly, accommodating manner.

When Tyson stepped on the scales to be weighed Thursday, a women from the audience yelled, "I love you, Mike."

A male voice chimed in, "I love you too."

So too, apparently, do many of the local citizens, who flock whenever there is a Tyson sighting. At least they love the potential income and attention Tyson has brought to this city, whose biggest tourist attractions have been the National Civil Rights Museum, located on the site of the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, and Graceland, home of favorite son Elvis Presley.

But this week, the town is decorated in red, white and black, the colors of the Lewis-Tyson signs that can be seen everywhere from lampposts to store windows, from shirts and caps to buttons and bows.

In welcoming the crowd to Thursday's weigh-in, Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton said this would be the "greatest boxing event of all time."

The excitement has even spread to the neighboring state of Mississippi, where news conferences for the two fighters were held at casinos in Tunica County.

Twenty years ago, Tunica was the poorest county in the nation. The Rev. Jesse Jackson labeled it "America's Ethiopia." But Tuesday and Wednesday, the Tunica casinos, which have revived the local economy, spared no expense or ingenuity in trying to impress the national media.

Lamp chops with mint jelly and veal scaloppine highlighted an elaborate menu. Carlos Harbert, a 13-year-old chess whiz from Oakhaven School, played a match against Lewis, a chess fanatic, with the cameras clicking away. The match wasn't completed, but Harbert was given the decision amid smiles and laughter.

That has been the tone in these days leading up to the fight. The majority of the boxing world may regard Tyson as a bully, an ogre, mentally disturbed or all of the preceding. People may have trouble forgetting that he bit off a piece of Evander Holyfield's right ear in a bout five years ago. They may have been revolted when Tyson bit into Lewis' upper left thigh during a brawl at a New York news conference in January. They may cringe at Tyson's outrageous outbursts, from declaring that he'd like to eat Lewis' children to making lewd sexual references to reporters. They may have rejected the fight from New York to Nevada

But there have been few negative vibes visible in Memphis.

Tyson's handlers have the former two-time heavyweight champion on a tight leash. The first time he and Lewis come face to face will be around 8:15 PDT Saturday night when they enter the ring. They held separate news conferences and had separate weigh-ins.

And Tyson has gone with the flow, putting on a happy face the world rarely sees. He literally hopped on the scales Thursday, like a kid joyously getting on a bike for the first time.

Tyson has been accused of faking his outbursts, of creating a monster to sell tickets.

There was a fear his unstable image might work against him this week, discouraging people from buying the fight because of the possibility he would self-destruct before it happened. Perhaps the kinder, gentler Tyson has been created to assure one and all that there will indeed be a match Saturday night at the Pyramid.

It seems to be working. Only 10,000 to 12,000 fans are expected in the 18,000-seat arena, those empty seats being blamed on exorbitant ticket prices, which range from $2,400 to $250. But the pay-per-view buys, at $54.95, are on a record pace. There already have been 400,000 orders--which would be considered a successful total for most fights--through midweek in a business where nearly all pay-per-views come in the last 48 hours.

But it wouldn't be a Tyson fight without some sort of controversy. Sure enough, after the two fighters weighed in Thursday--Lewis at 249 1/4, Tyson at 234 1/2--Ronnie Shields, Tyson's trainer, claimed the scale was five pounds off, that Tyson had weighed 229 in the morning.

But nothing has seemed to bother Tyson this week.

"I have never been to the South before," he said, "but I went to the inner city of Memphis and everybody looked like me. Everybody had gold teeth in their mouth."

Mike Tyson, home at last.

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