Just now he rang up Robin. He's sprawled out with the phone cradled against his ear, ready to hear her voice and the smile in it, but all the phone does is ring and ring and ring. Where is she? God, he doesn't need this: Robin, pick up the phone. Just now he heard it on the news, about the girl pinned down by six men in the woods, raped, sodomized, found trembling four days later in a trash bag with NIGGER and KKK scrawled in charcoal across her flesh. This world is sick, this world is evil; Robin, pick up the phone! Of course, this is silly, she lives 2,800 miles away, she's just not home, but this world is sick, this world is evil; God, I don't need this, Robin, please pick up the phone. . . .

The first to be hanged was Mike Tyson's friend. The little boy screamed and kicked, but he was nothing against the anger of the men. They knotted the rope around his neck and heaved him over the edge of the tenement fire escape; the rope played out, then jerked. Urine flooded the little boy's pants.

In a moment they would reel the body in, slip the noose over the other boy's head—Mike Tyson's head—and throw him over, too. His body froze, his mouth hung slack and mute. A neighbor noticed, shouted a threat. The boys' captors panicked and fled. Barely, he avoided death; death for trying to steal a man's pigeons.

In the winter, when the earth has grown hard and the food scarce, the hawk flies circles in the sky. Its black eyes angle back and forth, from the big white house in the country where the heavyweight champion lives to the small brown one behind it where he keeps his pigeons.

For weeks now the two have been marking each other. When the man lets the pigeons fly free, the hawk drops from the sky, seizes one by the shoulders and wings off to devour it. The man mourns and plots his revenge.

Now only two of his hundred pigeons remain. The hawk must not die one death, but 98 deaths; how else will evil be balanced, how else can life make sense?

The heavyweight champion is well versed in cruelty, knows its nuances in a way that only one who has suffered it can. He lies in bed and pictures how he will catch the hawk, file its beak and claws to nubs, clip its wings, send it hobbling off to know the same helplessness and humiliation as the pigeon. And slowly, slowly die.

One morning he comes out to check his birds. For a moment their eyes meet, the hawk with its talons caught in the wire mesh of the pigeon coop, the man rigid with surprise. He reaches out, grabs its neck, tears its leg free; at last he can mutilate it, cripple it, teach it justice.

Suddenly his hands part; the hawk bursts into the sky.

Last night he broke Larry Holmes. Left him twitching on the floor, the ring doctor rushing in to secure Holmes's tongue before Holmes could swallow it. That was nice; that was justice. The only thing nicer would have been for Holmes to end up sitting on the canvas, staring up at Mike Tyson, able to stand, but deciding not to, his will broken instead of his body. But this was quite acceptable.

None of these fistfights for money ever brings Tyson happiness. They only bring him relief. Now it's morning and the wealthy white people in the East Side Manhattan apartment building where he has recently rented are approaching him, one after the next, to shake his hand for breaking Holmes. "I'm going crazy," he says under his breath.

He gazes at the young woman on his arm, a beautiful TV actress named Robin Givens, who has grown up in private schools and upper-middle-class suburbs. She wears a short black-and-white pinstriped skirt with matching vest, her hair falling in perfect curls across her shoulders. He wears unlaced sneakers, a sweat suit and a wool hat tugged low over his round, rough head. "You want to go to my old neighborhood?" he asks her. He cocks his head and grins. "You afraid?"

They choose the silver Lincoln stretch limousine over the black Mercedes-Benz stretch limousine waiting for them outside. In just a few minutes, they are riding through the holocaust. He stares out through the black-tinted window at empty lots full of broken glass and rubble, rusting cars, washing machines toppled on their sides, windowless and doorless houses, burned out, staring through black sockets—skulls. Brownsville, in Brooklyn. "My neighborhood," he says. His face is shining. "I grew up here. It's mine!"

He presses a button, the window slides down. "Rockaway Avenue . . . all up and down this road, I robbed people. Who? Anybody who was a victim. And right here, by the train station, women would get on the bus; we'd reach in the windows, rip off their necklaces."

"Oh, Mike," says Robin.

"If a kid knew his mom was going out with money and didn't want to steal it himself, he'd tell me where she was going, what time. I'd wait for her and rob her, then we'd split it."

"Mike. . . ."

"And we'd rub drunks' fingers in the snow so we could pull off their rings. There's the grocery store. See those women coming out? We'd wait outside and offer to help them carry their bags to their cars, then, while we were handing them back their bags, we'd reach into their pocketbooks and steal their wallets."

"Mike, I can't picture you doing that. Look at all the barbed wire. This place is freaking me out."

