The joke making the rounds a few days before Mike Tyson's release from prison summed up his life in one sharp question: "Which would you rather be? His first opponent or his first date?"

The crowd of fans and reporters waiting outside the Indiana Youth Center on the morning of March 25 were consumed by two questions: Was the former heavyweight champ still a contender after languishing in prison for three years, and who was that shapely woman at his side?

To boxing fans, this was more than idle curiosity. The women in Tyson's life are as famous as his knockout punches and just as dev astating -- Tyson's ex-wife, Robin Givens, ripped their marriage apart on prime-time television; his date with Desiree Wash ington resulted in a rape conviction and prison term.

Now Tyson has fallen for 29-year-old Monica Turn er, not an actress or beauty queen but a medical student in her final year at Georgetown Univer sity who grew up in Washington, majored in psychology and biology at the University of Virginia, and plans to specialize in pedi atric medicine. She's smart but no innocent to life outside the classroom -- Turner also has had a relationship with a convicted drug dealer 28 years her senior, is raising her 5-year-old daughter and moves comfortably in the raw, extravagant world of professional boxing.

Sporting an eye-popping marquise diamond on her left hand, Turner has been traveling with Tyson since the morning he was released: flying to his mansion outside Cleveland, visiting his probation officer, checking out the $3.7 million palace and five BMWs he just bought in Las Vegas. Having completed her course work, she's not expected back in Washington until May 27, when she graduates from Georgetown -- with a beaming Tyson expected to be in the audience.

It's love, says the Rev. Charles Williams, a close adviser to Tyson.

"It's mutual admiration and respect for each other," he says. "She's fallen in love with a man that she admires and respects for his tenacity to survive through his personal struggles."

And Tyson, Williams says, is a new man.

"He's had an opportunity to reflect on his life in general -- the negative and the positive -- to determine what direction he would like to go. I think he wants to settle down and have a family at some point. And he finds in her an extremely good candidate."

Tyson met Turner during a party at Eddie Murphy's New Jersey mansion in the late '80s -- long before the boxer's legal problems. Tyson is a big fan of the "Beverly Hills Cop" star, and Turner -- curvy, with long dark hair and high cheekbones -- is attractive and intelligent enough to adorn any celebrity bash. They talked, they clicked.

"Tyson has always been looking for a black princess," says boxing writer Bert Sugar. "This woman possess es many of the things he would aspire to -- educated, very pretty, conducts herself with a regal mien."

Then the boxer went to prison, and Turner made sure he didn't forget her. Almost every two weeks for the past three years, she flew to Indianapolis, checked in to a hotel suite and went to visit prisoner No. 922335. It is not clear who financed these visits.

"She was so supportive," says Williams. "She did whatever he needed done. She brought his daughter {4-year-old Mikey} to see him. She was very dependable and reliable. I think he liked those qualities in her. And I think he was very impressed with her determination to become a doctor and that she would take time out of her heavy studies to consistently visit him."

Visiting rules at the Indiana Youth Center are strict. An individual can visit only once every 14 days -- for two hours on a weekday or one hour on a weekend. Every six months, Tyson could submit a list of the people he wanted to visit him.

It was a long list. Besides the celebrity names -- Shaquille O'Neal, Spike Lee, Maya Angelou, James Brown -- there were a number of attractive female visitors. Since they were all there at Tyson's request, it wasn't clear who, if anyone, could claim an inside track to his affections. Watching Tyson with Turner in the visitor's room revealed little: They kept it very, very low-key.

"The relationship developed long before prison," says Muhammad Siddeeq, Tyson's friend and adviser who tutored him in the Muslim faith. "But I think it enhanced itself during prison. They wrote each other, talked on the phone, and she was at his side constantly."

By early March, when Turner was still making rounds at medical school, her answering machine contained this announcement: "If you want to leave a message for Mike, myself or Gena {her daughter} . . ."

That's about as close to an admission anyone got from Turner about her relationship with Tyson. Publicly declaring herself as Tyson's girl is not Turner's style, by all accounts. And maybe only the boxer himself knew for sure.

But on the morning of Tyson's release, the couple confirmed by actions what they would not in words. Wearing a leather miniskirt, Turner was the only woman allowed at his dawn release, attended the Muslim prayer service with Tyson afterward and then flew by private jet to his estate in Southington, Ohio.

This romance, says Siddeeq, will be different. "Mike's belief in God has brought out in him the latent respect for women that was always there."

Maybe it's just that simple. Or maybe not. Tyson's relationships have been described in many ways, but never as simple and uncomplicated. "Mike Tyson is like the Three Faces of Eve' times five," says Sugar. "He can be, at one time, very sensitive, very polite, very arrogant -- he can be anything he wants to be."

But Turner's low-key, nurturing style apparently fills a crucial void in Tyson's life. Tyson, even as a kid, never had real emotional security. His father wasn't there, and his mother died. His father figures -- trainer Cus D'A\mato and manager Jimmy Jacobs -- unexpectedly died. Then his sister died. "I think he's searching for a foundation," says Sugar. "She's a very simple, down-to-earth person," says Dominique Wilmot, a classmate at Georgetown. "She's got beautiful long hair, which she usually wears in a ponytail. She's a very even-keeled, subdued person. She doesn't wear a lot of makeup. She's not the kind of person who's going to wear skimpy clothes."

