by michael kaplan | February 9, 2015 | People
How the once self-proclaimed “baddest man on the planet”—whose Mike Tyson Mysteries was just picked up for a second season on Adult Swim—became an author, performer, cartoon character, movie subject, and family man.
Not long before my meeting with Mike Tyson, winner of 15 major bouts in Las Vegas and a longtime resident of the city, I noticed him blowing up on YouTube—but not in a good way. It began when he visited Toronto to perform his one-man show, Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth, which debuted in 2012 at the MGM Grand. To generate publicity, he appeared on the Canadian news channel CP24, fresh from a rendezvous with the city’s then-mayor, Rob Ford (“The best mayor in Toronto history,” Tyson had gushed about the cocaine-loving civic leader). Live on the air, looking dapper in a black leather blazer, the former boxer sounded upbeat. But then, about a minute in, the interviewer mentioned Tyson’s 1992 conviction in the rape of an 18-year-old beauty pageant contestant. Things soon turned ugly as Tyson’s visage grew dark, he unleashed a string of four-letter words, and violence seemed imminent. The reporter speedily wrapped up the interview, which ended with Tyson calling him “a rat piece of excrement” (using a nastier version of that word), followed by an obscenity-laced farewell.
On the day of our interview, I figure that Tyson—who served his time, has copped to plenty of misdeeds, and steadfastly denies the rape charge—will provide some choice words about his TV shot in Toronto. So I steel myself for a fresh storm of unprintables and roundaboutly ask what he thought of the incident. “I shouldn’t have responded the way I did,” Tyson says evenly, not sounding remorseful but completely sincere. “The world doesn’t have to change to suit me. I have to change. By responding the way I did, I lost the psychological game against him. I let him affect the way I normally live my life.” He looks up and shakes his head. “I lost it, man. I lost it.”
The former boxer with the Golden Globe won by his 2010 film The Hangover.
Clearly, at least when it comes to his famously explosive temper, Mike Tyson, once the self-proclaimed “baddest man on the planet,” has changed. We’re sitting together at a conference table in the headquarters of Iron Mike Productions, located in a Henderson office park. Tyson still looks rock-solid in jeans and a black pullover shirt. His familiar facial tattoo makes him impossible to miss, he retains the aura of someone very famous, and his voice still flutters into the high register that earned him the childhood nickname “Fairy Boy.” He takes the weirdness of his life and turns it into entertainment, recalling a bizarre encounter with a serial killer before telling me about visiting Chechnya and hanging with heavily armed terrorists. But his tales aren’t braggadocio; he’s showing how strange the world can be. If on the outside Tyson still resembles the Iron Mike of old, he’s a new guy below the surface. For a boxer who was nearly as famous for his misconduct—biting off a piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear, brawling outside the ring, racking up multiple charges for drug possession and driving under the inf luence—as he was for his athletic prowess, Tyson has engineered a stunning turnaround.
These days he comes off more teddy bear than bone-crushing bruiser. His recent résumé includes a best-selling soul-baring autobiography, movie appearances, his one-man show, sustained sobriety, and, unlikeliest of all, a hysterical cartoon series on the Adult Swim network called Mike Tyson Mysteries, in which he plays himself. “Two executives came to my house to talk about it, and I didn’t even know what Adult Swim was,” Tyson says of the project, which premiered last October. “I thought Adult Swim was two old white dudes swimming in a pool and becoming young again, like in Cocoon.” The latest bit of news is that Jamie Foxx will portray Tyson in a biopic. “Jamie’s smart and funny and a good guy—plus he does a pretty good imitation of me,” Tyson says. “Now Jamie’s a big shot, but I remember when he first came to LA. He worked at my friend’s cell phone store. He liked to watch us shooting dice and gambling in the backroom. I used to play with the rich drug dealers. The cash came right out of their pockets, they didn’t cheat, and they had just as much money as the casinos.”
Tyson after knocking out Larry Holmes in 1988.
But perhaps the most stunning thing about Tyson’s image rehab is that it didn’t happen by design, he insists. “People say I’m reinventing myself,” he explains. “But I’m just living the life that I chose to live. Reinvention? No way. If I did that intentionally, it would never work. I’d rebel and go around saying that it’s not who I really am. I decided to have a healthy life, grew up, saw Chazz Palminteri doing A Bronx Tale”—the actor’s autobiographical one-man show, which played the Venetian in 2009. “I was so into it that you could have snuck up behind me and picked my pocket. Then I thought I could do a show like that. My wife and I worked on the script. Adam Steck, who did Thunder from Down Under, approached me about doing a show, and we had Undisputed Truth all ready to go. Then somebody who works with Spike Lee saw the show at MGM, he told Spike about it, and we put it all together for Broadway and HBO.”
