The tam­ing of Mike Tyson

The heavy­weight boxing leg­end speaks can­didly about his rape con­vic­tion, his con­ver­sion to Is­lam – and Evan­der Holy­field’s ear

DRUM - - Contents - BY CHRIS AYRES

HIS voice is so low and meek I have to lean across his gi­gan­tic L-shaped white leather sofa to hear him. “I’m al­ways cry­ing,” Mike Tyson tells me. “I should have done bet­ter. My ad­dic­tion. What I did with my fam­ily. The way I dealt with my fi­nances. The way I dealt with my re­la­tion­ships with other peo­ple. The way I dealt with my­self.”

He looks at me, eyes shining. “There’s a whole bunch of stuff . . . but I don’t let it ruin my life. It can’t ruin my life.”

It’s a bright spring morn­ing in the moun­­tains above Hen­der­son, Ne­vada, but the mood in­side Tyson’s 900-m2 man­sion in the gated and heav­ily guarded Seven Hills com­mu­nity is som­bre. Far be­low us on the rocky flats of Amer­ica’s Mo­jave Desert the Las Ve­gas Strip sparkles and throbs.

From the bot­tom of Tyson’s street you can even trace the out­line of the MGM Grand, the ho­tel where al­most ex­actly 20 years ago the boxer – then not long out of prison for rap­ing Miss Black Rhode Is­land (he main­tains his in­no­cence) – bit a chunk out of op­po­nent Evan­der Holy-

field’s ear in a fit of blind rage. As in­de­fen­si­ble as that might have been, it’s not hard to un­der­stand why he was so an­gry.

By the time of the Holy­field bout – or “the bite fight”, as it’s known – Tyson had man­aged to make and then lose over $300 mil­lion (then about R1,5 bil­lion). His abil­ity to con­nect punches was start­ing to wane.

Then came Tyson’s first bank­ruptcy, fol­lowed by a lost decade of dop­ing him­self up with mar­i­juana and an­tide­pres­sants while swig­ging from $3 000 (now about R39 000) bot­tles of Louis XVIII co­gnac, and chain-smok­ing Marl­boro cig­a­rettes – the to­bacco scraped out and re­placed with co­caine.

Dur­ing that same pe­riod he be­came sui­ci­dal when one of his daugh­ters, Ex­o­dus – who lived with her mother – died af­ter get­ting her neck wrapped up in the cord of a tread­mill ma­chine. She was just four years old.

Those days are over now. Crazy Mike has be­come Sub­ur­ban Mike . . . if Seven Hills counts as the sub­urbs.

He keeps him­self in check through Is­lam and ve­g­an­ism, and has given up binge­ing on his favourite – and de­fi­antly un­ma­cho – tip­ples of Bac­ardi and blue­berry brandy.

Even his pet tigers are gone, leav­ing only the boxer’s 100 or so homing pi­geons as his non­hu­man com­pan­ions. In­stead he finds ful­fil­ment in his mar­riage to Lak­iha “Kiki” Spicer – a decade his ju­nior – and their two chil­dren, Mi­lan (8) and Morocco (6). Tyson’s four other chil­dren, by other women, are all much older.

This brings us to the rea­son for our heart-to-heart to­day: Tyson’s new book, ti­tled Iron Am­bi­tion, which is an emo­tional ac­count of his trans­for­ma­tion from a barely lit­er­ate 14-year-old street thug to one of the world’s great­est fight­ers.

It’s his sec­ond mem­oir fol­low­ing his pre­vi­ous best­seller, Undis­puted Truth, which Tyson per­formed as a Spike Lee-di­rected one-man show.

Al­though his new book sees him in con­fes­sional mode, a list of pre-in­ter­view con­di­tions – Mr Tyson won’t dis­cuss pol­i­tics, Mr Tyson doesn’t want a fe­male jour­nal­ist, Mr Tyson would like to see the ques­tions – sug­gests that our en­counter may be a fraught one.

It’s hard not to dwell on the fact that only a few years ago he punched a Los An­ge­les videog­ra­pher so hard that the last frame the vic­tim recorded (be­fore drop­ping his cam­era) was of his own blood splat­tered over the lens.

Such fears, thank­fully, seem un­founded. Af­ter Tyson emerges calmly to greet me – look­ing good for his 50 years, al­beit a lit­tle heav­ier than his 100 kg prime, and dressed head to toe in royal blue with a con­trast­ing gold brooch and white train­ers – he lets the con­ver­sa­tion go where it goes.

