Tyson makes fighting demons his main ambition

DAMAGE is the new comedy. Self-loathing is this year's hottest Broadway ticket. You have to be there in the room to understand how Mike Tyson can hypnotise an audience not with what he does any longer, but what he says.

PAUL HAYWARD

Mike Tyson, left, is congratulated by Clifford Etienne, after the former heavyweight champion won the bout in the first round.-Pic. AP

DAMAGE is the new comedy. Self-loathing is this year's hottest Broadway ticket. You have to be there in the room to understand how Mike Tyson can hypnotise an audience not with what he does any longer, but what he says. Tyson has just switched Clifford Etienne's lights off 49 seconds into a particularly explosive encounter at the Pyramid Arena in Memphis, and we're settling back in our seats for another question-and-answer session with the raconteur of darkness.

The business of boxing is intricately choreographed and, with Etienne still wiping the sweat off his brow and touching his facial bumps, the conversation is pushed towards Lennox Lewis-Mike Tyson II, which is scheduled for June, probably back in the home of the blues. Tyson is playing hard to get. Money — his share of the deal, and how big he can make it — comes into it but so, too, does his obvious, human reluctance to keep going to the gym when he would rather be playing the Las Vegas playboy, dad, self-educator, survivor and all-round good-time guy.

What's expected of Tyson here is a resounding declaration from a 36-year-old father of at least three that he will train his short black socks off for the Lewis rematch; that he will somehow go back to being the malevolent destroyer from the Eighties that so many Americans still insist on seeing. But Tyson can't make that promise, however forcibly financial logic prods him towards a second encounter with Lewis. This is what he says: "I've just got some issues to deal with. I don't know if I can love anyone. And I definitely don't believe that anyone can love me. Boxing's cool, but I've got some serious, serious demons I'm fighting.''

The Mike Tyson monologues are now more compelling than anything he does in the ring, where a dismal pattern of ear-biting, attempted arm-breaking and referee-manhandling has abated. After the Lewis fight, Tyson stroked the face of the victor and professed his love for the champion's mum. When he incapacitated Etienne with a straight right hand he bent down to the canvas and helped the victim up. Why? "I'm a domesticated animal,'' he explained, and the room shook with laughter.

There was plenty more where this came from — and none of it related much to the original questions, which mostly kept their ambitions low. "I've been doing this for probably 23 or 25 years. I'm 36 and I haven't received any dignity from it, I've received a lot of pain from it. It's made me not like Mike Tyson very much. When you guys show me love, I hate you. Because I don't like myself. So we've a got a Catch 22 with my own identity. That's why I'm very harsh, very tyrannical. I don't care whether I live or die."

If you look at the tape of the fight, you will see Etienne remove his gumshield through his glove as he lays on his back two seconds into a 10-second count. This is not the act of a semi-conscious man. It was the kind of motion you are more likely to see from someone who has been ordered by his wife not to pull out of a fight. In choosing not to trouble Tyson any further, Etienne became president of the Self-Preservation Society, and took plenty of abuse for it, too. "When I was leaving the ring, a Caucasian man called me a pussy,'' he complained later. "Unharmed dollar-millionaire'' would have been a more pertinent description.

Etienne was a bit-part player in every sense. He was selected for his rampaging style and his crystal chin. His job was to make Lewis-Tyson II appear credible. That trick of the light has now been achieved. Lewis-Tyson I drew only 256 more punters than Tyson-Etienne. But Tyson himself knows he's probably heading for another beating in the ring with Lewis. Money is his boss, his addiction, his curse. No longer can he conceal his manifold vulnerabilities behind a facade of world-hating belligerence.

Here is the proof: "I wish it'd gone more rounds. I'm pleased because it was exciting for the crowd — but fighters need rounds. Fighters need to be active. I'm not going to beat no fighter like Lennox Lewis if I don't get rounds. I need more fights before I can face him. That's just the way it is. An inactive fighter can't beat a consummate, active fighter. It's not going to happen.

"When I was 19 or 20, I could miss training for a month and go beat a guy. I was egotistical. But you get caught up in it, and then one day, before you know, somebody wants it just as much as you do. I don't mean to be crude, but that's what we're in: a crude, barbaric, bloodthirsty sport. You guys look at me and say: `Wow, this guy is crazy.' But what kind of business am I in''

It was pointed out to him that he has already signed a deal compelling him to meet Lewis next. And you could see the smiles on the faces of his promoters freeze when he demanded to be allowed one or even two more preparatory fights. "It has to be practical. There's no way I can fight guys like Lewis. Hopefully I'll get a lot of money — though it's never what they offer you. It's just that Lewis doesn't fit in with my plan. Real fighters need to go rounds and rounds and rounds.''

Amid the usual promotional hype, a simpler truth about Tyson's life demanded to be heard. He told us straight. "I haven't been professional in a long time. I like doing other things. I like getting high, I like hanging out with my kids, I like drinking a little. I just want to do what I want to do. If I want to be with a woman when I'm supposed to be training, that's what I'll do.

"Me and my team aren't saying we're great. I'm just saying we're making great efforts. I'm just here in the world. Nobody knows why we're here, what we're doing, why we're living. Everybody's looking for cryptic messages in The Bible, The Koran. Even if we work these cryptic messages out, are we going to get a reward?'' And on he goes. "People come to boxing not to see consummate fighters but to see someone get hurt, knocked out. That's the whole barbaric nature of the sport. There are some who want to observe technique — one style against another. But styles don't make fights. Morale makes fights. You could be a slugger, or have more skill, but the one who wins is the one who has more determination, more desire. Everybody loses sometime. They lose in the ring, they lose in life. Losing is an ingredient in winning.''

There was one small clue to what happened when Tyson went AWOL from the gym for five days. "I had these little parent episodes. I don't know, man: I'm in no state to look after anybody.'' Laughter shook the room again.

Copyright, Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2003