"Can you see Robin walking these streets? Look at these people, look at their faces. Tough faces. These are my people. These are the people I represent when I fight. Slow down here. See the building with the boards over the windows? That's where we lived." Gleefully he says it: "Condemned!"

"Turn right at the corner. Look at this place. This is why I have the desire to win dramatically and brutally. That's Bristol Park. I saw people shot here, stabbed, beaten with baseball bats. That building over there: I ran inside it and hid; the cops were chasing me. Sure I used a gun. I'd walk in a store with a .22 and hold it in front of the man's face."

"Oh my God. . . ."

"The last time I robbed someone I was 15. They were a couple, they had on those big sheepskin coats and hats like Russians wear. We tore them off."

"Mike, that wasn't long ago. You lived here not long ago. . . ."

"But I don't feel the urge to steal anymore. I don't need to, I'm established. God, I hate that word, established. People who call themselves established—put them on these streets for five minutes, let's see how established they are. There's Lincoln Terrace Park. We'd see dead whores there in the morning. What memories. Good memories. Beautiful memories. I was happier then. I had pure fun here. Every day I was living on the edge. I was wild and free. I love coming back. Do you understand? When I'm here, I feel like a warrior."

He enters the ring with no socks, no robe, no dancing, no music, just the black shoes and trunks, the hard, massive body, the refrigerated anger in his eyes. There was never any choice, the violence about to occur had to be—this is what his face and body say. The bell rings, and the photographs of him in the next morning's papers will show that same terrible lust in his face, the same wrinkled-up nose and drawn-back lips, the same urgency to hit something.

People say he is an instinctive fighter. People are wrong. His first instinct was to run. Driver, slow down: Yes, in front of that gutted-out building—up there, on the roof—that's where Mike Tyson stopped running and finally fought back. Yes, it was 12 years ago. No, it was just now.

Can you see him? He's shorter than the other boys his age. His left eye crosses when he's nervous. His face is one of those big, round ones old women like to squeeze. He lisps and talks softly, like a little girl. Other kids recognize him immediately—a victim. Everyone beats him up, even girls. They make fun of him, take his money and clothes; they hit him and laugh and hit him again as he runs home in tears.

Home is not always better. His older brother beats him up when his mother's not there; he cowers behind the refrigerator, sometimes even eats meals there. His father—he left when Mike was inside his mother's belly. Lorna Tyson and her three children survive on public assistance. She bounces Mike on her knee when he comes home crying, until, at last, the funny sound of his own jiggling sobs makes him stop.

She is one of the sweet innocents of Brownsville, one of the generation of big, round women whose families migrated from the South believing in God, the ones who still look to the sky for justice. Her children have never seen a cornstalk ripen or watched a newborn lamb grow old; they can't see what she sees in the sky. All around them are those empty lots, those abandoned houses, those skulls. The last tenement they lived in had no water or heat. They slept with their clothes on and their eyes open. Neighbors, hoping the city would move them to a public shelter, kept setting fire to the place.

When Lorna's youngest son lifts his eyes to the sky, he sees birds, not justice. In his mind's eye he's looking down from inside one of their little heads, winging his way free of all the rubble, fear and death. Birds are freedom. If there is justice in the sky, a man can accept limits on his freedom. If there isn't. . . .

He keeps his pigeons on the roof of an abandoned building, depending on its ghosts and rats to fend off intruders. When his birds are sick or newly hatched, he stays all night on the roof, listening to the sirens scream, the pigeons coo. When it is cold, he brings them inside the apartment. My babies, he murmurs as he strokes them.

Just now, Killer smelled them. It's cold, and Mike has moved them inside the vacated apartment next door. Killer is the Tysons' Labrador retriever. He noses open the lids on their boxes, crushes 25 pigeons, one by one, between his jaws, and arranges them in a pile. He has no desire to eat them; no, he does it simply because he can. Mike walks in, screams out in grief, runs sobbing to his room. He hates that dog; why can't he be more like him?

Please put it down. A teenager, five years older and bigger, has one of Mike's babies, shakes it in Mike's face. For no reason other than Mike's weakness—no reason different than the dog's—the teenager's hands jerk, the pigeon's head is gone. Blood pumps out and the bird still walks; its feet don't know it's dead.

All at once Mike's hands and feet are kicking and gouging and punching—he's fighting back, he's making the teenager bleed. He is justice! Instincts haven't made him fight. Outraged innocence has.

