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It never ends well, not for men whose unique pathology requires a life of hand-to-hand combat, but it rarely ends worse than this: a once gifted fighter, at times the richest and most notorious athlete of his generation, now sitting on the canvas in a Louisville field house, his right arm draped casually along a lower rope, his left knee propped up—as if comfortable at last—examining his pitiless future through gauzy eyes.
That Mike Tyson had been driven there by a British heavyweight named Danny Williams, whose previous fame in boxing came from his admitted tendency to cry before big fights, made the point beyond any possible ambivalence: This really was the end. At 38, almost a decade past his last meaningful win, Tyson could no longer subdue even the glorified stuntman promoters had found for this latest and most desperate comeback. He had been denied a certain measure of redemption—of his reputation as well as his finances—and dissipated any fear of him that remained within the sport. It was over.
The shock of it, the unlikely sight of Williams hammering Tyson with as many as 27 unanswered punches late in the fourth round before Tyson simply sank against the ropes (without even a knockout punch; the final blow hit Tyson's glove), was emphatic enough to preclude further fantasy, or any additional gassing about Tyson's properties as a meal ticket That this was a pay-per-view event, earning him as much as $8 million, meant that there were still plenty of viewers who would place a $45 bet that Tyson could reinvent himself. That was a lottery-sized proposition, this being Mike Tyson, but the potential payoff was huge, this being boxing, heavyweight-celebrity division.
But not even the crushing burden of personal debt—he is $38 million in arrears—should lure him back to the ring after this. A knee injury from the first round, torn cartilage, his camp says, will not likely be used to explain his diminished effectiveness on Friday. ( Tyson, for whatever you think of him, does not cling to excuses; anyway, he had bigger problems than a bum knee.) Instead it might more easily justify his exit.
The larger fact is, even as he remains the reference point for heavyweight boxing, both good and bad, he can no longer support big-budget promotions. His PPV days are done if he cannot beat Danny Williams. And do you believe that Tyson would endure any grassroots, George Foreman-style comeback, fighting D fighters on undercards in Phoenix? And just so he could one day fight...whom? Danny Williams?
No, it has to be over. And just when he seemed to be getting back on track.
It would be nice to believe that it wasn't just the motivation of his debt that prompted the emergence of this new Mike Tyson, his fury refined for another round of mass-market consumption. Well, there was that debt. Spending $412,000 on lion, tiger and pigeon care alone, getting divorced and not being timely with government bills can get a guy in a hole. But getting out of it was going to be a cinch. Lawyers submitted a plan to bankruptcy court that would put Tyson in the ring seven times, skimming just $2 million a fight for himself, the rest for creditors.
This seemed, if anything, overly modest in a heavyweight division ripe for the plucking. It's true, he hadn't fought in 17 months, but the current champions—Lamon Brewster, Chris Byrd, Vitali Klitschko, John Ruiz—were so lacking in box-office punch that it was easy to imagine Tyson, even just slightly retooled, competing for a title. The prospect seemed so likely that promoter Bob Arum, who once called Tyson "deranged," was willing to get on board with a $100 million contract.
Yet this didn't appear to be entirely about money, at least not for Tyson. He really did seem rededicated to boxing, as sport this time, not spectacle. Whereas he once bit Lennox Lewis on the leg during their pre-fight buildup (and, additionally, threatened to eat his children), he was now sympathizing with his often overwrought foe. "Fighters have things to cry about," he explained.
Tyson understood that he had squandered his place in boxing history; his phenomenal promise during the late 1980s vanished in a haze of high living, not to mention three years away for a rape conviction. Still, he was above all else a boxer, retro in his tastes, admiring of fighters who spent their careers in honest effort. While he was in Louisville, he made a point of visiting Muhammad Ali's childhood home, an homage of sorts.