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Melee in Memphis

When Mike Tyson and his circus came to town, cops logged long hours keeping the peace.

November 01, 2002  |  by Tom R. Arterburn

When boxing first became popular in America, 19th-century gamblers, bamboozlers, and side-show swindlers flocked to the sport, sensing that they were on to something profitable. Fights became festivals and a cause for celebration that was challenged only by public hangings. And for the next century or so, prize fights remained the greatest spectacle in American and international sports.

But today, with ultra-violent video games, WWF, Extreme Fighting, and the horrors of the nightly news, boxing is not as spectacular as it once was and it needs its own side shows to pique fan interest. Violent, pre-fight media melees, profane press conferences, and the illegal out-of-the-ring antics of superstars seem to be the only way to get the sports fan's attention these days.

So when your city hosts a prize fight, it attracts a spectator demographic that can be a cop's worst nightmare. Blood-thirsty sports fans, who aren't satisfied until they take to the streets, bars, and hotels with their unruly and dangerous behavior; professional and freelance prostitutes targeting tourists; and the local one-percenters hell bent on teaching the Tinseltown crowd a thing or two about bar-room brawling are all part of the tapestry of contemporary boxing.

In June this circus rolled into western Tennessee, eschewing Vegas because challenger Mike Tyson was no longer eligible for a Nevada boxing license. But a huge question mark hung over the event: Could Tennessee law enforcement handle the Tyson freak show that was heading for the Memphis Pyramid?

The men and women of the Memphis Police Department had experience with crowd control, but they hadn't seen the volume of potential mayhem that comes with Las Vegas-style boxing. But they made adjustments to their crime-fighting style, and after being awarded the Lewis-Tyson fight by default, they prevailed-in spite of the fact that it was a last-minute endeavor. And the schedule gave them very little time to make preparations.

Measure for Measure

"They put me and Inspector Larry Godwin together to start working on this thing in early May, and we pulled it off," says Officer Robert Skelton of the Memphis PD. "It went absolutely wonderfully. We're in the process of putting the after-event report together, and the only problem we encountered stemmed from the crowd being so large on Front Street (outside the Pyramid), that we needed a better plan for the contraband checks. We had eight metal detectors across the front of the building, and we actually needed about 12."

Balancing the need for heightened post-9/11 security with a need to seat the crowd by 10:15 was one of the biggest problems faced by the Memphis PD. The fight was broadcast on cable TV in the United States and on a number of satellite feeds worldwide, so there was no way to delay its start. With ticketholders stacking up at the doors and the clock ticking, the security check was accelerated and the fans were in their seats in time for the opening bell.

In addition to the metal detectors at the gates, the police employed other high-tech security tools at the Pyramid. And they were able to piggyback their surveilance efforts onto the equipment supplied by the cable TV team.

An FBI agent was stationed in an HBO production truck, "so we had cameras that we could use to zoom in on something anywhere in the building," says Skelton.

Tales of the Tape

While ''Officer Friendly'' and ''Johnny PIO'' led the media to believe everything was well in hand, the boys in black behind the scenes were gropin' and scopin' high and low. And that wasn't just during fight night. The pre-fight hoopla was also a cause for concern.

Given the pre-fight melees that have taken place during past Tyson press conferences, the Shelby County Sheriff's Department SWAT team took no chances with ''Iron Mike's'' weigh-in at the convention center. Officers were in full battle fatigues, and didn't hesitate to get in the faces of hundreds of feisty photographers and reporters from all over the world, who were pushing boundaries and challenging limits.

It's no secret that a lot of boxing fans like to fight as well as watch fights, and the Tyson weigh-in-like most of his publicity events-brings out this fury.

Memphis Police and Shelby County Sheriff’s deputies were tasked with keeping order at the pre-fight events, on fight night in the Pyramid, and out on the streets.

It doesn't help that the Tyson crew does nothing but add gas to the fire. One of the Tyson troublemakers is Stephen "Crocodile" Fitch. Crocodile, who has become a staple at these staged fiascoes, looks like a weird combination of Meadowlark-Lemon and Mr. T, but muscle bound, and a lot meaner. He generally mills around the media area juking and jiving with journalists before the events, and then just before Iron Mike arrives, he turns up the volume and the vitriol; at times directing it at specific members of the press.

"He [Crocodile] is one of Mike's boys... he comes to all these things," said a SWAT team member, as three or four of his colleagues moved toward "the croc."

While the SWAT officers refused to divulge the intelligence they had on Crocodile, anyone who saw the Tyson press-conference-turned-near-riot in New York last winter, may recall a husky fellow dressed in camouflage fatigues who landed his share of punches on members of the opposing camp. That's Crocodile, and in Memphis, the police kept a very close eye on him.

CONTINUED: Melee in Memphis «   Page 1 of 2   »

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