For the first time, when the beating of the teenager is done, Mike feels peace. Once a man stops running, once he allows the frenzy and chaos out there to come inside him, he and the world are in harmony. It seems so simple; how has it eluded him?

"It became fun for him to beat up kids," says his sister, Denise. "Everyone was afraid of him. His name stopped being 'Mike.' It became 'Mike Tyson.' Boys would come to the door and say, 'Mrs. Tyson, is Mike Tyson home?' He was very mean. And he was the sweetest, most compassionate boy you ever saw. My mother lived in fear that he would do one of two things: Kill someone, or get killed.

"He became the best pickpocket in Brownsville. He'd shake your hand, and your watch, ring and wallet would be gone. Little kids, adults, anybody. He was good. Real good. Very, very good. We all dressed up as witches and ghosts for Halloween. Mike dressed up as a thief."

What a discovery! Anything the world inflicted on you, you could inflict on the world. If, if you could bring yourself to do it.

There, on the couch, his older brother slumbers. Mike takes a razor blade and makes an incision on his arm so fine that Rodney doesn't stir. "Nurse," he whispers to his sister, "alcohol." He pours it on the cut and dances away as Rodney jumps up howling.

He demands that a little girl give him her lunch. She refuses. He snatches her eyeglasses and lays them on the bumper of a truck heading out of state. His mother pays for the glasses and cries. Look at me, Michael. Explain to me. He can beat and rob a man twice his size, pass the night inside the skulls with the ghosts and rats, but he can't look his mother in the eye.

"I did evil things," he says. "But my heart was always pure."

Just now, in the middle of the night, a hand touched his shoulder. A dream with cold fingers. His eyes open. No dream—a big, round, white face in the dark just above him. "Do you remember everything I told you today?" it whispers. "Mike, you have to remember. . . ."

The old man is dying, he can feel it. A world champion will keep him alive. What a strange dream life is that it has brought a black juvenile delinquent and an old Italian man together in a Victorian house on the Hudson River, each looking for a reason to live.

They had put Lorna Tyson's son in a series of juvenile detention centers in Brooklyn, then moved him to a reform school upstate. He was 12. His body and anger were a man's. Sometimes it took three men to subdue him. One of the counselors at the school was a former boxer, and Mike began learning to be brutal in a scientific way. The counselor brought him to the attention of the old boxing man in Catskill, N.Y., named Cus D'Amato.

Now Cus is Mike's legal guardian. "A job delivering newspapers?" the old man roars when the 14-year-old wants to make some pocket money. "You don't need a job, you're going to be the heavyweight champion of the world!"

For hours and hours Cus talks, driving home the lesson Mike had begun to grasp in Brownsville. Control your fear and you are free. He who has the strongest will, who best controls his fear—he is freest of all. Night after night Mike watches films of former champions' fights, leafs through scrapbooks of their clippings, stares up at pictures of them that he has taped to the ceiling and the headboard of his bed, installs them in his empty sky as gods. He falls asleep mumbling, "I'm going to be great, I'm going to be a champion." Then he feels the old man touch his shoulder in the night, review the lesson, press the commandment deeper, deeper into his subconscious.

The first 13 years of his life, when he saw white people, they were usually in blue uniforms or in courtrooms. Now he's living in the same house with them. Now they're telling him to get up and run, go to school, respect the teacher, study. To be free, you have to be a slave? Sometimes he'll suddenly disappear, turn up back on the streets of Brownsville, mug or beat someone just to remember how it feels. "Whenever he was hurt, he ran," Camille Ewald, the woman who owns the house where he and Cus live, will recall years later. A week amid skulls always makes him run back to the house upstate. The freedom of Brownsville smells too much like death.

Sometimes, at the public school he now attends in Catskill, the other kids slur him. Sometimes he only thinks they do. He goes crazy when it happens. The file of incidents becomes too thick, the school expels him. Now he's scared. He's a 16-year-old lying in bed staring up at the pictures of his gods on the ceiling, the ladder he is building toward them about to collapse into the rubble of his past. He gets up and goes to the gym.

Teddy Atlas, the young man Cus depends on to do the physical training, orders Mike out of the gym for two weeks as punishment. The old man flinches. "This boy," he growls, "is a special case." He gets him a tutor, takes him right back to the gym. Eventually Atlas will depart. "As far as guidance in the ring, everything was perfect," Atlas will say years later. "We had him in a time capsule up there in Catskill, we stacked the deck for him to become a champion without any outside influences. But I thought there were compromises being made as far as his guidance as a human being. Put up a house too fast, it can come back to haunt you when a strong wind comes along."

