Whenever you feel like criticizing any one. . . just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.
Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Warsaw: I’m searching for Mike Tyson. Late afternoon. Frantic jabbering: “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 possibly 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, the one who remained an open mystery to me. I’d done my research. I’d seen him weep on Oprah and shake hands with Evander Holyfield (whose ear MT had tried to chew off mid-fight), 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 much of the many other 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 ferocious fight in 1987 when he smacked down Trevor Berbick in less than two rounds to earn the championship was still imprinted on my memory. 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 Lord! 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.
Enmeshed in hopeless conspiracy, he wasi 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 one of 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.
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- Show me a hero, and I will write you a tragedy Scott Fitzgerald notebooks
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 three 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.
The victor belongs to the spoils.
- Scott Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and the Damned
I push open the conference-room door, and there he is.
“Sorry I’m late,” I say, “I couldn’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. The suddenly we are into it.
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.
MT: You have to be self-deprecating in order to prevail . . . You know what I mean? You have to fight against all of the demons you’re aware of. A lot of these guys are not aware of their demons.
They are fucking lost. A lot of these guys are not aware of someone else’s feelings, and they think it’s cool. They are accustomed to everyone paying them a lot of attention, but they don’t pay attention. I don’t mind so much if someone hurts people’s feelings just because he’s a prick. But let him be conscious of it. It’s a disservice to both him and the other human being if he is hurting people without even paying attention to it. I rather him be conscious of it and be a prick than not be conscious and hurt someone out of ignorance or arrogance. It’s all about knowing, you know what I mean, because once you know, then you know how you should be treated. It’s like Cus was always telling me: People want to rule, but they don’t want to serve. If you do become the champ or the king or someone important, how are you going to know how people should be treated if you can’t serve. In order to rule you have to serve. Right?
MT: How are you going to know how to treat other people unless you serve first? Some people never serve. They think—that word my wife always uses—they feel . . . what’s the word . . . entitlement. Once you know life, you know that you are just another grain of sand in the world. People don’t like the fact that they don’t have control of a situation. I don’t care how much money they’ve got, they don’t have control over someone they love dying. You know what I mean?’
WRR: Yes, we don’t have control over the ultimate thing
Immediately a picture pops into my head of a dear friend of mine who has contracted cancer at the age of 35. Distance. Things come and go.
MT: There’s no way you can control uncertainty, and we still yearn to grasp at . . . It’s never been done. The pharaohs didn’t do it. No one did it. But we think we can do it. That’s our vanity.’
WRR: What’s it like to be in your position? Both famous and infamous at the same time?
(I’m surprised to hear my own voice sounding like Johnny Depp doing Hunter S. Thompson. Am I under the influence of all that Black Energy? Holy Jesus! Maintain, man! Maintain!)
MT: I approach it from a philosophical point of view. Because when you are at that level you are sure you can’t die so, you are surprised when something comes back at you.’
WRR: You were very young when the world started coming at you or maybe the other way round. Champion at 20. Extraordinary. It’s easy to be troubled at that age. I was.
MT: Sure, because I bought everything that Cus told me. I thought I was Dionysus. I thought I was Alexander the Great. I really looked at life from that perspective.
WRR: But weren’t you in a sense?
MT: No. But I looked at life from that perspective. I don’t look at myself the way others do. “Oh wow, Mike is the greatest! Oh my god, we love Mike.” No, I look at myself for what I am. I had a bad upbringing, and I can be real dark at times, but I don’t want to. I want to live on the light side of life, of passion and love, you know what I mean? Because I know I’m dark and that at my core I’m dark and bad.
WRR: But is that true really? Do you really believe that about yourself, this Manichean, this good and evil part? The ring is different, but you don’t seem that way to me. It is true?
Boxing is like a cock fight. It is brutal and bloody. There is shame in it, and yet there are rules to abide by. Now Tyson seems tame, yet still dangerous like the tiger he kept. He keeps his rage within him like a pet. Don’t we all do that to differing degrees? A curious species these human beings are.
WRR: Was it your upbringing?
