Mike Tyson: 'I think I was insane for a great period of my life'

Former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson was boxing’s most reviled figure. Now he has found solace in the suburbs...

Interview,Daphne Merkin
Sunday 18 September 2011 15:51

The gold caps on his teeth are gone, as are the frenzied trappings of celebrity: the non-stop partying, the cars, the jewellery, the pet tiger, the litres of Cristal. Mike Tyson – who was once addicted, by his own account, "to everything" – now lives in what might be described as a controlled environment of his own making, a clean, well-lighted but very clearly demarcated place.

The 44-year-old ex-heavyweight champion is in bed by 8pm and often up as early as 2am, at which point he takes a solitary walk around the gated compound in the Las Vegas suburb where he lives while listening to R&B on his iPod. Tyson then occupies himself with reading (he's an avid student of history, philosophy and psychology), watching karate movies or taking care of his homing pigeons, who live in a coop in the garage, until 6am, when his wife, Lakiha (known as Kiki), gets up. The two of them go to a spa nearby where they work out, before settling into the daily routine of caring for a two-year-old daughter, Milan, and a newborn son, Morocco; they also run Tyrannic, their production company. It is a wilfully low-key life, one in which Tyson's wilder impulses are held in check by his inner solid citizen.

The astonishing discipline and drive Tyson once put into "the stern business of pugilism", to quote the boxer Jack Johnson, is now being channelled into the business of leading an ordinary, even humdrum existence. It is impossible not to wonder whether this effort can be sustained indefinitely, whether you can reshape the contours of a personality by a sheer act of will, but there is no doubt that Tyson has committed himself to a wholesale renovation. He spends some of his time involved in domestic activities, accompanying Kiki and Milan to music classes and doctors' appointments, and some of his time furthering his post-boxing career, doing autograph signings, conferring with his agent and publicist about new opportunities. Although he no longer gets lucrative endorsement deals, Tyson earns fees for personal appearances in America and "meet and greet" dinner tours in Europe. He made a brief but memorable cameo in the blockbuster film The Hangover and will play a bit part in The Hangover Part II. He's hoping to nab more acting roles – genuine ones, in which he gets to play someone other than himself. "I want to entertain people," he tells me, smiling. "I want a Tony award."

As part of his cleaning-up campaign, he has been adhering to a strict vegan diet for nearly two years, saying that he doesn't want anything in him "that's going to enrage me – no processed food, no meat". He says he can no longer abide the smell of meat, even on someone's breath, and has dropped 150 pounds since he weighed in at 330 in 2009. "I've learnt to live a boring life and love it," he declares, sounding more determined than certain. "I let too much in, and look what happened... I used to have a bunch of girls and some drugs on the table. A bunch of people running around doing whatever."

The life that he has created almost from scratch over the past two years has been defined at least as much by what Tyson wants to avoid – old haunts, old habits, old temptations and old hangers-on – as by what he wants to embrace. One of the few links between his tumultuous past and his more tranquil present are his homing pigeons. He has been raising them since he was a picked-on fat kid with glasses growing up in some of Brooklyn's poorest neighbourhoods with an alcoholic, promiscuous mother given to violent outbursts, which included scalding a boyfriend with boiling water. Although he has turned down requests to do a reality show, Tyson agreed to participate in a six-part docudrama about his pigeons called Taking On Tyson on the Animal Planet channel.

The young Tyson turned to birds as both a hobby and as an escape; it was in defence of his pigeons that the timid kid who was called "sissy" and "faggy boy" got into his first fist-fight. When he was released from prison in 1995 after serving three years for the rape of Desiree Washington, he went to visit his coops in the Catskills. "The birds were there before boxing," says Mario Costa, who owns the Ringside Gym in Jersey City and has known Tyson since the early Eighties. "He feels peaceful around them." Tyson keeps coops in Las Vegas, Jersey City and Bushwick, and to this day he seeks out the birds when one of his "bad spells", as Kiki calls them, strikes. "The first thing I ever loved in my life was a pigeon," Tyson says. "It's a constant with my sanity in a weird way."