As we talk, I no­tice his prison-era gold tooth caps are gone, but his fa­cial tat­too – a “war­rior mark­ing” – re­mains. (He’d ini­tially wanted hearts but the tat­too artist wisely talked him out of it.)

Ev­ery­thing else about him – the pre­cise, al­most monk- like shuf­fle when he gives me a tour of the house and the raspy lisp that’s deep­ened with age – sug­gests the for­mer Bad­dest Man on the Planet has fi­nally made some kind of un­easy peace with the world.

“When you look at me now, I’m just a sim­ple guy,” he re­as­sures. “I mean, there’s al­ways a part of me that wants to go back – that’s the ad­dict part. But I know what the reper­cus­sions of that would be.

“Re­ally, I pre­med­i­tate what I do in my life now, be­cause of that. It was very dif­fi­cult to make this choice.

“But I don’t want to be the guy who has the big scan­dal and I have to go to my daugh­ter’s ten­nis class and it’s all over the school.”

‘I pre­med­i­tate what I do in my life now. I don’t want to be the guy who has the big scan­dal’

THE first thing to es­tab­lish about Tyson’s boxing ca­reer is that he never set out to win any of his fights. No. He set out to kill his op­po­nents. As he once ex­plained in un­flinch­ing de­tail, his aim was to punch the nose bone with such ter­mi­nal force it would shunt into the skull and pierce the brain. This mission state­ment re­sulted in sev­eral rather short matches.

One by one, year af­ter year, the biggest and scari­est men on Earth would line up to face “Iron Mike”, only to go down when the first wreck­ing ball of a right hook found its tar­get. In 1988, Don­ald Trump paid a then-record $11 mil­lion (then R27,5 mil­lion) for Tyson to fight at the Trump Plaza Ho­tel and Casino in At­lantic City. The ac­tion lasted all of 91 sec­onds.

Adding to Tyson’s men­ace, he had no in­ter­est in the more hammy el­e­ments of the sport. When he turned up to fight, he didn’t prance around in a golden robe or bring a towel to put over his head – he didn’t even play en­trance mu­sic. He just ap­peared, im­pas­sive like death in­car­nate, in black shorts, black boots (no socks) and his mouth guard.

What makes Iron Am­bi­tion such a fas­ci­nat­ing read is that it re­veals the ex­tra­or­di­nary set of cir­cum­stances it takes to cre­ate such a hu­man mur­der weapon.

Tyson was fa­mously bul­lied as a child – he calls it a “dis­gust­ing ter­mi­nal cancer” that he still car­ries within him to­day. The lisp didn’t help. He was chubby too, with se­vere acne and a crush­ingly shy man­ner that was mocked as ef­fem­i­nate.

Mean­while, his mother – who had openly sex­ual and abu­sive re­la­tion­ships – would give her son spir­its and drugs to put him to sleep and beat him with a fire­place poker or lash him with an elec­tri­cal cord when he mis­be­haved. His fa­ther was ei­ther the neigh­bour­hood pimp or a lo­cal cab­bie: Tyson had no idea.

In his vi­o­lent, crime-in­fested home­town of Brownsville in Brook­lyn, New York – still one of the poor­est, most dan­ger­ous parts of the US – the only way to sur­vive such a child­hood was to prove your­self tougher and cra­zier than the next kid. Which ex­plains why Tyson had been ar­rested 38 times by the time he reached pu­berty.

He shrugs it off as “petty crime”. “If you saw a Cau­casian guy stopped at a cor­ner, you might put a gun to his head, say, ‘Gimme your watch, gimme your money, gimme your car keys’,” he says.

When I say that doesn’t sound very petty, he snorts: “It seemed petty to us – be­cause you got petty money.”

Tyson ended up at a ju­ve­nile de­ten­tion cen­tre, the Tryon State School for Boys, in up­state New York. There, one of the coun­sel­lors no­ticed his tal­ent for boxing and of­fered to coach him in re­turn for good be­hav­iour. For the first time in his life, Tyson had a pur­pose. And he ap­plied him­self with such sin­gle­mind­ed­ness the coun­sel­lor took him to the nearby Catskill boxing club to meet Con­stan­tine “Cus” D’Amato – then a washed-up 72-year-old who’d de­vel­oped the ca­reers of Floyd Pat­ter­son and Jose Tor­res.

Af­ter watch­ing Tyson box three rounds with his coun­sel­lor, Cus de­clared then and there that “this boy is the next heavy­weight cham­pion of the world – pos­si­bly the uni­verse”.

