There was a time in the late 80’s when Mike Tyson was billed the baddest man on the planet thanks to his menacing demeanor and devastating power, which enabled him to strike fear into the hearts of his hapless opponents and shred them in a single blow, knocking them out in mere seconds. By his mid-twenties, Tyson was in the record books as the youngest heavyweight champion boxer, amassing an estimated fortune of $50 million.
Nonetheless, Tyson’s gilded image was short-lived. Following the death of his mentor Cus D’Amato, Tyson’s professional and personal life began to crumble around him, due mainly to bad decisions and association with the wrong people. Street fights, drug abuse, philandering, a car crash, a failed marriage and a loss in the ring to a second rate boxer, James “Buster” Douglas, in 1990 heralded the rapid decline of Iron Mike. A year later, he was charged and incarcerated for raping 18-year-old Desiree Washington. His utter destruction seemed irrevocable.
Tyson tells me that he misses nothing from that time of his life, when I meet him in Beverly Hills. “It’s a different life. I had to be a different person to be that particular individual. This guy doesn’t exist in this world.”
Indeed, Arriving for the interview, Tyson, smiling humbly, bears little resembles to his legendary image. Humorous and gregarious, he talks in a high-pitched gable, rendered sibilant by a slight lisp, far from the resonant baritone that his presence and stature lead you to expect.
During 3 years in prison from 1992-1995, Tyson committed himself to a strict training regime, readying himself to regain the World Championship title, and embraced the religion of Islam, which, he says, taught him to be humble. “I want to be a servant of Allah and that’s what I am striving to be, just his servant, and many times I am going to fail on my course, but I keep getting up and keep trying, and that’s just my relationship with Islam. My own personal salvation with Allah and I will have to deal with him eventually, but on my own and regardless of what anyone says about my religion and my caring for him. It’s him who I have to answer to.”
And he has a lot to answer to Allah, because when he emerged from jail, his untamed rage against the world led him into more troubles culminating with him biting Evander Holyfield’s ear and tearing some of its flesh at a gruesome fight in Memphis in 1997. Consequently, his boxing licence was rescinded and his reputation was irredeemably ruined.
Since then Tyson has made up with Holyfield. “I’ve seen him quite a few times since Memphis,” he reflects, smiling. “I don’t have any hard feelings towards him, and he didn’t have any hard feelings towards me. I am not angry at him and I am sure he’s not angry at me.”
Tyson did get his boxing licence back, but his career never recovered. And the chaos in his personal life and bad financial decisions sank him into bankruptcy. Having lost everything, he sought salvation in drugs and alcohol, which became a chronic addiction that he is still battling to this day.
“It’s a daily struggle for me,” he says. “I am the kind of guy who gets four years, 5 years, six years relapse, and if I could stop from right now to the day I die and not relapse, that would be a really big success story for me.”
These relapses, he says, are triggered by an overwhelming love or hate, emotions, people, places and his own ego. “My mind doesn’t work properly,” he muses, his eyes stare vacantly at the table. “One drink is too many and a thousand is never enough for me. And that’s the illness that I have to deal with, and no one can help me but me. I don’t believe normal people really think the way I think. I wouldn’t be drinking and using drugs if I was normal.”
Drugs may avail in detaching him from reality, but also have often led him into a grimmer and suicidal state of mind. “I had a time where I would get tired of living,” he says. “I don’t know why, maybe that’s just the mental illness that I have, I guess. It could be a long time ago or recently. I always get tired and tired of being in pain.”
Born and raised in abject poverty in Brooklyn NY, Tyson is inured to pain. “I don’t have happy memories from childhood,” he giggles. “My happy memory is scoring on a big robbery as a kid and somebody is chasing me, and he gets hit by a car and I get away.”
His father, Jimmy Kirkpatrick, abandoned him and his two siblings when was two, and his mother, Lorna Smith, was an alcoholic, who made her money from sleeping with random men. “I picked up a lot of bad habits from my mother. I am very vulgar sometimes, and that’s something that I am working on,” he reflects, smiling.
By the time Tyson was 13, he had been arrested 38 times. Charged for armed robbery, he was eventually sent to Tryon School for Boys, where he was introduced to Cus D’Amato, the legendary boxing trainer, who took him under his wing and turned him into a formidable fighter. “Cus told me all these great things, so I came back to see my mother and told her how great I was and this was going to be the way it is, and I am the greatest fighter in the world, and nobody better dare think of beating me, you watch. And she couldn’t understand that. But that’s all right, that’s my mother and I love her.”
But these days the definition of success for the father of 7 is being a good family man. “Success for me is not going to prison, not dying in the streets, not cheating on my wife, and leaving my kids. Winning fights and awards is something I acquire with my skills and hard work.”
Tyson’s troubled life is the subject of his one man show The Undisputed Truth, which has been touring the world recently. The idea for the show sprang in Tyson’s mind when he saw Chazz Palminteri doing A Bronx tale on stage in Las Vegas. “I told my wife, I believe I can do this, because when I do my meet and greet thing in Europe or Asia, I am on stage telling people about my life, and the only difference is that I am taking questions from the crowds, but I decided to do the one man show without taking questions,” he enthuses.
Produced by Spike Lee and penned by Tyson’s wife Kiki Spicer, the show has been received warmly by audiences and critics, encouraging the 47 year-old former boxing champion to concentrate on acting. “I am pretty serious about my acting career,” he says, nodding his head.
He will probably not achieve in Hollywood what he has accomplished in the boxing ring, but he is working assiduously on it. Soon, he will be seen with Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro in The Grudge Match. “I was born to entertain people and be on camera,” he effervesces.