MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Mike Tyson returns to the ring Saturday night for his biggest fight since he bit Evander Holyfield’s ears. As unstable as ever and just as unpredictable, he’s also just one big punch away from being the heavyweight champion again.
The undisputed star of a spectacle that is more theater than boxing, Tyson fights Lennox Lewis in this city of Elvis and barbecue in a bout that could become the richest ever.
For the first time in his career, Tyson is an underdog against a champion who outweighs him, can out-jab him and will tower over him. But Lewis also has a suspect chin, giving the fight an aura of uncertainty.
“I’m just ready to get it on and crush this guy’s skull,” Tyson said. “I want to show them who the real world champion is — the best fighter in the era.”
The fight will take place under extraordinary circumstances, in a city that won it almost by default. The two fighters won’t touch gloves and will have to pay the other $3 million if they commit a bad foul that ends the fight.
For the 35-year-old Tyson, the bout is a chance to get out of a reported $15 million in debt and re-establish himself as a force.
If his declining skills are exposed in a loss, though, it could be the end of multimillion-dollar paydays for a boxer who has fought sporadically against a collection of second-rate opponents since losing to Holyfield five years ago.
Between those fights, Tyson served time in jail for punching two motorists after a fender-bender, punched out a promoter in London, bit Lewis at a news conference and was accused of raping three more women.
“I’m scared of some things he does,” Tyson adviser Shelly Finkel said. “I worry about him after boxing.”
Lewis is determined to make that time come soon, ready to secure his legacy in the sport that embraces him reluctantly as the heavyweight champion.
Overshadowed by Tyson, Lewis (39-2-1, 30 knockouts) has tried to define the fight as a classic battle of good vs. evil — with plenty of help from Tyson every time he opened his mouth. He’s a 36-year-old three-time champion and chess player who wanted the fight so badly he stayed in it even after the melee at the news conference in New York City.
“It’s very important for historians and my legacy, getting rid of the last misfit in boxing,” Lewis said.
In Las Vegas, where boxing regulators rejected the fight, oddsmakers made Lewis a 2-1 favorite in the scheduled 12-round fight at the Pyramid Arena. The fight, which will be televised on pay-per-view, is expected to begin about 11:15 p.m. EDT.
It could end soon after that, if both fighters stick to their game plans. Tyson (49-3-2, 43 knockouts) always comes rushing out at the opening bell determined to wreak havoc, while Lewis has studied the styles of the two fighters who beat Tyson and is determined to make him back up.
“This fight has the ability to be a slugfest early or go into the late rounds,” said Lewis’ trainer, Emanuel Steward. “Mike has trouble with tall fighters and Lennox might have trouble finding Mike with his bob-and-weave style.”
The fight, a joint promotion of the HBO and Showtime cable networks, could gross $100 million if the pay-per-view sales live up to expectations. But tickets were still available for the arena itself the day before the fight, in almost all price ranges up to $2,400 at ringside.
“The top price may have been too high for this market,” Finkel conceded.
Tyson had to agree to pay Lewis $335,000 out of his purse for biting him at the news conference, and if either fighter commits an “onerous foul” they have to forfeit $3 million.
“Every possible outcome has been anticipated,” said Mark Taffet of HBO.
Lewis, who stands 6-foot-5 and weighed 249 1/4 pounds at Thursday’s weigh-in, will be fighting in his 13th consecutive title fight since stopping Oliver McCall to win the WBC crown in 1997.
He lost one, on a fluke punch by Hasim Rahman, and got a disputed draw against Holyfield. But he won the rest, although critics complain he fights too cautiously and is a reluctant combatant.
“This is a fight that is important for this era of boxing,” Lewis said. “It would be disappointing to me if I didn’t box the best boxers of this era.”