Tale of two Mikes - one floats on air, the other is all hot air

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 January, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 January, 1999, 12:00am

They were both born to black families in Brooklyn, New York, in the mid 1960s, christened Michael and grew up to dominate their sports.

But there the similarity between Michael Jordan, the world's most respected athlete, and Mike Tyson, the most reviled sportsman around, abruptly ends.

As Jordan was leaving the basketball stage he has graced for nearly two decades, Tyson was slinking back into the boxing arena which he desecrated 18 months ago.

The juxtaposition of Jordan's retirement and Tyson's rebirth was jarring to the senses - sport's revolving door ushering out the ultimate hero and bringing back a despised anti-hero.

The manner of Jordan's departure and Tyson's return provided an apt commentary on their respective careers and the way they were conducted.

Jordan had little to say at his farewell press conference but his supporters, from President Bill Clinton to hockey star Wayne Gretzky to Chinese schoolkids, dispelled notions that it was 'Much Adieu About Nothing'.

From Clinton: 'In my life I don't know that I ever saw another athlete with such a remarkable set of qualities of mind, body and spirit - not only somebody who had a body that would do things no one else's would do, but who always expected to do whatever it was he tried to do.' From Gretzky: 'He's been an outstanding athlete and a tremendous example as a parent.

'He's somebody your kids or grandkids could emulate as a role model.' From the Chinese youngster: 'He was so great, he could float on air.' Tyson, for all his raw power and undeniable boxing skill, is such a flawed character that he is left to speak for himself - and he does it very badly.

As an American commentator put it last week: 'Mike Tyson's mouth had him in trouble again - but this time it was his tongue, not his teeth.' Tyson, for all his philosophising and pontificating, is a few minutes short of a full round and his television outbursts ahead of yesterday's win over South African Francois Botha proved again that he is safer in a cage than a ring.

He gave an obscenity-laced interview which stunned his new management team and resulted in his foul mouth being 'muzzled'.

But while Tyson will never generate the adulation shown to Jordan, or command similar respect, the animal in him appeals to the basic instincts of sports fans. Just as crowds flock to motor racing in the anticipation of a pile-up, so spectators tune in to Tyson's fights expecting the worst from the ear-biter.

The boxing authorities had the perfect opportunity to rid sport of his evil for good but His Meanness was given another chance. His Airness, Michael Jordan, has already had his second shot at glory - coming back from retirement in 1993 to lift the Chicago Bulls to three successive championships - and says his slam dunk days are definitely over.

There is one more huge contribution he could make to sport, however. Take over as Tyson's manager and turn Iron Mike into a milder Michael.