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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

Ring Riots

Heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis took all the pre-fight hoopla in stride and had no trouble defeating Tyson with a knockout in the eighth round of the 12-round fight.

Mike Tyson's ring antics attract no less disturbing behavior than his pre-fight bluster. When he bit off a piece of Evander Holyfield's ear in Las Vegas in 1994, the referee stopped the fight, triggering a riot in the arena.

Tyson's history of being a magnet for violence was one of the reasons why planners concentrated a good portion of the security response inside the Pyramid arena on the ring itself.

Preparing for any rumble in the stands, the Memphis PD actually organized a small cache of riot gear under the ring. "We had 12 riot shields and some other things there, and the main reason was because we had the mayor and the governor on the floor, so in the event of a bad situation, we wanted to be able to protect them and the fighters," says Skelton.

As for officer presence, the department put together two ring-walk teams, which consisted of seven officers each, as well as three six-officer teams, and one eight-officer team charged with responding in the event the ring was rushed.

Babysitting the press, the fighters, and the fighters’ entourages was a tedious task for local law enforcement.

"One of the six-officer teams was responsible for getting the mayor and the governor out of the building, if something happened," Skelton explains.

Another issue police had to deal with was the negotiation with the camps. Skelton explains that the boxers and their entourages tend to ask for a lot of things that adversely impact security, such as having too many members of a fighter's entourage at ring side. "You just have to say 'no,'" he says. "But we handled it diplomatically, and I think everyone left with a real good feeling."

Although by all accounts the Memphis security was effective and the event went off with few visible hitches, not everyone was thrilled with the idea of pulling so many Memphis cops off counter-terrorism duty to babysit a couple of overpaid brawlers and the celebrities who could afford ringside seats.

For the cops involved, the general attitude toward the babysitting duties was boredom. But they performed their duties with professionalism and efficiency.
Kathy Benton, K-9 agent with the ATF, is a prime example. Benton was charged with sweeping the Sam's Town Hotel arena, where Lennox Lewis held a press conference and brief training session for hundreds of journalists. Although she was cordial, it seemed like "the luncheon" detail was a yawn for Benton and her K-9 partner "Yahtzee," who had the unenviable task of sniffing out explosives in a space where the aromas of prime rib and roast duck ruled the room.

Pre-fight press conferences and weigh-ins were part of the pageantry and spectacle of the Tyson-Lewis match in Memphis.

But bored or not, Benton and her dog took the job very seriously, as did the other agents on the detail.

Safety and caution were the watchwords of the entire operation. Before Yahtzee could even do her job, ATF agents did a walk-through to make sure the room was safe. "We have to look for glass, sharp objects...anything that might be harmful to her," says Benton.

At the end of the event Benton reported no hits from Yahtzee's sensitive and trained nose.

Ladies of the Evening

Prizefights attract a lot of men with money. Consequently, the greatest challenge, even in post-9/11 America, for the law enforcement officers who police the host cities is prostitution and the associated crime that it brings.

To make matters worse in Memphis, the region is economically depressed and some local ladies believed that servicing the fight fans was a way to make some easy money.

Prostitutes were everywhere before and after the fight. And not just the local talent. Women came in from Chicago, San Diego, New York, Los Angeles, and of course, Vegas. Add to this the local girls who headed to Beale Street after their full-time jobs at burger joints and strip clubs to spend the rest of the night working the once-in-a-lifetime international crowd and you had a major headache for the Memphis PD.

Spread Thin

Stephen “Crocodile” Fitch is a member of the Tyson camp who is known for causing pre-fight trouble.

As most other police agencies have discovered when their cities play host to a major sporting event, the Memphis PD quickly learned that there are not always enough officers to go around.

To counter this problem, Memphis PD director Walter Crews had a lot of "Gang Unit" T-shirts printed up, and passed them out to every auxiliary officer he could muster.

After it was all said and done, a Memphis PD PIO said everything went better than planned.

Tom R. Arterburn is an independent journalist based in St. Louis, Mo.

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