The sense of jeopardy was heightened as promoters went to elaborate and comical measures to ensure the fighters' safety. Or was it to satisfy the promoters' insurers? Of course, given that Tyson had bitten Lewis's leg in January, well, it never hurts to be prepared when there's $100 million at stake. Who knows what he might bite next. And who knows what it will cost.
But it was one thing to have separate press conferences (separated by one day and one casino in nearby Tunica, Miss.) and separate weigh-ins, and quite another to have separate ring announcers (alternating introductions) and quite another to have separate ringsides. What was the public supposed to think on Saturday when a fleet of 12 security men formed a diagonal across the ring to prevent contact between the fighters during those always volatile introductions? Presumably, onlookers were supposed to think they were getting their money's worth.
That was the entire premise of the promotion, though: that just about anything could happen. Seeing as how almost anything already had happened in a Tyson fight (he's bitten others besides Lewis, as we hate to remind you, and done plenty else in the ring), it wasn't an implausible premise. Steward, Lewis's trainer, was with the program when he said, "With these two guys in the ring it's like dynamite is all over the place. I'm nervous that somebody might throw a match in there. It's going to be explosive."
Out the window was the idea that two men in their mid-30s, each with championship tenure, might behave professionally on the most important night of their careers. Sadly that's not where the money is. Nobody was paying $2,400 ringside, or even $55 couchside, to see anything so routine as a prizefight. To justify the commerce this event was expected to generate, there had to be the possibility of catastrophe, or the illusion of that possibility. For this kind of money—we're talking at least $17.5 million apiece for fighters who, by any boxing logic, should have met five years ago, and no later—there had to be the probability of disaster. Really, this was a calamity, staged for your convenience. The charge would simply appear on your cable bill.
Tyson was easily adapted to these promotional uses. Though he seemed to have a professional respect for Lewis, whom he sparred with as a youngster, he was coaxed into his usual inflammatory rhetoric. Having already said he would "smear [ Lewis's] pompous brains across the canvas," Tyson was now insisting, "I'm just ready to get it on and crush this guy's skull."
Tyson was apparently so unhinged in the days leading up to the fight mat he couldn't be trusted to speak at his own (separate) press conference. His flunky assistants, trainer Ronnie Shields and assistant trainer Stacey McKinley, instead delivered diatribes on his behalf. As usual it was possible to wonder if Tyson was his own worst enemy or if his dodoes were the problem. Already overburdened with idiotic aides-de-camp (the banished trainer Panama Lewis, the professional hollerer Steve Fitch), Tyson now had the even more idiotic McKinley calling Lewis a coward in as profane a rant as has been heard this side of HBO. Come to think of it, Tyson distinguished himself by his absence.
Tyson conducted a "secret" press conference the following day (where no actual press was allowed), meeting with schoolchildren after his Wednesday workout. For that he seemed real and, contrary to promotional purposes, oddly human. He told the kids, "I've never been in the South before, but I went into downtown Memphis last Friday and everyone looked like me. Everyone had gold teeth in their mouth."
And why, the children asked, didn't he have more endorsements, or rather any at all? He laughed. "You think I wouldn't like to be on a Wheaties box? But it's just not in me to say, 'Yes, sir,' and 'No, sir.' It's just not in me." Finally one child had the temerity that most of his elders lacked. He asked why Tyson had bitten Evander Holyfield's ear in his disastrous and career-defining fight in 1997. His handlers frantically waved the question aside, and you could imagine the child being removed and destroyed in a back room, but Tyson laughed again. "I don't know why I bit that man's ear," he said. "I was upset. I'm stupid."
If he had just said that in the first place, he might have avoided a lot of sanctions, a lot of reprobation, a lot of his crushing debt. But preferring his tortured and complicated life, he veered instead into needless melodrama, where every act and rant was subjected to inspection to determine his psychological fitness.
Danger was his business! Lawyers had to insert a clause in the contracts stipulating that an "onerous foul" disqualification would cost a fighter—meaning Tyson—$3 million. For that matter, what city would have him? As Las Vegas washed its hands of him, and other cities did too, only Memphis stepped forward to host the fight. Tyson was simply too unstable to trust with a municipal reputation. He could bring a whole metropolis down. Thus, the steep deterrent.