Boxing: Flights of fantasy restore Tyson's reality

Maybe only Mike Tyson could announce, in one moment, that his past is dead, futile and painful beyond any redemption and then, in the next, walk straight back into it. He did it here this week as he prepared for tomorrow's fight with Britain's Danny Williams. He took you into the bedroom of his hotel suite overlooking the broad sweep of the Ohio River and there, perched eerily on the wardrobe, were eight pigeons.

Maybe only Mike Tyson could announce, in one moment, that his past is dead, futile and painful beyond any redemption and then, in the next, walk straight back into it. He did it here this week as he prepared for tomorrow's fight with Britain's Danny Williams. He took you into the bedroom of his hotel suite overlooking the broad sweep of the Ohio River and there, perched eerily on the wardrobe, were eight pigeons.

They were prized Birmingham "rollers", cooing and posing and taking occasional flight. One settled on the bed and defecated. In the subdued light Tyson's eyes glowed with the pride of ownership. "Pigeons are like drugs or cats or dogs. Some people have them all their lives," he said. "These are the best - I tracked them down."

Always he comes back to the pigeons. On his Las Vegas estate, now under the auctioneer's hammer, he had white tigers. He's had custom-made Harley Davidsons, a fleet of Rolls, Bentleys and Ferraris. Once, in Vegas, he bought a batch of six Rolls and distributed them among his friends. He's had a half-million dollar watch emblazoned with pornography. As he was saying again this week, he's known more women than he can remember. But the pigeons will never be dislodged. They are not pets: they are an escape, a fantasy.

Once upon a time he owned 4,000. He could fill the sky above Harlem. As a boy he famously sent a smaller flock winging over the streets of his scabrous Brownsville neighbourhood of Brooklyn from where, he says, he looked up and longed for a similar freedom.

When one of those birds had its head yanked off by an older boy, Tyson beat up the murderer and in the exhilaration of his revenge we know now that a terrible violence was born.

But the pigeons from time to time soften his rage. He spent days in their company in the big old house in Catskill, New York, after the death of his mentor, Cus D'Amato. And it was there that he retreated with his wounds after his shocking defeat by James Buster Douglas in Tokyo 14 years ago.

Now as he embarks on a seven-fight campaign aimed at clearing $40m (£22m) worth of debt which he says some days make him feel like a "slave," he is most at peace in his bedroom aviary. "Be careful where you sit," he says with a squeal of pleasure. "I have to sleep in another room."

At times there is something mechanical about Tyson as he talks, so softly you have to reach forward to catch his words, about what he is do with the rest of his life. Some of his talk might be murmurings from deep inside a shell.

"I don't want any romantic story going out that I'm living my life for the big moment of winning back a world title," he says. "If that happens it happens, but the truth is I'm just fighting because it is what I do - it is the only thing I do. I've come back to the ring because I wanted to fight, not to pay my debts. I found out that they can't throw you into prison for not paying your debts so I could be on a beach somewhere with somebody's else money. But, no, I want to fight - it's cool knocking people out, and I don't know when I'll stop - maybe only when people stop paying me.

"My intention is to pay my debts. The fights have been planned for me, and it's something I'm willing to do - but something might happen. I might knock somebody out and some beautiful girl might look at me and I might say, to hell with this shit, and disappear for another eight months."

That was the time Tyson, now 38, took off after destroying Clifford Etienne in Memphis 15 months ago, a period he says he will never be able to rearrange in his mind. "Man, I just couldn't tell you all the things I did. I wasn't fighting. I wasn't working. And when you're in that state you do bad things."

So many bad things, indeed, that Tyson admits that early in his work for the Williams fight he shook his head one day and asked his trainer, Freddie Roach: "Do I still have it, can I still fight?

"That's what trainers are for - you have doubts, you wonder if it has all left you. But the more I worked the better I felt, and I feel good now. I'm not shocked to hear that Williams has cried before fights. He has good reason now. When I was young I used to cry before fights. Listen, the pressure of fighting can drive you nuts - it drives you to do crazy things. If you don't fight you don't know the pressure a guy has worrying about whether he's going to be embarrassed in front of 100,000 people. That's nerve-racking, especially if you have taken a lot of smack before the fight."

At rare moments of animation, his talk is as wild - and sometimes as flippant - as ever. He was asked why he seemed to be sleep-walking when Lennox Lewis pounded him to defeat two years ago. "Man, I don't know what I was on. Maybe I just smoked too much weed. There's no doubt I've been a monster.

"My new thing is that the past is dead. I only live in the present. There was a time when I lived my whole life in the past - now anyone but me can talk about my past, my fights, the women I've been with. To me all that stuff is dead now. I'm happy in myself that I don't have any grudges against anyone who might have beaten me out of some money or somebody who lied about what I did, or exploited my name. I just don't care.

"There's not enough time to settle all the grudges. In my case against Don King [which the promoter settled recently with an agreement to pay back $14m over the next two years] I just wanted to get it over with. I got tired every time I saw him and had to fight him. The guy's 70 years old; maybe I should have got another 70-year-old to slug him. Now I think I just have to calm down. I have children who are young adults. I have to think about that."

There is more to think about, perhaps, than he cares to say. One of Tyson's security guards, a local policeman, drove him to the house where Muhammad Ali grew up - 32244 Grand Avenue. It's a small house from where Ali, the son of a sign painter, rose to glory, and Tyson sat outside for some time.

"It was incredible sitting there, imagining him running out into the street - and I wondered whether anyone would ever go to see my old house in Brownsville and feel the same way as I did."

The mayor of Louisville has already offered a negative opinion, saying that Tyson is as wicked as Bin Laden, Saddam Hussain and the Taliban. "I'm proud I have such formidable foes," says Tyson, who has been working out in an open-air ring on the corner of Muhammad Ali Boulevard. Maybe it was just routine bluster from the man who has officially buried his past. Or, who knows, it might just have come from the stab of an old pain which draws him to the room next door and the flutter of wings.

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