Okay, there was that leather miniskirt and, in photographs with Tyson, she's wearing a black lace see-through top with very short shorts. And okay, maybe Turner's Navy Mercedes isn't exactly simple. But she does dress conservatively at school, and the car didn't raise eyebrows on campus. "We have Range Rovers, we have Porsches, we have Mercedes, we have Jaguars," laughs Wilmot. "This is Georgetown."

Turner's parents live in a modest home in the Northwest Washington neighborhood of Petworth, and she graduated from Regina High School, a Catholic school for girls that closed in 1989. She received her undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia in 1987. Her daughter was born in 1989, and she entered Georgetown the following year as part of a five-year program designed to bring minority students into medicine.

Turner decided early that she wanted to specialize in pediatrics. "She loves kids," says Wilmot. "There's a special bond when you decide to work with children and she has that. She's patient. Very patient."

She is also very private. Turner declined to be interviewed for this article. "She's always been that way," says Wilmot, who has known her for five years and is close enough to her to have had dinner with Turner's parents. Turner never once mentioned to her friend that she knew Tyson, much less that she visited him every other week.

And Turner never mentioned her relationship with Eugene Byrd. Byrd, 57, is currently serving a 10-year sentence in federal prison in Lewisburg, Pa., for conspiracy to distribute cocaine. At the time of his arrest in 1989, he was described by law enforcement sources as one of a dozen men who controlled half of the District's cocaine and heroin business; federal officials also said that one of his partners borrowed $80 million from the now-defunct Old Court Savings & Loan to finance Byrd's operations. The partner's sentence was reduced to three years because he cooperated with prosecutors.

Byrd was also manager of Les Nieces nightclub, a popular hangout for college students. When Byrd was arrested, Turner accompanied him to the offices of his lawyer, William B. Moffitt, several times, says Moffitt, but she was not asked to testify in the case. Turner gave birth to her daughter, Gena, about the time of Byrd's sentencing. Byrd is by all accounts devoted to the little girl.

It's hard to know whether she learned it from the nuns or Byrd, but Turner clearly developed a head for finance. She purchased a $124,500 town house off Georgia Avenue near the Maryland border, and has an interest in a four-unit apartment building near Catholic University. According to property records, the building is owned by a B. Byrd, but two of the tenants say they still send rent checks written out to Turner to her home address . She enrolled her daughter in Lowell School, a private preschool, and applied to enter Georgetown's medical school. Students in the special minority program attend tuition-free for the first year. For the remaining four, tuition is $22,500 per year.

All of which seems like small potatoes in light of Tyson's past and future fortunes. Tyson just signed a multi-million-dollar commentary and pay-per-view deal with Showtime, and is expected to earn up to $50 million for his first major fight, expected to take place this year.

But Wilmot insists money is the last thing on Turner's mind.

"She's far from a gold digger," she says. "She has enough on her own. She's got a brain to rely on. She stands out as a woman to be reckoned with." The lovebirds aren't talking, but Wilmot got a call from her friend about a week ago. All Turner would say is that she was "very happy."

Despite rumors to the contrary, Tyson and Turner are not yet married -- although things certainly seem to be moving in that direction. The terms of Tyson's four-year probation require him to seek permission from his probation officer to marry, as well as to undergo court-ordered psychotherapy and perform community service.

The boxer's much-discussed conversion to the Muslim faith does not require that Turner convert from Catholicism. "It would not be an issue," says Siddeeq. "The Holy Koran encourages believers to marry believers." A believer, he explained, can come from any faith. For now, he says, "I see Monica as one who will continue to help stabilize Mike and help to keep him directed and focused towards the positive goals that he has set for himself."

What that means for Turner's medical career is an open question.

The last year of school is filled with rotations, which are the equivalent of student teaching. Turner has completed her work and will be awarded a degree in medicine on May 27 at graduation ceremonies at the Kennedy Center.

"She had expressed a desire for {Tyson} to be at the graduation," says Clare Fiore, medical center spokeswoman, "but not at the expense of her classmates." When William Kennedy Smith received his medical degree four years ago, Georgetown students scalped tickets to reporters for big bucks. The Georgetown medical school has asked its students not to talk to the media about Turner.

She still has to complete a two-year residency to practice as a pediatrician, but Turner has postponed her postgraduate training and is taking the next year off.

"Her number one priority is to try to be there for Mike as he needs her," says Siddeeq.

A lot, after all, can happen in a year. CAPTION:Mike Tyson, released after serving three years in prison for rape, nuzzles Monica Turner in Las Vegas earlier this month. "Mike's belief in God has brought out in him the latent respect for women that was always there," says a friend. CAPTION: Veronica Dillard, 7, hugs Mike Tyson earlier this month in Las Vegas.