I have never been particularly drawn to boxing, but there was something about the younger Mike Tyson – his way of seeming larger than the sport itself, of playing out impulses, whether it was his desperate bid for Robin Givens's heart or his desperate biting of Evander Holyfield's ear – that caught my attention. He seemed like a man in huge conflict with himself as well as with the forces around him – the media, the celebrity machine – in a way that suggested he was both vulnerable to manipulation and leery of being manipulated.

In preparation for my visit to Las Vegas at the beginning of March, I communicated through e-mail with Kiki, who manages Tyson's affairs, and the plan was kept loose: we were to meet at his house for several days of conversation, with no definite times fixed. I called the film director James Toback, who made an acclaimed 2009 documentary about Tyson and has known him since they met on the set of Toback's Pick-Up Artist in 1986, to find out what I could about a man who came across in the film as both very present and elusive, weepy one minute and matter-of-fact the next, capable of self-insight but also hidden to himself.

Toback told me that Tyson was unpredictable, given to sudden psychological disconnections that Toback referred to as "click-outs". It was entirely possible, Toback said, that Tyson would back out of the interviews altogether. "Everything is contingent on the state of mind he's in at the moment," the director observed. According to Toback, he and Tyson shared experiences of temporary insanity – of "losing the I" – and "people who don't understand madness can't understand him. He's quicker, smarter, sharper than almost anyone he's talking to."

He went on to say that making the movie had been an "exhilarating" experience for both of them and that he senses that Tyson is happier now, that he doesn't have "the same degree of doom" he had before he met Kiki.

The first object that caught my eye in Tyson's double-storied, sparely furnished living room was a plush, purple Disney child's car seat, perched on a chair near the screen doors that led out to a swimming pool. There was also a child-size table and chairs, and a cluster of Mylar balloons tied to a bar stool in celebration of the birth of the Tysons' week-old son, Morocco. The white stucco house is located in a gated community called Seven Hills, which has the hushed, slightly vacant aura of gated communities everywhere. The entranceway features a koi pond under Plexiglas, and the expansive, open interior is decorated in a style that could be described as utilitarian with rococo touches – there is a huge contemporary chandelier as well as two gilded brass mirrors over a glassed-in fireplace that match the ironwork frieze on the front doors.

Tyson bought the place from a friend, the basketball player Jalen Rose, in the down market of early 2007. (The property was originally valued at $3 million; Tyson paid around $1.7 million for it.) It was built, he says, as a party house, but he and Kiki have been pushing it in the direction of a traditional family home, with clearly defined living areas and childproofed touches, like the Plexiglas panels on the stair railing. Tyson mentioned that he bought the house because it reminded him of a New York loft, despite the fact that he says there's little he misses about his hometown aside from the pigeon competitions and seeing people from his old stomping grounds. "I have a big affinity with the guys in my neighbourhood... the guys with the broken English and stuff... and then the pigeon world, it's not like there's a glass ceiling, the pigeon world keeps evolving with time. There are new diseases, there have to be serums for the new diseases," he said, sounding momentarily like a biochemist, albeit one with an endearing lisp. "Antibodies."

Tyson and I sat diagonally across from each other on black leather couches; in front of us was a glass coffee table on a Persian rug. He sipped from a cup of tea with honey and snacked on a banana. Kiki and her mother, who lives down the street and does a lot of baby-sitting, were upstairs with the children. Tyson's assistant, Farid (also known as David), had picked me up at my hotel and had taken me to the house in a maroon Cadillac Escalade SUV; Farid is a genial former IT consultant whom Tyson met in jail, although Tyson is at pains to point out that Farid was never a criminal type, just a geek trying to make some extra money on the sly.

In person, Tyson's voice is deeper and raspier than it sounds in TV interviews, and he cuts a much trimmer figure than you would expect. He wore a T-shirt that said TYSON on the back and very white running shoes. His head was shaved, and the left side of his face bears the tattoo of the New Zealand Maori warrior that he got in 2003, but he seemed more shy than ferocious, more of an introvert than someone out to create a stir.