Be­fore Tyson knew it he was liv­ing in Cus’ house – a 14-room Vic­to­rian man­sion with views over the Hud­son River. An­other four or five promis­ing fight­ers also lived there along with Cus’ Ukrainian com­pan­ion, Camille Ewald.

Cus’ psy­cho­log­i­cal con­di­tion­ing of Tyson was ex­treme. He’d lie the young boxer down on the floor and hyp­no­tise him, re­peat­ing over and over the dif­fer­ence be­tween be­ing afraid (which is use­ful) and be­ing in­tim­i­dated (which is de­bil­i­tat­ing). He claimed he con­trolled Tyson from afar us­ing his mind.

He made him per­form end­less chores – scrub­bing, sweep­ing, tak­ing out rub­bish – while drilling into him that dis­ci­pline is “do­ing what you hate to do, but do­ing it like you love it”. He even told Tyson – who thought him­self ugly – how beau­ti­ful he was.

Even­tu­ally Cus’ con­di­tion­ing kicked in. “I went from al­ways be­ing scared and ner­vous to find­ing out that other guys were more scared of me than I was of them,” Tyson says. “Af­ter that, it was a whole changed ball­game.”

When Tyson’s mother died from cancer two years later, Cus adopted his pro­tégé. But the old man didn’t live long enough to see Tyson knock out Trevor Ber­bick in 1986 to be­come the youngest world heavy­weight cham­pion in history – a record he holds to this day, and achieved in spite of be­ing in agony from gon­or­rhoea.

Af­ter the fight, Tyson vis­ited Cus’ grave in Jef­fer­son Heights, not far from the Catskill boxing club where it all be­gan. The 20-year-old boxer sat there for a while, then in tears he opened a bot­tle of Dom Pérignon cham­pagne and emp­tied it over the head­stone.

Tyson’s grave­side toast­ing of his late

adopted fa­ther be­came a rit­ual af­ter ev­ery victory. “I wish Cus and my mother could have seen me be suc­cess­ful,” he says, the emo­tion still raw.

WITHOUT Cus to guide him it wasn’t long un­til his life de­railed. He had a dis­as­trous mar­riage to sit­com ac­tress Robin Givens which lasted barely a year. Givens went on tele­vi­sion to call Tyson a manic de­pres­sive to his face – and de­scribed her mar­riage to him as “tor­ture, pure hell, worse than any­thing I could pos­si­bly imag­ine”.

(Tyson later found Givens at her home in bed with ac­tor Brad Pitt as their di­vorce was be­ing fi­nalised in 1989.)

Things didn’t get much bet­ter from there. Tyson crashed his $180 000 (now about R2,3 mil­lion) Bent­ley in Man­hat­tan and then gifted it to the po­lice of­fi­cers who showed up. He broke his hand in a street brawl. He bought him­self a fake pe­nis, which he hooked up to a plas­tic bag of some­one else’s urine to pass pre-match drug tests.

He punched a traf­fic war­den. He faced mul­ti­ple pa­ter­nity claims. He was sued by var­i­ous women for grop­ing and ha­rass­ment. He drove his BMW into a tree in an al­leged sui­cide at­tempt. Thanks to the in­flu­ence of his new ad­vis­ers, Don­ald Trump and the boxing pro­moter Don King, Tyson fell out with his trainer, Kevin Rooney – the last mem­ber of Cus’ team to stick around.

Then, as Tyson put on weight and his fights be­came more spo­radic, came his fate­ful en­counter with De­siree Washington, an 18-year-old col­lege stu­dent and beauty queen who’d en­tered the 1991 Miss Black Amer­ica con­test in In­di­anapo­lis. Tyson was a celebrity judge.

She ac­cused him of lur­ing her out of bed at 1.36 am, tak­ing her to his ho­tel room and “date rap­ing” her. “Don’t fight me, Mommy,” he al­legedly re­peated through­out the or­deal. Tyson said that she was fu­ri­ous over be­ing re­jected and was only af­ter his money. Years later, he was still rail­ing, say­ing: “I just hate her guts. I re­ally wish I did it now . . . I re­ally do want to rape her.”

Such com­ments – along with his re­mark to a fe­male jour­nal­ist that “I nor­mally don’t do in­ter­views with women un­less I for­ni­cate with them, so you shouldn’t talk any more” – dis­gusted even his friends.

