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Should we root for Mike Tyson? What an inane question. It implies we can't watch a sporting event without investing emotionally in the athletes, without identifying ourselves with them. It's as if we couldn't read a novel without considering it our story or watch a play or movie without seeing ourselves as the main character. Rather than representing "why sports don't matter anymore," as the New York Times Magazine recently phrased the issue in a bitter, nostalgic article by Robert Lipsyte, Mike Tyson represents why sports matter as much as ever, if not more. Lipsyte's article was typical of the current judgmental school of journalism in that it bemoaned the loss of heroes and heroism, something repeated ad nauseam in the wake of Mickey Mantle's death. It's true that athletes are no longer considered heroes and role models, but we think that's a good thing. It's been our belief since we were nine or so, when we discovered athletes were not descended from heaven but were simply gifted or unusually determined human beings. This, however, is a stage of sophistication not yet reached by most sports columnists.

We see athletes in the round these days, in all their glory and with all their failings, and this has made sports not less dramatic but more. A Tyson, who might once have lived a sheltered, comfortable life as a media-made hero, must now combat not only the other man in the ring but himself. That may not necessarily be a new thing in sports, but it is a level of the game we weren't normally privy to in the so-called golden or even gilded age of athletics, extending right up into the 60s. This combat doesn't just come into view following trials or tragedy. Money and comfort, we've seen, have proved to be as damaging to an athlete as any injury could be. Where a Ted Williams, a Joe DiMaggio, or even a Mantle was once kept hungry on a salary that, while certainly comfortable, did not necessarily guarantee a lifetime of ease, today's athlete must find the hunger after signing a long-term contract. It's something that ought to give us a new appreciation for Greg Maddux, Frank Thomas, and, yes again, Tyson, who collected $25 million for his comeback fight and who plans to fight again this year.

Mike Tyson was a brutal boy raised in a brutal environment, and he found a way to turn that brutality to his advantage. Anyone who couldn't appreciate his story on at least that level had no business watching him. "I try to catch my opponent on the tip of his nose," he once said, "because I try to punch the bone into his brain." The casual brutality of that sentiment went a long way toward explaining why Tyson captured the public imagination, but he also had the skill and the discipline to make good on his basic drive. He became the most fearsome boxer in the history of the sport. Then, however, he fell victim to a gold digger--not the first time in history for that to happen to an athlete (and certainly no justification for what he later did), and the gold digger's status as a sitcom star on television, rather than a mere chorus girl, gave their relationship a uniquely contemporary spin. When the woman betrayed herself as what she was, Tyson's spirit was clearly crushed. He lost the brutality in the ring and allowed it to infect his personal life. Four years and a stint in prison later, he returned, not triumphant, but seeming almost resigned to find himself, once again, a boxer. "It's what I do," he said. Had he retained enough of the old anger to make him what he was? Had he nursed too much of the anger? Would it now overwhelm the skills all athletes require at the highest level?

Those were the questions that seemed worth finding out--not the tiresome issue of whether we might "root" for him--when we tuned in Tyson's comeback bout against Peter McNeeley two weeks ago. Actually, we saw the fight at a farewell party for an old friend and colleague who is leaving Chicago to return home to New England. It was by no means a foregone conclusion that the rest of the guests would go for the fight, and the host, while agreeable, was determined to let majority rule.

If he hadn't ordered the pay-per-view fight, we would have had to high-tail it out of there to find a bar carrying it, but it turned out there was nothing to worry about. For whatever reason, to root for Tyson or against him or simply to study his comeback as the personal drama it seemed above all to be, about ten of us chipped in $5 apiece with what John Schulian once called that mixture of humanism and voyeurism that makes boxing unique among sports.

The pay-per-view production was a spectacle--and we don't mean that necessarily as a compliment. Producers had added extra cameras, not to enhance the fight coverage but to capture the celebrities at ringside. Analyst Ferdie Pacheco said, "I'm expecting not a Mack truck but an express train running over a guy on the tracks saying 'Stop.'"

That guy was McNeeley, a palooka whose 36-1 record had been padded against the likes of one fighter who had not won in over 10 lifetime bouts. And to complete Pacheco's thought, it turned out McNeeley had brought someone along to stand on the tracks and yell "Stop."

Looking dopey but excited, McNeeley entered the ring to the strains of a tune so wimpy and flaccid its refrain had to inform a listener "This is an angry song." Tyson, meanwhile, entered to Redman's vicious rap song "Time

4 Sum Aksion." McNeeley was in green silk trunks and a matching robe, Tyson in his traditional black trunks and shoes, with a towel with a neck cut into it thrown over his head and hanging over his shoulders. Johnny Gill then did a leisurely "Star-Spangled Banner" that took a reported two and a half minutes. "The national anthem will be longer than the fight," said one wag. It was the prediction of the night.

The fight itself took 89 seconds, but the bout was over at the introduction at the center of the ring. McNeeley rocked back and forth nervously, avoiding eye contact, while Tyson focused on his head with the intensity of a cat watching a bird fly back and forth inside a cage.

Yet for probably the first time in his career, Tyson was beaten across the ring at the bell. McNeeley dashed over the way Tyson used to and tried to pin him in his corner. Tyson, clearly caught off guard, tied him up in a clinch, measured his chin by pressing his right glove against it, ducked a wild left hook, and in rhythm caught McNeeley across the chin with a right. McNeeley went down on one knee, popped up, and then raced around the ring like Jim Carrey's Mask character before standing to accept an eight count by the referee. Then they tangled again, with both throwing wild punches that mostly missed the mark. Then Tyson caught McNeeley with an uppercut. He threw it off the wrong foot, while backpedaling, but it caught McNeeley squarely on the chin. McNeeley went down, tried to hop up again, but this time staggered into the ropes. His manager, Vinnie Vecchione, with visions of the $500,000 purse obviously circling his head just as stars circled McNeeley's, jumped into the ring, thus automatically disqualifying his fighter.

We were outraged, and so, amazingly enough, were the commentators paid off by Don King and his KingVision pay-per-view production company. "This is tantamount to Evel Knievel jumping the Snake River canyon," Pacheco said. "This type of fight should not be made," echoed pay-per-view cohost Sugar Ray Leonard. Yet the replays showed that, sloppy as this 89-second fight had been, the two knockdowns were valid and a slaughter was impending. Lily-livered as Vecchione had been, he had merely speeded the inevitable. To demand more is to delight in boxing's brutality.

Tyson continues on, tested so far only by himself. In fights to come, he'll no doubt need the technique that took him to the top at a younger age than any other boxer in history. Those bouts will be more interesting to watch as athletic events. For now, he has proved what he needed to prove, while leaving much else in doubt. He does not appear to be the brutal mauler who took pleasure in punishment. Yet is there a champion to be found among the brutal youth he was, the distracted mope he became, and the weather-beaten professional he appears to be? A fighter like Tyson, with his black trunks and intense demeanor, seems made for a previous era, when we knew nothing about a fighter's personal life and only judged him from what we saw in the ring. Yet the Pandora's box is open, and no amount of moaning will bring back those more innocent times. Truth be told, we hope he comes to terms with what he did that night in Indianapolis, and with the company he keeps. We hope he can find a peace within himself, and that it doesn't interfere with his profession as an athlete. If that means we are rooting for Tyson, so be it.

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