The Mike Tyson carnival freak show

The Tempest in Memphis is on! No, it's off! On! Off! It doesn't matter except that, regrettably, Tonya Harding's pro boxing debut could be delayed.

Published February 20, 2003 12:30AM (EST)

Saturday's Mike Tyson fight is off. Wait! It's on! No, it's off again! Tyson's sick. No, wait, he's better. He missed his flight to Memphis. Fight's off. Hold it! He's feeling much better. He's going to fight!

Wait just a second, says his opponent, Clifford "Washington Generals" Etienne: Now I'm not going to fight. After all, says Clifford "Other Leading Brand" Etienne, my world doesn't revolve around Mike Tyson. Clifford "'Star Trek' Guy in a Red Shirt" Etienne is clearly in need of an astronomy lesson regarding his world, at least this week, but he says he broke training when Tyson announced Monday that he was pulling out, and now he's not going to jump just because Mike Tyson says to jump.

Never mind all that. Don't these people realize Tonya "The End of Civilization As We Know It" Harding's professional boxing career hangs in the balance?

Harding, who knocked out Paula "the Arkansas Pounder" Jones in a "Celebrity Boxing" match last year, was scheduled to make her professional debut on the Tyson-Etienne undercard in Memphis Saturday. She was to fight Samantha Browning of Mantachie, Miss., a 21-year-old housecleaner. The Jackson Clarion-Ledger tells of how Browning -- I hereby bestow the nickname "the Chargin' Charwoman" on her -- saw Harding on TV saying she needed an opponent for her first fight, turned to her husband, said, "I'll fight her," and at that moment became a boxer.

Samantha Browning sounds like one devastatin' domestic. She can use that as a nickname too. Boxing needs more Samantha Brownings.

And it needs fewer Mike Tysons, which is a bit of a paradox, because as pathetic as he's become, as clear as it is that he is no longer anything like the man who a lifetime ago showed once-in-a-generation skills, Mike Tyson is still the biggest thing in boxing. That says terrible things about boxing: Imagine if music had no figure more vital than Michael Jackson and you get an idea of the state of the sweet science.

It says terrible things about us too. Why does this loser continue to fascinate us so? Maybe fascinate is too strong a word. Perhaps you don't hang on his every move the way you do with that "Joe Millionaire" guy, but what other 36-year-old boxer a dozen years into a long, steady decline can sell 12,000 tickets to a nontitle fight against a nobody, even accounting for the fact that some of those tickets went at half price, and even accounting for that Harding-Browning tiff on the undercard?

For more than a decade, Tyson kept us guessing. As he went in and out of prison and jail, pulled out of fights, got into street brawls and car wrecks, got himself disqualified from matches for fouls and generally acted like an idiot, the boxing public was able to talk itself into the idea of his redemption. If he ever got his act together, there might still be time for Tyson to regain the form that had made him the youngest heavyweight champion ever in 1986, "the baddest man on the planet," a seemingly unbeatable fighting machine, one who caused serious observers to engage in earnest debates about whether Tyson had a chance to be remembered as the greatest heavyweight ever.

That hope fueled some of the continuing interest in Tyson. The rest was our fascination with freaks, sideshows, buffoons. When heavyweight champ Lennox Lewis, a plodding, ordinary fighter who would have been nothing more than a fringe contender at any earlier time in boxing history, easily knocked him out in June, the hope died for those few still clinging to it. There would be no last-reel deliverance for Tyson. We care about him now only in that way we care about "Joe Millionaire," or about Michael Jackson, which is to say not at all beyond his ability to make us feel superior to him, laugh at him, shake our heads and wonder how a fellow could have so much and go so wrong.

But your money buys just as much for the promoters if you buy a ticket to a freak show or a sporting event, so Tyson fights on. The bout against Clifford "Shemp" Etienne was to be a tune-up for Tyson. At last report, the fight was off, but check with the National Weather Service for updates. The Salon crystal ball says the promoters will come up with some extra cash to convince Clifford "Guy Who Stumbles on a Dead Body at the Beginning of a 'Law & Order' Episode" Etienne to climb into the ring. If so, and Tyson gets past the 7-1 underdog, he's back in line for a title shot with Lewis.

Hey, beat up a hobo or two and you can be in line for a title shot yourself.

What a sad state of affairs for boxing. An old axiom says that as the heavyweight division goes, so goes the sport, and the heavyweights are down for the count. Permanently. Other sports have taken away the great athletes who in other eras became heavyweight champs and contenders. Coming of age today, Muhammad Ali would probably be a wide receiver, Larry Holmes an off-guard, Ken Norton a linebacker, like his son. Why fight if you can do something else? Why risk brain damage in a corrupt business that's resisted attempts at reform for half a century, only to end up battered, stumbling and broke?

Tyson isn't yet battered, stumbling and broke, but it's only a matter of time if he keeps fighting. And with nothing else to do he'll keep fighting as long as he commands our attention, which he now does as a buffoon, just as the boobs of reality TV have wrested our attention in the entertainment world from people who can actually sing or act or otherwise prove their worth. That is, people who seem to be better at something than the rest of us. What's wrong with us that we don't seem to want to see these people anymore?

Tonya Harding, who like Tyson has only herself to blame for her troubles, is like him a joke, a freak who can only aspire to his clownish but lucrative popularity. They deserve each other on that fight card in Memphis Saturday, if it happens.

Samantha Browning, "the Mantachie Mauler," deserves better. So do we.

By 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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