Once a very bad man, Mike Tyson is having some very good years
Making The Rounds: Mike Tyson
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's June 10 Taboo issue. Subscribe today!
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's June 10 Taboo issue. Subscribe today!
MIKE TYSON shows me his pigeons.
We're on the back patio of his house on a gated cul-de-sac overlooking Las Vegas -- a high-ceilinged pad he bought from basketballer Jalen Rose five years ago -- where he's got wooden cages for 100 of his fliers. Pigeons have followed Tyson everywhere, from the worst ghetto of Brooklyn to Ohio to LA to Vegas -- wherever he's set up his life, however fleeting. As a boy, Tyson would go up to the roof of his Brooklyn tenement to check his birds. Once, another boy snapped the head off of one of them, and Mike Tyson -- all of 10 years old -- snapped too. It was his first winning fight.
Tyson in photos
A gallery of the conflicted boxer's double life. Gallery
Tossing corn on the patio, letting them hop down from their open cages to eat, Tyson, normally a bit of a chatterbox, turns quiet. "This is my peace time," he says. "I don't do much talking around them."
The pigeons are surprisingly pretty, with white feathering, a flash of green at the neck. But he seems removed from his beloved birds.
"I don't touch the pigeons as much as I used to when I was younger," Tyson explains in that distinctive soft, raspy voice. "If something is wrong with them or they're sick, I grab them, but normally I keep my distance."
That surprises me, I tell him. I thought they were more like pets.
And suddenly Mike Tyson has me from the side in a bear hug, and he's kneading my shoulder, then pressing a palm on my chest. He opens my sport coat and looks up into my underarm, as if he's making sure I'm not hiding something particularly gnarly and foul.
"You don't want nobody, every time they see you," he says, backing off, "checking you out, looking into your eyes. You could imagine, right?" Indeed I can, once I stop laughing. These days, he respects his birds by leaving them alone, by giving them space.
Playfully mauling a reporter, however, has another message. Mike Tyson now needs to get close and personal. He needs, especially, to show you he's a changed man.
He's had much to change, of course. The Baddest Man on the Planet, a sobriquet of a boxing tough, was a completely accurate description. The biting of Evander Holyfield's ear (twice!), the conviction on rape charges, the years littered with drug-addled outbursts of rage that seemed bent on ending another man's life every time he stepped into the ring or just got out of bed. And then, once boxing was done with Mike Tyson, that singular, slit-eyed ferocity turned inward. His postring life spiraled into whoring and drugs and bankruptcy and more rage.
Yet there have been hints, the past few years, of a different guy. We saw a glimpse of that in the first two Hangover movies; playing himself in cameos, he seemed not just to be having fun, not just to be having sport with "Mike Tyson," but different -- an absurdly funny presence and also, suddenly, approachable.
The world approached. The Hangover and a successful string of appearances on Jimmy Kimmel Live led to Undisputed Truth, the play about his life, written by Tyson's wife, Kiki, and directed by Spike Lee. In May, just as it finished its mostly sold-out 36-city tour, Tyson signed on with Adult Swim for a pilot of an animated show next year.
Still, there's a hole in our understanding. What had happened to him? Word was, he was now living a pretty boring suburban life as a husband and dad, seeking something truly challenging: the simple life of an honest man. A good man. The guy who once threatened to eat opponent Lennox Lewis' children was now someone who says in Undisputed Truth, thinking of his poor mother's life, "I don't know if I ever told her I loved her; I hope she knows."
When he was in his death spiral -- done with boxing, living a life slipping ever deeper down -- we were done with Tyson. Having been so sure he was a vile, unrecoverable monster -- in a category of one (or perhaps two, joining OJ) -- how can we now be sure he's something quite different, a man of calm and gentleness? Can it be real?
If you listen, Mike Tyson will tell you. He needs to.
"YOU GOT TO tell him, baby, how sick I was when we got together," Tyson says from the passenger seat of Kiki's Porsche Panamera when I accompany them to a jobs fair for homeless women in North Las Vegas. That morning we'd already taken their daughter, Milan, to preschool, Tyson and Kiki's morning ritual.
"I was sick then," he says. "Three years ago."
"No, it was longer than that," Kiki corrects her husband, laughing briefly. She's a decade younger than Mike, who's 46, with a long, angular face and wearing steep pumps that hurt her feet. "Our child turned 4 on Christmas," she tells Mike. They also have a son, Morocco, now 2½. "It was a little over five years ago. He was 360 pounds, and he almost died. He would eat like a pack of those Golden Oreo cookies a day."
