Tyson will return, but will his fans?

MIKE LITTWIN

March 27, 1992|By MIKE LITTWIN

They carted Mike Tyson off to prison yesterday. It's a remarkable ending to his story, although probably not the actual, final ending. This particular ending is more likely a midpoint.

Sentenced to six years and perhaps out in three, Tyson can be expected to fight another day. In three years he'll be 28. He'll be rested. And, besides, in the Larry Holmes/George Foreman era, when comebacks begin at 40, Tyson could have gotten life and still have been back on the streets with time to salvage a career.

But to suggest that Tyson will someday return to the ring is not to minimize the remarkable events of the day. Tyson was convicted of a terrible crime, and now he'll pay a terrible price. Has any athlete ever fallen so far so fast?

They stripped Muhammad Ali of his heavyweight title, and they nearly sent him to jail. But the circumstances of that case could not have been more different. When Ali refused to enter the Army, in what he called an act of conscience, he was condemned by many as a traitor but also hailed by supporters as a hero. Tell me: Who can defend the act of rape?

There were others who fell from grace, of course. Shoeless Joe Jackson was kicked out of baseball, but he didn't go to prison. Denny McLain and Billy Cannon went to prison, but long after their careers had ended. Jack Johnson's problems with the law were probably rooted in bigotry.

Pete Rose was a sports hero to surpass even Tyson, but he was no longer a player when he was convicted of tax evasion. And basically Rose did violence only to himself. Tyson did violence to a defenseless woman, and, according to her testimony, he laughed at her pain.

It seems Tyson's descent is unmatched. Although he'd lost his ** championship, Tyson was the most famous boxer in the world. And, now, even while his appeal is being prepared, he is locked up because the judge said he is too dangerous to be allowed to walk the streets. How much farther is there to fall?

(Actually, there may be room for him to sink. Let's watch as we see how the pending civil suits brought against Tyson by several women -- alleging he did them violence -- play out.)

And yet, some day Tyson will be out of prison. If he survives the hard time in reasonable condition, it is safe to suggest that not long after the gates swing open, he will want to fight again.

How do you think he would be received? All you can be sure of is that it would be a time of great emotion, and of great fury. I'm guessing Tyson's return would be a lightning rod like none seen in the sports world since Ali came back from exile to a nation still divided on Vietnam.

Picture a Tyson fight, brought to you courtesy of Don King and Donald Trump and others similarly enlightened. At the least, the fight would be met by pickets from women's groups who would ask, and forcibly, how such a man should be able to profit so richly. How is one to respond?

Should Tyson be allowed to fight again? The easy answer is yes. Tyson is a fighter by profession. If he were a plumber and he had done his time, no one would say he shouldn't be allowed to fix sinks. But it's more complicated than that.

No one is asked to root for a plumber. No one sells tickets to watch people wade in backed-up water. But as it happens, in the fight game, the sick truth is that a rap sheet is generally seen as an asset. If Tyson were a singer or an actor, he'd be finished in the business. No one, not Tom Cruise or Michael Jackson, could survive a rape conviction. But, if anything, Tyson would be a bigger draw the second time around. They'd come to see what the slammer took out of him. Or they'd come to see him get his head handed to him. Or they'd come because all the heat and light surrounding Tyson would be irresistible.

Legally, Tyson would have every right to fight. Ethically, you could make an argument for him as well. Don't we, as Americans, believe in the clean-slate theory? Don't we believe that people can rehabilitate themselves in prison? If not, all convicts should rot in jail.

But what about the money? The money complicates everything, doesn't it? We have problem enough with shortstops who hit .240 and make a million dollars when teachers and firefighters are being furloughed. We'd have more of a problem with a 1996 fight between Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield in which a recently-sprung Tyson would earn, say, $30 million. It wouldn't seem right.

What it would be is another in a series of lessons about heroes and how we choose them. Whatever some misguided ministers might want to tell us, Tyson is no hero. That doesn't mean you can stop a freed Tyson from fighting, because you can't. But here's a little dream of mine: What if, a few years hence, they threw a Mike Tyson fight and nobody came?

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