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Symbol or unsavory, Tyson's must-see TV

Seeing what he does next is too compelling for many to pass up.

By BRUCE LOWITT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 8, 2002

Love him or hate him, you're contemplating shelling out $54.95 to watch Mike Tyson fight Lennox Lewis on pay-per-view tonight, aren't you?

Even if you don't, even if you couldn't care less whether Tyson wins or loses, you're still going to read Sunday's newspaper and watch SportsCenter to find out if he went off the deep end again, aren't you?

You are not alone.

"I think the only reason this fight's happening is because of the morbid curiosity of what he might do," Teddy Atlas, Tyson's former trainer, said on ESPN's Outside the Lines. "He's marketable because he's a candidate to be a guest appearance on Jerry Springer at any moment."

Countless viewers will tune in strictly to see Tyson's next moment of idiocy and will be disappointed if all he does is box. But try to find one who will watch it only for that and admit it.

Would you?

"There are a lot of reverse vicarious thrill-seekers out there," Clearwater sports psychologist Richard Gerson said, differentiating them from people who get an adrenaline rush out of seeing someone do something great or heroic. "The reverse is people who get this charge out of watching Mike Tyson do something stupid or crazy or violent, as long as it's not happening to them."

Whether Tyson is one punch from regaining his heavyweight championship or becoming a tomato can, even if he never fights again, his persona extends far beyond his talent in the ring.

"He's the perfect symbol for our time," said Ed Schuyler, longtime Associated Press boxing writer. "Celebrity matters. Talent, heroics, they don't necessarily mean anything. Look at Tonya Harding and Paula Jones. ... Celebrities attract attention and that's why he's the big draw in this fight. I just hope this fight isn't as bogus as theirs was."

Tyson and Lewis have earned respect as boxers. But that's not drawing people to the Pyramid in Memphis (top ticket: $2,400) and attracting countless viewers to pay-per-view.

"It's Tyson's reputation and the fact that he might do something crazy," Schuyler said. "A lot of people paying to see him would pay to see O.J. Simpson do something on television if he was allowed to. Remember when Simpson was doing the white Ford Bronco thing? A lot of people were cheering him on."

'He fits right in'

Lewis vs. Evander Holyfield on March 13, 1999, was a heavyweight title fight. That's all it promised. That's all it delivered. Joe Frazier vs. Muhammad Ali in 1971 was a political event, patriot vs. protester. Floyd Patterson vs. Sonny Liston in 1962 was a morality play, good vs. evil. Each needed the other, opposites attracting attention.

Tyson needs no opposite, only a stage.

From 1986, when he became heavyweight champion, to 1990, when Buster Douglas knocked him out, Tyson was the best fighter in the world. That's what made him a huge draw.

He wasn't a villain then; he was rough hewn. He wore black trunks and shoes, didn't wear a robe or socks. He said things like, "I try to catch my opponent on the tip of the nose because I want to punch the bone into the brain." Tyson sold menace.

Much of that history has been eclipsed by his 1992 rape conviction and prison term, his 1997 biting of Holyfield's ears, the melee that erupted at a Jan. 22 news conference to promote a since-canceled Tyson-Lewis bout in Las Vegas and recent videotaped moments of Tyson making absurdly obscene statements to the media, such as: "I normally don't do interviews with women unless I fornicate with them." And that history will keep Dick Henning from pay-per-viewing Tyson-Lewis, or Tyson-Anyone.

The Pinellas County deputy has videotapes of every Tyson fight from the mid 1980s until a few years ago. Henning routinely paid to watch Tyson's televised bouts, "but I'm disgusted with him. I'd never pay to see him. Not anymore. ... If he hadn't gotten in all that trouble I think I'd still be watching him."

'An interesting character'

Here's one demographic likely to have few viewers.

"I honestly don't know what kind of women, with his history of the way he's treated women, who'd ever want to watch," said Linda Musante, chair of the psychology department at the University of Tampa. "Maybe it's the kind who comes out of the woodwork and marries a serial killer when he's in prison."

Not necessarily. "I'd love to see the fight. I'll pay for it," said Claudette Green of Tampa, a pianist and music teacher. "For one thing, I just love boxing. I've been watching it since Muhammad Ali was Cassius Clay, since I was a little girl. ... You kind of get to know (the boxers') history." Musante said she believes women are less likely to "separate the person from the act, his personality and actions outside of the boxing ring with what he does in there."

Again, not necessarily. "Boxing is a sport, like football," Green said, "and there are football players who do things off the field that they shouldn't. But they're still out there playing and playing well. I like to watch anyone who's a great athlete and it really doesn't have anything to do with their personal life."

Likewise, Mike Schwartzberg says he has no problem separating Tyson's history from his ability, however much of that ability remains. The St. Petersburg defense lawyer said he gladly is paying to watch Tyson-Lewis and throwing a big party for the occasion.

"If I accept the fact that (Tyson) is a boxer and that boxing is a savage sport, then he fits right in," Schwartzberg said. "Boxing is a lot like Mike Tyson. Either you love it or hate it and people who enjoy boxing enjoy it for what it is," he said. "I'm not watching to see if Mike Tyson is going to bite someone's ears. I can watch wrestling for that."

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