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