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HE APPEARS to be afflicted with melancholy, theatrical in its
proportions. The rich champion broods and, surrounded by
supplicants and sycophants, wonders if anybody really cares
about him. It's strange to see such sadness play out. His quest
for ring dominance would normally guarantee some measure of
affection, but he squares himself instead to face indifference,
or worse. "Sometimes I feel like everyone hates me," Mike Tyson
told The Ring magazine recently.

It's impossible to plumb his psyche, for his public outings have
been infrequent and brief, even though the practice of his craft
and the prosperity of his business would seem to demand the
opposite. Tyson is frequently a no-show at the very press
conferences that are designed to hype his boxing comeback and
plump his pay-per-view contract. The workouts that might whet
the public's appetite for his fights are usually closed. But
when he does show his face and when he does speak, the effect is
alarming. Even as crowds were forming in Las Vegas last week to
buy tickets to see him fight WBC heavyweight champion Frank
Bruno of Britain--to see him begin the battle to regain the
unified title he last held six years ago--Tyson was displaying a
self-pity that ought to energize armchair shrinks everywhere. "I
never dwell on who cares about me," Tyson said last Thursday at
the one prefight press conference he did attend. "I think no one
cares about me."

This seemed flabbergasting. Two days later, in front of a
worldwide audience, he was going to fight for the WBC
championship and make $30 million for doing so. He has had a
troubled life, sure, a three-year prison stay for rape--his
handlers repeatedly refer to the imprisonment as his
"misfortune"--being the capper. But was he saying there was no
available balm, no possibility of happiness? What if he won
against Bruno? It would be the first title on his road to
reunifying the WBC, WBA and IBF championships and recapturing
his previous glory. What then? Tyson looked up from his place on
the dais, on which his head occasionally slumped, and said with
a pronounced moroseness that might signal irony coming from
anyone else, "I expect a jubilant life afterwards."

Well, he did win the WBC title, and rather handily at that. With
a crushing body blow, a series of enormous right hands and an
uppercut that lifted the 6'3", 247-pound Bruno off his feet, the
5'11 1/2", 220-pound Tyson needed only 50 seconds more than two
rounds to fashion his third comeback victory. The performance
was reminiscent of the violent spectacle Tyson used to routinely
provide before he became more dangerous out of the ring than in
it. He was crisper than he had been in the two nontitle bouts he
had fought since coming out of an Indiana prison last March. He
was at least as powerful as he had been in 1989, when he met
Bruno in defense of the unified championship. In that fight, at
the height of his powers, he needed five rounds to dispatch his
challenger and was rocked himself early on.

Bruno, chiseled and 27 pounds of muscle heavier than Tyson,
ought to have been more formidable on Saturday. He has never
been a bad boxer, even though he has been slow and lacking in
stamina and had tended to come up short in title shots (three
times before last week's bout with Tyson). Now, presumably, he
carried the confidence of a champion, having unseated Oliver
McCall for the WBC crown last September. Besides that, as the
only British-born heavyweight to hold a world title since Bob
Fitzsimmons nearly a century ago, the immensely popular Bruno
attracted a sprawling army of fans to Las Vegas, a reported
5,000 Mad Dogs and Englishmen who roamed the MGM Grand complex,
hoisting beer, singing funny songs and otherwise showing support.

For all that, once the fighting started, Tyson might just as
well have been facing Peter McNeeley or Buster Mathis Jr., the
two prelim guys he demolished last year in a combined four
rounds. Bruno, who had bragged of his "superior confidence" in
the days before the fight, seemed to have caved in even before
the two anthems were sung. On his walk to the ring he crossed
himself perhaps a dozen times and didn't evince an aura of
certainty. And if he ever knew how to fight Tyson--bore straight
in on the shorter man--he forgot in a panic. He failed to use his
jab, could not or would not keep Tyson from lunging at him with
overhand rights and allowed the kind of walk-through that not
even the comically inept McNeeley would have permitted.

Tyson connected at will, sometimes out of the low-crouched
stance that distinguished his evasive abilities in his prime. He
staggered Bruno early in the first round and cut his left eyelid
toward the end of that round. He staggered him again in the
second, and in the third Tyson unleashed a 13-punch sequence
that started with a right hand to Bruno's body and ended with a
left hook that sent Bruno crashing into the ropes, where referee
Mills Lane interceded, stopping the fight. Bruno had offered
absolutely nothing, and Tyson had rekindled memories of his
quick and vicious stoppages of the past. Suddenly, after less
than seven minutes of action, you couldn't find a single Union
Jack in the crowd.

