LAS VEGAS -- If it were merely a matter of weighing the two heavyweights on past performances and relative skills, picking Mike Tyson to again destroy Donovan "Razor" Ruddock at The Mirage tonight would bea simple matter.
A few years ago, Mike Tyson, the fighter, was an easy read: a pure, unfettered warrior with tunnel vision, destroying anything in his path.
But now Tyson, two days shy of 25, is the subject of so mucintrigue and innuendo that no one is quite sure which Mike Tyson will be present when he climbs through the ropes at the makeshift outdoor arena.
Many said Tyson, a world champion and millionaire by 21, would find peace of mind outside the ring after his separation from actressRobin Givens, a brief marriage marred by constant fighting, suicide threats and a medical opinion that the fighter was a manic depressive.
But, if anything, Tyson has managed to create more lurid headlines and speculation that he is hellbent for self-destruction.
There have been repeated reports of harassing women in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, fights, both verbal and physical, with promoter Don King, sporadic training for the Ruddock rematch and mounting anger over King's failure to nail down a title fight with heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield.
If you believe all the rumors, Tyson, who once called himself "the baddest man on the planet," had now become a walking time bomb.
"Yellow journalism," King said during a satellite news conference last week. "It's really disrespectful to Mike Tyson, a brilliant young man and fighter. But success breeds discontent. You've got to take the bitter with the sweet."
In a recent unflattering portrayal of Tyson in USA Today, King, who allegedly was slapped by Tyson, was quoted as saying, "The kid's a pain, but for the money, I can put up with it."
King denied the quote and reports that he owes Tyson $7 million from previous fights. He said harmony within "Team Tyson" was never better.
"There is so much envy and jealousy out there," King said. "If Mike is so much trouble, how come there are 30 guys trying to take my place? They must be freaks for flagellation, sadistic and masochistic."
Tyson is more phlegmatic in dispelling the rumors.
"All this stuff used to bother me, but now I'm at the stage where I don't give a damn," he said.
"It's always something. Two weeks before every fight, someone brings up something that happened years ago. Hey, if I ever hit Don King, I'd kill him. I'm absolutely not leaving him. Not now, not after this fight."
With or without King, a number of Tyson-watchers say he is not the same fighter who registered a string of quick knockouts capped by his 91-second demolition of Michael Spinks in June 1988.
But then Tyson's aura of invincibility began to fade. Eight months later, he was stunned by Frank Bruno before stopping him in five rounds. A year later in Tokyo, he suffered his knockout defeat by 40-to-1 underdog James "Buster" Douglas.
Again, in his first match with Ruddock last March, Tyson looked all too human when the Canadian shook him in the sixth round with a barrage of left hooks and uppercuts. Tyson regrouped and left Ruddock on the ropes in the seventh round when referee Richard Steele stopped it.
Steele's action prompted a post-fight confrontation in mid-ring between the fighters' handlers. The controversy sparked interest, leading to tonight's rematch.
Tyson's knockouts of Henry Tillman, Alex Stewart and Ruddock since losing his crown to Douglas 16 months ago have failed to convince the critics that he has recaptured his form.
"Tyson still punches hard, but his skills aren't the same," said Eddie Futch, a veteran trainer who handled former champions Ken Norton, Joe Frazier, Larry Holmes and Spinks.
Adds Teddy Atlas, one of Tyson's early tutors: "He's still dangerous, but now he fights in spurts. And when he moves inside, he doesn't punch too much.
"If you can survive those 20- or 30-second assaults every round and test him, we'll see what's inside Mike. But I don't think he wants us to. I think he's a little scared."
Ruddock, 27, says he got caught up in the pre-fight buildup last March and abandoned his fight plan, turning macho much as Sugar Ray Leonard did in his first championship bout with Roberto Duran.
"That style wasn't mine," said Ruddock, who became a one-handed fighter, abandoning his jab and footwork in favor of throwing bombs. "I got in there and wanted to fight him. But I can change. Tyson has only one style -- to come forward and punch."
But Tyson said he will be even more thorough this time, not leaving the decision to end the fight in the referee's hands.
"I was looking at films of some of my early fights when I was 18 and 19," he said. "I'm convinced I'm much stronger now. My guns [fists] are loaded. I am going to knock Ruddock out cold, and that will end all the rumors."
At least until he signs to fight Holyfield.
What: 12-round heavyweight bout between Mike Tyson (40-136 KOs) and Donovan "Razor" Ruddock (25-2-1, 18 KOs)
When: Under card at 9, main bout at approximately 11
Where: The Mirage, Las Vegas
Local viewing: Balls, 200 W. Pratt St., 659-5844; Pimlico Race Course, 5201 Park Heights Ave., 542-9400; Pikesville Hilton Inn, 1726 Reisterstown Road, 653-1100; Twins, 21 S. Calvert St., 576-7735; Laurel Sports Bar, Route 198 & Racetrack Road, 725-0400; all $25.
Tale of the tape
.. ..Tyson .. .. .. .. Ruddock
Age 24 .. .. .. .. .. .27
Weight 216 .. .. .. . 238
Height 5-11 1/2 .. .. . .6-3
Reach 71 .. .. .. . . .82
Chest (normal) 43 . . .47
Chest (expanded) 45 . .49
Biceps 16.. .. .. .. . 16 1/2
Forearm 14 . . . . . . 15
Waist 34 . . . . . . . 34
Thigh 27 . . . . . . . 26 1/2
Calf 18 . . . . . . . .18
Neck 19 3/4 . . . . . . . 17 1/2
Wrist 8 . . . . . . . .8
Fist 13 . . . . . . . .13 1/2
Ankle 11 . . . . . . .10