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Even for boxing, this was not just another day at the office. Not
when it began with a predawn vigil outside an Indiana prison, four
helicopters hanging in the dark air beneath a crescent moon, a
garden of satellite dishes blooming in a parking area, a lineup of
citizens standing (since 5 a.m.) in a field of corn stubble just
beyond the grounds, mysterious men in black fedoras and big
overcoats clustering in a gravel parking lot nearby and reporters
and photographers marking time behind yellow police tape.

You didn't know what to make of this scene. How could you? You
just stood in the twilight and watched as what you understood to
be reality unraveled before your eyes.

There were odd comings and goings in the dimness of Saturday
morning, small excitements at the medium-security prison known as
the Indiana Youth Center. At 6 a.m. a black limousine slid up the
long driveway, and promoter Don King disembarked, along with his
minions John Horne and Rory Holloway and some others, and the
crowd thrilled a bit. The men disappeared inside the visitors'
center, and dawn broke behind the prison, and soon there was the
glint of sunshine on the coiled razor wire, and all you could do
was watch some more. You could actually see the time pass; water
towers were beginning to leave their marks on the flat farmland.

And then it hit you. The battle for Mike Tyson's earning power,
for his life, for his soul might be ending just like that, in the
loneliness of the Hoosier countryside, on a day that looked to be
turning gorgeous. At 6:20 a.m. a tall man holding his black
leather overcoat open like a drape burst from the door, and the
same entourage, grown by one now, rumbled forth into the waiting
limousine. Except for the white knit skullcap that Tyson wore --
it reflected all the available light, and you could see him easily
in the middle of the moving huddle -- it seemed that he was not
much changed by three years in jail. It was a gloomy and quickly
arriving idea: Weren't these the same men who, more or less, had
delivered him here?

As the limo pulled away -- ``To the mosque!'' cried a
photographer, registering Tyson's new faith by his kufi cap and
triggering a kind of land rush among the 200 media members who
drove across yards to get there -- the helicopters tilted in the
sky, ending their suspension above the prison and casting shadows
over a land that Tyson will not likely see again, unless something
goes very, very wrong.

And you just never know, do you? That will be the intrigue Mike
Tyson brings not just to the ring but to his life. Tyson's time
served on his rape conviction might have reshaped him entirely.
His readings, his studies of Islam might have arrested the
frighteningly downward spiral of his life and career and set him
on the road to greatness. Or he was simply returning to the life
he left, where neither King's promotion nor caretaking can quite
save him from self-destruction. It was impossible to tell in
Saturday's dawning.

But by Monday the news began to suggest that Tyson was independent
of King in ways beyond just religion. A boxing insider told SPORTS
ILLUSTRATED that a ``huge power struggle'' was under way, with
King attempting to rush into a six-fight deal with the MGM Grand
in Las Vegas and pay-per-view broadcaster Showtime.

Whether Tyson balked at the presumption of King's timing or was
just spreading his religious wings is hard to say. But another
well-informed source reported that, upon returning to his home in
Southington, Ohio, Tyson put the kibosh on a welcome home party
and booted almost everyone in attendance, including King and a
Showtime crew, apparently there for documentary footage, with
King's permission. The New York Daily News reported that King made
additional gaffes besides timing. The strangest is that King, who
should know better, reportedly stocked the limo with Dom Perignon,
and Tyson's refrigerator with beef, goat, lamb, pork, rabbit and
seafood. Muslims are prohibited from drinking alcohol and eating
pork or shellfish.

Then, too, there were reports that Tyson had wed fourth-year
Georgetown medical student Monica Turner, 28, while he was in
prison. Both religious and prison officials were skeptical of
that news, but it was one more signal that Tyson may be subject
to influences other than King's.

Of course, Tyson is the king himself at sending mixed signals. The
news during his prison stay was fragmented and often contradictory
and did not contribute to a sense that rehabilitation was being
accomplished. He was said to be reading Machiavelli and Malcom X,
yet he got in a jail-yard beef with a corrections officer. He
reportedly had the likenesses of Arthur Ashe and Mao Tse-tung
tattooed on his biceps, yet he refused to express the contrition
necessary for a sentence reduction. He astounded Maya Angelou on a
visit when he recited her poetry back to her, yet he failed a GED
exam. You didn't know what to make of it. And the white skullcap
hinted at a transformation that may or may not be contradictory.

Aside from telling us that Tyson is restless in his religion --
raised Catholic, he was baptized as a Baptist in 1988 -- it told
us that in this regard, at least, he is his own man. Because all
week, right up to his release, there seemed to be a kind of
presumption on the part of all of King's men that Tyson, converted
or not, was going to climb into the limo with them and sail on
back to Ohio. It was as simple as that.

Reports circulated by Muhammad Siddeeq, Tyson's spiritual adviser
in the prison, that Tyson would stop and pray before returning
home were rebuked. King had never believed the Muslim instructors
were anything but time killers. ``They make good visitors, too,''
he had said, unperturbed by their possible influence.

And yet there were the helicopters Saturday, hovering above a
mosque just two miles from the prison, in Plainfield. And they
hovered for nearly an hour while inside, Tyson, joined by Muhammad
Ali, offered a special prayer of thanksgiving from the Koran.
Lined up in precise rows -- brothers in front, sisters in the back
-- they bowed and prayed, led by Siddeeq. ``Allahu akbar!'' The
force of the religion was obviously powerful; King, shoeless in
the mosque, was bowing for prayer as well, right behind Tyson.