These days, kismet does seem to be steering the life of Mike Tyson. The man who is said to have blithely burned through some $300 million via mismanagement, lavish spending, and unscrupulous hangers-on (“I don’t dwell on the past,” he says when asked if the financial carnage still bugs him; “I’m more success-oriented than money-oriented”) has found himself on the kind of winning streak that champions are made of. Remarkably, half the time he doesn’t even know what’s coming next. When his wife breezes through the office and happens to mention that he’s slated to star in an HBO film, Kiss the Sky, I ask him if he’s excited about it. “Extremely,” replies Tyson, who sometimes seems like a cross between the Tracy Jordan character on 30 Rock and boxing’s equivalent of Bill Murray. “Especially since I just heard about it.”
With his trainers in the corner during a match against Buster Mathis Jr.
Tyson’s first big break after he retired from boxing in 2006 sneaked up on him in similar fashion. One night around 2007, before beginning production on The Hangover—when, as he puts it, “I was 100 pounds overweight, using, drinking a lot”—Tyson occupied his usual table in the VIP area of a Vegas nightclub whose name currently eludes him. Zach Galifianakis, in town to shoot the film, approached him and said he was looking forward to working with the champ, on what has become a famous cameo in a movie that went on to kick-start multiple careers. “Zach came up to me and said, ‘Hey, we’re doing a movie with you soon.’ I said, ‘Really?’ I had no idea who he was. I thought he was just some rich white dude. Two weeks later, I was on set, doing my lines with those guys. Todd Phillips [director of the Hangover franchise] told me it would be huge. I silently figured, That’s what everybody thinks. But he was right! Then, by the time of The Hangover Part II [released in 2011], I had grown up and realized that life is beautiful, even at its worst. You may not be happy, but children are being born, people are getting married, wonderful things are happening everywhere.”
The Tyson of today is a far cry from the knockout machine who first came to Las Vegas in 1984 to try out for the Olympic team. He failed to make the cut and cried about it for days, but the city got under his skin. “We stayed at Caesars Palace, ate lobsters, trained at Johnny Tocco’s gym, went to the clubs, and everybody knew us,” he remembers. Two years later, he returned to Vegas to fight on a Michael Spinks undercard. Ticket sales had been slow until the Tyson bout was added. And this time he did not disappoint. Entering the ring with a 26–0 record, Tyson scored a technical knockout in the second round against Alfonso Ratliff. “Tickets were selling for $750, Eddie Murphy sat ringside, and Barbra Streisand came to congratulate me after the fight. She walked into the locker room, but, you know me, I can get a little shy. I felt starstruck and just shook her hand.”
Mike Tyson with director Spike Lee.
Through thick and thin, usually while residing in some of Las Vegas’s tonier gated communities, Tyson has come to call Sin City home. “It’s the entertainment capital of the world, and there is always stuff to do here,” he says like the chairman of some alternate chamber of commerce. “These days Piero’s is my main spot. [Owner] Freddie G. is my man. I like Red Velvet Café in Fashion Show mall. I used to love Drai’s. I thought of it as the den of iniquity and the night of the zombies every night in there. But that’s over for me now. Nightclubs are a wrap.”
What he has recently unwrapped is a new kind of life with his wife and daughter, regular gigs as a fight promoter and entertainer, and an appreciation for the simple things. “I have to work in order to earn a living,” he says. “I make enough that I can drive a nice car and live in a nice house and fly first-class. But to live respectably, I need to keep working.”
When he’s not working, Tyson adds, his life is light years from the violent existence he embraced while growing up in a gritty precinct of pre-gentrified Brooklyn, the madness that surrounded him during his reign as a heavyweight god, and the substance-induced craziness he became famous for after his boxing days ended. There are no more tabloid headlines, no lawsuits popping up from out of nowhere, no cops looking to make their bones on his back. “These days,” he says, “me and my wife, we love watching the crazy reality shows. I like watching the housewives, the hip-hop girlfriends, hanging out with family, hitting Piero’s with some friends—that is my idea of a beautiful life. I know that if I were to die today, it would be hard for somebody to catch up with me. You can have a lot of money and be willing to really spend it, but you wouldn’t have the courage to live the life that I’ve already been through.”
Tyson says he has closed certain chapters of his life thanks to the spiritual awakening he’s in the midst of. And he appears to be loving every second of it. For him, the glitzy life has lost its luster: “I used to drive myself crazy, thinking I needed a better wife, a better car, a better house. My journey has made me realize that the pain I’ve had has mostly been self-inflicted. I have a great life. But it just took me a while to figure it out.”
PhotograPhy by ron galella, ltd./Wireimage (Press conference); timothy a. clary/afP/getty images (trainers); dan farrell/ny daily neWs archive via getty images (holmes); trae Patton/nbcU Photo bank (golden globe); frederick m. broWn/getty images (sPike lee); by Jerry Metellus