Tyson, who now weighs 225, chuckles. It was just before The Hangover, and he was at his lowest point, which for Tyson is saying something. He'd spent the previous decade, from 1998 to '07, in and out of treatment for cocaine addiction. He was homeless, as he will tell me later: "Strung out on drugs … living with prostitutes." And Kiki's memory is right. "I'd eat anything," he says. "Cap'n Crunch cereal all day."
As Kiki drives, he describes his new diet. Incongruously, he is now a vegan. When I'd arrived at their house that morning at 8, Tyson had emerged drinking a thick green juice with vitamins and other nutrients mixed into it. (He'd been up since 2. He typically goes to bed at 8 and rolls awake in the middle of the night to work out.)
"I would hate for people to look at me like I looked at extremely healthy people," he says. "'Get the f -- away from me!' Because they're not eating nothing that I'm eating, and it makes me feel that what I'm eating is s -- and something is wrong with me. I hope I don't make people feel that way.
"But sometimes I have to explain things to people. I say: 'If I eat that, I'd get sick and die.' I made a mistake once, eating a piece of steak two years ago. I woke up in the middle of the night and just started violently throwing up. Right, baby?"
"Mike's system is amazing like that," Kiki says. "If something's not right, he'll just purge it immediately."
"I perspire," Tyson says. Kiki has, in fact, touched a tissue to his forehead to dab sweat once or twice already.
"He'll have a one-hour cold," Kiki says. "Since I've been with him, he's never had a long cold."
"I think that food makes you oversexual," he goes on. "It makes you angry, it makes you aggressive -- I can't believe the difference in the person I am now compared to four years ago."
Back then, Tyson was also taking some 15 pills a day, various prescriptions for various ailments. They made him, he says, impotent and dangerously depressed. "I was so high, I was like a zombie, looking at walls, looking at my stuff. So I said to myself, 'Stop doing this stuff and do some cocaine!'"
This is how Tyson talks about himself now. "I wouldn't lie to you," he explains. "It would take away from my character. The truth is what you want, right?" He's taken to therapy, and honesty, the way he once lapped up every piece of advice from the legendary trainer Cus D'Amato: hungrily. "I had a quality that Cus loved. Once he told me I could do something, I believed I could do it. I'd bug Cus -- 'You think if I do this I can be champ one day?' I was always an extremist. I'd work out all day and then jerk off."
Eighteen straight months spent in drug rehab a few years ago helped him understand. He learned that drawing boundaries between this former, monstrous self and the guy he's trying to become simply won't work.
"I can say I want to be a new guy, but burying the champ is not going to happen," he says. "I won't have any success when I bury that guy. All my life I've been trying to bury that guy. That's why nothing good came out of it. Got to embrace him. Got to embrace him."
AS WE DRIVE, Tyson points out a handful of homeless people. "But this ain't nothing," he says. "If you go straight up here" -- and he points deeper into North Las Vegas, where he knows the homeless junkie community even better.
I happened to drive by this spot the night before, I tell Mike and Kiki, and there was a guy showing motorists a sign that said only: hos and blow.
"I guess he was letting you know what he was going to do with the money," Kiki says.
"When I was in rehab [in 2007]," says Tyson, remembering something important, "I dated this girl in there and she used to call me when I was going on relapse, make sure I'm all right.
"One day I go to see her," he continues, "and she says, 'I understand I can't compete with blow and a 'ho, no way I can compete with those things.'"
There was only one thing to say to the girl about that.
"'Sorry,'" Tyson says, barely audible, like a child who suddenly discovers that what he'd been doing for some time is wrong. As if it hadn't dawned on him, until that moment, what an a -- hole he was being to her. "That was one of the biggest moments of my life, in the recovery program."
Fresh out of that rehab, he called Kiki, and the two began talking. After Kiki was laid off from a job in New York as a marketing executive for an apparel company, she took up Tyson's offer to come to Vegas. They'd known each other since she was a teenager, when her stepfather, who had connections in boxing, introduced them. "He was always respectful," she says. "He was just really, really respectful." When they ran into each other in Vegas at the Felix Trinidad–Fernando Vargas fight in 2000, when she was 24, he invited her to his house. She fell deeply for Tyson while aware of his history with women.
This time, though, he was sober, and they were finally really together. Kiki became pregnant with Milan. Then came a series of relapses.
