Tyson’s evolution one of US sport’s most compelling tales
One-time ‘baddest man on the planet’ surviving and thriving after all the wild years
Kike Tyson, Milan Tyson and Mike Tyson enjoying the tennis at the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells Tennis Garden in Indian Wells, California. Photograph: Julian Finney/Getty Images
Mike Tyson defeats Trevor Berbick to become the youngest heavyweight champion in the world in November 1986 in Las Vegas. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
Either side of the recent passing of the 20th anniversary of Mike Tyson chomping on Evander Holyfield’s ear, a couple of clips of the former world champion went viral.
In their own way, each captured how far he has travelled from the Lecteresque caricature of the mid-90s. In the first video, Tyson is asked about Floyd Mayweather Jnr claiming to be greater than Muhammad Ali.
“He’s very delusional,” he replies in a calm, measured tone. “If he was anywhere near the realm of the great Ali, he’d be able to take his kids to school by himself. He can’t take his kids to school by himself and he’s talking about being great? Greatness is not guarding yourself from the people. Greatness is being accepted by the people.”
An eloquent answer, equal parts pithy put-down and the voice of a man speaking from bitter experience about the expensive folly of entourages.
The second quote is of a very different timbre. An outtake from a recent interview with ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap, Tyson recounts how, as a young boy in Brownsville, Brooklyn, he was dragged into a building by a stranger and molested. When Schaap presses for more details on its impact on him, a solitary bead of sweat forms on Tyson’s furrowed brow, his eyes give off a vulnerable, vacant stare and he tries to downplay its significance.
“I think I outgrew that during my fighting years,” he says.
Both moments offer further evidence that the evolution of Tyson continues to be one of the most compelling stories in American sport. A quarter of a century has passed since he was sentenced to six years in jail for the rape of Desiree Washington, an 18-year-old beauty pageant contestant.
The character who subsequently emerged from prison into the arms of Don King, a move with a definite frying pan to fire vibe, cut a tormented figure as he struggled to replicate the fistic achievements of the first half of his career and to cope with normal life.
Yet, somehow, Tyson turned 51 last month, an age many might have predicted back in his hedonistic pomp (his drugs of choice included a cocktail of pot, morphine, cocaine, and Viagra) that he’d never see. Battling alcoholism and bipolar disorder, lately he appears to have done more than survive the hard living years though. He has actually thrived.
Having squandered a $300 million fortune through his own profligacy and the venality of greedy handlers, he has morphed from one more cliché of the down at heel ex-boxer with a criminal record into a peculiarly 21st century brand. He has a podcast, a one-man Broadway show that travels the world, a new book about his mentor Cus D’Amato, and a growing resume of acting turns.
On this journey from one-time “baddest man on the planet” to “baddest dad on the planet” (as Sports Illustrated dubbed him), he has cultivated a whole new public persona. On primetime television, he’s a goofy judge on a talent show called Superhuman, hamming it up for the cameras at every opportunity.
Late at night, he plays an even more comical version of himself in the adult cartoon series Mike Tyson Mysteries. As part of a crime-solving team that includes a perverted pigeon, an adopted Korean daughter, and the ghost of the Marquess of Queensbury, he tries to catch crooks in a funny if rather surreal riff on Scooby Doo. Hardly the kind of milieu where anybody expects a convicted rapist with a history of violent outbursts to end up.
Then again, nobody could have imagined Tyson turning into a middle-aged tennis parent either. His eight-year-old daughter Milan is regarded as something of a prodigy and trains at Mike Agassi’s academy in Las Vegas.
During one interview last summer, Tyson confessed he hadn’t seen any Olympic boxing because he was busy watching Monica Puig taking gold on the court. When the stadium cam flashed him and his family up on the big screen at the BNP Paribas Tournament in Indian Wells, California in 2016, he and Milan put on quite a show. The grin that once portended inevitable doom for opponents in a boxing ring now belongs to a middle-aged man giddily dad-dancing in the bleachers.
While these days he lives in a Vegas suburb with his third wife Kiki (mother to Milan and her brother Rocco), he has seven children from previous relationships who remain in New York, Washington DC and Phoenix. In 2009, another daughter, Exodus, then four, died following an accident with a treadmill in Arizona.
“I’m anticipating that I’m going to go to the hospital and raise hell,” said Tyson of that day. “Once I got there and saw other people who had children who already died or were dying, they were handling it with dignity and I didn’t want to be the psycho parent.”
The redemption song isn’t without other discordant notes. No matter how much he earns from his various multi-media enterprises (a chain of worldwide fitness centres is another venture), Tyson claims he will always be broke because he owes so much in back taxes to the IRS from the bad old good old days.
That time of legend when he could afford to spend $1,500 a day on food for his trio of Bengal tigers. That time when he didn’t know the joy of bringing his kids to school by himself.