``It was a very big statement for Mike to make,'' said Siddeeq.
``Instead of making two right turns to the airport. . . . It gives
hope.'' Siddeeq added that Tyson later met with Ali, whose
retirement and comeback 25 years ago resonated weirdly throughout
the day, and that Tyson showed a decided deference to the former
champ. ``Mike got up and helped Ali to a chair next to him. He
showed great respect and concern for his brother Ali.''

Still, prayers over (``Make way for Brother Mike! Please! Will
security make a path for Brother Mike!''), the mini-motorcade
swiftly proceeded to the Indianapolis International Airport,
beneath the thrumming of choppers. There, the entourage, including
Turner, was lifted to northern Ohio, where the route to Tyson's
66-acre estate was decked with yellow ribbons and banners that
Watching it all, you had to realize that the signals emanating
from Tyson and his camp were as fragmented and contradictory as

What happens eventually is one thing, and very uncertain,
especially concerning King. What happens next, quite another,
quite certain. For one thing, Tyson is subject to the terms of
probation, including 100 hours of community service each year and
counseling for ``sex problems.'' One other term of his four-year
probation: He ``shall seek and maintain full-time employment.''
Mike Tyson, without a doubt, is going to box again.

Tyson, who earned at least $16 million in his last full year of
boxing, ending in mid-1991, is considered to have left money on
the table when he went to work for the state at 65 cents a day.
And even though he made as much as $70 million during his career,
his reported assets of $5 million at the time of his trial may be
severely depleted. There is, aside from his probation
instructions, an economic imperative to his ring return.

He must fight, and he will. ``Farmers can't live off last year's
crop,'' King has cheerfully said, overlooking Tyson's fiscal
condition in favor of his future paydays. How soon he fights, whom
he fights and how well he fights, these are all matters for
speculation. But a pair of tune-up bouts -- fights to establish
his timing and desire and whet the public's appetite -- seems
likely, perhaps as soon as June. Then fantasy fights with George
Foreman, Riddick Bowe or Evander Holyfield will begin to become
real. Figures tossed around: $120 million for Tyson-Foreman, $100
million for Bowe.

It's like this, said Oliver McCall, one of 21 men to claim a
heavyweight championship since Tyson's unified title dissolved
with his loss to Buster Douglas five years ago: ``If he got money
problems, the day he get out, he will have no more.''

The biggest complication for Tyson is his three years away from
the sport. Ali overcame such a layoff, regaining his title twice
and winning 27 of 32 fights after a three-year ban from the ring
because he refused to be inducted into the Army and fight in
Vietnam. Ali, like Tyson, was 25 when he stopped boxing and 28
when he resumed. But Ali was able to spar during his exile; Tyson
was not. Whatever Tyson's condition -- it appeared to be
excellent; he may weigh a trim 210 -- it does not reflect the
specific work required to sharpen ring reflexes.

Then again, as you look at the heavyweight division and realize
that one title is held by 46-year-old Foreman, a second is being
contested by 42-year-old Larry Holmes and a third is vacant, you
do not need to count on miracles to envision a Tyson comeback.

Team Tyson returned to business at, oh, about daybreak Saturday.

But what about Mike Tyson? What does he return to? For three
years entrepreneurs who do not happen to doubt the shelf life of
his ferocity have plotted seductions. Tyson entertained a
mind-boggling variety of visitors, everybody from King rival
Butch Lewis to basketball star Hakeem Olajuwon, and he slyly
encouraged them all. ``Mike likes company,'' said one insider.
``It helps pass the time.'' This same insider predicted all
plots but King's would fail. ``No one is better in the world at
getting into a fighter's psyche.''

The question is, Does King still understand Tyson's? King was
certainly playing by the old rules when he reportedly dropped into
a Los Angeles auto dealer and picked out a $300,000 turbocharged
Bentley as a gift for Tyson recently.

But one has to wonder if something larger than a return to
capitalism is foremost in Tyson's mind and if King might have
misread his man. At a news conference on the eve of his trial in
Indianapolis, Tyson pretended to nap, traded wisecracks with Horne
and only came to real attention when he spotted a striking female
television reporter. Remember him running the media gantlet on his
way to jail? Tyson twisting his handcuffs as if to mock the system
that trifled with his arrogance? A little different story on
Saturday: first stop a mosque.

Well, you hesitate to make too much of it, Tyson passing gently
into the dawn of his new freedom. It will be years before his
reformation, if he had one, can be understood. Still, you wonder
what he was thinking about on this very odd day, riding a
limousine out of Plainfield -- A COMMUNITY OF VALUES, reads the
plaque as you enter town -- under those throbbing helicopters and
into the rest of his life.

COLOR PHOTO:HOWARD BINGHAMTyson, flanked by Ali and Siddeeq, visited a mosque with Turner (second woman from right) after King walked him out of jail (opposite).[Mike Tyson with Muhammad Ali, Muhammad Siddeeq, Monica Turner, and others in mosque]

COLOR PHOTO:J. DAVID AKE/AFP [see caption above--Mike Tyson being escorted from jail by Don King and others]

COLOR PHOTO:SETH ROSSMAN/APBefore dawn's early light, a hearty band of Tyson fans cheered as their hero sped away in elegance.[fans cheering as Mike Tyson's limousine leaves]

COLOR PHOTO:JOHN REIDBehind the bars of another big house, Tyson was regaled with ribbons and protected by guards. [view through gates of Mike Tyson's estate]