On March 25 boxing will be lifted from the pages of Ring magazine and into those of Newsweek and PEOPLE—and the National Enquirer. It will be removed from the sports anthology shows to Dateline and 20/20—and Inside Edition. It will emerge from the casinos of Atlantic City and Las Vegas, where for three years it has merely survived, and assume a prominent place at bar stools, on street corners, maybe even in sewing circles. The awakening will happen around the world. Boxing comes back on March 25.
What sports fan doesn't know the date or understand its importance? For three years boxing has had the quality of a held breath. On March 26, 1992, the day Mike Tyson was jailed on a rape conviction, the sport went into a kind of suspended animation. Things happened, good and bad, but everything had a temporary feel to it. Boxing had become a makeshift affair, enduring the absence of Tyson's violent charisma as best it could. "Making the best of what we had to work with," says Don King, Tyson's longtime promoter. The stars flared and died, champions came and went, and all along there Was the understanding that in 1995—on March 25, it has developed—boxing would be able to breathe out.
Because the day Tyson walks into his freedom, boxing once more becomes the kind of personality-driven riot that galvanizes globally. With his return it is newly dangerous and unpredictable, freshly sensationalized with theatrical themes. There will be, finally, something for everyone—from boxing fan to tabloid consumer—in a sport that has hardly had anything for anybody.
Oh, it's going to be big. Nobody really knows if Tyson can still fight, or even if he wants to. But it doesn't matter. "Irrelevant," says Seth Abraham, the president of Time Warner Sports who oversees fight cards for HBO. The day Tyson walks out of an Indiana jail, surveys the fiat farmland that has surrounded him for three years, and ducks into a waiting limousine, boxing will be transformed into show business. Only Tyson, whose young career has intertwined malevolence and melodrama, can cut such a demographic swath as this: Among the appeals for a piece of him, King, his presumed caretaker, has received calls from the Ricki Lake Show ("the Number 3-rated late afternoon talk show, hosted by a white woman," King says he was told) to go along with a five-page letter from 60 Minutes.
It will be big, don't you worry.
To be fully accurate, boxing was not exactly in tip-top shape when Tyson was still fighting, and it didn't die out altogether when he left. Boxing is the cockroach of sports; you can't kill it. After his 1990 loss to Buster Douglas, Tyson's skills were being increasingly questioned, but while boxing had enough moments to keep it more or less on track in his absence, it badly missed its locomotive. He was the only one who could pull this train.
"Bottom line—as the heavyweight division goes, so goes boxing," says Bert Sugar, publisher of Boxing Illustrated. "This goes back to John Sullivan. And it has something to do with being American. Americans are always obsessed with big things—cars, houses, breasts, fighters. We could have had 10 Roy Joneses or 10 Pernell Whitakers, we'd still be waiting for the heavyweight division to come back."
Abraham, who saw HBO do some pretty good numbers when it was associated with Tyson, has thought about this too. "It's this idea of Superman, a fictional character," he says. "The heavyweight champion is the closest thing we've got to Superman. Able to reverse fortunes in a single blow. There's a bit of fantasy to these big heavyweight champions."
And if we happen to have a heavyweight who is concussively effective and who can demand attention from all reaches of society—say a guy who can dispatch people in 90 seconds and, on top of that, is interesting enough that he could drag his brief marriage through gossip columns—well, boxing just takes off.
"Boxing is one of those sports that's always been cyclical," Abraham says. "And its high-water marks have always coincided with a dominant or popular heavyweight champion—Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson. The ratings go up in all fights. Ticket sales go up in all fights. There's just more interest."