Sport on TV: Tyson ruffles feathers but at least he's not up before beak
Sunday 13 March 2011
The bull terriers were being judged at Crufts yesterday but their owners didn't have the singlets and tattoos you might expect, let alone the gold chains around their necks that are thicker than their dogs' leads.
A lot of these slavering, wild-eyed beasts are called Tyson (the canines, not the humans), and when you heard that the Animal Planet channel had made a series called Taking on Tyson (Discovery, Friday) it was natural to assume the subject matter would be the boxer himself, chewing some ears as well as chewing the fat.
Instead it was about the former heavyweight champion's lifelong passion for pigeons, and a first foray into the world of racing – his first competitive action since he quit the ring five years ago. When he lost his undisputed crown to Lennox Lewis in 2002, he took a private jet straight to his coop in Jersey City because it was "the one thing in the world that would ease his pain".
The ties go even deeper than that: it's also "one of the few parts of his identity he can be comfortable with", and so the racing could help to heal a deeply troubled man. As Tyson said, "If I'm not committed to anything, I can basically fall to pieces".
The pigeons not only comforted him but defined him. His father left home when he was 10, and he was bullied by his peers. The rooftops of Brownsville in Brooklyn were where he found peace, but in typical Tyson style violence was never far away.
He threw his first punch aged 11 after a local tough guy killed one of his birds and threw it in his face. "It seemed like the right thing to do." In terms of career moves, and hundreds of millions of dollars, you wouldn't doubt him. His trouble with the law started when he used to steal in order to buy more birds.
The therapeutic quality of pigeon-fancying are obvious as he cradles the birds lovingly in those massive fists that laid waste to the mightiest of men. There's philosophy in there, too: "In order to possess them, you have to let them go." And there's a wider significance, since according to his old friend Junie Roman, "This is a sport that brings all races together".
Roman went off the rails too, and admitted: "When I got back with my pigeons, I got back on track." It's like all those boxers who were rescued from a life of crime and a mortality in the balance by the fight game.
There's another link between the birds and the beasts. Tyson points out the physical similarities: "Big chest, long body, small stomach, short legs." His new "racing homers" are taken for their first training session, a five-mile flight. You can almost imagine the plucky little Rockys in sweatpants and hoodies, throwing shadow punches to a thumping soundtrack. Let's hope there's no Sylvester the cat pretending to be Sylvester Stallone.
Tyson was bullied as a child because of his lisp and he plays on the speech impediment in a glorious send-up of The King's Speech on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, called "The President's Speech". "Sir Mike Tyson" provides therapy of his own for George W Bush in an attempt to stop him making his hilarious gaffes. If a thug like Bush can be installed in the White House for eight years, why shouldn't Tyson's next competitive encounter be running for the presidency? He's more likely to be a hawk than a dove. Gaddafi, you had better watch out.
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