Tokyo — For the Japanese, Mike Tyson is proof that nice guys can finish first. In the weeks leading up to his heavyweight championship bout in Tokyo, the 21-year-old boxer has won many hearts here. The Japanese admire Mr. Tyson not only for his prodigious strength, but for his kind manner and his soft, almost feminine voice.
``He's kawaii,'' said one Tokyo housewife, using a word usually applied to kittens and movie idols. Literally it means ``cute,'' ``nice,'' or even ``sweet.''
It also means a gentle person, an attribute not usually applied to a man who makes his living depositing his fist forcefully in other men's faces. But the idea of a gentle warrior is entirely familiar in Japan.
During World War II, American anthropologist Ruth Benedict described Japanese culture as that of ``the chrysanthemum and the sword.'' She wrote of the samurai tradition, of the feudal knights, who combined a high culture based on appreciation of the beauty of floral arrangements with the discipline of the martial arts and combat.
A samurai, according to a Confucian code of ethics, was to exhibit a sense of loyalty, a spirit of austerity and self-sacrifice, and a fierce dedication to his cause. The image was more an ideal than a reality, but it has lived on in Japanese culture.
This imagery has been evoked in the barrage of attention leading up to Monday's fight. Tyson might not recognize himself in the description provided by the Japanese sponsors of his match.
``Born in the slum quarters, he was constitutionally a lamb of a boy, but he fell into evil ways with violent anger. ...''
Tyson, as in a classical Japanese tale, encountered wise sensei, (teachers or ``masters'') who recognized his true abilities. As the promoters tell it, while at a ``training school in New York'' (otherwise known as a boys' reformatory), 13-year-old Mike was found by a counselor and amateur boxer, ``Mr. Stewart.'' That learned man introduced him to ``a famous trainer, Mr. Cus D'Amato, who was a shrewd judge of Tyson's talent.''
The rest, as they say, is history. Thirty-three professional victories - and no defeats - later the champion found himself in Japan. The battle has drawn enormous attention. In part it was a matter of novelty; it was the first such heavyweight title defense in Tokyo since 1973.
The venue also was an attraction. The ring stood in the center of the new ``Tokyo Dome,'' Japan's first domed baseball stadium. Only four days before the bout, Shinto priests intoned ancient prayers in a ceremony opening the arena.
The Japanese hardly acknowledged Tyson's opponent Tony Tubbs, a one-time amateur champion and prot'eg'e of former great Muhammed Ali. Mr. Tubbs was considered a sure loser.
But Tyson's every move, since his arrival weeks before for training, was cataloged in detail by the press. His relentless training, from early morning runs to sessions in a gym, was carefully recorded. Japanese admired him for his relatively diminutive stature, which fulfills a judo image of a smaller man who uses strength to defeat a bigger opponent.
Shortly after noon on Monday, Tony ``TNT'' Tubbs, draped in a flashy robe, danced onto the stadium floor to the rhythms of a rap tune. The warrior strode in to a simple fanfare. Hisface was expressionless, deadly serious.
The Japanese cheered their man, making their sympathies politely, but clearly, known. They worried when Mr. Tubbs more than held his ground in the first round. But before the second round came to an end, their hero staggered his foe with a flurry of hard right hands, knocking him to the floor.
After the fight, one reporter queried: Could the young man conceive of breaking the record of boxing great Rocky Marciano, who retired with an undefeated 49-0 record? ``To think about breaking those guys records is arrogant and disrepectful, so I never think about it.''
Music to the Japanese, who consider boasting distasteful and respect for those who went before a sign of true character.