Tyson-Lewis: Little Boy in the Ring

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In the same way that yesterday's nasties are turned into today's partners-in-peace by the outcome of wars, MikeTyson underwent a metamorphosis at The Pyramid in Memphis Saturday night. The onetime king of pugilistic beasts became a pussycat.

When Tyson first appeared on the big screen before entering the ring , a ripple of boos started that were quickly drowned out by a prolonged chorus of cheers from the predominantly Tyson crowd. As State Representative Joe Towns, who had lobbied to land the fight back in January when it was chased out of Nevada, said, "I'm with Mike. He's bad! And he's American!"

Once the fight began, when Tyson made his customary first-round rush, and referee Eddie Cotton had to keep cautioning Lewis about clenching, it looked like a Golden Oldie was under way — maybe a standard Mike Tyson bash session, a victory by annihilation, like those of his heyday fifteen years ago, before some unexpected losses, a rape conviction, and various other scrapes with adversity had tarnished Tyson's edge.

But then a strange pattern began to develop. Cotton had to keep reprimanding Lewis — for clinching, for holding, and finally, once he had clearly begun to get on even terms with Tyson, pushing — an offense which cost the champion a point when Tyson was shoved all the way down to the canvas in the fourth round. In a strange way, the roles had been reversed. Tyson, flat on his back and forlorn, looked like a fighter down on his luck, shove or no shove. Lennox Lewis, the bigger man, almost seemed an oversized bully. But, perversely enough, he started getting the crowd on his side.

As the fight wore on, Tyson kept taking shots. He was cut over both eyes and couldn't land a single good punch, much less a combination. The outcome began to look as painful and inevitable as that of Ali vs. Holmes in 1980. Lewis used Tyson's increasingly stationary head as a speed bag for his jab and then, via uppercuts and right crosses, as a heavy bag. When Tyson went down hard in the 8th round it was a formality. He was a spent case long before.

The strangest aspect of the denouement was the joint TV interview that occurred with both a revived Tyson and a victorious Lewis in the ring minutes after the fight. Tyson, who had done more than his share of trash-talking before the bout, was suddenly the model of contrition, a veritable Boy Scout. He professed his regard for Lewis ("He knows I love both him and his mother"), said that all his bad-mouthing had only been to hype the fight, and suggested that he'd like a rematch.

One may be in the contract, but it may not be in the cards. Tyson had not only lost the fight, overwhelmingly, winning only the first round of the seven completed ones, but he had lost forever the killer image that has fascinated us for so long. That little-boy voice that always sounded so ironically menacing before now just sounded like a little boy's. Eddie Haskell on his best behavior.

Tyson added a cryptic coda later on in some comments that were distributed to the media pack by a pool reporter. The once-upon-a-time champ and fright figure explained the mutual-politeness pact between himself and Lewis by comparing it to the pigeons he now keeps in his spare time. They would scrap ferociously until they were fed, he said. Then they became placid and still. Intentionally or not, the metaphor carried over to the ring, where the issue had been joined and resolved, and the eight-figure purses enjoyed by both fighters had surely sated their appetites — at least for a while.

As for that putative rematch, the other pigeons, the ones who paid the huge ticket prices, from $500 all the way up to $2400 Saturday night — well, they'd been fed, too. And probably wouldn't bite so readily again.