As the hours passed, Tyson grew less wary and more at ease about saying what was on his mind. An autodidact, he likes to discuss characters he's read about, ranging from Alexander the Great to Constantine to Tom Sawyer, and he harbours a special fondness for Machiavelli. He knows the history of boxing inside out, watches films of Muhammad Ali and other boxers (including himself) most every evening, returning again and again to Raging Bull. He's also something of a homegrown philosopher, peppering our conversation with hard-knock truths: "The biggest tough guy wants to be likeable," he says.

But there are also whole areas of his life he keeps firmly cordoned off, especially the raging 'Kid Dynamite' days: "I think I was insane for a great period of my life. I think I was really insane... It was just too quick. I didn't understand the dynamics then. I just knew how to get on top, I didn't know what to do once I got there." He seemed to be edging closer to a deeper revelation, so I asked him if he had any regrets. He answered with rare snappishness: "I'm too young for regrets. I'm not in the grave yet."

The first big change in Tyson's convulsive life came when he went from being a ghetto kid whose world consisted of "a reformatory and welfare and rats and roaches" to being a rising boxing star living in a 14-room, antiques-filled Victorian mansion on 15 acres in the Catskills as one of the charges of Cus D'Amato, the legendary boxing trainer-cum-life coach. D'Amato, who was 70 then, was known for his stern credo of excellence, his ability to mould young talent and his eccentric, somewhat paranoid views; his protégés included Floyd Patterson and José Torres.

The adolescent Tyson was introduced to "this old white guy" who didn't know him "from a can of paint" by Bobby Stewart, a counsellor at the Tryon School for Boys, the juvenile detention centre where Tyson was sent after racking up a police record of street crimes. D'Amato saw Olympic potential in the surly, antisocial boy who could barely read or write. "He said, 'Can you handle the job that's at hand?' And I say, 'Sure, I can, I can do it'," Tyson recalled. "But I really didn't know if I could do anything."

The young Tyson began training with D'Amato and his staff at the Catskill Boxing Club on passes from Tryon; in 1980, while still a ward of the state, he moved into what was a kind of boarding house run by D'Amato and his companion, Camille Ewald. Camille served as materfamilias to the group of troubled boys – there were no more than four to six fighters in residence at any one time – teaching them manners and how to do laundry. (Tyson remained in touch with Ewald, helping to support her until her death in 2001.)

D'Amato, meanwhile, devised a master plan whereby Tyson would be reprogrammed from street thug to warrior in the ring. "Cus was an amazing influence," says Tom Patti, another D'Amato protégé, who lived with Tyson at the boarding house and played the role of big brother in his life. "He engineered his fighters and their success." To hone Tyson's physical skills, D'Amato taught him the two boxing techniques that he himself had developed and that were now his signatures – holding the gloves in a tight defensive position at ear level, and maintaining a consistent head motion before and after punching. As for psychological conditioning, Tyson's ego was inflated non-stop: "They were telling me how great I am, telling me how I can do this if I really try," Tyson said, sounding decidedly of mixed minds when looking back on this approach. "They kept it in my head. It had me form a different psychological opinion of myself. No one could say anything negative about me. I always had to have the supreme confidence that I'm a god and superior to everybody else, which is just sick and crazy. But it had its uses." After Tyson's mother, Lorna, died of cancer in the fall of 1982, D'Amato became his legal guardian and continued to oversee Tyson's training until his death in 1985. On 22 November 1986, D'Amato's tireless mentoring paid off big-time when Mike Tyson defeated Trevor Berbick and became the new world heavyweight champion (and, at age 20, the youngest in history), exactly as D'Amato had predicted he would.

Tyson lives less than half an hour from the raucous, 24-hour universe of the Las Vegas Strip, but it was preternaturally quiet in his house. The phone didn't ring, and the silence during conversational pauses was broken only by an occasional crying bout of Morocco's or some chatter of Milan's that trickled down from the second floor. "It's like a funeral home here," Tyson said softly, as if he were thinking aloud. It was one of the few times he alluded to what appears to be the deliberate curtailment of his life, the lengths he and Kiki have gone to in order to keep his habitat free of too much stimuli or pressure, the better to preserve his somewhat fragile equanimity. At one point, Milan came into the living room and reached for a tiny handful of pretzels from a bowl. He picked up the toddler and hugged her tightly, then put his face in her hair. When he put her down, she stood against the couch across from him, and he kept his eye on her as she ate her pretzels. "Chew," he said gently. "Milan, you've got to chew."

