Biting back at boxing's fallen giant

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 May, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 May, 1998, 12:00am

A Savage Business, The Comeback and Comedown of Mike Tyson by Richard Hoffer, Simon & Schuster, US$23 Since I first saw Mike Tyson's ferocity unleashed in a promotional television blitz when he was just 20 years old, the man has scared me to death. Not only because he was to become the most savage and feared boxer of his time, but because he was a year younger than me. There he was, about to be the heavyweight champion of the world; a man who just a few years before was still a boy, but with the confidence to say: 'No man alive can beat me.' The Tyson story is well known: a foster kid from New York plucked from the streets, where he mugged old ladies for the money in their purses. He was rescued by one of the greatest trainers of all, Cus D'Amato, who died before the Tyson product was finished.

A thug had been given a chance to mend his ways, to become a great sportsman, but was left without the fatherly support to handle it. When the corrupt side of boxing stepped in, not surprisingly, it all went wrong, or rather, it never had the chance to go right.

A Savage Business examines the two years between Tyson's release from prison in 1995 (after three years of a six-year jail term for the rape of an 18-year-old beauty contestant, Desiree Washington), and what was probably the lowest point in the sport's history - his disqualification for biting off part of Evander Holyfield's ear in their second bout which, like their first, it appeared Tyson was going to lose.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Richard Hoffer gives, literally, a blow-by-blow account of how 'Team Tyson' manipulated its way to earn US$135 million (about HK$1.04 billion) in just seven fights, how the public was conned into believing some opponents were genuine contenders. And, says Hoffer, how one man perpetrated such a sham - promoter Don King, a killer with a manslaughter conviction, now slaying a sport which, however controversial, once was more about competition than cash.

Though sometimes frustrating in his lack of stated sources for facts and comments, Hoffer delves into the shady and seedy world of heavyweight boxing, discussing the values of the sport. He exposes how, outside the ring, Queensbury Rules no longer apply, with big-shot promoters, television companies and Las Vegas casinos calling the shots, and pawns like Tyson, now 31, reduced to turning up and taking their purse - about US$1 million for every three seconds of the Peter McNeeley fight.

Hoffer guides the reader through the negotiations for each fight: multi-million dollar TV contracts, wrangling over venues and selection and payment of contestants. It is interesting and eye-opening reading. McNeeley, for instance, was an overweight, Irish brawler, manipulated up the World Boxing Association's rankings by fighting the likes of John Jackson, who had never won a fight, and Frankie Hines, who had lost by knock-out 49 times. It took just five minutes for McNeeley's manager to agree his US$540,000 purse with King.

After Tyson disposed of McNeeley in 89 seconds, King's grand plan, hatched and set up during Tyson's prison stint, to consolidate all four heavyweight titles, was set in motion. Had Holyfield surrendered his title as easily as Frank Bruno, Bruce Seldon and Francois Botha had done, King would have pulled off the greatest coup in boxing history.

In the end, Tyson's savage treatment of Holyfield can be seen as a metaphor for the whole disgrace and demise of the heavyweight fight game, a sport that has never been exactly clean, but has now been irrevocably soiled. Despite losing his licence to fight, Tyson will surely be back - and yet again, the boxing public will surely forgive him.