Tyson (45-3, 45-3, 39 KOs), the onetime self-proclaimed ``baddest man on the planet,'' whose turbulent, played-out-in-public life suggests ``The Truman Show,'' officially returns to center stage tonight when he takes on South Africa's Francois Botha (39-1, 24 KOs) in a scheduled 10-round bout at the MGM Grand. But then the spotlight never really is off Tyson, whose highly publicized psychological, legal and personal entanglements have almost obscured the fact that, in the 1990s, he has fought a total of 22 rounds while going 8-3.
A decade's worth of relative inactivity - the Botha bout is his first in 19 months - wouldn't seem to be the stuff that boxing legends are made of, but then the image of most great fighters is based on their on-the-job performance. Tyson, the ear-chewing convicted rapist, has been portrayed as much as an amalgamation of Jeffrey Dahmer, Hannibal Lecter and Norman Bates as of Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali.
Alternately boastful and self-pitying, Tyson, 32, comes off as someone whose greatest challenger should have been Sigmund Freud, not Holyfield.
In downplaying the March 13 heavyweight unification bout in New York's Madison Square Garden between Holyfield, the World Boxing Association/International Boxing Federation champion, and Lennox Lewis, the World Boxing Council titlist, Tyson comes across as the surly, arrogant and supremely confident destroyer of old.
``If I fight on the same night, they're out of a job,'' he bragged to the media earlier this week. ``I'm the champ when I'm not the champ. When they're champ, I'm the king. I'm Mike Tyson and Mike Tyson is gonna be Mike Tyson.''
When Tyson - the one who won his first heavyweight title at 20, and whose reign of terror had many experts predicting he would become the greatest fighter ever, if indeed he already wasn't - said things like that in the past, opponents cowered in fear.
The look of undisguised terror on the faces of Tyrell Biggs, Alex Stewart, Carl ``The Truth'' Williams, Henry Tillman, Frank Bruno and Bruce Seldon, among others, preordained the outcome of Tyson's spectacularly brutal knockout victories. All of the victims were effectively beaten before the first punch was thrown.
But Douglas's 1990 knockout of an unfocused, unprepared, too-full-of-himself Tyson opened a crack in his veneer of invincibility, and the intimidating walls of Jericho came tumbling down when Holyfield defeated Tyson, physically and mentally, in back-to-back fights in 1996 and 1997. Holyfield won on an 11th-round TKO in the first; in the second, Tyson became so discombobulated that he chewed off a piece of Holyfield's ear before being disqualified by referee Mills Lane following the third round.
Botha, who doesn't have particularly good mobility or punching power, but does seem to absorb punishment well, looks at what he believes Tyson has become and insists he isn't afraid of the big, bad wolf.
``He said I was going to die [in this fight],'' Botha said. ``That doesn't scare me. I can't be scared. My mind's my biggest asset.
``In the future, I'm going to be as big as Mike Tyson is now. He's shown his chin in vulnerable. If you look at his physique, he's in tremendous condition. But it only takes on punch to rule the whole fight. I'm going to hit him with that punch.''
It could be that Botha, the ``White Buffalo,'' who briefly held the IBF championship in 1995 until his decision over Germany's Axel Schulz was vacated after he tested positive for steroids, has unshakable faith in his own abilities. Then again, maybe he's been paying attention to the statements by the other Mike Tyson, the one who is less a swaggering bully than a knotted ball of insecurities.
When he wasn't sneering and glowering, or being triggered by inquisitive media types into profane outbursts that have made him boxing's answer to Def Comedy Jam, Tyson has portrayed himself as more abused than abuser. What's to fear of someone who is so psychologically fragile?
``I'm just a baby lamb, a sheep, a fawn for the lions to eat alive,'' Tyson said, referring to the goldfish-bowl existence he has lived since he was a teenager. ``I haven't died yet, but I feel like I've been to hell.
``I was 21 years old when I was the champion. I thought I was a man, but I was a child. People want to be famous. They want to be wealthy - until they get it.''
Tyson offered still another revealing insight into himself in an interview with ESPN's Roy Firestone.
``I'm a real pessimist,'' Tyson said. ``All my life I've been that way. There's no one who goes through more mood swings than me. My wife [pediatrician Monica Turner Tyson] must be up the wall. Like, `Who am I married to today? Who is this guy? Frankenstein? The Wolf Man?' ''
Botha, who took a memorable shellacking from Michael Moorer in 1996 but kept on coming until Moorer finally was awarded a 12th-round TKO, has to believe he has a chance to pull the upset if he can weather Tyson's early pressure, take the bout into the middle rounds and, hopefully, plant a seed of doubt into that conflicted mind. More than a few longshot bettors in this gambling capital believe it's a feasible scenario; Botha, who opened as a 12 1/2-1 underdog, has been wagered down to 5 1/2-1.
``Don't expect a walkover,'' said Hall of Fame trainer Lou Duva, who worked Moorer's corner for the Botha fight and whose son-in-law, Tommy Brooks, has been serving as Tyson's new, no-nonsense trainer. ``Every time this Botha guy got hurt [by Moorer], he came right back. He's no Peter McNeeley,'' the oafish opponent Tyson beat in one round in 1995, in his first fight back after serving three years on the rape conviction.
``It's a winnable fight for Botha. I don't think he will win, but I think Tyson will have some anxious moments before he knocks Botha out. Does Tyson still have the confidence? What happens when he gets hit on the chin? These are all unanswered questions.''
Also unanswered, sort of, is the question concerning Tyson's continuing hold on the public. The 15,000-seat Grand Garden Arena is not sold out, a situation that is causing some distress to officials of the MGM Grand.
``Did Tyson fights sell faster in the past?'' Don Welsh, vice president of marketing and sales for the MGM, asked as the anticipated rush on the box office failed to materialize. ``They have sold out as quick as hours.
``If we find out tickets are still available and have not moved, we have to assume there may be damage [to Tyson's saleability] in the marketplace.''
Just another rust spot on Iron Mike.
PREDICTION Tyson is vulnerable, maybe more than ever, but the limited Botha won't be the one to topple what remains of his once-fearsome mystique. Tyson by fourth-round TKO.
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