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The Inside Track | COMMENTARY

Second Meeting Was Too Late for Tyson


Lennox Lewis remembers: They first drew blood as teenagers.

The Catskills, 1984.

Looking for competition, the young Englishman headed for the mountains to spar with "this young cat up in New York named Mike Tyson."

Four days they went at it in a bare-bulb gym created above a police station. "He did give me a fat lip," Lewis says, "but I gave him a bloody mouth."

Cus D'Amato watched. He saw everything, mostly the future.

Lewis remembers six words from the great old trainer who had made champions: "One day you and Mike will meet."

Memphis, 2002. Lewis and Tyson. For the heavyweight championship.

"It has come true," the Englishman said.

Except for this: The Mike Tyson of then is not the Mike Tyson of now.

That Tyson came with power and will and hands as quick as a gasp of fear.

That Tyson loved the masochistic torture that is the bedrock of fighting.

That Tyson produced in opponents a reaction that trainer Ray Arcel had seen in a dozen fighters who had agreed to fight Joe Louis.

"One sight of Joe across from them," he said, "they wilted like tulips."

That Tyson walked through two dozen tomato cans and contenders to become the heavyweight champion at age 20.

That Tyson fought the way Marciano fought, and Dempsey, and Frazier. He fought three minutes a round, as many rounds as you wanted, willing to take punishment for the opportunity to give it.

That Tyson brought honor to a dishonorable game.

Soon enough, that Tyson disintegrated.

Today's Tyson bears a resemblance to that Tyson, a corporeal likeness built of sneers and a bull's shoulders, as if this Tyson has been cloned from blood left in a firehouse ring.

But something went wrong in the cloning, so wrong that even Budd Schulberg, who has written of the darkness in boxing's soul, says, "My secretary asks, 'How can you like a sport in which Mike Tyson is the main attraction?' It's not easy to answer that."

The Tyson of 1984 was a guilty pleasure, for who among us wants to admit gaining pleasure from a game in which the greatest rewards go to the man most adept at injuring brains?

But now, in Memphis 2002, that guilt had turned to shame, for only the shameless could be entertained by an empty shell of a once-great fighter whose public behavior has long left only two questions not answered: How nuts, exactly, is he? Hannibal Lecter nuts?

Students of psychopathic oratory may have parsed Tyson's threat/promise to eat Lennox Lewis' children.

Tyson also announced an intention to deliver blows of such force as to explode Lewis' brain and send it splashing into the Mississippi


In speaking of cannibalism, murder, fornication, masturbation and prison-sex practices, Tyson used 10- and 11-letter words typical of a man for whom English is a second language used only when the vilest profanity fails.

Not a darkness of the soul.

A pornography.

It sells. More than 15,000 people came to the Memphis Pyramid with tickets costing as much as $2,400; another million bought the pay-per-view telecast at $54.95.

Each fighter's estimated $17.5 million take caused Ferdie Pacheco, once Muhammad Ali's fight doctor, to declare, "A society that enriches Mike Tyson rather than institutionalizing him is a sick society."

A Tyson victory, it says here, would have been the end of civilization as we know it.

Happily, Lewis came to the rescue. Bigger, stronger, faster, smarter, he dominated Tyson before knocking him out late in the eighth round. Seldom has any sports event produced a more satisfying conclusion.

First, Lewis proved he belonged in the same paragraph, if not the same sentence, with the great ones.

"He's the best heavyweight since Muhammad Ali," says his trainer, Emanuel Steward.

Larry Holmes was a master whose skills were equal to those of Lewis; the warrior Tyson at 21 may have been better than both men.

But there's no denying Lewis' domination of the nutcase Tyson. As early as the fourth round, Steward was heard shouting at Lewis: ''TAKE HIM OUT NOW.''

More important, now we won't have Tyson to kick around any more. Now we can leave him to the care and supervision of trained medical personnel.

Now we are rid of both Tysons, yesterday's and today's.

To quote HBO boxing commentator Larry Merchant, "The myth of Mike Tyson is forever destroyed."

The lasting image of Tyson will be that of the empty shell, almost 36 years old, flat on his back, bloody rivulets flowing from both eyes and his nose, his right glove brought to his forehead, as if shading his eyes, as Jack Johnson did against the midday Cuban sun 87 years ago.

Or, wait a second ...

Might Tyson, with no other means of making money, fight again?

"Sure, some sleazy promoter will take him on a carnival tour where he'll beat nine guys like you and me," Merchant said. "And there'll be the idea, 'He deserves another shot.' "

Oh, the pain.

Better to remember the glorious smile on Lennox Lewis' face, an hour after the fight, when he held high three championship belts and heard someone shout, "Lennox, how does it feel to be the greatest Englishman since John Lennon?"

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