His comeback has been conducted as controlled mystery, little pieces of him appearing in odd corners of the public consciousness. Nothing substantial, you understand. Snippets of conversation in a hip-hop magazine. An appearance on Larry King Live. Unrevealing interviews in The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. A cover photograph (but no Q and A) in Vibe. He has been positioned as an enigma, silently jumping rope in a hotel ballroom in one unveiling or smiling blankly from behind podiums in others. He gives three-word answers to boxing questions, behaves inappropriately at others. What little he does or says in public merely confounds. He appears to us as an empty vessel.
The marketing genius here: You fill him with meaning, you take his violent history, his horrifying success, the perverse glamour of his prison term and construct your own terrible attraction. This betrays a canny understanding of today's boxing fan, whoever he or she is. The contender promoted as inkblot. Neither style nor substance is offered, only just enough memory to provoke our imaginations. Mike Tyson is back!
A newsreel unspools in our minds: The spartan warrior stands center ring, no socks, only a white towel with a hole in it for his sullen head; a slab of malevolent muscle bores in on an opponent like a pneumatic drill, producing sudden and breathtaking dispatches; a convicted rapist mocks justice, wriggling his handcuffs for the camera; a converted Muslim leaves prison in an Indiana dawn, promising a prayerful humility; the rebuilt contender, three years gone, resumes his place in boxing yet refuses comment on his intentions. The effect of this docudrama, so slim it almost becomes interactive as we struggle to project significance onto it, is remarkable. A foe promises to wrap Tyson in a "cocoon of horror," and Tyson, sitting quietly nearby, only arches his eyebrow. It is funny, it is chilling. The empty vessel seems to fill with menace right before our eyes.
The fascination we have with Tyson is undeniable, heightened by failures of character and hints of redemption. He would not be nearly so interesting had he not lost to Buster Douglas, his invincibility shattered by a one-hit artist of modest credentials. What intrigue would there be if Tyson's life had not been derailed by his casual decision to force sex upon a beauty-pageant contestant? Could he command this attention if he had regained his heavyweight titles instead of going to prison, unrepentantly, for three years? It's odd; Tyson did not seem very complicated before, yet now—defeated and humiliated—he adds wrinkle to Greek tragedy as he struts across the world's stage sockless, a white towel over his shoulders.
The first of his comeback fights is Saturday, although few others besides Showtime and the sponsoring MGM Grand in Las Vegas insist upon it as an athletic event. This is simply another appearance, a matchup not much more dangerous than Tyson's coupling with Larry King and probably not as interesting. His brush with Peter McNeeley, termed "ritual slaughter" by a rival in the boxing business, does not figure to tell us whether Tyson can long remain on the stage, or even if he remembers how to box. It is a scheduled 10-round mismatch of epic proportion, even for a man who has been out of the game four years and was, even before, in apparent decline.
"This is total and complete fraud," says promoter Bob Arum, who happens to be a bitter enemy of Tyson's and McNeeley's promoter, Don King, and also happens not to have any promotional association with arguably the biggest draw of the '90s. "You have to understand: He's fighting somebody even I can beat. McNeeley is not a real pro fighter. When we did shows on ESPN in the Northeast, and the local promoter would ask for [McNeeley], we'd hide him from TV. He can't beat anybody. He's the stiff of stiffs. This is the equivalent of Tyson going into the gym and hitting the heavy bag or doing sit-ups. It's not even the equivalent of watching him spar."
Anybody gone from his game as long as Tyson was deserves some kind of setup, but most boxing people feel McNeeley, a genial fellow (he did give us "cocoon of horror"), does not even qualify as that. McNeeley's 36-1 record is a beguiling statistic, but his last four opponents had a combined record of 45-113-11. "I don't want to belabor the point, but I have rarely seen anybody worse," says Arum. "This, this is really demeaning. A scam, a bill of goods."
The fight wouldn't be worth Arum's vitriol or our notice if not for the fact that King, who negotiated a $36 million contract for Tyson to fight six times at the MGM (against opponents and on dates of Tyson's and King's choosing), is pricing the Showtime telecast exorbitantly. The pay-per-view show is being delivered at the worst possible time (PPV events are rarely scheduled during August, when viewers are presumed to be on vacation), but it will still cost the curious as much as $50. Buyer beware: McNeeley could be gone faster than the 91 seconds it took Tyson to knock out Michael Spinks in 1988.
But nobody is selling competition here, or even pretending to. The point of the promotion is to showcase Tyson and to satisfy, only by degrees, the public's fascination with him. If the first punch does knock McNeeley out? History is not made, but image is at least partly restored. A second fight, against somebody else, is sold, maybe.
Still, the drift of this comeback troubles many. The stink of easy money is in the air, and it makes even Tyson fans queasy. The question hangs in that polluted atmosphere: Does Tyson mean to make history or just the dough?