To­day, the sober and med­i­ta­tive Tyson gets cold and quiet when the sub­ject of Washington comes up, say­ing only: “I was 100 per­cent in­no­cent in that.” The max­i­mum sen­tence he faced was 60 years – but he got six, of which he only served three. He some­how man­aged to have sex with his drug coun­sel­lor three times a day while in prison. She fell preg­nant, but didn’t have the baby.

Tyson says noth­ing good came from his in­car­cer­a­tion. “What’s pos­i­tive about it – the ed­u­ca­tion? Learn­ing how to talk bet­ter?” he snorts. “I just learnt how to con peo­ple bet­ter. Prison isn’t re­ha­bil­i­tat­ing – it’s de­bil­i­tat­ing.”

As for his re­ported con­ver­sion to Is­lam be­hind bars, Tyson in­sists he’d started fol­low­ing the teach­ings of the Qu­ran long be­fore he was locked up.

It helps that his wife, Kiki, is also a Muslim, he says. In fact, she’s the step­daugh­ter of a once pow­er­ful cleric in Philadel­phia, Sham­sud-din Ali, who ended up in fed­eral prison on rack­e­teer­ing charges. Kiki and her mother also served time for the mis­use of pub­lic funds re­lated to an Is­lamic school. None of which Tyson is keen to dis­cuss, al­though he makes a point of dis­tanc­ing him­self – un­prompted – from any kind of ex­trem­ism.

“Be­ing a Muslim doesn’t make me cause trou­ble,” he states. “You can have trou­ble with all re­li­gions. And I’m not one of those guys who gets ex­tra-sen­si­tive when peo­ple make jokes be­cause I know about con­trol­ling my tem­per . . . and some of that stuff is funny any­way. I was a hu­man be­ing be­fore I was a Muslim, a re­ally in­ter­est­ing hu­man be­ing. I’m still that per­son now.”

FEW be­lieved Tyson would ever have a ca­reer again af­ter his rape con­vic­tion. In 2009, though, his cameo with one of his tigers in the film The Hang­over be­came a hit – he bought drugs with his fee. Since then, Tyson has been the sub­ject of sev­eral doc­u­men­taries and a Scooby Doo-like car­toon – Mike Tyson Mys­ter­ies – in which he solves crimes with a pi­geon.

When asked about Tyson’s pop­u­lar­ity, Evan­der Holy­field mar­velled: “I’ve never seen some­one black do some­thing wrong like that and get this kind of ex­po­sure.” Tyson smiles. “I see Evan­der ev­ery now and again. We ac­tu­ally did an ESPN com­mer­cial to­gether, and I gave him his ear back in formalde­hyde.” I ask how much of it he bit off. “I don’t know,” he shrugs. “I spat it out.” For all of Tyson’s new­found per­spec­tive there’s still plenty weigh­ing on his mind. He stays up watch­ing tele­vi­sion most nights be­cause he can’t sleep. “I watch a lot about the Tu­dors, about Henry VII, Henry VI and Henry VIII. I saw the story of the six wives last night.”

He wor­ries about money. “You won’t be­lieve that I’ve been bank­rupt for 15 years – 15 years!” he mar­vels. “I only just got out of it.” And he wor­ries about his daugh­ter Mi­lan get­ting older, the men she’ll date. “I’ll be very se­ri­ous when it comes to that,” he warns. “I don’t want her dat­ing guys like me.”

With that, Tyson leads me out­side, past his sparkling lap pool, to see his 100 or so homing pi­geons, all coo­ing softly on the roof of his garage – next to a coop the size of a small two-bed­room flat. Tyson says he picked up the in­ter­est as a kid, from a group of vi­o­lent thugs in Brownsville.

“I thought it was so cool that th­ese rough, bad peo­ple liked birds. They’d just train them to fly around. It made them happy. And I loved it. My whole life, the only time I stopped with the pi­geons was when I went to prison.” He adds, sadly: “I never get into trou­ble when I’m pay­ing at­ten­tion to my birds.”

LEFT: Tyson with his third wife, Lak­iha Spicer. He’s a dot­ing dad to their chil­dren, Mi­lan (ABOVE) and Morocco (ABOVE RIGHT).

ABOVE: Iron Mike with some of his homing pi­geons. ABOVE RIGHT: That mo­ment of mad­ness – Mike bites off a piece of op­po­nent Evan­der Holy­field’s ear dur­ing a ti­tle fight in Las Ve­gas in 1997.

ABOVE: He and US pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump have been friends for decades. LEFT: Tyson was bul­lied as a child be­cause he was chubby and had a lisp.

With his first wife, ac­tress Robin Givens. Their mar­riage lasted barely a year.

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