"I remember I would look on the Internet and see whether he was dead or alive or if he had gotten arrested," Kiki tells me later. "There was a heart attack scare. A report came up after his birthday that Mike Tyson died at a birthday party with friends, of heart complications, and I just, like, lost it. Milan was 7 months old. Oh my god! I called the coroner's office -- nothing. And then he walks in the house a day and a half later."
Kiki, naturally, wanted to kill him. Mike thought it was funny. "He didn't get it. But he does now. He's constantly apologizing for putting me through that."
At the jobs fair, Tyson tells me about the ongoing threat of relapse.
"I need to call [my addiction sponsor] when I'm at the height of my s -- ," he says. And then Tyson riffs on the pull of trouble. "This is the devil telling me: 'Everything good is happening. Why can't you do a f -- ing line, Mike? One line. Listen, Mike, one line -- an 8-ball f -- ed us up, but one line, Mike, isn't going to f -- us up. Two or three lines aren't. An 8-ball f -- ed us up, Mike. You deserve it. You deserve it, all this s -- you been going though. You didn't f -- no girls in the last couple years. You deserve this, Mike! You really deserve this. You need a reward, Mike.'"
I ask if he talks to Kiki about that inner dialogue. They were married in '09 just 11 days after his daughter Exodus' death from an accident on a treadmill at her mother's home. Tyson felt so much rage, he was at risk of going off the deep end again. He was largely estranged from his other children (he's had eight total), and Kiki, firm and loving and positive, was exactly what he desperately needed.
"I talk to Kiki about everything."
TYSON GREETS EACH woman at the fair -- women who come from broken families, women who have been abused. He grasps a hand of theirs in both of his, then leans toward them to whisper hope.
And warmth. In conversation, he bears in with that old intensity -- very close -- his narrow eyes right there. It's the opposite of his old dead-eyed ring stare. He puts a hand on you as he speaks. He sports a narrow, jauntily shaped mustache like Bob Dylan's. And his face, Maori warrior tattoo and all, is ... gentle.
"Something that my wife doesn't know is that I am these people," he says, meaning these women. "This is my life. These people are who I am. My wife doesn't hang out here" -- Tyson means that metaphorically. "This is my community."
I tell him I understand -- he knows people like this.
"No," he says. "I don't know people like this -- I am this person. Sometimes these people have the shame that I had too. I'm just starting to like myself. I'm basically a yucky motherf -- er, but I'm starting to like myself."
In Brooklyn's Brownsville in the '70s, Tyson's childhood was severe. His father was never really in the picture. When the conversation turns to the warmest memory of his mother, who's been dead for 30 years, Tyson is silent for a good minute. He often invokes his former self with equanimity. However painful it is, he can access that person -- who he once was, how it all began.
"I don't know," he finally says. "Walking me to school. There were pimps, players, parties. A lot of f -- ing." When he was still a young boy, Tyson once lent his mother $200, money he had robbed from someone, and when he later asked for it back, his mother smacked him for his audacity. "I gave you your life," she told him. He would sleep in the same bed as his mother until he was 16 years old. Until she died.
"I don't like that guy," he says. "Mike Tyson, baddest man on the planet, slept with his mother until he was 16 and she died. I don't like how it can be looked at scientifically, from a Freudian perspective."
Yet he lays it out nonetheless. He doesn't have neat conclusions or maybe any conclusions at all as he struggles with his feelings about his mother. For a long time after she died, Tyson didn't sleep in beds, preferring floors or couches. He says the only way he can talk about his mother onstage without breaking down is to follow the script -- that way he's acting instead of remembering.
"We are animals trying to be people, as Mark Twain said," he says when the topic turns to how men treat women. "And just like in school, some of us pass the test before others. I had a difficult time becoming a human being. I stayed in the animal category a little too long."
"I'M A DOMESTICATED dick." We are back in Kiki's Porsche, headed home from North Las Vegas, and he's talking about how he is now able to get things done. "I can't believe my life is like this. I had all this money and all this fame and I didn't get s -- done. My responsibilities before were just going to the gym and bossing the people around me -- 'Do this, do that.' That's all I did."
I wonder whether he's interested in making big money again, perhaps through acting. Tyson and those sucking at the teat of his career went through the $400 million or so he earned from boxing. He still owes millions to the IRS. Now he makes money through appearances and endorsements -- in mid-May, he and Kiki had just gotten home from Poland, where he endorses an energy drink. The play did well. And now Tyson is set to voice a detective in an Adult Swim cartoon called Mike Tyson Mysteries. He'll be solving oddball crimes with a foul-mouthed pigeon sidekick. (He's willing to have sport with pigeons, like pretty much every aspect of his past, but there's no mistaking their place in his psyche. "They connect me to my childhood," he says softly. "They make me believe that everything that happened to me isn't a lie.")
