Mike Tyson playfully nibbled on the arm of his baby boy, who didn't seem all that interested in the new tattoo on his father's face. For those who were, a university instructor was on hand to explain its significance.

The atmosphere surrounding Tyson's fight with Clifford Etienne was already circus-like. The carnival officially opened for business today at a news conference goofy even by Tyson's standards.

The former heavyweight champion played with his 9-month-old son, chatted amiably with the media and acted surprised that there was such a fuss about his tattoo.

Behind him, Tonya Harding flexed her muscles, while University of Memphis instructor Kya Reaves talked nearby about the Maori warrior roots of the design on Tyson's face.

"It's indicative he wants it to represent the warrior in him," Reaves said.

Tyson, meantime, appeared to be healing rapidly from whatever ailed him earlier in the week. He split the lip of a sparring partner before making a jovial appearance to promote a fight he desperately needs to rescue his foundering career.

"They offered me more money. That makes you very, very well real quick," Tyson said. "If I don't get it, I get sick real quick."

Tyson, 36, was to get more than $5 million to fight Etienne -- huge money unless you're Mike Tyson and used to purses that routinely top $20 million. The free-spending Tyson needs as much as he can get because he is low on funds and owes his ex-wife $6.5 million from his future earnings.

Tyson's manager, Shelly Finkel, denied his fighter got any more money and said Tyson was just joking about his illness.

Though various reports from Tyson's camp have described him as being sick and bedridden over the weekend, he showed no ill effects when he went five rounds with sparring partner Stan Allen and sent Allen to the hospital to get stitches on his lip.

Tyson's tattoo was the center of attention.

"I didn't like the way my face was looking," Tyson said.

Tyson stopped training after getting the tattoo, then a few days later came down sick. He didn't return to the gym until Wednesday, when he sparred four rounds and went back today for five more.

"It was a great workout," trainer Freddie Roach said.

Still, Roach was wary about a fighter who missed so much work.

"I'm still worried about his conditioning if the fight goes into the later rounds," he said.

In Tyson's prime, someone like Etienne wouldn't worry him at all. But Tyson has been exposed in recent fights -- particularly his loss to Lennox Lewis -- as a fighter with declining skills and dwindling dedication.

Tyson weighed in today at 2253/4 pounds to 2223/4 for Etienne.

Oddsmakers had made Tyson a 7-1 favorite, but that dropped to 4-1 after a week of missed workouts and illness. At the Stardust sports book, most of the money was on Etienne until he vowed not to fight on Tuesday, only to change his mind the next day.

Through much of the news conference, Tyson played with his son, Miguel, taking off the boy's shirt and letting him play with a microphone.

"I want him to be a fighter so I want him to get accustomed to what's going on," Tyson said.

The boy sat quietly, watching as his father spent a half-hour affably answering questions about his tattoo, his illness and his desire to keep fighting.

In between, he accused promoter Don King of trying to sabotage the fight by claiming Tyson shouldn't be allowed to fight sick and with a fresh tattoo. Tyson was scheduled to be examined by a doctor for the Tennessee boxing commission just before this afternoon's weigh-in.

"We've got to fight," Tyson said. "We're in a hurt business."

Tyson has been the biggest draw in the business since the days he was the most feared heavyweight around. He has earned tens of millions of dollars, but most of it is now gone -- spent, given away or stolen from the former champion.

Tyson earned $20 million last year to take a beating from Lewis, but most of that went to pay debts. Now he must look good against Etienne to get a Lewis rematch.

Etienne doesn't have such problems. He came out of a 10-year prison term for armed robbery to become a boxer and is getting nearly $1 million and the opportunity of his career to fight Tyson.

"I think I'll probably knock Mike out around the fourth or fifth round," Etienne said.

Boxing Note: Heavyweight contender Vitali Klitschko filed suit in Las Vegas against the World Boxing Council in an effort to force Lewis to let him fight for the heavyweight title. Klitschko's suit claims the WBC is violating its own rules by refusing to order Lewis, the WBC champion, to fight him. Klitschko, the WBC's top-ranked contender, claims in the lawsuit that Lewis has to fight him by June 8 if the WBC rules for mandatory title defenses are followed. Lewis had been negotiating a fight with Klitschko, but dropped plans for the bout last month and announced that he would likely fight a rematch against Tyson in June.

"I want him to be a fighter so I want him to get accustomed to what's going on," Mike Tyson said of son Miguel.