Just now word has come, his mother is dead. The guilt from the grief he has caused her is so sharp he wants to roll up in a ball on the ground and scream. Where can he do that—in front of the gruff old man in his new home, in front of the pigeon decapitators in his old? He looks so cool and powerful on the outside—sometimes three-quarters of his weight class at amateur tournaments withdraw the moment they lay eyes on him—but inside, the self-hatred is chopping him up.

Like that thing with Duran. He loves Roberto, he can almost picture him as an older brother walking beside him down Rockaway Avenue to kick some ass and steal some birds. "So mean, so f------ mean!" he says, reveling. "An intelligent animal!" He goes to Albany to watch Duran's second fight against Sugar Ray Leonard, on closed-circuit theater TV. What's this, the killer surrendering to the pretty boy, the animal whimpering "No más"? Back in his room, he cries. It's me! All those years Duran was champion before I started liking him. . . . I ruined him. I ruin everything. He fell apart because of me.

And then: Don't I fight like Duran, don't I bully people in the ring? If Duran can cry "No more," can't I? Where's the old man right now? Is he sleeping? He kicks off the sheets, the air cold against his sweating skin. Cus, where are you? Is this it? Fear is a beast you must keep feeding fresh kills to keep it quiet, in the ring, outside the ring, it's all a ring, the beast must have new conquests to stay silent. . . . Suddenly the old cherry floorboards are thumping, the old man—who sleeps a floor below him—is awake; Mike is up there, dodging a jab, ripping the dark with uppercuts and hooks, flattening someone, giving the beast a snack to hold it until daylight.

What is it with girls? Funny, he never wants it to last. It's almost like in the ring: He only wants to break down their resistance, bend their will to his, conquer them and move on to the next. A girl says something that hurts his feelings, brings all his old fears about himself rushing back. Watch this, he tells a friend. For days he buries the hurt, pretends to flirt, makes her fall in love with him. Very good, now she's ready. He sneers at her and walks away.

His first four amateur fights, they have all said yes very quickly, tumbled to their backs, arms open, at his feet. The old man has dozed through the night, not a thump, not a single thump through the ceiling. Now comes the fifth one. in Scranton, Pa. Mike punches, the guy falls—no, wait, the guy is getting up, throwing punches! Mike knocks him down again, the guy gets up again. My God, I cannot dominate him! His arms forget how to strike a man, his legs forget how to sidestep and spring. The bell rings, he sags onto the stool. "My hand is broke," he says. Atlas, who was still around then, squeezes his hand to check; he doesn't flinch. "You're letting yourself fall apart." hisses Atlas. "You have to control your feelings!" Mike wades back into the ring, throws a punch; the guy topples again, the guy gets up again! To everybody in the crowd Tyson is winning easily, but he clinches and holds, the whole world whirls before his eyes. "I can't go on," he says, panting, before the third round. "Get out there!" shouts Atlas. Suddenly Atlas senses it—he might go down! Atlas ignores the rules, leaps onto the apron, screams, "Don't you do it, don't you dare do it!" Tyson hangs on, wins the decision, closes his eyes, hugs his trainer and says, "Thank you, thank you, thank you."

Oh, God, will it be a whole life like this? Feed the beast, feed the beast, miss a single feeding and the beast eats you.

The big white house is silent. How can the old man sleep? Does he know some other way to quiet it?

Someone's killing little boys in Atlanta. Someone's putting cyanide in Tylenol. Months pass and everyone else forgets it, but it eats inside him, burrows into the soft place that never had a chance to toughen, so young was it paved over.

Today he's in one of those moods that people who haven't lived his 16 years can't understand. He stayed out late last night, past curfew. Cus barks at him. He mutters back. Cus shouts. Tears fill Mike's eyes. Cus wraps his thick arms around him and hugs him; oh, it feels so warm, so good. Mike begins to stay out late on purpose, so Cus will scream at him, so he will cry, so Cus will hug him once more.

Then Cus dies. Fights it with every ounce of his will, sweats like a horse and arches off the bed. It takes three men to subdue him. But he dies.

This world is sick, this world is evil. Mike is 19. Now he can stop fooling himself. He has always been happiest alone.

He's ready to die," his assistant manager, Steve Lott, is saying. "That's what makes him the best fighter in the world. He's like a Roman gladiator: He's ready to die."

Roman gladiators were slaves. Seven decades before Christ, a gladiator named Spartacus rebelled. Seventy other gladiator slaves, as outraged by the world as he. followed his lead; together they brought their masters down. The insurrection swelled to an army of 70,000 that marched to the outskirts of Rome, that was poised to topple the empire, to bring all the old laws and institutions down, down, down. . . .

