Wednesday, June 30, 2004

The strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Tyson

The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal

LOUISVILLE - Was that the Zoloft talking, or a new Mike Tyson? That was the pertinent question Tuesday, as the scariest man in sports soaked Louisville in a shower of oxymoronic charm.

Maniac Mike could not have been any more affable, approachable and accommodating if he were running for office. Kerry and W. should have been here taking notes on how to schmooze a crowd.

"I'm not here to be a tough guy today," Tyson cooed to an obsequious pep rally/press conference gathering in the South Wing of Freedom Hall. He was here to please and proved it by signing every autograph, posing for every picture and answering every question, with prescription-strength serenity.

When photographers posed Tyson with Danny Williams, his opponent in the July 30 bout at Freedom Hall, Iron Mike did not attempt to bite the Briton on the leg, as he did Lennox Lewis. He did not announce a desire to rape, pillage or devour children. He didn't even accommodate boxing cliche and engage in a staredown.

He quickly broke eye contact, smiled, shook Williams' hand and hugged him.

"I'm just a different person," Tyson explained. "My whole frame of mind changed. ... I became more spiritual." (Though he added, "I'm not a God freak yet.")

The mental whiplash was pronounced. Tyson's menace once radiated through the television screen, threatening us even at home on the couch. Tuesday, after 16 months of what he called "self-imposed exile," Tyson re-emerged so docile that you almost felt like walking right up and patting him on the head.


Because, this being boxing, you don't trust anything or anyone. Beneath Tyson's veneer of forbearance remain an aberrant track record and the economic facts of the day, which are these: He's in debt up to his facial tattoo. His sole revenue stream is boxing.

(Despite the spiritual rebirth, a career in televangelism seems unlikely.) And this controversial bout was riding on a civilized performance by the star attraction.

Tickets need to be sold, some at $1,500 per. And a polite Mid-Southern town needed some reassurance - superficial would do - that it isn't opening its doors to a psychotic train wreck. (You can take advantage of us here in Louisville, but don't embarrass us while you're at it.) The potential for in-ring mayhem and bloodshed will sell tickets. The potential for civic backlash needed to be minimized first.

So Tuesday we were treated to the first half of the man profiled as "Tyson the Timid, Tyson the Terrible" by Gary Smith in Sports Illustrated in 1988. The story peered inside the divided soul whose box-office appeal carried boxing then and still does today, years past his brief and violent prime.

Bereft of jewelry and braggadocio, Tyson the Timid talked about his love for raising pigeons and his desire to raise good children. His voice was so soft, you had to learn forward to hear.

"I'm a simple guy in a complex reality," Tyson said. "... I'm a very, very simple person." One minute later: "I'm addicted to chaos." Contradiction was the order of the day. It was truly difficult reconciling the man before us with the felonious freak we've seen so often.

"I slept with the devil for a long period of my life and that didn't kill me," Tyson said, "so I guess I need to do something positive with my life."

Beating up Danny Williams would be seen as a positive step by the IRS, which Tyson owes about $23 million of his reported $38 million debt. It would be greatly appreciated by Showtime, which is televising the fight and would love nothing more than a Tyson-is-back theme to promote for future bouts.

And it would be a boon to Louisville if it can host the debut of kinder, gentler Iron Mike.

But something tells me that was the Zoloft - and the dollars - talking Tuesday.

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