And was Tyson finally happy? Actually, he appeared to behave
spontaneously for the first time in recent memory. After the
knockout, Tyson, a Muslim, sank to the canvas and bowed (West,
as it happened) toward Mecca. He then rushed to Bruno's corner,
where he said a few consoling words and kissed the dethroned
champ on the head. Then, wearing the ridiculously gaudy WBC
belt, Tyson stood on the edge of the ring and presented himself
anew to the public, thumping the belt in exaggerated pride.
Jubilant? It was hard to say. He was smiling, at least, when he
ducked into a black sports utility vehicle parked outside the
MGM Grand and sailed off into the night without saying a word.

So he remains mysterious even as questions about his eroded
boxing skills are being answered. Perhaps at 29, with four years
of inactivity having interrupted his career, he can never be the
fighter he was. But it's now clear that he still has quickness
and power enough to get through the three extremely limited
champions promoter Don King has lined up for him (Bruno being
the most respected of them, if you can imagine). Still, if we
know that Tyson is indeed on track to unify the division, we do
not know if he's particularly driven to do so or if he's simply
this pliable orphan who drifts from one enterprise to the next,
doing whatever King's instinct for commerce compels him to do.

Tyson has reportedly earned $65 million for the three bouts he
has fought since getting out of prison. Yet he appears to take
little satisfaction in the income and doesn't seem to believe
that to earn it he need do anything more than box. His failure
to help promote his fights may be hurting the bouts'
pay-per-view sales. Amazingly, Showtime Event Television, which
broadcast the Tyson-Bruno bout on pay-per-view, expected the
fight to draw no more households than Tyson-McNeeley.

What we learn of Tyson generally comes from his two managers,
longtime chums Rory Holloway and John Horne, who enjoy the dual
duties of encouraging paranoia in Team Tyson--an increasingly
goofy assemblage that now includes a character called the
Crocodile who seems to do little other than shout about how
great Tyson is--and annoying virtually everybody else. Siegfried
and Rory, as the two co-managers are known for having made Tyson
disappear, keep a tight lid on the camp and would have everyone
believe that Tyson is a contented family man outside the ring
and a virtual maniac inside it. After lead trainer Jay Bright
acknowledged publicly that Tyson was "flat" and "lackluster" at
a workout two weeks ago, Horne put the gag on him. After
sparring partner Jose Ribalta was quoted in the New York Daily
News on March 12 as saying Tyson was very hittable, Holloway
jumped to his fighter's defense. Holloway said that when Tyson
began training for the Bruno fight in mid-January, he had a
complement of 14 sparring partners and that Tyson had battered
them so mercilessly that only three were still around. "They
can't stand up," Holloway said. "We're getting low on them. Some
don't even come by to pick up their checks." This is an ancient
and little respected tactic in the art of promotion. If the
carnage were truly this great, there would be some social agency
to look after these poor victims.

Then again, Bruno could have used some protection, couldn't he?

Tyson's next fight could be this summer in Las Vegas against WBA
champion Bruce Seldon, but legal complications might block it.
Lennox Lewis went to court to force the winner of Tyson-Bruno to
give him the next shot at the title; the judge in the case last
week issued an order barring Tyson from signing a contract to
fight anyone other than Lewis until the suit is resolved. Tyson
was also supposed to face IBF champ Frans Botha in September in
what could be the bout to unify all three titles, but Botha
might be forced to fight former champion Michael Moorer in the
meantime. These legal machinations could delay Tyson's march
toward consolidating the titles, but--given how convincingly he
dispatched Bruno--they don't seem likely to stop him from
eventually winning back all three.

Whether that will bring a smile to his gloomy face is anybody's
guess. But here's hoping, wherever he disappeared to in the Las
Vegas night, he's leading a jubilant life, at least until his
next fight.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY WILL HART You Should've Seen the Loser Bloody but unbowed, Christy (the Coal Miner's Daughter) Martin went on to beat Deirdre Gogarty of Ireland in a women's lightweight bout on the Tyson-Bruno undercard. [T of C]

COLOR PHOTO: GEORGE TIEDEMANN [Referee trying to intervene as Mike Tyson boxes Frank Bruno]

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO In Round 3, Tyson unleashed a 13-punch barrage that put away the overmatched Bruno.[Frank Bruno boxing Mike Tyson]