Tyson has six biological children, who range in age from newborn to 20, born of three different women. A seventh child, a daughter named Exodus, died at age four in May 2009 at her mother's home in Phoenix; she was strangled when her neck was caught in a cord hanging from a treadmill. Tyson caught a plane immediately upon receiving a call from Sol Xochitl, Exodus's mother, about the accident, but by the time he arrived at the hospital, the little girl was already brain-dead. The loss of his daughter critically altered his once-tentative grasp on his own accountability. To this day, he blames himself for not being there. "It made me feel very irresponsible," he says simply. "I wish she were here to hang out with Milan." The effects of the tragedy reverberated throughout Tyson's extended family: "The kids were very close to Exodus, and when she died we were all devastated," says Monica Turner, his second wife. "I think that changed Mike forever." Tyson refers to Exodus repeatedly during our conversations with evident sadness and insists on keeping her memory alive by counting her among his living children.

Tyson has been married three times; the first was to the TV actress Robin Givens when he was 21, after a fevered courtship. The year-long marriage proved disastrous, culminating in an infamous 1988 interview with Barbara Walters, in which Givens described the marriage as "pure hell" – while he sat passively beside her, drugged on manic-depression medication. ("I'm tripolar," he tells me laughingly when I ask him how he'd diagnose his condition today.) He went on to have two children with Turner; he also considers himself a father to Turner's daughter Gena. Turner, who is on friendly terms with Tyson, filed for divorce in 2002, citing adultery. Along the way, Tyson, a notorious womaniser, sired two more children – eight-year-old Miguel and Exodus – with Xochitl. Tyson keeps in touch with all of his brood, speaking especially proudly of his oldest son, 13-year-old Amir, who is six feet tall. "He's just nervous and afraid of life," he says, sounding an apprehensive note. "But he's doing so well... There are no bad influences. I have so many hopes for him."

Tyson knows about bad influences, if only because he has been susceptible to so many of them since the death of his mentor and his own emergence as a sports superstar. Following a brief glory period in the late Eighties, when he was arguably the most popular athlete in the world, asked to do endorsements for Pepsi, Nintendo and Kodak, and hired by the New York City Police Department to boost recruitment as well as by the FBI to do public service announcements to keep kids off drugs, Tyson began spiralling out of control. His self-destructive patterns, which had been refocused by D'Amato, came to the surface once again. He was then represented by the boxing promoter Don King, who successfully wooed Tyson in the wake of his split from Robin Givens. (Tyson filed a lawsuit against King in 1998, claiming that the promoter stole millions from him, a case that was settled for $14m.) Once a money-making machine worth $400 million at his height, Tyson was reduced to filing for personal bankruptcy in 2003; he was $27 million in debt.

In late December 2006 he was arrested in Arizona on charges of drug possession and drunken driving, and in February 2007 he checked himself into the Wonderland Centre, a rehab facility in the Hollywood Hills, for the treatment of various addictions. Carole Raymond, who worked as a staff member at Wonderland during Tyson's stay, remembers that he came to them a "beaten down" man. Still, she remembers him as funny, "very humble" and eager to embrace the programme's ethos. "People who come from fame or money have a hard time grasping the idea of recovery. He wanted to be emotionally better than the Mike Tyson who was always boxing." Tyson, in turn, credits the "life skills" he learned in rehab with coming to his rescue when a crisis hits: "You don't know where they came from, but you're on the top of your game. You're suited up and ready to work." When I asked him why he stayed at Wonderland for as long as he did – more than a year – he leaned over as if to emphasise what he was about to say. "I felt safe."

As befits someone who has been alternately idolised and demonised by the press, Tyson is wary of the public's continuing interest in his saga. He says he believes that celebrity made him "delusional" and that it has taken nothing less than a "paradigm shift" for him to come down to earth: "We have to stick to what we are. I always stay in my slot. I know my place." He asked me outright, "Why do you want to know about me as a person?" and at one point, anxious that he might be boring me, he got up to show me photographs from the glory days in which he is posing with other boxers (Ali, Rocky Graziano, Jake LaMotta) and with big names like Frank Sinatra, Tom Cruise and Barbra Streisand. Underneath his deliberate calmness and considerable charm, there is something bewildered and lost-seeming about Tyson. Indeed, he refers to himself as a "little boy" who "never had a chance to develop", and it is in part this conception of himself as missing out on a crucial period of maturation that fuels his present focus. "This is what the deal is," he said. "People just wait for you to grow up and do the right thing. They're just waiting for you to participate in the improvement of your life as a human being. When are you going to do it?"

