At dawn tomorrow, Mike Tyson will walk out of the Indiana Youth Center and back into the limelight. The boxing world will greet him with open arms and open chequebooks. But have three years in prison for raping a teenage beauty queen really tamed the wild animal in him?
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"He's not all that bad," said George Foreman, the world's oldest heavyweight champion, of Mike Tyson, once the world's youngest heavyweight champion. "If you dig deep, dig real deep, dig, dig, dig, dig, dig deep, deep, go all the way to China, I'm sure you'll find there's a nice guy there."

When you've finished digging, what you will find is that the man they call "Iron Mike" has a soft spot for birds. As a child, Tyson kept pigeons on the roof of an abandoned building in Brooklyn, next door to a squalid tenement where his Baptist single mother brought him up. When the birds were ill or newly hatched, he would spend all night with them; when it was cold, he would bring them into his home, cradle them, call them "my babies". When he discovered, one morning, that a dog had killed 25 of his charges, he was inconsolable. One day, when he was nine or 10, a boy five years older jerked one of the pigeons' heads off, for a laugh. Mike beat him till he bled.

He became a criminal, a mugger, a man-child feared in his neighbourhood, in and out of juvenile detention centres. Before Tyson was 13, Cus D'Amato, a boxing trainer who had steered Floyd Patterson and Jos Torres to world titles, spotted the devil in him, took him under his wing and resolved to shape him into a professional boxer. D'Amato became the father he never had and taught him that if he learnt to channel his murderousness he would win the heavyweight crown. D'Amato died a year short of the triumph he longed to witness, when Tyson was 19. His mother had died three years earlier. At D'Amato's funeral, Tyson wept and told one of his friends he felt so alone he wanted to commit suicide. The little boy lost duly became champion of the world, the most intimidating puncher in the history of boxing.

Power, glory and wealth came his way. In three years he made $100m. He married Robin Givens, a beautiful actress, and then divorced her. He bought a house in Ohio on a 70-acre estate with an Olympic-sized swimming pool and a cinema; he acquired a fleet of 30 cars, among them a Rolls-Royce stretch limousine with a TV, a VCR and two phone lines; he drank Dom Prignon for breakfast, lunch and dinner; women swarmed around him, and he around them. Women were his undoing.

D'Amato had had time to teach him ring discipline, but not enough to teach him life discipline. Don King, the slithery promoter with the hundred- volt haircut, took over where D'Amato had left off. Only King did not try to play the mentor. Recognising Tyson as his ticket to untold riches, King judged that the surest route to his affections lay in pandering to his desires. Bodyguards-cum-procurers turned up at Tyson's side. Tyson boasted to his biographer, Jos Torres, that one night in Philadelphia he and a friend each made love to 24 women - or perhaps more accurately, as the friend put it, "we fucked all them bitches". "You know something," Tyson told Torres, "I like to hurt women when I make love to them. ... I like to hear them scream with pain, to see them bleed. ... It gives me pleasure."

The path of brutal dalliance led him to Indianapolis on 18 July 1991 for an afternoon of sex with a rap singer called B Angie B and an evening of lust at the Miss Black America beauty pageant. "He acted as if he had walked into a room full of sluts," one of the contestants said later. Another, who brought a sexual harassment case against him, described him as "a serial buttocks-fondler". Having spent the day consuming champagne, unable to distinguish between his predatory persona in the ring and the social constraints required out of it, the young man who had once confided to Cus D'Amato that he thought he was too ugly to attract women behaved as if the ordinary rules of civilisation did not apply to him, as if nature had no bounds. "He was like a fox in a hen-house," someone said afterwards. In the small hours of the morning he raped Desiree Washington, an 18-year- old beauty queen from Rhode Island.

Prison, they say, has changed Mike Tyson. The man who will be freed at dawn tomorrow after three years behind bars has converted to Islam and reads the Koran every day. He has taught himself maths and delights in his understanding of decimals and percentages - a lot of restaurants owe him an awful lot of free meals, he jokes. And, although last year he failed his high school exams, he has discovered literature. He told Esquire magazine in an interview published last year that he admires Mao, whose portrait he has had tattooed on his right bicep; he has read Machiavelli ("He wrote about the world we live in. The way it really is, without all the bullshit. Not just in The Prince, but in The Art of War, Discourses ...); he "loved" Voltaire's Candide; he has read Homer, Tolstoy and Scott Fitzgerald; Hemingway, he has observed, "uses those short, hard words, just like hooks and upper cuts inside".

Tyson the philosopher explained in an interview from prison with CNN's Larry King how he had obtained his hard-won wisdom and what he meant to do with it. "When I won the title, the Mike Tyson out there was turned 20 and just a child ... My first obligation now is to Allah ... I know I'll be a better person when I come out than when I went in ... I've been robbed and abused and taken advantage of all my life, and lied to. I'm not going back into that predicament again."

Will he succeed, at the age of 28, in escaping his childhood demons? Howard Rubinstein, his promoter for a year when he was world champion, believes he will. Rubinstein, a PR legend from New York City who has worked for Rupert Murdoch, Adnan Khashoggi and Tyson's friend Donald Trump, said he was not surprised to hear that his former client had acquired a taste for the classics.

"He's an intelligent man. He drifts a bit, but he can focus when he wants to. He lacked education and discipline and was brought up in tough times, but if he had been brought up in a middle-class environment, he might have made a great businessman.

"To say that he's an animal, as they portrayed him during his trial, is very unfair. I'm sure he has it in him to restrain his wild ways. He'll come back psychologically stronger. He'll regain his championship, he'll have a pot of gold ahead of him."

Someone who will share the pot of gold with Tyson is Don King, who is believed in boxing circles to have signed a deal with him already. The best indication of who the rest of his friends will be is provided by the list of his prison visitors. Black celebrities, in the main, Whitney Houston is among them. So is Spike Lee; the basketball star Shaquille O'Neal; Michael Jackson's parents; Malcolm X's widow, Betty Shabazz; and the rapper B Angie B, who is reported to have shared some close prison encounters with Tyson and says she hopes to marry him, which brings to mind a remark once made by Floyd Patterson, himself a heavyweight champion in his time: "When you have millions of dollars, you have millions of friends."

Perhaps Tyson's truest friends, those he has missed most, are the ones he has had longest. According to another visitor, his ring cornerman, Ray Bright, prison has not dimmed his childhood fascination with birds. Flocks of his beloved pigeons, and all manner of other birds, live in the back yard of his Ohio mansion, looked after for the past three years by a well-paid caretaker. Bright said he has sent Tyson more than 3,000 photographs of the birds.

The question now remains whether the new, softer, gentler Tyson will be able to control the beast outside the ring, but release it within. One man who wants to know the answer is George Foreman, who says he wants to end his career this year with a bout against Tyson. In February 1990, upon hearing that Tyson had lost his crown - in his one and only defeat - to the relatively unknown Buster Douglas, Foreman quoted Lewis Carroll. "Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall/Humpty Dumpty had a great fall/All of Don King's horses and all of Don King's men/Couldn't put Humpty together again."

If Tyson has indeed managed to put together the pieces of his life, Foreman, who at 47 is old enough to be his father, may not only have cause to rue his wit, he may have to withstand a counter-quote from The Art of War or For Whom the Bell Tolls.