The most feared heavyweight of his generation, one of the most intimidating in history, convicted rapist, ghetto fugitive, social misfit, destined for the gutter or an early grave.
Sure, there have been moments of surprising articulateness, evidence of an inner, deeper man, confused by the rotten way of life into which he was born 29 years ago, but always a sense of irreversible delinquency. The word on him was all violence, no compassion. Hence the reason why the capacity for self-analysis Tyson revealed this week to a group of reporters at the home of his promoter, Don King, in south-east Las Vegas was startling.
Tyson spoke about a beginning and an end, his unquestionable devotion to his three daughters, what he feels about himself and the men he faces in the ring, fear and pride. "Getting gloved up for a fight I wonder why I am doing it. What's taking me back in there. Then I think about another $30m (pounds 18m), the life I want my daughters to live after I've gone. That, and having security. Boxing is what I do best. It's the only thing."
Tyson, who is defending the World Boxing Association heavyweight championship against Evander Holyfield at the MGN Grand in Las Vegas on Saturday, was perched on the edge of a white leather sofa. It was about 6.30 in the evening and he had on grey jogging pants and a green sweatshirt. A black woollen cap covered his head.
Typically, he paid no account to fears being held out for Holyfield who was required to undergo tests at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota before the Nevada State Boxing Commission gave its sanction to the contest. "It's not my concern," Tyson said. "Holyfield knows why he wants it. Why? Maybe money. When you start out with nothing there can never be enough money. If he's taking a risk, it isn't my problem. Doesn't enter my head. I'm only concerned with what I have to do. None of it makes much sense, I know I can hurt in there. But then I think - fuck it. What else is there?"
Shortly before this week's Presidential election (as a paroled felon he was not allowed to vote) Tyson shocked a friend with his support for the Republican stance on welfare. "I'm not saying that I am a Republican or a Democrat," he said. "But I don't believe in hand-outs. You've got to make your own way in life, face up to what it brings. I was saying that on the telephone," he chuckled, "and this guy implored me not to tell anyone they should vote for the Republicans."
Fame and pride. "A lot of black people have been able to express themselves and become important through boxing," he said. "The way writers once referred to them confused me because I mistook racism for admiration."
He was thinking mostly about the description applied to a black champion by Jack London, an unrepentant advocate of white supremacy in heavyweight boxing - "The nigger was magnificent". At this Tyson broke into laughter, sharing amusement with his co-managers, John Horne and Rory Holloway. "I actually thought it was a terrific remark."
Tyson became serious again, moisture welling up in his eyes when he recalled Roberto Duran's "no mas" capitulation against Sugar Ray Leonard when defending the welterweight championship. "Later, I understood it better, the frustration in Duran's mind, but I couldn't believe it happened. I loved Duran and champions should go out with dignity, fight until they drop. Shit, I just didn't have the heart to speak to him."
In Tyson's mind prize fighting is an uncomplicated process. Schooling in technique merely provides the means of destruction. "I never think the people I'm fighting might get seriously hurt," he added. "It's enough to think of what they might do to me. That's one of the bizarre things about boxing. It's brutal, life-threatening, but you have to say `fuck it' and get on with it."
When trying out for the 1984 Olympic team (Tyson turned professional immediately after failing to win a place) Tyson shared a brief comradeship with Holyfield, who went on to win a silver medal at light-heavyweight. "We were just two young guys who happened to be around at the same time," he said. "We sparred just one round, but as time went on I knew that we'd fight each other."
The deep religious commitment Holyfield has since made prompted Tyson to say: "I'm a Muslim and I don't believe God takes sides. We are after the same thing, taking the same risk, not knowing whether we are going to come out of there.
"Pride is important. When I lost my titles to Douglas I went down fighting. I stayed in with him until there was nothing left. If there is a risk involved for Holyfield and he wants to take it, then it's up to him. His welfare is none of my business."
If that philosophy fits a popular perception of Tyson, the destructive force whose once declared intention was to strike opponents so hard that their skulls would be splintered, he claims a measure of reformation. "I'm not the fool I was," he insisted. "Out of the ring I'm a different person, not the one who hung out in the joints drinking, getting into trouble. In prison I learned a lot about life, especially how short it is. I think now about my life being nearly over and a life beginning for my daughters. I'm not saying that they will be wealthy, but they won't ever want for anything."
Fame now bothers him. "It was fine in the beginning, buying anything I wanted, people falling over me. In time you pay a heavy price. I would like to walk along the street, eating ice cream with my daughters, but it isn't possible. I'm Mike Tyson, the heavyweight champion of the world, and there are fools out there, people who could do me harm when I least expect it."
Tyson claims too an awareness of the responsibility attached to fame. "I never gave a thought to setting examples," he said. "What I might mean to young people. But I have come to realise what they might think."
It remains to be seen whether the imagined transformation is permanent. One thing has not changed - the tremors that spread from Tyson throughout the heavyweight division.Reuse content