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Mike Tyson Scrapbook

Con Job

Not by Mike Tyson but by Peter McNeeley's cornerman, who had his eye on a bigger prize

By Richard Hoffer

Issue date: August 28, 1995

Sports Illustrated Flashback It's hard to take any one fight in boxing and single it out as the most cynical promotion of all time. But if you're going to make a list, you'll want to put last Saturday's Mike Tyson Return real close to the top. His bout with Peter McNeeley, all 89 seconds of it, had all the important aspects of a confidence game. There was the long setup, the suspension of disbelief among the yokels and then the actual con. Leaving the MGM Grand arena in Las Vegas, having seen a fight that was disappointing even by heavyweight standards of the day, you had to shake your head, laugh at yourself and feel once more for your wallet.

Issue date: August 28, 1995 Looking back on it, the calculation involved in the con is revealed. You seem to remember a lot of people winking. The choice of opponent was much derided, of course. But who thought, looking back, that it was McNeeley who planned to use Tyson as a stepping-stone, not the other way around? Watching McNeeley's manager rush into the ring to disqualify his own fighter, who seemed neither too hurt by Tyson nor overly disappointed at the interruption, confirmed their agenda. This opponent, this promoter's mascot, was saved for another payday with Don King as his promoter; and Tyson, as far as that goes, got the predicted victory without proving anything important, thus maintaining the curiosity factor for another of his paydays.

You felt like calling the bunco squad, or whoever it is that investigates consumer fraud these days. This made The Sting look transparent by comparison.

That said, you have to clear Tyson of wrongdoing. He is implicated in this tawdry affair only as a result of his continued association with King. Although calls from angry viewers of Showtime's pay-per-view event focused on whether the fight was wired, you cannot really blame Tyson for the suspicions raised by its near-total lack of competitive zeal or its near-zero entertainment value. In his first fight in four years, the last three spent in an Indiana prison on a rape conviction, Tyson performed earnestly. If he wasn't as sharp as a tack -- and why would he be? -- he nevertheless did knock McNeeley down within six seconds, and again seconds before the fight ended at 1:29 of the first round. Yes, he missed some punches. Yes, he was wild. But McNeeley's ring generalship, such as it was, did not permit Tyson much finesse or even the use of his power. More to the point, McNeeley's manager, the wily Vinnie Vecchione, did not allow Tyson the space or time to confirm anything but the survival of some very basic reflexes: Tyson will still throw a right uppercut at any target as large and as motionless as a stop sign.

That's as much as anybody learned from this fight. A few other things were suggested by Tyson's condition -- he was well ripped -- and his intensity: At the age of 29 he appears focused on regaining his stature, perhaps on reclaiming the undisputed title he let get away, and he seems committed to the sport. His postfight comments were guarded and evasive, but the only heartfelt emotion he evinced was his passion for boxing. "I forgot how much I really love this sport," he said afterward. This is encouraging for Tyson's fans, who hope his ferocious talent has not been squandered and that his trademark terror is returned to a sport that so badly needs anything dangerous at all. But nobody should get carried away. Remember that Tyson, when he entered prison at the age of 25, was in a state of decline and his capacity to menace the division had been more or less removed in his shocking loss to Buster Douglas. His stay in prison may have helped to restore the gangster image that his promoters and managers have always thought played so well for the cable operators, but he still has a lot to prove in the ring, and he admits it. "I did O.K.," he said Saturday night. "But I have to continue to cultivate my skills."

McNeeley, unfortunately, did not allow him to show just which skills need improving and which remain in place. Nobody believed McNeeley would last more than a round or two, but a quick stoppage in itself would not have been a terrible disappointment; it was expected. What was expected, exactly, was that Tyson would simply overpower McNeeley and demonstrate the concussive power that rattled the heavyweight division nearly 10 years ago. That was why people were paying as much as $50 to watch a nontitle fight on pay-per-view TV, or $1,500 to be at ringside. It didn't have to be long, just spectacular.

