But what happens if Tyson makes a play for destiny instead of money? Who's to say he won't? Who's to say the public, fed too many Peter McNeeleys, won't eventually demand a legitimate fight? What happens if Tyson ventures beyond the King stable to take on the likes of Riddick Bowe or Lennox Lewis, as the laws of boxing commerce (or perhaps Tyson's pride) may demand?
Atlas, a Cus D'Amato protégé like Tyson, doesn't know what will happen, but he says you can't use Ali's second career as a guideline. "Ali went away for a principle, Tyson for a lack of one," Atlas says. "Ali was never the same fighter coming back, but he went on to another phase of greatness because, I think, of his principle. Ali was ready to die professionally, to give up his worldly possessions, for three years. He was practicing character, character he would have to use when he lost to Joe Frazier. He believed there was some great meaning to his being, a statement he could make to his people only by becoming champion. There was that purity to him. He had the character to endure that loss and become champion. Does Tyson? Or does he unravel in self-pity? You can't buy character at a five-and-dime."
However, if character can somehow be hammered in the forge of a public life, Tyson may still have a chance. His critics were not impressed when, at a recent press conference, Tyson was asked what he might say to his rape victim, Desiree Washington, if she were present, and he laughed, clapped his hands and said, "Just enjoy the fight." Was this a total lack of remorse, or, more likely, Tyson reacting out of frustration to what he perceives as tabloid journalism.
Yet, it might be said on his behalf that he seems determined to return to his roots (his trainer, Jay Bright, is a D'Amato protégé), and his few public utterances have not been frayed by bitterness. His jail term was deserved, he has said, not for a rape he still insists he didn't commit but for the life he had led up to that point. "I don't know if prison was a blessing in disguise, but I do know I made it a blessing," he told the music magazine The Source.
But for now, Tyson remains a blank slate, ready to take on whatever meaning we assign him. He's a convicted rapist, he's the prodigal son, he's a primordial force, he's the Voltaire-quoting Muslim, he's the washed-up fighter. He's boxing's debris or its deliverance. All those things or none of them. Poor Peter McNeeley will look into Mike Tyson's eyes Saturday night and try to decide for himself, and some of us will pay $50 and hope, from the safety of our couches, to see whatever it is he sees.