In this ring, a tale of two Washingtons

Many residents want the city to stage the Mike Tyson fight because it would bring in $8 million. Others worry about what it would mean to the capital city's image.

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As the House and Senate debated high-toned issues ranging from the new terror-alert system to the ceiling on the federal debt, the "other" Washington was engaged in its own discussion: whether convicted felon Mike Tyson should be allowed to box in the city – a few hundred yards from where legislators pass laws about felonies.

The city-council chambers, which seldom see a capacity crowd, were so packed recently that by the time the meeting for the D.C. Boxing and Wrestling Commission started, people were being turned away. But many, rather than leaving, chose to line up along the windows outside, knocking and asking those in the room to move the blinds.

At stake was more than the former heavyweight champ's right to pummel people in the nation's capital. The real issue was Washington's hope of hosting the proposed championship bout – between Tyson and current belt-holder Lennox Lewis – and the estimated $8 million it could bring into the city.

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Inside the chambers, a man who identified himself as a local shopkeeper may have summed up that feeling best: "After the Sept. 11 thing, I need some money. Let's leave our feelings about this man to the side and let him fight."

And so it is in the nation's capital. More than six months after the tragedies of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, this city is still struggling with the $1.2 billion hit it took in tourism revenue in the fourth quarter of last year. So much so that it is willing to invite a man to fight here whom Las Vegas and Atlantic City, N.J. – the so-called "sin cities" of the West and East, respectively – find unpalatable.

But despite a near-unanimity at the licensing meeting, a debate is happening, albeit quietly. Indeed, most everything becomes a political issue in Washington at one point or another, and Mike Tyson is no different.

Groups ranging from the National Organization for Women to the Greater Washington Board of Trade have registered their opposition. The latter wrote an open letter to Mayor Anthony Williams saying: "[s]uch an event does not fit with all of the combined efforts of your administration, the neighborhoods and the business community to improve the perceptions of our city in the national and world view."

Indeed, the fight talk comes as Washington has slowly turned its image around. City real estate is climbing in value. The city deficits are gone, at least for the time being. And the financial control board, which once oversaw the city's finances, has given the reigns of power back to the mayor and city council.

Some fear this progress could be set back by a Tyson "incident" – and there have been many, ranging from a rape conviction, to the notorious ear-biting of Evander Holyfield. Las Vegas, in fact, soured on hosting the championship fight when Tyson lost his cool at a press conference with Lewis, and a melee broke out.

"Tyson is not the fighter he once was," says Thomas Gerbasi, an associate editor at Maxboxing.com. "It is a freak show with him. People basically want to see what he will do next."

The powers that be in city hall have kept a relatively low profile, and in some ways tried to have it both ways. Mayor Williams, for example, has told residents he would not attend the fight if it came to town, but he also said it could have a "very positive impact on the city."

The Washington, D.C., Convention and Tourism Corp., meanwhile, has taken no official position. After an autumn that saw hotel occupancy rates as low as 25 to 30 percent, people are slowly coming back, says Victoria Isley, the bureau's communications director. Hotels are actually more crowded than they were last spring, but the city has a long way too go.

Such a long way, that some question whether a one-day event with limited exposure and $8 million in revenue is worth the risk Tyson brings.

The question is likely to remain open for at least a while longer, however: Getting Tyson a license was only the first step in the championship sweepstakes. The question now turns to whether the city is willing to go hunting for the $10 million to $12 million "site fee," which goes to promoters in order to secure the downtown MCI Center as the location for the fight. In addition, Tennessee has entered the fray, saying it has the money in hand to host the bout in Memphis.

Fight representatives recently finished a "fact-finding" trip to Memphis and are due in Washington by week's end.

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