Teddy Atlas, who trained Tyson as an amateur and who has trained former heavyweight champion Michael Moorer, thinks he knows the answer. "With this group it's just money," he says, speaking of King and Tyson's co-managers, John Home and Rory Holloway. "They're hitting all the buttons, tapping into all the things the public's imagination is susceptible to. Like being in jail, as if coming out of prison after three years has made Tyson mean, angry and better. The Return of Godzilla, that's their plan. Mike's whole agenda, and this is no knock, is about taking advantage of corporate America and the public. He's playing on their weakness to believe in this monster."
That Tyson can carry this off probably says as much about the public as it does about him, because it has been a while since he has been a monster in the ring. "Amazing," says Emanuel Steward, who has trained Thomas Hearns, Julio Cesar Chavez and a number of other champions. "All of a sudden, the machine of 1988, the guy who beat Michael Spinks in 91 seconds, is back. It's not so much Mike, it's that boxing is sorely in need of a hero. We're at a point where anytime a boxer wins two fights in a row, he's called the best, pound for pound." His return is, to put it mildly, opportunistic.
Certainly our memories of Tyson have been clouded by time, our doubts stripped away during his exile. Says Lou DiBella, who buys fights as HBO Sports vice president but had no chance at Tyson's after the former champ reunited with King: "People have this image of him savagely brutalizing opponents, even though they don't remember that the majority of his fights were not really like that. They forget him getting battered, ring post to ring post, by Buster Douglas. They forget how unimpressive he was in the two Razor Ruddock fights."
DiBella marvels at Tyson's appeal but wonders if it doesn't simply represent the taste of the times. "It's very 'in' to put the bad guy on the pedestal, this whole gangster image," DiBella says. "He's the outlaw, that's the attraction."
Tyson's appeal has given his camp enormous leverage. The huge casino contract demands very little in the way of guaranteed entertainment (Tyson could fulfill the contract without fighting anybody outside the King stable, which includes two of the three heavyweight "champions") and allows Tyson and King to set the parameters of his exposure. The fighter's camp recently refused to agree to an interview for an ESPN show if the network's boxing reporter, Charley Steiner, was involved. ESPN countered with two other choices. They too were rejected. Tired of the haggling, ESPN finally decided it could live without the Tyson interview. King and Home have similarly refused to allow Tyson to have any dealings with SPORTS ILLUSTRATED.
But this is small intrigue. The larger question is what Tyson will do after this fight, and the next, and the one after that. Does his return amount to a calculated money grab, or does he intend to take back his place in ring history? For that matter, can he? Inevitably, it has been noted that Muhammad Ali, a charismatic boxer when he was politically exiled at the age of 25, came back at 28 to become a truly great fighter. Can the 29-year-old Tyson, whose career was interrupted and resumed on a nearly identical time line, duplicate the feat?
Steward doubts it. "Ali's style permitted longevity," he says. "Tyson, his kind don't have long careers. Everything he does is instinct, aggression. But that tapers off at 26 or 27, like with Joe Frazier. The ferociousness declines, and that was Tyson's main asset."
And if Tyson has been truly reformed by prison, well, that may be a factor as well. "Ali, his mind never went through emotional change," Steward says. "Ali stayed Ali. But if Tyson went through this great metamorphosis, changing religion, getting tattoos of Chairman Mao and Arthur Ashe.... The ring is no place for a philosopher. It might make him better for society but hurt him in the ring."
Ali, who was able to train during his three years of political exile (for refusing induction into the Army during the Vietnam War), was able to change as a fighter when he came back to the game. He had suffered a tremendous erosion of the skills that once made him untouchable, but he demonstrated the horrifying ability—and even more horrifying willingness—to take a punch. Coming back, Ali did not sign up for a joke fight, either, but took on Jerry Quarry, a tough top contender. Tyson, who was not able to train in prison, likely has suffered the same erosion of skills as Ali, though given the matchmaking at work here, it might not be apparent for a long time. Certainly McNeeley won't give him much practice.
Tyson's ability to evade punches was becoming suspect at 26; his speed was diminished. It is not likely to be restored, even in the five-step training program devised by the mysterious Carlos Blackwell, the diet and exercise guru who steadfastly refuses to name one athlete other than Tyson he has ever worked with. However, Tyson is not likely to lose his power. George Foreman hasn't lost much of his at 46. However steep Tyson's decline, his harshest critics do not doubt his ability to wade through most of today's heavyweights. Tyson may even be, in his own word, "breathtaking" as he scatters the likes of McNeeley, then possibly Buster Mathis Jr. and even the WBC champion, Oliver McCall.