Spartacus hesitated. Rebellion here wasn't personal. He found himself retreating to the place where his heart first cried out, back to what was purest in his life, to the land where it was easy and right to rebel, to fight, even to die.

Midnight in Brownsville. Through the shadows, past the rubble and skulls, walking wide and nonchalant moves Mike Tyson. He comes here after every fight, sometimes breaks training to come before. Beneath a streetlight, something gleams. Take off the $80,000 diamond-studded wristwatch when you go there, his friends have begged him. Take off the 30 grand worth of rings. Man, you're crazy, get yourself a bodyguard.

No. They don't understand.

"He'll just start staring at things when he's there, in a daze," says his friend Rory Holloway. "It's like he has to get something out of his system."

Or, perhaps, back into it.

Mess with me. Right here, in the rubble. Somebody. Anybody. Here it will be right to hit, here it will be pure.

An old woman, crazy with poverty, shambles up the sidewalk. He folds three $100 bills into a tight roll, tucks it so nimbly into her hand that she barely feels it. Can people understand? A chairman of an organized charity calls, he might agree to appear, he might mumble an excuse and hang up. When no one's watching he will slip hundreds inside palms and pocketbooks of poor people—reverse pickpocket them—or bolt out of a car to help someone old hobble across the street. This way it's right to give. This way it is pure.

Can't people see, that's all he really wants. It's easy to misunderstand him when his fists are wrapped around the rafters of the world and he's pulling down with all his might, but that's what he actually seeks, a philosophy, a religion, something to make it all feel whole and pure.

He takes a deep inhalation of Brownsville and tries not to let go—God, when you walk into Manhattan and they slap you on the back, it's so hard to hold it in. How else, if he lets his past recede, can he preserve the hurt and outrage that made him rebel, the anger that compels him to hit a man? Everyone is trying to dilute it, every request for an interview or a photo or an autograph threatens to weaken it, every multimillion-dollar offer, every fan that sidles up to him on the boardwalk in Atlantic City and says. "You're going to kill Holmes, he's an old man," every reminder that he has become the favored one, that he now is society's champion. Don't they see what they're doing to him? They're making him master, but to succeed he must be the rebel. He is driven to conquer; to do it, he must feel oppressed. How can he keep fighting with his lips curled back if they rob him of that? Why does the way he satisfies himself have to satisfy them; how can he take the paycheck and keep the cry of the self pure?

"What am I going to do with all that money?" he groans. Twenty-one years old, 60 million dollars this year, six-sevenths of what Ali earned in his entire ring career. He buys a Mercedes, a Jaguar, a Rolls-Royce, a Corvette, but a week later every one of them bores him. "Real freedom is having nothing," he says. "I was freer when I didn't have a cent. Do you know what I do sometimes? Put on a ski mask and dress in old clothes, go out on the streets and beg quarters."

It's late December in Atlantic City, four weeks before the fight with Holmes. Soon, as they are a month before each bout, 20 black-and-white photos of former champions will be taped to the walls of the condominium he stays in. Videos of their epic battles will play again and again on his screen; he, with each squeeze of his remote control, pumps life back into their nickering spirits and fights away the question: Who one day will do that for him?

He doesn't measure himself against his contemporaries, but against them—the gods. He wears the same bulky sweaters, long overcoats, cuffed trousers and caps that they did; squints and tries to see his own life in grainy black and white, bathed on a screen with the same soft white light as theirs; why, why doesn't his life ever seem quite as magical?

Sometimes, wrapped in knee-length white mink, he'll go 72 straight hours prowling the nightclubs, streets and hotels of New York. Then come days of listlessness and boredom in his apartment, staring at videos of movies in which people's heads get split open and their eyes are gouged out. One day, he'll eat 15 chicken wings and a gallon of ice cream. The next, he won't eat a thing. Life must be devoured, to prove that there are no limits to his freedom. Life must be shoved away, to prove that he remains in control. "Every conquest adds to him," says Lott. "He needs to conquer something new every day."

He walks into the wind on the boardwalk, distant, moody. Too many backslaps since that last night in Brownsville, his lungs can't hold it anymore, that deep breath at midnight has escaped him. Everything's compromised, it's all drudgery, four weeks of killing himself in training, all for another staged social event. He looks up at the Trump Plaza marquee advertising the fight, sees the big picture of him with one title belt around his waist and two crisscrossed like bandoliers across his chest, suddenly he recaptures the snapshot of himself that he needs. "Look!" he cries. "Look at me! Like a f------ bandit!" He hop-steps like a little boy. "It's going to be great! I can't wait, it's going to be great!"