Well, it wasn't long. Tyson, who had entered the ring sockless with that simple cutout towel over his shoulders, was comfortably stripped of ornament and compassion. In the first six seconds of the fight, with McNeeley charging him, Tyson flash-floored him with a right hook. Then after a minute or more of McNeeley's charging him still, with Tyson briefly frustrated by the crowding, he connected with a right uppercut. McNeeley was spilled anew but was up quickly. Referee Mills Lane pushed McNeeley back for a mandatory eight count and turned his attention to Tyson, motioning him to a neutral corner. McNeeley backed into the ropes, seemed to slide just a little, and the ever-hatted Vecchione, to everyone's enormous surprise, was immediately up in the ring to force Lane to stop the fight.

The confusion was great. The crowd, sensing the fight had ended with a whimper instead of a bang, began to boo. Tyson, perhaps sensing that nothing good had happened as far as his own reputation was concerned, quickly exited the ring. McNeeley welcomed his mother, father and girlfriend into his corner. All got a relieved kiss. Lane, meanwhile, was shaking his head. Later he said, "In my opinion, he could have gone on. No doubt in my mind he could have gone on."

The ending was probably not crooked, but it was dispiriting enough that the Nevada State Athletic Commission decided to reach for Vecchione's wallet. After watching tapes of the fight, the commission withheld Vecchione's portion of the fighter's purse -- $179,820 -- and gave him 30 days to respond to its request for an inquiry.

If Tyson was not sullied by this unpleasant event, everyone else was. Promoter Don King will not live this down for a long time. Nobody expected Tyson to be matched with an able contender, but for King to have reached so low and charged so much for this one bespeaks an arrogance that will likely undo him even before his October trial on wire fraud. But King is not entirely to blame; he never promised matchmaking here, just a Tyson event. There's blame aplenty elsewhere.

Certainly, there is such a thing as building up a fighter, an admitted and admired practice, and there is such a thing as a quick score, not so much admired. Vecchione recognized this fight as a no-lose situation. If McNeeley were to lose? "No problem," Vecchione said. "He's 26 years old, he's got a great future, he will have lost to one of the top fighters in the country." After such a loss, they would regroup and use McNeeley's new name recognition to wrangle a fight with a champ down the line.

That is why you felt so angry watching Vecchione bounce onto the ring apron. You'd like to think it was simply to protect his fighter. But it looked like he was simply maintaining an investment, preventing an inevitable destruction that would devalue his attraction. The trouble with watching a fight like Saturday's is that you begin to suspect the worst of people. Then again: Tyson would surely have knocked McNeeley down again, thus stopping the fight with the three-knockdown rule in effect.

Ultimately, of course, this was not a fight at all but just a high-priced demonstration, a Tyson road test that was worth at least $25 million to him, a sort of preview of coming attractions. And this much must be admitted: Whatever the fighter he is or will become, Tyson still has enormous charisma. He is for the moment badly promoted and managed -- his paranoia may be earned by his recent vilification, but it also seems fed by King and co-manager John Horne. The softening effects of his Islamic conversion, or the maturity gained from experience, have not been allowed to shine through. Anyone who has ever known Tyson, even a little bit, has found him intriguing and winning. Yet lately he complains more about jealousy and envy and is shielded from nearly everyone. His public perception is contrived, but not by him. Still, to see Tyson occupy the ring, walking back and forth with a barely concealed contempt, is to witness one of the largest personalities of our generation. There is a purity to his ring rage that is impossible to deny. He hasn't lost that.

However, nobody is so attractive that he will survive many more promotional disasters as profound as this one. As distasteful as this fight was, it will probably be forgiven. There is a larger reserve of goodwill than the persecuted Tyson believes. But another event as careless of the public's right to receive entertainment value for its buck, and even Tyson will begin sharing the blame. There are only so many times, after all, that we'll walk from the arena, feeling for our wallets, before we stop walking to the arena.

Issue date: August 28, 1995