I'm searching for Mike Tyson. Late afternoon. I'm frantic. Jabbering to myself: 'Damn it you fool, where are those ear muffs?' I search my bag like airport security. No go. Hotel staff is watching me warily. After half a dozen Mike Tyson 'Black Energy' drinks (the promotion of which was the reason for his being in Poland) I was floating through the Westin Hotel lobby like a butterfly and buzzing like a bee.
He'd been a prince at the press conference, handling questions like a diplomat on a foreign mission. Polite not poisonous. His sunny disposition mirrored the suddenly dry and gorgeous spring weather, he seemed to have imported from Las Vegas. No ear muffs. But what if? What if once we were alone in the conference room, just the two of us, the champ was in a mood to chomp?
No, no. That was the old Tyson who remained a chameleon to me. I'd done my research. I'd seen him weep on Oprah and shake hands with Evander Holyfield, making a final public peace after all those years. I'd seen him talk about his new vegan diet with Ellen Degeneres. The shy and retiring tyrannosaurus rex giving up meat! I had watched the James Toback film, Tyson, and all the biopics and other documentaries on offer. I had even suffered Will Smith singing I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson. . . And the fights, of course. Always the fights. That fight in 1987 when he decimated Trevor Berbick in less than two rounds to earn the championship was still imprinted on my brain. He was the youngest boxer to win the WBC, WBA and IBF heavyweight titles at 20 years, 4 months and 22 days old. Tyson won his first 19 professional bouts by knockout, with 12 of them occurring in the first round.
Awesome! Surely on his best day, Iron Mike could have beaten anyone who has ever graced the ring.
But where is he? We have an appointment for an exclusive interview at 5pm or was it after the press conference? The press conference is over. Holy Shit! I can't find him. Still searching . . . Now what was I going to ask him. My mind is blank. That bright sunshine is twisting my perception. It's hotter here today than in Miami or LA. Man oh man, it is hotter here than in Nicaragua.
The guy they first called Kid Dynamite and who later dubbed himself the “baddest” man on the planet is waiting somewhere in the hotel for me, and I can't find him.
The sickly kid with bad lungs rose up from the 'horrific' Brownsville, Brooklyn streets struggling, torn and frayed, bullied and scorned, training pigeons, his only friends (shades of Brando, the boxer, in On the Water Front), and turning to robbery to earn the respect of the older teens who taunted him because of his pudgy body, bespectacled aspect, his shy aversion to violence, his rootless confusion in the presence of a world without God, without motherly love, without fatherly concern. Without.
Enmeshed in hopeless conspiracy, he was captured thirty-eight times between the ages of ten and thirteen, and given up to the law. At the age of 12 he was apprehended with 1500 bucks in his pocket. He of the famous ambidextrous, Thor-like punching and the soft-voiced, schoolboy lisp. He of the bipolar disposition. He of the rags to riches cliché. He who lost 300 million bucks. A raging bull now transformed into an aging street philosopher, unlettered yet well read. A conjurer of the ring, who now is doing his own Las Vegas revue which is headed for Broadway. A former party animal and juggler of women, who now follows the maxim of Benjamin Franklin: Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy wealthy and wise. What to make of all these contradictions in the most outrageous and no doubt courageous figures of the late 20th century. Why courageous? Because he was admittedly running scared the whole time. The eight-second knockout king with an inferiority complex . . .
Hells Bells! Mustn’t keep the champ waiting. Maybe if I set off the fire alarm? That should put the cat among the pigeons!
All these thoughts are racing through my mind like greyhounds chasing a metallic rabbit.
He picked up boxing in reform school and when he got out he went straight to Cus D'Amato, the legendary trainer of champions Floyd Patterson and Jose Torres. 'Do what I tell you to do and if it doesn't work then you can leave,' Cus said. Cus preached discipline and built up the kid's confidence. Fighting is spiritual, not physical. They kept each other alive. But Cus died 16 months before the kid won the championship in 1987. Sure there was power, but there were also speed and accuracy and great bobbing and weaving defense.
