Who Gets the Black Eye?

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Mike Tyson signs autographs before a training session in Memphis

It might have been comical if it hadn't been so absurd. As Mike Tyson flexed his way into the Memphis Convention Center for the official weigh-in before tonight's highly anticipated boxing match, all 234.5 pounds of him seemed to suggest he was ready to rumble. His thick jaws working over a wad of gum, Tyson stood silently, grinning and mugging for reporters in his white shorts and white socks. The former heavyweight champion had nobody to antagonize, for the moment, anyway.

In a break from boxing tradition, his opponent, Lennox Lewis, had been weighed in three hours earlier in a separate event. Boxing promoters may like the hype, but even they are not taking chances before the opening bell. They learned their lesson at the fracas-cum-pre-fight press conference last January when an enraged Tyson suddenly threw down his hat and, during the ensuing melee, bit Lewis in the thigh. After that, everyone agreed the two men should be kept apart until they crawl into the padded ring at The Pyramid, the 10-year-old downtown arena normally reserved for the city's new professional basketball team.

There will be no ceremonial pre-fight touching of gloves. No joint press conferences. In fact, the referee intends to give them the rules separately — with each fighter in his dressing room. Stacey McKinley, the mouthy, colorful assistant trainer who works for Tyson, blames the lack of pre-fight exhibitions on Lewis. "When you're a coward, you put a lot of things in the contract."

Lewis, the Englishman/Canadian who has been renting a mansion in East Memphis and working out every day at the high-society Racquet Club, seems to have recovered from that bite in the leg. But this week, he held his tongue when reporters asked whether he nursed any anxieties about Tyson clamping down on him again. He knew better than to answer. After all, it was Tyson's errant teeth and bite in the thigh that brought the boxers and the world of boxing to Memphis. That bite led Las Vegas to forbid Cannibal Mike from fighting at the key venues there. Then other cities, from California to New York, refused to issue permits for the big bout.

The ballyhoo shrouding this fight not only puts the WWF to shame, it represents the potential coming of age for this southern city. Made famous by Elvis and Graceland, and infamous for the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Memphis has been on something of a roll, sports-wise, scoring the Grizzlies basketball team last year and welcoming new resident Jerry West, the ex-LA Lakers player and NBA legend who is team president for the transplanted Memphis franchise. Downtown, a course of major urban renovation will soon spawn yet another major sports arena, which will sit next to the National Civil Rights Museum.

Presiding over the renaissance is the city's African-American mayor. Willie Herenton, a polished former schools superintendent, has been Mayor for ten years, and he was determined that Memphis would host the boxing match. While some residents were critical of his efforts, Herenton promised to give boxing fans what Las Vegas had taken away. At 6-foot-5, eye-to-eye with Lewis, the lanky 60-year-old Herenton is himself a former amateur boxing champion who maintains he got sidetracked from his destiny — to be a headliner at the pro level. "I never got beat once I got my growth," he says, reminiscing about his days in the ring.

Whether the city of Memphis has its growth is yet to be seen. Memphis, says HBO boxing analyst Larry Merchant, went after the fight "the way it would go after a new automobile plant." At the weigh-in Thursday afternoon, Merchant stood back, shaking his head and watching Tyson, whom he calls a "psycopath," play to the whooping crowd. "Boxing will lose if Tyson wins," pronounced Merchant, whose HBO network is collaborating with Showtime in producing the pay-per-view version of the fight. "He's convincing people that you don't have the obey the rules, that boxing has no rules. And it does."

As Merchant expounded, he ticked off a list of Tyson's misadventures — the notorious ear-biting incident in Tyson's second loss to Evander Holyfield, his evident attempts to break the arm of another opponent, South African heavyweight Frans Botha, and finally the disturbance Tyson backers caused in the Vegas venue after the ear-biting fight.

Tyson may be the willing villain here, but he has his defenders among the fans and the journalists who are in town this week. Tony Datcher of BOSS Magazine, a publication popular in inner city Washington, D.C, tried to explain the seemingly unexplainable fondness for Tyson, especially in D.C. "He's the people's champ, who comes from the grass roots — the streets. You know? He's no worse than Elvis, who got his cousin pregnant and married her at 14. He's not perfect." That this account scrambled the histories of two local music avatars, Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, didn't matter so much as the proletarian sympathies it clearly bespoke.

Whatever its dimensions as a morality play, the Big Fight represents more than a championship boxing match. It is a chance to settle a rivalry Lewis has felt since childhood when he and Tyson trained together as teenagers in 1984.

Larry Merchant probably has it right. Tyson-Lewis may have been unacceptable to most places on the established landscape of professional boxing, but it is pure opportunity for an up-by-the-bootstraps place like Memphis. As Merchant so aptly concedes, "A big fight is good for boxing. Even if it's boring."

Nobody imagines that this one will be boring. Not with Tyson, the preternaturally furious brawler whose forward progress has been interrupted only by Buster Douglas and Evander Holyfield and the Indiana authorities who remanded him to prison for three years in the mid-90s on a rape conviction. Nobody wants to admit that we will be watching the fight like we cannot pull ourselves away from train wrecks and car crashes — if Tyson is a man-made disaster, we want to witness the devastation. Tyson himself cannot say whether he will control himself. He predicts a K.O. within three rounds.

"I'm not afraid of nobody, in the ring or out of the ring, if they got a gun or a knife. And I'll show him that, too," Tyson told reporters here the other day. "I'm just ready to get it on — and crush this guy's skull."