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Tyson Freak Show in full swing again

By JOHN ROMANO, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 21, 2003

It's a job, like any other.

Pays better than most, although it may be light on benefits. Seems to require no formal training, or even a modicum of people skills. Must be willing to travel and, at odd times, provide your own bail.

Meet Mike Tyson.

Professional freak.

This is his occupation. And, in a way, our shame.

Tyson, long ago, ceased to be a viable athlete. He has had little success in the past decade and shows no signs of promise for the future.

His fights are usually a sham and his behavior is a shade beyond aberrant. He shows up every year or so with the promise to redeem his legend, and somehow manages to drag it down further.

Yet he remains a drawing card.

Is that his fault or ours?

In a world fixated by celebrity and reality television, Tyson is the sports version of Corey Feldman. Or Corey Haim. Or any of the dozens of other pseudo stars who are vaguely familiar for having once been someone.

In the past 13 years, Tyson has won 12 fights. And not a one was notable or memorable. He has beaten a handful of defenseless stooges and lost to the only opponents (Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis) of distinction.

It is not Tyson's boxing skills that command $5-million paydays and $40 pay-per-view charges. It is our fascination with his freakish behavior.

Which brings us to this weekend. And the fight of the sedentary.

With time running out on his career, Tyson chose to prepare for Saturday night's bout with Clifford Etienne in Memphis by hiding from his trainer.

A while back, Tyson's assistant trainer quit because of his fighter's poor work ethic. Then, a little more than a week ago, Tyson stopped showing up altogether. He ignored a dozen phone calls from trainer Freddie Roach and failed to show for his originally scheduled flight to Memphis. He supposedly went off the medication he takes to battle depression.

At this point you are free to choose the rumor of your liking.

Was Tyson:

Bedridden with a sore back and the flu, as he has since claimed. (One of the well-known flu symptoms being the inability to pick up a telephone.)

On an eating and drinking frenzy that, according to a British tabloid, was briefly interrupted for an orgy at his Las Vegas mansion.

Secretly training on his own and trying to build up publicity with his supposed inactivity, as Etienne's trainer claims.

All we know for sure is when Tyson resurfaced, his face was tattooed and manager Shelly Finkel said he looked heavier than a week earlier.

And, once again, the world was talking about Mike Tyson.

This is his lingering talent. The ability to make such a fool of himself that you are tempted to tune in once again.

He has bitten off a piece of Holyfield's ear during a bout. He attacked Lewis during a news conference and bit his leg. He has made vague threats about crushing the scrotums of the children of reporters. And now he has chosen to put a tattoo on his face just days before a fight.

Kind of makes you forget he looked like a lethargic, unskilled quitter in his loss to Lewis last year.

The sad truth is Tyson has not been a legitimate boxer since the 1980s.

Once he was indestructible. Once he was compared to the greats. In a remarkable 39-month frenzy from 1985-88, Tyson won 35 consecutive fights and became history's youngest champion.

A one-time juvenile delinquent taken into the home of trainer Cus D'Amato, Tyson was a boxing prodigy. Uncouth, with an aura of danger surrounding him, Tyson nonetheless had an innocent type of charm and a passion for the sport.

By age 22, it already was beginning to slip away.

Shortly after the deaths of D'Amato and manager Jimmy Jacobs, Tyson broke ranks with their chosen successors. His career has since been a jumble of trainers, legal problems and outrageous behavior.

His first loss -- 13 years ago last week against Buster Douglas -- stripped Tyson of his invincibility. Suddenly, he seemed indifferent. He showed no desire to work. He lacked a commitment to improve. He wanted the fame, he wanted the money, but he did not want to be in the ring.

Now, at 36, he looks beaten and weary. Five of his past nine fights have either been losses or were ruled no contests.

Most of us have given up hope that he might rediscover himself for one last moment of glory. Or even that he will find some peace in his life.

Yet he continues to be brought before us as if he has something worthwhile to offer. Boxing promoters will employ him as long as they can sniff a buck. Tyson will compete because he knows of nothing better. And fans will keep paying to watch because you never know what he might do next.

It is not sport.

It is not entertainment.

It is a freak show.

And it degrades us all.

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