Commentary: Mr. Tyson Goes to Washington?

By Paul Magnusson

Locked-down, cash-strapped, tourist-hungry Washington thinks it has found a surefire way to inject some juice into an economy still stunned by September 11: Bring the circus to town.

No, not the one with elephants and man-eating tigers. The one with gentlemanly giant Lennox Lewis and man-eating Mike Tyson. The heavyweight boxing match that is too tawdry for Las Vegas seems headed for the nation's capital in June. But on the way, it is pitting the politically correct against the city's African American Establishment.

Certainly, Lewis vs. Tyson promises to be a spectacle of huge proportions and perhaps the biggest payday in pay-per-view history--probably even more lucrative than the June, 1997, fight in which Tyson bit off a portion of Evander Holyfield's ear. The pay-per-view take for that contest was $100 million. Cable giants Home Box Office and Showtime Networks Inc., which have contracts with Lewis and Tyson, respectively, would collaborate for the first time. International sales, closed-circuit TV, rebroadcasts, and ticket sales could add $40 million more, promoters say.

The city's new 20,600-seat MCI Center would provide a convenient location halfway between the Capitol and the White House, where security barriers now block tour buses. According to the Washington Convention & Tourism Corp., a fight between Tyson and current World Boxing Council champion Lewis could add $60 million to the local economy during several weeks of training. That would be similar to the take from last year's weeklong NBA All-Star Game extravaganza. And the fight could even "give this city a leg up" in its bid to host the 2012 Olympics, insists boxing promoter Rock Newman. Mayor Anthony A. Williams, eager to showcase the town's talent for hosting international events and mindful of a growing budget deficit, insists the fight could have "a very positive impact."

Washington certainly needs help. Its tourist industry has lost $1.2 billion since September 11, according to the mayor's office. The hotel occupancy rate, now at 74%, plunged as low as 25% after the attacks. Hardly a day goes by without some reminder of the threat of terrorism here--the latest being revelations about a shadow government preparing to take over in case the city is obliterated by a nuclear suitcase.

But with an official decision from the D.C. Boxing & Wrestling Commission scheduled for Mar. 12, the prospect of The Fistic in The District is dividing this town. In one corner are liberals led by The Washington Post, the Greater Washington Board of Trade, and the National Organization for Women, which has picketed the boxing commission. NOW President Kim Gandy says "a sexual predator"--that would be convicted rapist Tyson--is "being glorified and hailed as the financial savior for the city."

More forgiving are African American politicians and business leaders. Boxing Commissioner Michael Brown, son of the late Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and an attorney at the powerful law firm of Patton, Boggs & Blow, noted the racial divide by remarking: "Some people like to go to the Kennedy Center, and some people like to go see a Tyson-Lewis fight."

Why, exactly, would a fight between Tyson (49-3) and Lewis (39-2-1) deliver such a big gate? After all, Tyson, 35, hasn't been the same since serving three years in an Indiana prison for assaulting a Miss Black America contestant. And Lewis, 36, is neither a nimble boxer nor the fearsome puncher he used to be.

The answer is that Lewis-Tyson would transcend a simple boxing match. It would be an irresistible morality play of good vs. evil, intelligence vs. cunning. If Washington's pro-boxing forces can focus attention on the relief the fight might bring to out-of-work busboys, limo drivers, and hotel clerks--and away from Tyson's rage--Lewis and Tyson may finally be ready to rumble.

Washington correspondent Magnusson still has his jab.

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