- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 13, 2002

The D.C. Boxing and Wrestling Commission last night unanimously voted to grant embattled prizefighter Mike Tyson a city boxing license. The long-expected approval marks by far the most significant step for a potential June 8 heavyweight title fight at MCI Center against champion Lennox Lewis.

Before a standing-room-only crowd at 1 Judiciary Square, the three-member panel ruled that after an exhaustive physical and psychological examination, the former champion and convicted rapist was fit to fight.

"We took steps that were unprecedented in the history of boxing," said commission Vice Chairman Mike Brown. "We examined Mike very, very thoroughly to determine his fitness to fight, and as it turns out, he is."

Prior to the two-hour hearing, expectations were heavy for a very divided, spirited debate on Tyson. Outside the hearing, advocates for and against Tyson argued back and forth.

But once inside, Tyson backers came out in force and formed a surging groundswell of support. More than 60 residents spoke in favor of Tyson fighting in the District, many representing groups as diverse as the Nation of Islam and the Women in Support of Tyson. Loud chants of "Let Mike fight" occasionally broke out. Nobody spoke out against the proposed bout, and some of Tyson's biggest critics of late, including the Greater Washington Board of Trade and the National Organization for Women, were nowhere to be seen inside the hearing. Previously, some opposing mail was sent to the commission.

"I would encourage the commission, even in a bully pulpit position, to allow Mike Tyson to work," said local boxing promoter Rock Newman. More than half of Tyson's supporters spoke along the same right-to-work lines.

Tyson, in a statement released by spokesman Scott Miranda, was predictably pleased with the decision. Tyson was not present at the hearing, and according to Mr. Brown, was not represented last night by any promoter or attorney.

"I'm thrilled to be licensed in Washington, D.C.," Tyson said. "I applaud their decision and will give the fight fans in the District the fight they deserve the chance to see me knock out Lennox Lewis in June."

Before last night's hearing, the bulk of the commission's review of Tyson was already done. The panel gave its blessing to the substance of the application three weeks ago. Tyson, who also has an assault conviction stemming from a road-rage incident in Montgomery County, met privately with the commission and its doctor last week.

"It would be frivolous for us to stand up here and not be concerned about Mr. Tyson's past," Mr. Brown said. "We did that, we took those things into account and made the decision we made."

Even with the commission's approval, numerous obstacles remain before the bout occurs at MCI Center, or at all for that matter. Not long ago, Washington was the only jurisdiction that showed interest in a Tyson bout, but now Memphis, Tenn., Detroit and several potential bidders overseas are competing. Tyson already is licensed to fight in Tennessee, but not yet in Michigan.

However, in both Memphis and Detroit, Tyson-Lewis fights would likely be backed by local casino interests and facility owners would receive eight-figure site fees, which is common in boxing. MCI Center majority owner Abe Pollin will not pay a site fee to Tyson or any promoter, and he will charge rent for use of the arena.

Last week, Mr. Pollin gave his blessing to the fight and made the 4-year-old building available for rent after Mayor Anthony A. Williams pledged a safe environment for the bout. Mr. Williams, in the face of some of the most heated criticism of his three-year tenure in office, has actively promoted the fight as a potential economic engine for the city's hospitality industry.

To date, no party has stepped forward to promote the fight and guarantee the potential $50 million purse to be split between Tyson and Lewis. Pay-per-view revenues will be considerable and the fight could gross $150 million, which would be a record for the sport. But most heavyweight title fights still require a backer to actually stage the event and assume the financial risk.

Tyson must also be licensed and a venue must be secured for the fight with Lewis by March 25. If the deadline is not met, Lewis must begin talks with Chris Byrd, the International Boxing Federation's top challenger, or risk having the IBF portion of his heavyweight title stripped. After Friday, Lewis has the contractual right to seek new terms for the Tyson bout or pull out altogether if the venue and license issues are not settled.

Regardless of economics, questions exist as to whether Lewis even really wants to fight here. Mr. Brown said Lewis has not applied to fight in any other jurisdiction, but his D.C. application also remains incomplete.

The District's pursuit of Tyson began early last month following the Nevada Athletic Commission's decision to deny the former champion a license to box in the state. Tyson and Lewis were set to fight April 6 in Las Vegas, but the two fighters and their handlers brawled in January during a press conference in New York.

That fracas represented the latest in a long, ugly history of misconduct by Tyson, highlighted, of course, by his biting off part of Evander Holyfield's ear during a bout in 1997. As a result of that incident, Nevada denied Tyson a license and later he was rejected by Texas and Colorado. Georgia did approve Tyson, but he withdrew the application after Gov. Roy Barnes called him a "sexual predator."

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