Please, don't ask him to explain. Confusion is his gunpowder. Every explanation lets a little of it leak. O.K., listen well; he won't do this often. He is pacing in a dingy locker room above the police station in Catskill, where he trains, night crowding all around a single naked light bulb. One moment he is in the shadows at the far end of the room, fingering a boxing glove, a wad of tape, anything his restless hands can find. The next he looms above you, touching your shoulder, an intelligent man trying to press into you a feeling for which he never learned words. His voice, it's still soprano, a bird trapped inside a tenement.

"In my mind, everyone is against me," he says. "Some people may act like they respect me, but they don't. I'm in a business of phonies. I want to believe the whole world is against me. I love the smell of danger. I love living on the edge. In my mind I'm not a man who has made 25 million dollars. I'm still the wild kid on the streets.

"I believe in taking chances. There's nothing I won't try, as far as my social life. Small stakes don't interest me. Only big. I never stole for the money, I stole for the excitement. No one will ever tell me what to do. I refuse to have anyone dictate to me.

"When I say I'm the best fighter on the planet, I don't say it because I want to prove something. No one knows I'm a jerk more than me—I screw up all the time, I'm somewhat immature. I just say it because I want to get under people's skin. I want people to boo me when I walk in the ring. The chip on my shoulder is my security. I'm the bad guy, I want to be the bad guy . . . but I'm not the bad guy.

"What society gives me doesn't mean anything to me, because I know when I go it will be like I never existed. I don't want celebrity. It's disrespectful, coming up and asking me for autographs while I'm eating. What does a 70-year-old white person have in common with a 21-year-old black man? Nothing. Nobody is going to come up to me and say they love me now, when he has no reason to love me. Where was he when I needed someone to love me?

"Five years before I was born, black people had no rights. If you were 20, five years before I was born, your ways were set. It's hard for me to believe that someone who was 20 in 1961 could change his mind about blacks. It's still inside them. People don't want to see a 21-year-old black man making 60 million dollars a year, owning four, five cars. But I don't need them to love me. I don't need anyone but myself.

"Tell me, how do people expect me to react: Give the nigger a little money and he's satisfied? Why is my friend Rory a great guy when he's with me, but not when he's not? I'm a commodity, I'm supposed to entertain them. You know in the old days, how slaves sang and danced for their masters? Then they had to go home and mop the floors. Think about it. I'm supposed to be a role model. What kind of role model would I be if I forgot where I came from?

"I know that basically I'm not wanted here. Americans aren't civilized people. I love the freedom of speech and opportunity here . . . but sometimes, I'm embarrassed by America. We should be a great enough country to take care of the weak. If there wasn't poor, there couldn't be rich. If there wasn't sickness, there wouldn't be health. Suffering is the only way we don't take life for granted, it makes us realize how good we have it. I love retarded people, animals, kids—they're innocent. But people take affection for weakness. When people do that, I get very upset, I don't know what I might do.

"If a man hit me outside of the ring, I'd kill him and not think anything of it. I refuse to take s---. I took enough of it when I was a kid. I ran away—I don't ever want to do that again. If somebody smacks me, it's reason to fight to the death. Then I will take responsibility for what happens. Be a man.

"I love to hit people. I love to. Most celebrities are afraid someone's going to attack them. I want someone to attack me. No weapons. Just me and him. I like to beat men and beat them bad.

"I'll break Spinks. None of them have a chance, I'll break them all. When I fight someone, I want to break his will. I want to take his manhood. I want to rip out his heart and show it to him. My manager, Jimmy I Jacobs I, tells me not to say those things. But that's how I feel. People say that's primitive, that I'm an animal. But then they pay $500 to see it. There's so much hypocrisy in the world. The world is so f----- up."

His listener asks about the letter Tyson's old social worker, Ernestine Coleman, wrote to him in 1986 after his devastating sixth-round knockout of Jesse Ferguson, when he told the media, "I wanted to drive his nose bone into his brain."

"Be an athlete," Coleman wrote. "Not an animal."

Tyson's face darkens, he shakes his head no. His explanation has spilled out of the locker room and into a restaurant. "I'm not an athlete, don't call me an athlete. How can you compare me with Billie Jean King or Magic Johnson? They're athletes. Athletes have careers. Athletes have to prepare. At any moment, I'm ready. I never liked sports. Sports are only social events. I'm a warrior, a missionary. What I do is an obsession. If I wasn't in boxing, I'd be breaking laws, that's my nature."

