Let Tyson fight

Since when did boxing's czars get in the business of legislating morality?

By King Kaufman
Published February 1, 2002 8:32PM (EST)

There has been general applause for the Nevada State Athletic Commission's 4-1 decision to deny Mike Tyson a license to box. Finally, the chorus has gone, boxing officials have turned their backs on all that money to be made and done the right thing.

I think I'm the only guy who thinks maybe they didn't do the right thing.

I don't think what the commission did was horribly wrong -- as a sports fan, I don't care if Mike Tyson never fights again -- but their decision still troubles me. I don't think that just because Tyson is an ass he should be denied the right to make a living. And I don't see what good the commission's suddenly moral stance does anybody, including the ailing Las Vegas tourist industry that's missing out on the dollars a heavyweight championship fight would bring in, dollars that the typing classes are sniffing at these days as somehow tainted because Tyson's the one bringing them in.

To which I say: Tell it to that laid-off waitress over there.

In case you missed it: Tyson was denied a license in the wake of a brawl that he appeared to instigate last week at a New York press conference announcing his April 6 bout in Las Vegas with heavyweight champ Lennox Lewis. This, of course, was only the latest embarrassing incident in the life and troubled times of the 35-year-old former champion, a list that includes spending three years in prison on a rape conviction and three months in jail on a road-rage conviction, biting part of Evander Holyfield's ear off in the ring, punching a referee, testing positive for marijuana after a fight and various out-of-the-ring shenanigans, such as last month's attack on some photographers in Cuba. Remember when he said he wanted to eat Lewis' children? (He said later that he was just fooling around -- ha ha! -- he knows Lewis doesn't have any children.)

The Nevada commission's decision means the Tyson-Lewis fight won't happen in Vegas, and is essentially a ban on Tyson fighting in the United States, since it's unlikely any state will grant him a license after a leading boxing state has denied him one, though the Los Angeles Times reported Thursday that Tyson will try California. Tyson is free to fight in any country that will let him do so, and it's a big world, so some country will welcome him. They're already forming two lines. Not here, says Denmark. You know how to whistle, dontcha Mike? says South Africa.

I feel that I should say this again: This is not a defense of Tyson. I'm not a fan of his (though I once was), and it affects me not one bit if he never fights again. He is one of history's great screw-ups. Thanks to a winning ticket in the genetic lottery and, yes, years of his own hard work, he found himself in possession of a tool, his body, that was a license to print money and enjoy the good life. All he had to do was stay in shape, fight two or three times a year for a decade or so and not ruin his life and the lives of those around him with stupidity and poor impulse control. A soft assignment, I don't care how hardscrabble your background is, and he failed spectacularly, repeatedly. He makes Elvis Presley look like a sober, steady overachiever.

And worst of all, he's not an interesting fighter. Hasn't been for more than a decade, really. Anyone paying to watch him fight -- to watch him try to knock out his usually third-rate opponent with one wild punch, then settle into increasingly bizarre fouling tactics if that strategy fails -- is a sucker.

But when did the Nevada State Athletic Commission get into the business of legislating morality, and why? Why do you have to be a good citizen to box? You don't have to be a good citizen to be a pipe fitter or a gardener or a writer for an Internet magazine. Stay out of prison, show up and do your job, and your boss can't ax you just because you got into an off-hours punch-up at Uncle Bubba's Bar.

Tyson has been convicted of no crime, accused of none. (At least not yet. Las Vegas police said Wednesday that they're recommending that prosecutors charge Tyson in another rape case, and yet another is being investigated. But all of that is beside the point for this argument -- and the commission said it didn't consider the potential charges.) Why this sudden good-behavior clause? Because boxing has standards of sportsmanship and fair play to uphold? As the Englishman Lewis might say: Pull the other one!

If the commission had seen fit to deny Tyson a license for, say, biting Holyfield, or for any of his other between-the-ropes fouls, I'd be all for it. That's what the commission should be for. It should ensure that boxers are medically fit before they're licensed (this job alone is big enough that no state commission has ever fully succeeded at it) and that they follow the rules of the sport after they're licensed. No biting, for instance, one of the old 8th Marquess of Queensbury's basic ones, but also things like no losing on purpose.

How fighters conduct themselves elsewhere, on roadsides or in barrooms or at press conferences, for example, should be the concern only of the promoters and the fans, who can decide not to work with bad people or not to pay to watch them, respectively. Boxing does not need a commission to act like a bar association or medical licensing board. There is no public interest in forcing boxers to be moral, ethical people.

The Nevada commissioners did suspend Tyson's license after the Holyfield fight, but later reinstated him. Though the ear incident and the litany of other Tyson meltdowns has been cited endlessly in the coverage of the commission's decision, it's pretty clear that the press conference brawl is what moved the board to act.

I guess the commissioners are trying to clean up boxing's image. That's a noble pursuit, but the fact is that boxing has far bigger problems than Mike Tyson's behavior. The fact that Tyson, in spite of everything, is still the most famous and popular boxer on the planet speaks volumes about the sport's weaknesses. Public interest is at an all-time low, thanks in part to a poor product, especially at the crucial heavyweight level -- Lennox Lewis, who has dominated the division for the last half-decade, would have been an also-ran if he'd come along any time before the 1980s -- and in part to boxing's well-deserved image as a den of thieves.

Boxing needs better safety standards and some way out of its current system of being run by promoters with no interest other than their own wallets, a system that has left the sport with too many champions who won't fight each other, too many fans turned off by high prices for bad fights with questionable judging, too many lawsuits and not enough good, solid competition.

What can be done? Don't ask me, pal. Smarter people than I have thrown up their hands at the state of the sweet science of bruising. But the Nevada commissioners aren't getting anywhere by denying Tyson a license, and the rest of us aren't accomplishing anything by rushing to pat them on the back for punching out the one guy nobody's going to rise to defend.

King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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