Forget the fight. It's too sad anyway, another defeat for Mike Tyson, and what a lot of people are calling the end of his career. But the pre-fight ritual continues to fascinate. What could be more interesting than beautiful women, all hair and legs, men in $2,400 alligator shoes and custom-made suits, limos waiting outside?
No, this isn't Vegas, but we make an effort. There is nothing like fight night, with all its posturing, set against a backdrop of decadence and decay. Tyson isn't what he used to be, of course, and neither is boxing, but upstairs near the concession stands, you could forget that for a moment.
A gorgeous woman talking to a man stored his number in her phone. She said she'd been getting a lot of attention.
"I mean, it's cool, everybody tries their hand," Annette Savoy was saying. Green necklace, green top, green skirt, hazel eyes. She came by herself, but wouldn't stay that way for long. Her phone rang. "Yes, Craig," she said. "I'm just walking around, chilling . . . "
If only chilling were always like this. Up here by the MCI Center concession stands before Mike Tyson's six-round loss, watch the men's eyes swivel. At metallic gold heels and metallic green heels and leopard print heels. A very pregnant woman in a very short black dress. A woman in crystal-encrusted $160 jeans. A woman in a $3,000 BCBG dress, which was a birthday present from her husband, along with their $1,000-plus ringside seats. Down there, by the ring, you could see faces you recognize: Muhammad Ali. Again, it's not Vegas, but what passes for celebrity in D.C.: Ted Leonsis, Omarosa. Lots of people with the hard look that says, You should recognize me. A well-dressed girl from New Jersey said, "We're friends with Mike," and wouldn't elaborate.
Down here, you could hear the dull thump of glove hitting chest and see the sweat fly. "There'll be spit flying on me," Christina Goss, the daughter of one of the promoters, said before the fight. There's an intimacy to the violence, and an anything-goes feeling, perhaps exacerbated by the presence of Tyson, with his storied past -- the rape conviction, the biting thing. Nearly 39, father of six, deeply in debt, attempting yet one more comeback -- the desperation seemed to leak from Tyson's pores.
But up above: We're still happening, we're very lovely and very young. The men have heavy eyes. The shoes shine.
"There are a few of us who still believe that you dress to impress," said Jim Bell, a lawyer who of course had a ringside seat and was wearing a custom-made six-button gray suit ("No, not gray -- platinum") and cranberry and white alligator shoes. He's here to network, here with his own personal security, he said. Taking a break by the concession stands before the main event, he greeted his friends: Marcus Tyler, celebrity hairstylist, who said he's done the rapper Eve's hair, and Tracy Wiggs, who promotes comedians.
The setting may not be sexy -- people walking by with baskets of fried chicken -- but this is as much the scene as ringside is.
The week leading up to fight night is one filled with anticipation. Tuesday there was a competition at the downtown nightclub Pearl for round-card girls, the women who walk the ring in skimpy outfits between rounds. There were more than 30 women trying out, from "adult entertainers to models to moms," one of the organizers said. A few were almost attractive enough to be Sears catalogue models. Most were not. One contestant had rubbed glitter all over her generously proportioned body. Another wore a hot pink bikini and another a hot green bikini and still another wore a bikini made of sheer white mesh, which proved quite popular with the crowd.
The audience was mostly men, standing as close to the velvet-roped platform as possible, offering positive feedback (unprintable) and snapping pictures with cameras and camera phones. One guy trained his lens on the backside of each contestant who passed by, at one point zooming in to view a woman three feet away.
Most of the judges sat on creamy leather couches, although one of them, Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington, preferred to stand and boogie as each woman walked past. He had the look of a child who has just discovered chocolate. The emcee urged everyone to buy tickets for the Tyson fight now. "If you're a baller, we still got ringside," he said.
The girls who win will have to be told: Once you're in the ring, not too trashy. No thongs. And check to make sure you're not coming out of your top before you stand up. Even boxing has its standards.
Mike Tyson these days is being billed as a kinder, gentler incarnation, though it must be said that even a kinder Tyson is still pretty weird. When he took the stage for a news conference Wednesday at Howard University, he was like a schoolkid with ADD. Chewing gum manically, fiddling with his mike, tapping the table, chanting, and interrupting whoever was speaking. He declared himself an "icon" and an "international star." There were plenty of other boxers there, but this was the Mike Tyson show, and everyone knew it.
Few speakers even mentioned Tyson's opponent, Kevin McBride, who is regarded as little more than a prop for Tyson's rehabilitation. (He gets $150,000 for this fight; Tyson gets $5.5 million.) Instead they talked about how Tyson's finally coming back -- the old Tyson, which is the young Tyson, just crazy enough but not too crazy, with fists of steel. His trainer said he's "back to his devastating best." A promoter told the audience to expect "an explosion." The chairman of the Boxing and Wrestling Commission, A. W. McKnight, welcomed Tyson to the District as though he were receiving a king.
"I love you, brother," McKnight said.
"I love you back," Tyson replied in his strange lispy voice, then shook his head. "No more comp tickets."
It makes you wonder how long a fighter can try for redemption before his age makes the issue moot. Tyson's life is all about second and third and fourth chances, but he's old. He is $20 million in debt and long past the point when he held the world in the palm of his hand. If he came "back," where exactly would he be?
McBride's adviser, Rich Cappiello, picked at this wound when he took the podium. "He was supposed to come back last year," he said of Tyson, and the "year before that. When's he coming back?"
Things heated up. Tyson sneered at the adviser. He labeled his opponent a "tomato can," that is, a patsy, a loser, and promised -- in words that would later perhaps haunt him -- to "gut him like a fish." The Irish-born McBride threatened Tyson in a Lucky Charms brogue that, unfortunately for him, made everything he said sound cute. "He's gonna tink da whole of Ireland hit him on da chin," he threatened.
Then a heckler in the crowd accused Tyson's manager, Shelly Finkel, of robbing the fighter. Tyson defended Finkel by saying Don King robbed him "worse than any white or Jew man ever did."
No one on the podium or in the crowd seemed to react to the characterization, perhaps because, by Mike Tyson standards, this is considered kindness.
Thursday was weigh-in. The crowd was packed with media types, Howard students and fans. Tyson's opponent, the 6-foot-6, 271-pound McBride, took off his shirt, revealing a huge slab of chest, flat like the side of a building. Tyson removed his lime-green T-shirt, baring a still-beautiful torso, rippled with muscles, decorated with tattoos of Mao Tse-tung, Che Guevara and Arthur Ashe. He unzipped his green pants and left them open for a while, like a stripper teasing the audience, then zipped them up, and finally took them off.
He stepped on the scale wearing white socks and white Versace briefs; 233 pounds.
"I'll hold your pants," a woman in the audience called out, suggestively.
You're never quite sure how much of the public's fascination with Tyson is due to his fame, and how much to his infamy. But in this crowd, packed with fans, there was awe and respect. This is the man who overcame poverty and fatherlessness to become the youngest-ever heavyweight champion at age 20. His drive, his ferocity, is his appeal.
"Pitbull mania time!" a guy in the audience yelled out.
Tyson, dressed again, headed over to a table to get a license and sign some forms. The city official administering these, Cheryl Randall Thomas, handed him paper after paper. An affidavit. A medical release. A disclosure form, which she explained thusly: "This is to let you know that boxing is a dangerous sport."
And, quite possibly, no longer Tyson's sport at all.
On the scene at MCI Center: Jim Bell, Marcus Tyler, Erika Wiggs and Tracy Wiggs. Ring girl Sharron Brooks enters the ring at MCI Center. More than 30 women tried out for the job.