LAS VEGAS -- The most popular game this week on The Strip has not been blackjack, craps or roulette, but rather speculation about which Mike Tyson will show up tonight for his 10-round fight against Peter McNeeley following a four-year absence from the ring.
Will it be the Tyson who dominated boxing from 1987 to 1989, when he ruled as undisputed heavyweight champion? Or will it be the under-motivated, troubled fighter who was upset by Buster Douglas in Tokyo in 1990 and showed signs of vulnerability in his second fight with Razor Ruddock in June 1991?
The Ruddock bout was Tyson's last ring appearance before he was charged with and later convicted of raping a teen-age beauty pageant contestant and sentenced to three years in prison at the Indiana Youth Center.
Tyson, 29, has spent the last four months training to fight the lightly tested McNeeley. Reunited with promoter Don King and co-managers Rory Holloway and John Horne, Tyson will earn a record guaranteed purse of $25.5 million for the pay-per-view fight.
There have been attempts to compare Tyson's return with that of Muhammad Ali, who was exiled from the ring for three years in 1967 after refusing induction into the Army on religious grounds.
But Emanuel Steward, who trained champions Tommy Hearns and Michael Moorer, said that a dramatic difference in styles makes the comparison fallacious.
"Ali was a superior boxer, like a Ray Robinson or Willie Pep, built for longevity," Steward said. "But power fighters like Tyson tend to burn out faster."
There is another marked difference. Ali fought Jerry Quarry, a legitimate contender, in his 1970 ring return. In Tyson's case, he is a prohibitive 25-to-1 favorite over McNeeley, whose flimsy ring resume and one-dimensional brawling style appear to make him a perfect foil.
Boxing analysts believe tonight's fight could end as quickly as the first toe-to-toe exchange. Betting parlors are getting BTC substantial wagering at $1.70-to-$1 that the fight won't go past the second round.
"Mike will land a hard body shot, follow with an uppercut, and it will be over," said Janks Morton, Sugar Ray Leonard's former trainer.
Reports from Tyson's insular training camp say he has sent a number of sparring partners home early after punishing them.
Former welterweight champion Lloyd Honeyghan, who recently joined Tyson's team, said, "He's awesome. I saw him drop a 6-foot-7 sparring partner [Nate Tubbs] like a tree. He's acting as mean as a bee with a bad head."
Some boxing insiders say Tyson benefited from his enforced layoff.
Richie Giachetti, Larry Holmes' former trainer, told Boxing Illustrated the time off has helped the former champion.
"When Mike was fighting before, he'd complain to me, 'Richie, why do I have to fight so often? I want to do other things.' I know he was tired and didn't want to take the Douglas fight.
"But he couldn't get the time off. Being off so long has restored his fire. He's got the desire to be heavyweight champion again, and I believe he could fight any of the present champions by the end of the year and win the title back."
Vinny Pazienza, the former lightweight and welterweight champ who sat out a year because of a spinal injury, said he doesn't believe Tyson will be affected by his inactivity.
"I know Mike a long time," said Pazienza. "We were roommates in 1982, trying to make the Olympic team. He's got this reputation of a killer because he knocks everyone out. But he's really not the bravest guy in the world. He has self-doubts.
"But all that doesn't matter against this guy he's fighting. McNeeley can only go one way," laughed Pazienza, pointing to the floor.
Denigrating McNeeley, who has compiled a 36-1 record against a procession of obscure fighters, has been an easy matter.
"My basic feeling is that I think Mike is embarrassed to be fighting McNeeley," said Bill Cayton, who managed Tyson's career before losing him to Don King.
"Mike is a man who has great pride and great respect for the tradition of boxing. He patterned himself against all the legendary fighters, going back to Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis."
Eddie Futch, the trainer who has tutored Joe Frazier, Ken Norton and now Riddick Bowe, is not surprised that Tyson did not tackle a Bowe, George Foreman or Evander Holyfield in his first comeback fight.
"I expect him to fight a few soft touches," said Futch. "The only thing wrong is trying to make people believe these are real fights."
But Tyson has looked like a man on a mission this week, keeping distractions to a minimum and shunning most interviews. Only a few McNeeley supporters give the brash-talking Irishman a chance.
"Peter will go right after Tyson from the opening bell," said his father, Tom McNeeley, who unsuccessfully challenged Floyd Patterson for the heavyweight crown in 1961.
"My son is a better puncher than I was," Tom McNeeley said. "He blasts away with both hands, and, at some time, he will catch Tyson with a left hook. I'm going around to all the casinos, looking for the best odds on my son."