"Iron" Mike Tyson has been surrounded by controversy for his entire boxing career. And his arrival in Britain this week for a planned match has been no exception, touching off a public brawl involving women's groups, fight promoters, sports fans, and politicians.
Women's groups see the former world champion as a menace who should never have been allowed to set foot in the country.
Under British law, felons who have served more than a year in prison can be sent back automatically on the next plane home. Mr. Tyson was convicted in 1992 of raping a beauty pageant contestant and served three years of a six-year sentence. He returned to jail after a road-rage assault on two motorists and was released eight months ago.
Some black organizations here have come out in support of Tyson, however. The 1990 Trust, a London-based group, said he "has paid his debt and should be allowed to get on with his life."
Home Secretary Jack Straw, whose department oversees immigration, put himself at the center of the controversy when he decided Jan. 13 that Tyson could fight in Britain, despite his criminal record.
A furor seemed all but certain when it was announced late last year that Tyson would fight British heavyweight Julius Francis in Manchester, central England, on Jan. 29. At first Mr. Straw had indicated that immigration officials should use their discretion, implying that the officer who happened to be on duty when Tyson arrived should send the boxer back to America. This would have meant cancelling the contest.
But fight promoter Frank Warren sent the home secretary a 67-page letter, arguing that a cancellation would cost Manchester business interests millions of dollars in losses and cause huge disappointment for fans. Tyson, heavily favored to win, reportedly stands to earn between $8 million and $12 million.
Mr. Warren also claimed Britain's immigration laws are inconsistent, because some convicted felons are allowed into the country with no questions asked. Why, therefore, pick on Tyson?
To the consternation of women's groups and politicians across the party spectrum, Straw ruled that Tyson could enter, because of "exceptional circumstances."
The boxer was greeted by a throng of fans, but little protest, when he arrived by Concorde jet Jan. 16. He and his entourage are staying at a luxury hotel in London's West End, where a special training gym was set up for workouts.
But Straw's decision prompted an immediate court challenge from Justice for Women, acting on behalf of a number of other British women's rights groups. But on Jan. 17 the court ruled that Straw had the right to bend the rules to allow Tyson into Britain. Justice Sullivan said he had taken account of "potential adverse circumstances for many entirely innocent third parties."
Justice for Women's Julie Bindel attacked the decision, saying, "The judge was extremely concerned about what he called 'innocent third parties.' We are concerned about the women who are victims of rape."
Frank Dobson, a Labour Party candidate in the London mayor's race, and until recently one of the home secretary's Cabinet colleagues in the Blair government, said Straw had "got it wrong."
Another Labour candidate, former actress Glenda Jackson, said, "It would be very good if Tyson was thrown out of the country."
Ann Widdecombe, the opposition Conservative Party spokeswoman on immigration, didn't mince words, either. She said Straw's "U-turn" was "a howler" by a "hopeless" home secretary.
The smaller opposition Liberal Democrat Party's media spokesman Norman Baker asked whether Straw's decision could be linked to the fact that Prime Minister Blair "has close connections with Rupert Murdoch, whose BSkyB satellite channel holds the TV rights to the Tyson-Francis fight." Defending his decision, Straw said Jan. 18 that immigration rules were "unclear in some respects." Entry permits, he said, did not include a question as to whether people arriving in Britain had criminal convictions. Straw said the rules were
Geoff Thompson, head of Manchester's Youth Charter for Sport, which fosters leisure activity for underprivileged youngsters, says Tyson is "a youth icon" who could "help to bring peace to this city." Inner-city Manchester is plagued by violence.
These comments brought Mr. Thompson into conflict with women's groups. Ms. Bindel of Justice for Women said the idea of Tyson as a sports icon for young people was "absurd" and "sent the wrong message" to Britain's youth.
In the end, however, commercial considerations appear to have prevailed.
A spokesperson for Manchester Chamber of Commerce said Jan. 16, "If Straw had not acted as he did, dozens of our business people would have been forced into bankruptcy."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society