Mike Tyson is 38 years old. He's not much heavier than in his prime, even if his wallet is a lot lighter. His hands and legs -- a boxer's tools -- are not as quick as they were when he was 23, but he says that when he gets into the ring on Friday night at Freedom Hall in Louisville, he will be making his first steps toward a larger goal of reclaiming the heavyweight title.
If successful, he will accomplish something very rare in boxing's most glorified division: capturing the heavyweight title in the twilight of a career. His handlers recognize that ultimate prize is still a few fights down the line, but his trainer, Freddie Roach, believes Tyson has one thing going for him the current crop of top heavyweights don't.
"A lot of people are still going to lose the fight just looking across the ring at him," Roach said in Phoenix as Tyson was preparing for his fight against unheralded British heavyweight Danny Williams. "I think when they see that animal across the ring just pacing, I think they lose it. He's still very intimidating."
If Tyson (50-4, 44 knockouts) beats Williams (31-3, 26 knockouts) -- Las Vegas oddsmakers made him a 20-to-1 favorite -- he plans to fight again this fall. Tyson's handlers believe he could be in line for a championship fight sometime next year. At the top of the division, the title is splintered with a separate champion from each sanctioning body: Vitali Klitschko (the World Boxing Council), John Ruiz (World Boxing Association) and Chris Byrd (International Boxing Federation). None of those fighters seems to instill fear in Tyson.
"I just want to fight," Tyson said this month while training at Central Boxing Club in Phoenix. "It's a weak division but those guys have put in their work. Nobody is just going to give me a belt. I probably could get a title shot any time, but I just want to do it the right way. I want to build up my skills, work hard, earn a title shot and fight for the championship."
History suggests Tyson won't become champion again. Only George Foreman was able to win a heavyweight championship beyond his 38th birthday. Foreman knocked out Michael Moorer in the 10th round in Las Vegas on Nov. 5, 1994, to win the IBF and WBA belts, making him the oldest heavyweight champion at 45. Amazingly, Foreman had lost the WBA and WBC titles to Muhammad Ali 20 years earlier and then quit boxing for 10 years.
Several boxers have fought into their forties -- Bob Fitzsimmons and Jack Johnson both fought into their fifties -- but only Foreman was successful in a championship bout. Foreman had lost two championship bouts to Evander Holyfield and Tommy Morrison before stunning the undefeated Moorer.
Holyfield, who, at 41, claims to still have the same goal as Tyson, has gone 0-2-1 in championship bouts after his 38th birthday, losing to Ruiz (their rematch ended in a draw) and Byrd. Larry Holmes went 0-4 in championship bouts after turning 38, losing his belts to Tyson, who knocked down Holmes three times in the fourth round of their fight on Jan. 22, 1988.
Holmes, now 55, said Tyson's lightning-quick knockouts early in his career -- 22 of his 44 knockouts were first-rounders -- will help him as he prepares to fight younger boxers.
"Age doesn't have anything to do with it," Holmes said. "Mike's a young 38. He hasn't abused his body. He's still got a lot left. And he'll get the opportunity [for a championship bout] because his name is Mike Tyson."
In the late 1980s, Tyson was the most feared fighter in the world, knocking out nearly half of his opponents in the first round, some in as few as 30 seconds. He won boxing's "linear" heavyweight title -- the belt that can be traced back to "Gentleman" Jim Corbett in 1892 -- when he flattened Michael Spinks 91 seconds into the first round 16 years ago in Atlantic City. He held the title for barely 18 months, losing it, famously, to James "Buster" Douglas in Tokyo on Feb. 10, 1990. He hasn't owned it since.
Roach acknowledges Tyson has lost some of his speed and power, blaming Tyson's inactivity during the last two years as much as the fighter's age.
He is still a squat, power-packed 5 feet 11, and he will likely weigh in today at a typical 220 pounds, but Tyson has fought only once in 18 months, knocking out Clifford Etienne in 49 seconds in Memphis on Feb. 22, 2003. After that, Tyson hid in obscurity for several months, until he filed for bankruptcy last fall. Friday night's bout could be the first of seven fights for Tyson, who owes an estimated $38 million to at least 246 creditors.
"This is about more than money," said Shelly Finkel, Tyson's manager and adviser. "It's about redemption. It's about winning the heavyweight championship again and defending it."
Although Tyson hasn't beaten a marquee boxer since he knocked out Holmes, Tony Tubbs and Spinks in a six-month span in 1988, he's still the biggest name in a fragmented and mediocre, at best, heavyweight division.
"Of the heavyweight champions out there right now," Roach said, "there's not one that Mike can't beat."
Holmes isn't so sure. Holmes says Byrd probably couldn't absorb Tyson's powerful punches, but says Klitschko has the same advantages Lennox Lewis had over Tyson -- height and reach. Tyson has a 71-inch reach. Lewis, who knocked out Tyson in eight rounds on June 8, 2002, in Memphis, is 6-5 with an 84-inch reach. Klitschko is 6-71/2 and has an 80-inch reach.
"All these fighters that want to trade punches, Mike Tyson is going to win that battle," Holmes said. "But he's very ordinary when he tries to go inside. He has no jab. He's vulnerable with the big guys."
Roach doesn't want Tyson going for the early knockout punch against Williams on Friday night. Roach said Tyson needs to box in order to build up his stamina.
"I want him to break this guy down and not just go for the kill right away," Roach said. "I want him to break the guy down and knock the guy out when the guy is ready to be taken. We need rounds.
"I think for the Etienne fight, he went out there just to blow him away. If he does that with Danny Williams, he's going to give Danny Williams a chance to get lucky. I don't want him going for the home run right away. I'd love to get four or five rounds out of him, even more if possible, but I don't see it going longer than that."
Tyson's critics said he couldn't fight for 10 or 12 rounds at a young age, and some say he certainly can't do it at an older age.
"I don't think he'll win a title with the big boys," Holmes said. "Physically, he probably can't go the distance. He can't knock everybody out now. He's got to train to go the distance and he's got to get serious and dedicated."
Tyson also seems more docile in his old age. During his pre-fight news conference in Louisville this month, Tyson hugged Williams and posed for a picture with his opponent's sister. In the past, Tyson talked of wanting to eat Lewis's children and was involved in several pre-fight skirmishes.
Roach said Tyson isn't being medicated -- the fighter reportedly has prescriptions for Zoloft and lithium to treat depression and bipolar disorder -- but is simply taking his career more seriously.
"He is not on any medication," Roach said. "He knows he needs to do well in this fight because it's like a springboard."
Tyson said he'll be his old self when he climbs into the ring against Williams.
"People have this myth that if they don't see me ranting and raving that I'm not a hungry fighter," Tyson said. "Make no mistake, I'm going to win, there's no doubt."