02/20/2003 1:00AM

Tyson fight a truly shaky proposition

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No one should be surprised by anything that happens leading up to a Mike Tyson fight. Arrests. Fighting in the streets. License denials. Quotes about eating children. Brawls at press conferences. It's all part of the three-ring circus that we've come to expect from Ironic Mike.

Tyson's scheduled 12-round heavyweight bout with Clifford Etienne on Saturday at The Pyramid in Memphis, Tenn., was barely on the radar screen as recently as last week. You almost had to wonder if the public's fascination with Tyson had finally reached its limit. Las Vegas Sports Consultants had Tyson as a -600 favorite (lay $6 to win $1) and most sports books around town were getting very little action on the fight.

After all, Tyson has a career record of 49-4 but his list of vanquished foes has more tomato cans than an Andy Warhol exhibit. He has never really beaten a quality opponent. If he were a college basketball team, his RPI wouldn't be good enough to get him in the NCAA tournament.

But like Michael Jackson, it doesn't take long for Tyson to do something crazy and attract the media spotlight.

He missed some training sessions last week, got a tattoo on his face, reportedly was bedridden with the flu, and all that eventually led to the announcement Monday that the fight was being postponed. The story was everywhere, and people speculated whether Tyson would ever get his rematch with Lennox Lewis or would fade into oblivion (or "Bolivia" as he has been quoted as saying).

Nevada sports books promptly took the fight off the betting boards, but they learned long ago not to believe everything you hear involving Tyson so they held off on refunding wagers and waited.

They didn't have to wait long. Within 15 hours, Tyson rose from his bed and announced he was going to fight after all. Maybe his ex-wife's lawyers made a call; maybe Showtime, which has promoted Tyson endlessly and wants to recoup its investment, made a call. We may never know what made him recover so well, but the $5 million purse surely had something to do with it.

No one who follows the boxing scene could recall a similar instance in which a high-profile bout was publicly called off and then put back on, especially so close to the fight date.

"This is all indicative of the Tyson era," said Tony Sinisi, a senior oddsmaker with the Las Vegas Sports Consultants. "We're breaking new ground here, and not in a good way. This has a professional wrestling feel to it. It stinks. I wish I could say it another way."

There was the small matter of Etienne saying he wasn't going to be Tyson's puppet, but he finally turned into the "yes man" he claimed not to be and was back on board.

Regardless, Nevada's sports books kept the fight off the board all day Tuesday and Wednesday.

"We are consultants and our official stance with the books is that we don't recommend that they book it," Sinisi said. "A lot of them won't take that advice, so we suggest very low betting limits. If you're a sports book you can really get hurt on a fight like this.

"To me, there are just too many questions. You have a 1-6 favorite who has a sore back, he didn't train for a week, he had a tattoo put on his face a week before the fight . . . how do you make an [odds] adjustment on that?"

"On the other side, Etienne is no treat. It's not a fight I would book with my own money."

The Stardust, which long has the reputation of putting up the first Vegas odds on sporting events, put the fight back on the betting boards at 9 a.m. Thursday, right before the Tyson-Etienne press conference from Memphis. Bob Scucci, the Stardust's director of race and sports, made the line Tyson -500 with Etienne at +350.

"Any time Tyson in involved, we know there will be interest, so of course we wanted to put up a line," Scucci said.

When the fight was first announced several months ago, the Stardust opened Tyson as a -700 favorite and saw money come in gradually on Etienne. When the fight was "canceled" Monday and taken off the board, Tyson was down to a -450 favorite.

"After all the events of the past week, we still felt the opening price was closer to the true odds on this fight, so we raised it back to -500," Scucci said. Scucci added that even though everyone is talking about the fight, there wasn't a rush to the windows when the odds were posted. "We took a few bets in the past hour, but nothing major."

Station Casinos also put the fight back up, lowering Tyson to -400 with the buyback on Etienne at +300.

"Say what you want, but everything that has happened has generated more interest in this fight," said Micah Roberts, race and sports book manager at Palace Station. "We had the fight up before just because it was Tyson, but there wasn't much interest. If these two fighters weren't so crazy to begin with, you'd think this was all planned. But at least now we have something to look forward to Saturday night. You never know what's going to happen with Tyson."

Let the three-ring circus begin. If P.T. Barnum were alive, he would be smiling at the spectacle and all the suckers lined up to watch it. You know it's a real freak show when Tonya Harding, who is fighting on the undercard, isn't the biggest freak around.