Tyson's traveling show

Boxing: In London, the controversial former heavyweight champion is the center of attention -- even before his match.

January 26, 2000|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- It's not often that a swank London hotel has a guest walk down a corridor dressed in nothing more than black boxing shoes and matching trunks, revealing a bare chest that features rippling muscles and tattoos of Arthur Ashe, Mao Tse-tung and Che Guevara.

But allowances are made when the guest is Mike Tyson.

Yesterday, the former heavyweight champion, who is preparing for Saturday's fight in Manchester against journeyman Julius Francis, went through his first public training session in a ballroom beneath crystal chandeliers inside the Grosvenor House hotel.

This is an establishment that usually caters to English aristocracy, wealthy sheiks (covered head to toe) and elegant ladies sipping afternoon tea, not boxing entourages assembling for sparring.

But a man named Crocodile, who was wearing Desert Storm combat fatigues and designer sunglasses, looked right at home here, carrying out his role as Tyson's chief cheerleader.

"I don't like `cheerleader,' " Crocodile said. "I like `Master Motivator.' "

The heat was turned up to roasting level and hip-hop music thumped from loudspeakers, while the press and assorted hangers-on congregated behind a red velvet rope. Tyson had his hands taped, skipped rope and threw a few combinations against a sparring partner who was so heavily protected he could have been at a medieval jousting tournament.

"I'm a little nervous with all the people here," Tyson said afterward.

Since he arrived at London's Heathrow Airport via the Concorde last week, Tyson, a convicted rapist whose entry to Britain had to be cleared by a top government official, has been the center of attention and controversy. He has been lashed by critics, mobbed by fans and greeted by shop attendants eager to sell him designer clothes and glittering jewelry.

"They said this is bigger than Michael Jackson when he came here," said Tyson's manager, Shelly Finkel. "They said at Heathrow they had never seen anything like it. They tried to tear the door off Mike's car. One person got into the car. They threw him out. Not while it was moving."

It has been a strange few days with Tyson in London. Even the promoter, Frank Warren, described the media interest in the first week as a "freak show."

There was the initial furor when Tyson arrived, with a women's rights group failing in a court bid to overturn the decision to allow the fighter into the country.

"The majority of British people don't want Tyson here," Julie Bindel of the group Justice for Women told Sky News.

There was the flap over Tyson's 3 a.m. jogs through Hyde Park, which is closed from midnight to 5 a.m. Facing a fine, Tyson and his entourage decided to run a little later in the morning.

There were well-publicized shopping trips. Tyson reportedly dropped $1.6 million for a diamond watch and bracelet at a jeweler in London's most exclusive retail district. He hopscotched from one designer boutique to the next and was such a big draw at one shop that guards inadvertently locked out a Spice Girl.

Then there was the jaunt to the predominantly black neighborhood of Brixton, where Tyson sought to follow in the footsteps of boxer Muhammad Ali and former South African President Nelson Mandela. One local political leader labeled Tyson "a pariah" and said he was not welcome. But thousands of Tyson fans disagreed, surrounding him and attempting to shake his hand.

Tyson was forced to take refuge in a police station.

"I just wanted to pay my respects to Brixton," he said yesterday.

Asked about some of the political heat he has taken here, Tyson said: "Well, they're politicians. As far as I'm concerned, they're not considered people in my world. Nothing they say is true."

But Tyson apparently likes Britain.

"I believe I have another fight here, at least that's what I want to do, unless someone [launches] another political movement that I don't belong here, or someone offers me more money," Tyson said.

Tyson reportedly has expressed an interest in moving here.

Where would he live? "Right around the corner from Harrods," Tyson said, referring to the city's landmark department store.

But before considering the future, Tyson will have to continue his boxing comeback on a long road to regain the heavyweight championship.

"Sometimes I do things better than when I was champ," he said. "It's all about keeping your head together."

What about the fight against Francis? Tyson said it won't go the distance, but he wouldn't venture a specific prediction about beating the British heavyweight champion.

Don't expect any upsets, though. Francis just got an endorsement from a British tabloid, the Mirror, that wanted to put its logo on the fighter.

The newspaper chose a rather appropriate place. The bottom of Francis' shoes.

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