The most important and sustaining influence in Tyson's current incarnation as an introspective mensch rather than the Baddest Man on the Planet is the presence of his wife, Kiki, whom he has known since she was about 16 (they met through her father, who did some boxing promotions); they exchanged their first kiss when she was 19 and had an on-and-off romance for more than a decade. They tried living together in Kiki's apartment in Manhattan in 2002 after Tyson's defeat at the hands of Lennox Lewis, but it was, she says, "a disaster". "He was used to juggling a lot of women." They remained friends even though the relationship didn't work out, had another fling in 2004, lost touch again when Tyson was in rehab and then reconnected when Tyson called her after he got out. Their daughter, Milan, was born on Christmas Day 2008, and they married on 6 June 2009. "We know all of each other's secret stuff," she says. "He told me everything, and I told him everything. We fight hard, but I'm very much in love with him."

Kiki, who is 34, is a well-spoken, down-to-earth woman who seems pleasantly oblivious to her own exotically good looks and celebrity status by virtue of being Mike Tyson's wife. Making a viable life with the complicated, demon-haunted man she has married requires patience. "It's a struggle," she says, speaking about his relapses post-rehab. "You're always an addict and have to work at it. It's easy for him to fall back in his own life. He surrounds himself with people who are sober and doesn't go out to clubs. If his pattern shifts, you know something's wrong." Perhaps because she has known Tyson for so long, she's clear-eyed about his failings. "He slept with every kind of woman you can think of," she says. "Now he wants someone who knows him and can be good to him. We're rebuilding our lives together on a positive note." Tyson, meanwhile, seems continually struck by his good fortune in having Kiki, whom he addresses as "my love", by his side. "I never thought we'd be together," he told me. "I thought we'd be sex partners. I told her not [to] marry me." A few seconds later he adds: "I want to die with her".

Despite their cushy lifestyle, there isn't money to throw around as there once was. But Kiki, for one, seems indifferent to the sort of lavish expenditures that Tyson's former fortune once enabled him to make: "Mike always says he's broke, but it's relative. That type of stuff isn't important to us. We want to build a nest egg for our kids' accounts. I'm not impressed with money like that." Meanwhile, although Tyson still owes a substantial amount – "a few million" is how Kiki puts it – in back taxes, he is adhering to a payment plan. He has a financial planner who negotiated a deal with the IRS regarding the purchase of his house, which was paid for in full. If Tyson misses his high-rolling days, he isn't letting on: "If you make a lot of money, you end up being around people you don't want to be around," he says.

On the Saturday before the premiere of Taking on Tyson, Mike Tyson was in New York with Kiki and their two children, doing publicity for the show. I met him in Bushwick, in front of the rundown row house where he had gone to see his birds. Kiki had taken Milan to the American Girl store to meet a friend. Tyson was with Farid and his friend Dave Malone, who tends to the Brooklyn coops. On the drive back to the Ritz-Carlton in Battery Park, where he was staying, I found Tyson in a contemplative mood. Or maybe he was feeling remorseful; he had just come through one of his bad spells – what Toback alluded to as his "click-outs" – in which he feels alternately so low that he wants to jump out the window and so angry that he wants to crack someone's head open with a pipe. "They come on you," he told me, "out of the blue." The birds helped him regain his footing, as they always do, but these bouts must take a toll on him (not to mention Kiki), opening up the floodgates of the past. Driving through Brooklyn, we passed a bunch of kids playing handball, and he reminisced: "When I was poor, I used to play handball. That's how we all start". He called Kiki to check how the play date was going, sounding sweetly affectionate, and then on the way into the hotel posed patiently for a photographer with a bride and groom who spotted him coming in.

