One of those last words was particularly unctuous. Asked if the controversy would hurt the fight, King said, "I think all it will do is add a little bit more glamour to it." Glamour? Hardly. Profit? Absolutely. Even before the events in Indianapolis, the fight was certain to attract the largest pay-per-view audience ever and gross as much as $100 million, far more than any previous fight. Not one of the more than 30 participating local cable companies contacted last week by SI said it was contemplating not showing the fight. "Hey, the trial's not till January," said the marketing director of a major Midwestern cable outlet. "Let's pick up a few bucks and then see what happens in court."
"Personally, I think the guy's a real jerk," says Stephanie Walter, regional manager of pay-per-view for Paragon Cable of California, "but this is just business."
This is business, true, but business needs consumers. Could enough outraged consumers put pressure on the sponsors to get the fight put off? Perhaps, though predictions by King's archenemy, rival promoter Bob Arum, that massive boycotts by women's groups such as the National Organization for Women (NOW) would plague the fight have so far fallen flat. NOW has for the time being decided against a boycott. Says Rosemary Dempsey, the national vice-president of NOW, "We won't be manipulated into putting money in the pockets of Tyson's managers or his competitor's managers with a knee-jerk reaction. That would serve only to put the focus on the fight game and reward one promoter over the other, and not necessarily raise support for the victim or raise public consciousness about violence against women."
Surprised to find their good names associated with a highly lucrative but suddenly tainted event, the bout's corporate sponsors are trying to put the best face on their involvement. "We are supporting the event, not the two individuals," says Southland spokesman Don Cowan. The folks at Anheuser-Busch are saying essentially the same thing. But what is the event without the two individuals? That's like supporting the wedding, but not the bride and groom.
Some people aren't buying the sponsors' rationale. "If there was the possibility of losing money, they'd take the moral high ground quickly," says Weistart. "The minute the tide turned and the rape charge became so embarrassing it would threaten corporate profit, they'd pull the plug."
Southland currently bans Playboy and Penthouse from its 7-Eleven stores, but it hasn't backed out of its involvement with the fight. Is it wrong to show women naked but O.K. to abuse them?
Both companies say they are deferring to the Nevada Athletic Commission on the question of whether the fight should be held as scheduled. The commission could have invoked the "moral turpitude" clause in its rules—a clause that does not require a conviction for a fight to be scrapped but only a preponderance of evidence of wrongdoing—but it chose not even to hear arguments on the matter. According to the rules, only one of the five commissioners had to ask for a hearing on the Tyson situation and it would have been held. One commissioner, Las Vegas businessman Luther Mack, explained his no-action decision to News-day this way: "I'm prejudiced, because I want the fight to happen in Nevada." Mack knows that if Nevada passed on the fight, Atlantic City would snap it up.
TVKO wants the fight to happen anywhere. Its take could be as high as $40 million. Last week, TVKO boss Seth Abraham told The New York Times that TVKO is committed to the fight even though it knew that "greed and avarice would be attached to that decision." Abraham told SI, "This [the rape charge] becomes part of the story and that's regrettable. You can't pretend it's not there. The writers think we're going forward because of the money, but that's not why. It's not just, 'Let's count the cash'; we have a commitment and a contract with the promoter." What would Abraham say to angry women cable subscribers? "Justice will be served in Indianapolis," he replied, "not by TVKO."
Where does propriety fit into all this? How does it look to have an accused rapist vie for his sport's biggest prize? "If we cared how things looked," said Kathy Duva, wife of the fight's promoter, Dan Duva, and a spokesperson for the family's Main Events Productions, "we wouldn't be promoters."
Check the map. Boxing doesn't build high roads. The fight will almost certainly happen. And when it docs, where will the heavyweight division be? If Holyfield wins, he loses, in that he fought a man with a guillotine over his head. If Tyson wins, boxing loses. Do you want an accused rapist modeling your belt—even for a couple of months? And if Tyson wins and then winds up in the state prison in Michigan City, Ind., boxing really loses. If the champion goes to jail, the division will almost certainly revert to chaos. With the best heavyweight in the world behind bars, everyone else will be just a pretender; the era of huge money fights will be but a fond memory in the heavyweight division, and the lower weight classes, even with attractive fighters, will suffer the fallout as well. "What's the worst that can happen?" says Randy Gordon, the chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission. "He takes the belt with him to jail forever."