Tuesday, May 24, 2005
Updated: August 7, 12:47 AM ET
Tyson's act still plays, but can he win?
By Thomas Gerbasi
The story's the same as it always was, at least in the second (or is it third?) life of one Michael Gerard Tyson. "He's in the best shape of his life," they say of their man, who they declare is dedicated to once again ruling the heavyweight division with the iron fists that revitalized the game in the post-Ali era.
But then again, what would you expect to be said about this fighter, or any fighter for that matter? It's the old question that is asked every day the "icebreaker" so to speak to which you already know the answer, mainly because if there was some negative truth to be spoken, the fighter isn't going to tell you about it.
What are the members of Team Tyson going to say? They're selling a pay-per-view fight on June 11 against Kevin McBride. Everything is going to be peachy in the land of Iron Mike. It's part of the game, and it's part of the ritual that precedes every fight these days.
So let's put that aside and look a little deeper. Ask Tom Patti, one of the last remaining links to Tyson's first life, about Mike Tyson circa 2005. After you get through the talk of his hard work, looking great, etc., etc., you get to a true answer from someone who knows him pretty well. And it's a sign of hope for the fans who would want nothing less than to see Tyson once again at the top of the heavyweight division.
"He's not creating any excuses for himself," said Patti. "And whether you can have a psychological up or down day, Mike is paying no mind to that and he just comes to the gym and works."
At 38, maybe Tyson has grown up. Maybe, with his lifestyle thrown in upheaval by bankruptcy filings and the realization that he may wind up like some of the old-time fighters he worshipped, the Brooklyn native has looked in the mirror and decided that this is indeed his last chance to set himself up for life after boxing. To do that, he will have to go to the gym every day, even when he doesn't feel like it, even when his personal life intrudes, and work.
Yet as he approaches 40, even a rigorous schedule and complete focus may not be enough. Sure, it should be enough to beat the Kevin McBrides of the world, but what happens when the level of competition gets amped up and Tyson is facing younger and bigger foes, intent on adding an old gunslinger to their belts?
This is not the same wrecking ball that dominated boxing in 1986. And that may be the problem, since the media and the fans expect a grown man with years of mileage on him to be a ferocious 21-year-old kid again.
"I don't think it's too much to expect Mike to have some of the same intensity from when he was 15, 18, 20 years old," said Patti. "And I'll tell you why he has incredible speed still, and he has striking power that has never gone away. So if you put Mike in a situation where he is fully conditioned and he has the interest to fight, you have as dangerous a fighter if not more so, because he has more experience."
"I saw Mike working the other day," added Patti, "and I told him, 'Mike I know you from the gym since you were a teenager, and if I look at you right now and looked at you when you were 16 years old, therešs absolutely no difference with your speed and power.'"
Tyson was incredulous.
"Really?" he replied.
Patti might have more insight into Tyson than anyone around the former heavyweight champion today. A former boxer himself, Patti was there in the formative years, when the wayward soul from Brownsville was molded into a future champion. To him, Tyson is still the same person he was back then.
"It's the same guy," said Patti. "Same shy smile, same goofiness, same up and down, same insecurities, same passion and same focus. Sometimes he feels like he's wearing the weight of the world on his shoulders, but he felt that way back then too. I see the same guy, and I look at him as my little brother, the same brother from back then. I'm proud of him for all that he's done and all that he's survived. I look at him with great pride."
But after a serious knee injury suffered in his knockout loss to Danny Williams last summer, another change in trainers (this time from Freddie Roach to Jeff Fenech), and the usual circus that follows Tyson around, can he realistically make a run at a heavyweight title, even if the division is seen as lacking in quality?
"Unquestionably," said Patti. "All the heavyweights should be on alert because Mike Tyson's on the move. Last year, if Mike's knee didn't blow out, right now you [would be] looking at Mike having a major fight with a title holder. No doubt about it. When he turns to me or Jeff after sparring, he goes, 'I feel it. I really feel it this time.' He said he's really excited for the next four or five fights, and moving on to where he needs to go."
Tyson turns 39 in June, and you would expect that unless an unprecedented deal presents itself, he won't be fighting for a world title until he hits 40. Forty-year-olds don't rise to the top of their sports too often, especially in a young man's game like boxing. Just ask Evander Holyfield, who at 42 has lost three straight bouts, each recent performance more dismal than the last. Ask Lennox Lewis, who at 39 is comfortably enjoying retirement, smart enough to leave the game on top.
But Holyfield and Lewis, both with substantial bank accounts and outside business interests, don't need boxing.
And as much as Tyson has been vilified in the press over the years, and with as many blows as he has taken, in and out of the ring some justified, some not he still walks up those four steps to fight.
It's all he has left.
In the ring, he can still intimidate, still enthrall and still be relevant all at the same time. Retirement could never provide such thrills or such paydays.
"Who enters the ring and has Mike's aura?" asked Patti. "Nobody. That's a once in a lifetime experience and I think that's carrying over, and people are still fascinated by him."
As long as we're fascinated, we'll still buy the tickets and the pay-per-views. That's what Tyson has to be hoping for to get him out of his financial doldrums. It wasn't always what he wanted. His goals were simpler back when he first put on the gloves, when his shadowboxing in the room above would wake up Tom Patti at night. Recently, after a mob of fans swarmed him at the Phoenix gym where he's set up camp, Tyson spoke to his long-time friend about it.
"Back when I was a kid I wanted to be a fighter," Tyson told Patti, "and I thought boxing people might appreciate me and maybe I could win a championship, but I never thought it would be this big. It still trips me out."
Kid Dynamite's a man now. In boxing years, he's a senior citizen. But in a career (and life) that has had more twists and turns than a high-budget blockbuster, would it be too much to ask for a Hollywood ending?
Act III begins on June 11.