In his hotel suite, Tyson was excited to tell me about a book he was reading – A Natural History of Human Emotions, by Stuart Walton – and asked me to read aloud a chapter on jealousy. We discussed the difference between jealousy and envy, and when I asked whether he envies his children getting the sort of parental love he never had, he said, "How did you know that?". I asked whether he misses the glamour of his old life, and he answered, "That's not who I am anymore". Around 5.30pm, Kiki returned with Milan, who triumphantly marched in, carrying a new American Girl doll aloft. Tyson and his wife kissed each other, and he said, "I'm sorry if I upset you". She answered serenely, "That's OK, honey," as she went to get ready for their night out.

A cynic might wonder whether the kinder, gentler Tyson is merely another act, a construction every bit as deliberate as he claims his invincible Iron Mike persona was – "a vicious tiger," as he describes it, "out there to kill somebody". And there is indeed, something of the actor about Tyson, warming to his new role as a humbled rogue, a gentle giant with his delicate birds. But there is also a kind of heroism in his effort to construct a more accountable self, a reaching across the decades of excess back to the more disciplined days in the Catskills with Cus D'Amato. Now, however, the focus is not on invincibility or greatness, but on the perhaps more elusive goal of keeping his furies at bay and trying to master his unrulier impulses rather than letting them control him. It's sure to be one hell of a match.

The greatest ever?

By Steve Bunce

It is possible that between 1986 and 1988 Mike Tyson was the greatest heavyweight in history.

Tyson turned professional at 18 surrounded by men he truly believed loved him; it was an early moment of delusion. He savagely beat his first 27 opponents in just 18 months to secure a world title fight, leaving grown men in tears with skill, and not just raw power.

He always insisted that there was Mike and there was Tyson. At fights, reporters would crowd close to the man-boy-man and listen as he talked us through his fights with brutal honesty.

In November 1986, when he was just 20 and five months, he won the WBC heavyweight title. He beat Trevor Berbick, the same man who ended Muhammad Ali's career a few years earlier.

Tyson was quite brilliant then, a beautiful mix of defensive perfection and blistering speed with the power to send giant heavyweights tumbling. He conceded height and weight in every title fight. He talked of hitting the nose of opponents and driving the crushed bone through the brain.

America had been searching for a real champion since Ali's last days. In Tyson they discovered a beast, an old-school slugger with few if any redemptive qualities. In the ring he beat world champions Michael Spinks, Pinklon Thomas, Larry Holmes and Tony Tubbs. This was prime Tyson.

Sadly, and predictably, his life away from boxing had started to ruin the purity of his fighting skills by the time he fought James Buster Douglas in Japan in 1990. Tyson lost, and the image of his bloated face, blurred by the camera, as he crawled on the canvas desperately trying to pick up his dislodged gumshield and continue fighting, was tragic. It was the tenth round of the fight, but the end of Tyson's career.

During the next 15 years he fought another 20 times in search of glory; he never came close to finding it in the ring, and instead traipsed dreamlike and dazed through prison, infamous fights, breakdowns and notoriety. There were wins but the real Tyson was gone.

Of the Evander Holyfield incident he said last year, "He butted me, I hit back. I wanted to maim him. I've got no regrets," but I doubt that's true.

Mike Tyson wants a place in history – and the Tyson from 1986, the best heavyweight I have ever seen in the flesh or on screen, deserves a place with the greatest fighters. Steve Bunce is The Independent's boxing correspondent

Tyson: A life in brief

1966: Mike Tyson is born in Brooklyn

1985: Wins his first professional match – in one round

1986: Becomes the youngest heavyweight champion in history, aged just 20

1988: Marries actress Robin Givens; they divorce in a year amid accusations of domestic violence

1992: Convicted of the rape of 18-year-old Desiree Washington, a Miss Black America; sentenced to six years

1995: Leaves jail, having converted to Islam; wins back the heavyweight title

1997: Tyson bites a chunk from Evander Holyfield's ear

2003: He files for bankruptcy

2005: Announces he is quitting boxing

2007: Pleads guilty to possession of cocaine

2009: Makes a cameo appearance in the film The Hangover

2011: Appears in a parody of The King's Speech, playing a speech therapist

Syndicated from the New York Times

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