Abruptly, his face turns, shines as it must have before he knew that a human being could behead a bird, and to the waiter in a restaurant that serves half a dozen Gulf Shrimp Garibaldi for $24.75, he asks, "Do you have ice cream on a stick?"

"Once I was supposed to meet a girl," he says, "but on the way I saw an icecream store. I knew if I went in, I'd miss the girl. I didn't know what to do. I went into the store, and while I was eating the ice cream, I was very happy, I didn't care at all about the girl. It was only when I was done that I wished I'd met the girl."

He laughs and grabs his listener's shoulder, his head nuzzles against it, almost like a puppy. Does anyone understand how painful it is to be this—and in the blink of an eye or the ring of a bell to be its inverse? Opposites rubbing each other, throwing sparks: This is his everyday life.

Tension makes great fistfighters, and it makes great fistfighters' managers gray. Abruptly Mike vanishes on them; he misses a flight or an appointment; and his handlers are calling everyone he knows: Where's Mike, have you seen him?

Yes, there he is, almost a year ago, standing in a Hollywood parking lot on a warm summer night next to a pretty girl who works there. He tries to steal a kiss. Suddenly a man, who also works there, comes between them. Mike slaps the man aside. Assault charges will be filed against him. His managers will pay off the pretty girl and the man rather than undergo the bad publicity of a trial.

A walking time bomb, some boxing people call him. He fights every three months because he needs a release, not just because he needs the experience. "Of course, his people are worried about him," says Jose Torres, a friend of Tyson's and a former D'Amato champion. "I worry, too."

In the big white house where Mike still sometimes stays, 83-year-old Camille looks down from the TV, finds his round rough head lying in her lap. "He's almost purring like a kitten," she says. "He's begging to be stroked. He needs affection very much. Oh, I worry. I worry about the people he goes out with, that only care about having a good time. I worry what could happen if he gets angry in public—I've seen him angry, and I know. He has ring discipline but not life discipline; Cus died before he had time to teach him that. He still can't sit in one place. He'll be sitting here with one girl and go to the phone and call another. But after all, he's still a child. . . ." She pulls out a recent Mother's Day card. "For someone I love," it says, "and wish you was my mother. Happy Mother's day and I love you. By Michael, your black son."

She puts away the card, the imaginary head her hands were stroking vanishes from her lap. The house is quiet; it's the night before a snowfall. Somewhere out there, his Rolls-Royce prowls the streets. Is it time to try the other way to hush the beast, the way more frightening, more dangerous, the biggest risk of all?

On Feb. 7, 1988, he walks up the aisle of a Catholic church in Chicago. The scores of women who said yes to him are nowhere to be seen. The TV actress who turned back his engagement ring, the one he had to conquer, is the one who, on the spur of the moment, he marries.

The room is silent. His wife falls asleep, he stares into the darkness. Please, Cus, just one more question, the one he never had a chance to ask: What becomes of him if the beast ever goes away?

An hour before midnight on June 15, 1976, George Foreman's right foot twitched. Nearby lay Joe Frazier, victim of a fifth-round knockdown. Arms raised, Foreman stood above him, aching to consummate his conquest by planting that foot on Frazier's chest.

At that stage in his life, Foreman often went through two women a day; his need to have flesh beneath him had become desperate. This urge made him the heavyweight champion of the world. It also made him ripe to be dismantled. He who needs to dominate most, most fears being dominated. The two fighters who most graphically illustrated this in recent history were Sonny Liston and Foreman, one the 1960s' most glowering intimidator, the other the 1970s'. Who could picture either of them lying on the floor until they were there—both having been undone by Muhammad Ali.

Six months ago George Benton, Tyrell Biggs's trainer, had a warm afternoon's dream. He thought perhaps his fighter could do that to Mike Tyson. Instead Tyson broke Biggs in seven rounds, made him issue whimpering sounds, as Tyson exulted later, "kind of like a woman." Benton didn't change his mind. "It's Katie-bar-the-door when that kind of mind-set gets frustrated," he says. "It doesn't bend. It just breaks."

But who can break the breaker?

"It won't be easy, Tyson's far more polished than he's given credit for," says Atlas. "There are people talented enough, it just hasn't been urgent enough for them to do what it takes."

Which is . . . ?

"Someone who, when Tyson hits after the bell, hits him back until they have to pull them apart. Someone who, when Tyson hits him with an elbow, hits him back with his elbow, his head, the stool. Someone who makes Tyson think, 'My God, this guy will do things even I wouldn't do.' Someone not just trying to survive. Someone trying to win."