(Let's rate the top ten boxers of all time: Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Robinson, Jack Johnson, Tyson, Jack Dempsey, Julio Cesar Chavez, Rocky Marciano, Henry Armstrong Jr., and Willie Pep. Now your turn, dear reader.) After Cus there was Don King, the bushy-headed intruder, who took over Tyson's career, ripped him off and sold him down the river. Things went over the cliff. The champ ran wild. He got married to Robin Givens. He stopped training. He got divorced. In 1990 he lost to Buster Douglas (42/1 underdog) in Tokyo. Maybe the greatest upset in boxing history. On the heels of that defeat there was his arrest for the rape of Desiree Washington. He was convicted and served 3 years of a six year sentence. Some people say Don King set him up for the fall, providing a tax attorney for defense counsel instead of a criminal lawyer. While in prison, Tyson wrote a letter to an ESPN boxing commentator stating basically that he would never admit to raping the woman, even if it lessened his time in prison, 'because I just didn't do it. However, there are about 5-7 other things I've done in my life which are far worse than that for which I am in prison for, so I feel I'm in the right place.'
It's hard to think of a better example of a victim of their own success than perhaps Tyson and his literary doppelganger, Fitzgerald. Success, marital problems and addiction spoiled both of them.
History like endurance tells. Mike Tyson studies history. I know this from the press conference where he asked questions about Polish history. He wants to know. He seems endlessly curious, even surprised that he is still broke and still here. He reads—a habit he picked up in prison. He takes care of his wife and family. That is admittedly his main objective now. His third wife Lakiha Spicer is impressive. They got married ten days after his daughter, Exodus, died accidentally in 2009. My phone rings finally. Mr. Tyson is waiting for me upstairs Note to self: watch your ass.
I push open the conference room door, and there he is.
“Sorry I'm late,” I say, “I couldn’t\t find you.” I'm actually early according to the five o’clock appointment time, but Mr. Tyson says: “Are you the one?”
“No, I mean yes, I'm here for the interview. But you are the one!”
Mike Tyson is seated at the table with his back to the window. He looks dapper in white cotton shirt and Brooks Brothers style pale blue summer jacket. Following a vegan diet he has trimmed 130 pounds from his still powerful frame. The shoulders and upper arms bulge from the jacket. He still looks scary with the tribal tattoo. But he is smiling.
“Hey, this guy looks cool,” he says to his personal assistant, David.
I swivel my head left and right with that 'Who Me?' look on my face.
'Take a seat, man and let's talk,' says Mr. Tyson.
I'm wearing sunglasses, a white shirt, a striped Boss summer blazer, shorts and black high-top converse sneakers without socks. So far so good.
So where are you from, man? You aren't from here.'
I'm from Atlanta amongst other places. Went to school there,' I say.
Atlanta's a great town,' he says.
Yeah, I liked it most of the time.' Atlanta is the hometown of Martin Luther King, of course, and Coca Cola and CNN and so forth. 'It's a real pleasure to meet you, especially since I interviewed Vladimir Klitschko last September,' I say.
He was awesome, right?' says Tyson.
'He was a really great guy,' I say.
MT: He and his brother are amazing. I mean these guys are intellectuals and great boxers at the same time. That's why American people don’t get them. You have to be a barbaric buffoon to be a champion in America. To be great you have to be a barbarian, not someone intellectual and stuff like that, because that is the quintessential boxing mode. When you get a guy like a Klitchko as a fighter, a smart fighter it just doesn't fit the quintessential picture.'
WRR: It's very unusual.
MT: It's wonderful because when you think about it the baddest fighter in the world should be the smartest guy too. You know what I mean?
WRR: Well, Mike . . . Can I call you Mike?
WRR: Well, you have been pretty self-deprecating in the past. I’ve seen your interviews with Piers Morgan and Oprah where you shook hands with Holyfield. I've heard you say a lot of interesting things.
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