In his simple way, Mike Tyson has decided the best place to start over is at the beginning. Four months after losing his title and identity at the fists of Buster Douglas, Tyson is exhuming his boxing career this week against Henry Tillman, the gentleman who kept him off the 1984 Olympic team and who won the heavyweight gold medal.
In those days, opponents always were "gentlemen." At 17, Tyson worked at heeding the beautiful old trainers who taught courtliness as part of the business. "My opponent was game and gutsy," he allowed after dispatching a Princeton man during the Olympic trials. "What round did I stop the gentleman in, anyway?"
But in two attempts Tyson could neither measure nor reach the older, taller, more- experienced Tillman, who knew his way around the amateur ring and rules. When the second narrow decision was announced in Tillman's favor, Tyson stepped outside the arena and began to cry, to bawl really. It was a cold, feral wail that most of the gentlemen marked and remembered.
As the boxers trooped away, a well-meaning woman at the airport addressed her general best wishes to Tyson: "Good luck in the fight!" Tyrell Biggs, the team's super heavyweight, chuckled merrily. "She must mean good luck on the flight," he said. That was the end of the gentleman. "I could have knocked him out sooner," Tyson explained a few years later, after finally tending to Biggs in the ring. "But I wanted to do it slowly, so he could remember this a long time."
Tyson wasn't just the heavyweight champion of the world. He was a standard of brutality, a primitive, seemingly supernatural, force. Amused by the notion of driving nose bones into brain pans, Tyson regarded all his opponents as Biggs: "Before or after, I don't respect any of them more than another. What they look like doesn't really matter. I never dwell on what's to be done or what's been done. I just don't think of stuff like that. In my heart, I know what to do."
When a man like this falls, he has a hard time getting up.
"Not too long after Louis lost to Schmeling," recalled the beautiful old trainer Eddie Futch, "Joe popped into the gym in Detroit. He was still showing some swelling from the fight. A couple of the fellows were sparring and Joe called out to one of them: 'You better stop that cute stuff before you get knocked on your behind.' Someone shouted back: 'You ought to know.' Joe looked at us for a long moment. But then he grinned. 'I certainly do,' he said. That's the way Tyson has to take it, if he's going to make it back."
In a languorous pro career, Tillman has fought mostly dead men and has been trimmed by the uncelebrated Bert Cooper, Duane Bonds and William deWit. Evander Holyfield flattened Tillman over three years ago. By making it back, Futch is referring to a battle more profound than this week's walkover.
"Among the pros in boxing, the guys who've been up and down the pike," Futch said, "the consensus was that Tyson would self- destruct within two years. Soft living takes the hard edge off any fighter, but especially one who leans so far to the physical side.
"Tyson had two great assets: power in either hand; quick-footed on the attack. As for technical skills -- slipping, sliding, rolling, counterpunching -- he didn't do much. And after six rounds, he'd start to go downhill. That was the pattern against Tony Tucker, Bonecrusher Smith, Mitch Green, Quick Tillis -- all the ones who went the distance. They didn't have anything but a little height and a respectable left hand. In that way, they sort of forecast Buster Douglas."
The champion has disappeared. "Inexperience of management," Futch said. Preoccupied with dislodging himself from promoter Don King, Douglas has covered his own light in litigation. It may be true that he is just a decent heavyweight -- a journeyman of 29, who quit against Tucker along the way. But it is certainly true that decent heavyweights are in short supply. Douglas deserved a better reward than six months of neglect followed by a date with Holyfield, who is the one now with the look of the warrior.
"Before the Michael Spinks fight," Futch said, "Tyson had a glint in his eye that has been missing since. I got to see it close up. There was a gloves hassle in the dressing room beforehand. It was a ploy by Michael's man, Butch Lewis, but I wasn't in on it. Tyson was furious. Eventually, they had me check the wrap and I just turned his hands over in mine and said: 'These are all right.' He looked at me hard and smiled. I knew he was ready that night."
Will he ever be so ready again? "You can't take a beating like he did," Futch said, "and come away without doubts. How he handles them will tell everything. One defeat like that can turn you around until you're never the same. But you can't predict it. It's inside you."
Ray Arcel, who saw Jack Dempsey in 1916 and knows a little bit about this, said: "After a loss like Tyson's, you practically have to put yourself in jail. You have to live like a saint. Has he been doing that? And you better not surround yourself with handlers who are afraid to say anything to you, who value the work or the money more than the truth."
Moments of truth occur during fights, but also after them.
WHERE: Caesars Palace, Las Vegas.
WHO: Card highlighted by two scheduled 10-round heavyweight bouts: Mike Tyson (37-1, 33 KOs) vs. Henry Tillman (20-4, 14 KOs), 11:15 p.m.; George Foreman (66-2, 62 KOs) vs. Adilson Rodrigues (36-3, 26 KOs), 10 p.m.
TV: Home Box Office.