NEW YORK -- Mike Tyson became a defensive fighter yesterday at the kickoff news conference for his challenge of undisputed heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas on Nov. 8.
Ground rules were set before the two fighters began fielding questions from the media in the main ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria. No one was allowed to directly question Tyson about the rape charges filed by a teen-age Miss Black America beauty pageant contestant that are being investigated by a grand jury in Indianapolis.
Still, reporters tried to probe Tyson's psyche about possible distractions in preparing for Holyfield, and the former champion quickly dropped his defensive stance for his more familiar hellbent style.
"There is nothing on this planet Earth that can keep me from living my life or intimidate me," he said. "If you're a professional fighter, your object is to fight and win, regardless of distractions. And I'll tell you right now that I'm going to knock out Holyfield come Nov. 8."
The Las Vegas oddsmakers tend to agree that Tyson has tunnel vision when it comes to fighting, installing him as a 2-1 favorite over the unbeaten champion.
"Tyson is a strong-willed individual," said Holyfield's veteran head trainer, George Benton. "I don't think this [rape] investigation will bother him at all.
"He's doing what he likes to do best -- fighting. And he wants to prove a point, that losing the title to Buster Douglas was a fluke and that he's still the best fighter in the world."
Asked whether the negative flak might make Tyson even more fearsome, Benton smiled and said: "If you've got a naturally mean dog, it usually doesn't get any meaner or it will go insane and explode. No, I think there is a method to Tyson's madness."
Despite Tyson's repeated domestic and social problems, all systems are go for this heralded heavyweight showdown that will be fought without a catchy name like "The Thrilla In Manila," "Super Fight I" or the seemingly semiannual "Fight of the Century."
" 'Holyfield vs. Tyson' is enough to sell this fight. We don't need any phony hype," said promoter Dan Duva, noting that Caesars Palace sold out its 15,000-seat outdoor arena in a record 12 days despite a $1,200 price for ringside seats.
Duva, a New Jersey lawyer who negotiates Holyfield's purses (Holyfield will receive $30 million to Tyson's $15 million), also defended boxing's unsavory image and Tyson's right to due process.
"No one has the right to prejudge anybody," Duva said. "I can point out NFL, NBA and baseball players who were indicted but allowed to continue their sports careers. Here, in New York, you had Bernard King with the Knicks, and later Luis Polonia with the Yankees. They both faced criminal charges and possible imprisonment, but they were not stopped from pursuing their professions. Tyson deserves the same opportunity."
King was cleared of a sexual-assault charge when he played for the Utah Jazz in 1980.
Not all of Holyfield's supporters were so kind in defending Tyson. Lou Duva, the champion's camp coordinator and co-trainer, said: "Everyone's being too nice to each other. This is a fight, isn't it?"
Lou Duva then quoted Tyson's original trainer-manager, the late Cus D'Amato, who once said: "It is mental gears, not physical mechanisms, that determines the outcome of a ring war. Physical prowess can be overcome by will, determination and intelligence."
"And intelligence will make Holyfield the winner," said Duva, failing to get a rise out of Tyson, who named his son out of wedlock D'Amato in tribute to his late trainer.
Tyson said, "That's just Lou Duva speculating and underestimating my superior intelligence."
Characteristically, Holyfield was more phlegmatic.
"I have a lot of respect for Mike Tyson, but I can only be at my best when I fight the best fighters," said the champion. "I've fought all the guys who were good in my era, and Tyson is the last and the best of them all.
"But fighting is based on different dimensions. If a fighter is one-dimensional, relying strictly on power, he won't beat me. I use speed, strength and strategy. Beating Tyson would be the highlight of my career, and then I could consider retiring," said Holyfield, who will turn 29 next month.
Don King added his usual comic touch to the proceedings. Tyson's promoter-adviser managed to invoke the names of Julius Caesar, the Roman legions, Ulysses, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, the Greek sirens and several biblical characters into a 10-minute monologue on why Tyson deserved to reclaim the crown he lost to Douglas, a 40-1 underdog, in Tokyo on Feb. 11, 1990.
"Tyson will be leading all the Roman legions to Caesars Palace, and he will fight for all the people who have supported him through this period of deceit, treachery and betrayal," said King, alluding to his frustrating 17-month campaign to obtain a title match for the ex-champion. King even promised Holyfield a title rematch with Tyson, dismissing the "hamburger-eating" George Foreman as a legitimate challenger.
Holyfield's backers are hoping that Tyson keeps out of harm's way before the fall showdown in the desert.
Said Holyfield's manager, Shelly Finkel: "Tyson is so volatile, he could get hurt in a street fight. For now, at least, we've got ourselves a fight."