Does that man exist on the heavyweight landscape? Certainly not in Tony Tubbs, who must face Tyson in Tokyo next week. Michael Spinks? Evander Holyfield? "Sixty to seventy percent of what he's done in the ring is because of intimidation," says Holyfield. "His reputation has his opponents halfway down before they get in the ring. I met him once, at the Red Parrot in New York. He grabbed my bicep when we were introduced and tried to crush it. Everywhere I walked, he wouldn't take his eye off me."

That is fear. "Mike is absolutely terrified of everyone he fights," says Lott.

Great fear, tightly controlled, is great strength, a cold, hard wrecking ball deep inside a fighter. One flicker of doubt, and the cold ball turns molten, rages through the rib cage, incinerates him.

Perhaps no one can bring about the flicker. Perhaps no one will. Tyson's invulnerability through 33 fights has preempted any true emotion in his audience: He isn't loved, like Ali, or hated, like Ali. He is gaped at.

"One-hundred-and-oh," muses his trainer, Kevin Rooney. "He can do it."

"The thing most difficult to maintain will be his emotional state," says Atlas. "To put yourself into that state of mind that often. . . ."

Men who have fought with violent imperative, constant aggressors in the ring, rarely have endured as champions. Jack Dempsey defended his title only five times before losing it. Rocky Marciano did it six and retired. Joe Frazier lasted for nine title defenses, four if you don't count his New York State Athletic Commission title. The flame that consumes their opponents consumes them, too. "It requires such a tremendous amount of physical and mental and emotional energy to fight that way that very few men can sustain it," says HBO analyst Larry Merchant. "Unlike Ali or Holmes, they must put their whole selves into every moment in the ring. Usually they are people who live fast and die young."

Just now, a dream awoke him. I've lost! These dreams come all the time—I've lost the fight, I've lost! He kicks the sheets away, scrambles to his feet, dodges a jab, rips the darkness with uppercuts and hooks.

The fight draws nearer. Please make it come soon, it's like a scream stuck inside, please let it come out. He drops to the floor—push-ups, sit-ups—lies back in bed huffing and snaps on the TV. Without a human voice in the room, he can't fall asleep.

An hour passes. At 4 a.m., without an alarm clock, he awakes, laces on his sneakers and heads outside. It is darker and colder and earlier than when the other fighter, his opponent, runs—another small fresh kill, a little nibble for the beast.

Please make it come soon, please let it come out. Daylight arrives. Outside again, he dips into a shop, buys a piece of bread and shreds it. The pigeons come to him to feed, his hand snaps out, grabs one, brandishes it, flings it over his shoulder high into the sky.

He let go of the hawk because it was so beautiful, says one friend.

He let go of the hawk because he felt sorry for it, says another.

I let go of the hawk because it was so powerful, says Tyson. I let go of it because I was scared.

Two days to go, please make it come soon; can't they schedule these fistfights any closer? His eyes catch the newspaper: What? I've lost the fight, I've lost! Look right there, on the back page of the New York Post, a large photograph of him dropping to the floor, Larry Holmes standing above him as he falls. I've lost, I've lost, I don't remember it, but I've heard that happens to fighters, I've lost!

It never happened, it's a photographer's trick, says Rooney. Tyson seizes the picture, rips it into tiny pieces.

Was it six years ago that he stepped outside the arena, just before the U.S. Junior Olympic finals, and broke into sobs—"If I lose, I'll lose all the people who like me, I'll lose everything I have. . . ." Or was it just now; dear God, why does everything seem like just now? Dear, gruff Cus, on whose grave he poured a bottle of champagne when he won the title, and his dear dead mother, and all the grainy black-and-white gods and all the ghosts inside all the skulls of Brownsville—who's he fighting for? For them. Why? They're gone!

And now they say it's time to fight. He sits in his black trunks and black shoes, the past circling over him like the hawk; he can feel it there, smell it there, hear its wings beating the air—or could that be his heart? This world is sick, this world is evil, Robin, please pick up the phone. The hawk is circling, the noose is dropping, the pigeons are cooing, it's midnight in Brownsville, the holocaust's just a few minutes away by limo, Robin, please pick up the phone. This world is sick, this world is evil, they rip heads off birds, they put poison in aspirin, they murder little boys, they pin down girls in the woods, scrawl NIGGER on their bellies. Somebody's got to stop it, nobody will stop it, I will stop it, I will be justice, I will repay them all.

The bell rings. The people gape. Look, look at Holmes's face—why, he's scared!