"You know what's so funny about that?" he says about the prospect of new earnings. "I work hard to strive, and I want that to happen, but I'm very happy with my kids and my wife respecting me, and we're getting along. All that [money] stuff -- that could start another outlet of problems."
"I think it would have been more difficult if it all happened our first year, but we are pretty solid now, so if money came, it would just be like it's no big deal." (Later, she'll confide that when they got together for good five years ago, Mike's relative poverty was a good thing. "He couldn't throw shut-up money at me," she says. Instead, they had to work through their troubles.)
"I kind of differ," Mike says now, regarding Kiki's assertion that getting rich again wouldn't mess things up.
"Well, you're the same person who told Oprah [in 2009] that if you lost weight, you would start cheating again," Kiki says. "You haven't done that."
Tyson admits that's true. With Kiki, he's given up control and shown what he would have considered abominable weakness before. "We get into arguments and she leaves the house," Tyson says, to which his reaction is "'Please don't leave, please don't leave.' Before I would have been, 'Get the f -- out of here, bitch.' I can't believe it -- I would have looked at myself as such a weak n -- er, begging her to come back. But other bitches don't have my heart.
"I might have beat her," he continues, mulling. "I might have kicked her ass, boom, 'all right, bitch.'"
His "before" scenario with women does not include raping a beauty contestant in 1991. That's a charge Tyson adamantly denies and a conviction he disputes, and in Undisputed Truth, he brings it up to say only: "I did not rape Desiree Washington."
Yet at the same time, Tyson acknowledges that he probably deserved prison time for the pain, humiliation and abuse he heaped on women over time. "No doubt about it," he says. "We as people -- men -- in my experience, we are told we are superior to women, they come from our rib and this and that. That's all our insecurity, to make us feel like someone, like a slave master. I'm so happy to reach a stage in my life, a paradigm shift. Everything I did believe was a goddamn lie."
MIKE TYSON AND I sit on a couch in his den, a simple, white-walled room with a few fight photos and a big TV. The guy in the photos -- Iron Mike -- seems so far removed from the man now talking about his life.
I read him something that he said to Ira Berkow of The New York Times 10 years ago: "Do you know how it is waking up being me every day? That's why anytime anybody disrespects me, I'm going to kill you. I've been in prison. You think I care about going back? I'm very comfortable there. That's my environment. I'm bad when I'm locked up. Trust me. I'll make you do anything I want you to do, and you can't stop me."
"That's a dark, scary little boy," Tyson responds quietly. "That's a dark, scary little kid."
But it's only 10 years ago!
"Hey, it's only three years I'm living this life I'm living. I've only been doing it for three and a half years. What I'm looking for now is for no one to ever see that little kid again.
"He's still there, the little scared boy." He points across his den. "See that corner? When I look at that corner, it reminds me of my mother having me in a corner, or some bully picking on me, beating me up and slamming me in the corner. I'm cringing, not fighting back. I was looking at that corner, thinking about that. I have to protect the little boy inside, who is still inside of me."
A quarter-century ago, when Tyson had just been crowned the youngest heavyweight champion of the world at the age of 20, writer Joyce Carol Oates spent some time with him. "If in one sense, like other star athletes of our time," she wrote, "Mike Tyson is a child, he is also a fully, even uncannily mature man -- a 20-year-old like no other I have ever encountered." Back then, handled by Cus D'Amato's team after the trainer's death, Tyson only appeared to be in control, a machine built to fight. Now, toe-to-toe on a couch discussing a good bit of the intervening years, Tyson is in command of a new skill, owning his own past.
"That's why I stopped being embarrassed about my life and hating my life, because without that guy you can't see how far I've grown. You can see the nadir, now you can see my zenith. That alone makes me the overman, as Nietzsche said. Makes me the overman."
Freud. Twain. Nietzsche. Now he's working on Plato: Know thyself.
Suddenly, the voice of organization -- Kiki -- joins us with an intercom alert:
"Yes, baby?" Tyson says.
"I'm giving you your 15-minute warning. We have to leave for Milan's march" -- a parade and party that afternoon at her school.
"I want to change clothes then, okay?"
"You want me to put something out for you?"
"Would you be kind enough to do that, lover?"
"Thank you, babe."
"So then maybe 10 minutes, and five to change."
Kiki clicks off.
He smiles. "I like being henpecked, you know. I'm henpecked because I want to feel like a human being."
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