For one reason or another he doesn't fight much anymore. Just 22 rounds in the last seven years. When he does box, what transpires is highly unpredictable in any athletic sense. Highly unpredictable in the theatrical sense, too. Between bouts there are, for one reason or another, long layoffs filled with the kinds of distractions that have a lot more to do with tabloid entertainment than sports. And always there's the feeling that his once brilliant career—his life, really—has become nothing more than a spectacular display of dissolution, a late-20th-century parable that warns us all how tenuous our talents are, how fragile our contract with civilization.
Yet when Mike Tyson steps into the ring on Saturday to fight Francois Botha, we'll all be watching, won't we? As we line up for our $1,200 ringside seats, as we pay $49 for our pay-per-view, we might ask just what it is that's so damn interesting about all his...confusion. Tyson is 32, he hasn't fought in 18 months, he's coming off two defeats (the second more horrific than the first), and he's got litigation pending. For that matter, he's got his own doubts about his place in the scheme of things. Yet he's still the most galvanizing performer in sports—witness the $10 million he'll get just to jump into combat with a lackluster opponent.
No sense asking why, unless we're ready to search our souls with the same zeal we've searched his. It has to be something about us, too, that reacts to his perverse charisma, something beyond our appreciation for the animal domination he used to—used to—personify. Face it if you can: Nothing is quite as fascinating as human devolution, especially when it's portrayed at a comfortable remove.
Tyson is haunted by his past, of course. The rape, the prison time, any of several assorted and sordid out-of-the-ring incidents, the very betrayal of his sport when he bit Evander Holyfield's ears and was banished from the game. He's haunted, too, by the lingering atmosphere of paranoia and cynicism that he didn't create but did suffer during his last—$100 million—comeback. There's also the residue of humiliation, of submitting to state authorities recently just to regain his license to box.
It's a horrible history, and it couldn't help but follow a person and poison his future. So Tyson sits on a stool in a Phoenix gym, a cinder-block building where space heaters are fired up each morning, and steels himself for the hatred he's certain is out there, at times resenting it, at times embracing it. He's so steeped in the sulfuric fumes of his own making that he can scarcely breathe.
"Nobody likes me," he says, measuring his listener for his melodrama threshold, the amount of gloom he might find reasonable. Nobody at all? "Nobody. I haven't been liked in so long, I'm just accustomed to it." Around him, however, are a fully functional family and some loyal, well-meaning supporters and advisers. Nobody at all? That's too much gloom for even these circumstances, and he realizes it. He adjusts the spin a little. "Kids like me," he says. But then he adds, "They don't know any better."
It's a practiced form of self-pity, a useful self-defense mechanism. Yet as he continues to hone it, there's less and less call for it. As boxing continues to profit from Tyson's hugely marketable malevolence, the truth is, he's not that malevolent any longer. He can still go off—his camp is an insecure one in that respect, its members fully aware that tents can be folded at a moment's notice—but he's more inclined to seek approval than the disdain he once devoured.
This is certainly reflected in his new management. Don King, who masterminded Tyson's postprison comeback by projecting Tyson as everyone's worst nightmare, is gone. Co-manager John Home, whose combative approach to public relations established Tyson as...everyone's worst nightmare, is gone too. Indeed, those two, along with another former co-manager, Rory Holloway, have been sued by Tyson for taking more than their share of his purses, although that might be the least of their sins. Gone, as well, are the yes-men trainers, Jay Bright and Richie Giachetti, who failed to connect Tyson to his youthful style, in which the accumulation of punches, not the single haymaker, spelled spectacular doom for opponents.
In their place is a retinue at odds with previous Team Tysons. Shelly Finkel, a New York businessman who managed Holyfield for 10 years, is the principal caretaker, and his optimism sometimes infects even Tyson. Tommy Brooks, who was in Holyfield's corner in both demolitions of Tyson, is now Tyson's no-nonsense trainer. Although Brooks says he realizes he's moved to "the edge" to train the still volatile Tyson, he's enthusiastic about restoring Tyson's power, that ability to "peel somebody's wig back."
Like the others before them, these handlers are in it for the money. Unlike the others, they're not in it only for the money. "You don't need to treat him like some kind of cash cow," Brooks suggests. And if they are in it only for the money, they're in it for less. Finkel says his fee will work out to less than 10% of Tyson's purses, maybe closer to 5%. "That's still a lot of money," he points out. But it's far less than the 50% that King and Home and Holloway pocketed.