MT: Yeah. It was tough. It was Cus, too. Something must have happened to Cus because Cus believed in not taking any shit from anybody. You had to be careful what you said around him. He sponsored me all that time, and he was such a disciplinarian and a cold, cruel guy. Tough, but he’s sensitive. Like me. Sometimes I want to cry, but you can never tell by the way I am towards someone else. You know that’s my situation. I had to learn to be cold and cruel, and yet I’m sensitive and I can cry. People don’t expect that.
WRR: I saw you on Oprah. (Thank god for YouTube.) That was a tough one.
MT: Well, I’m just that kind of guy. When I was with Cus he would tell me that feelings were
nothing. Feelings are just feelings like being hungry or thirsty. He used to say what do you do when you are hungry or thirsty? Do you wait for food to come? Or do you eat? Just do it. Cus said that before Nike. Forget the feelings. Just do it.
Either you think — or else others have to think for you and take power from you, pervert and discipline your natural tastes, civilize and sterilize you.
- Scott Fitzgerald, Tender Is the Night
WRR: Just to switch tracks since we have limited time, I wanted to ask you about your Las Vegas show. Is that all right?
- Yes, it’s six days. A sold-out show. Spike Lee called me the other day and said that he has a producer who wants to bring it to Broadway, and he’s never even seen my show. All he saw was reviews.
WRR: So what do you do in the show?
MT: This is me talking about a dynamic collection of stories that you know about, but you don’t know the inside story. I talk about my divorce, and you know about the divorce. But you don’t know that every day, we were sleeping with each other, and then going to court and saying, ‘She’s a bitch and he’s beating me up.’
WRR: What was that all about?
MT: Just stupid kids with too much money. It doesn’t have anything to do with real emotions. You know what I mean? So I’m talking about that, and my rape case conviction and about my mother and my father. This is so interesting. I don’t know who my mother and father are. I mean their real names. What are they communists? Reds? They never told me their real names. My mother’s name is not Lorna Tyson. I don’t even know her name. They lied. I don’t know who my parents are and their real names even. The guy named Tyson on my birth certificate is not my father. He claims to be my father, but he’s not. I don’t even know who I am. I don’t even know how old I am. One of my birth certificates says ’66 and another says ’67. How do I go to my family tree? How do I discover where I came from? I mean who the hell is Tyson? I’m not a Tyson. Who the hell is Tyson?
WRR: Does it really matter to you now?
MT: No, it doesn’t and it does. Personally, it does. I’m a made-up entity.
WRR: What is humorous in the show?
MT: Talking about Robin and us having sex all the time. Like after the divorce, I went to her house one day, and she pulls up with Brad Pitt and shit . . . Oh, man my dick was so hard, and then it went limp like a wet noodle when I saw them together.
WRR: Do you know Brad Pitt?
MT: I don’t think I met him, no.
WRR: You’ve been doing some acting. Ever thought about Shakespeare? That could be fun.
MT: Othello? (laughs)
WRR: That might be typecasting . . .
MT: Hmmm I don’t know. I think I could play the fat, venomous toad.
At this point there is a lot of laughter and I’m glad he didn’t take offense at my question. I mean really. Tyson in Shakespeare. What is wrong with me?
MT: I’m not kidding. Shakespeare talks about the fat venomous toad, and maybe he had someone like me in mind.
The photographer is snapping away. I’m bobbing and weaving. We pause now to take a photo of Mike and me doing a toast with tins of Black Energy. I’m thinking speed and accuracy are just as important to the writer under pressure as they are to the boxer. This is a match after all. We are feeling each other out. But if the champ is benevolent, then so am I. Words can be as swift and deadly as fists or hmmm . . . teeth.
MT: They have all these energy drinks here. I think they need one called Soul Poooole.
WRR: I like Soul Pole. That’s good. I won’t write it so that you can trademark it. Actually I should write it because then everyone will know it’s your idea and be too afraid to steal it lest the Toad descends on them with his venom, what?
MT: Soul Pooooooole.
WRR: How did this project come about?
MT: I have no idea. I found out it was Black Energy when I saw the car downstairs. But I thought, ‘This is awesome!’
I’m really starting to like this guy.
WRR: It was so top secret that I didn’t even know what the subject of your visit was until two days ago
MT: Me either. I had no idea. Last time I was in Spain shooting for Fiat (a TV advert for Panda).
Before, I was a pariah, and nobody wanted to look at me. And now all these people want to use me. That goes back to being poor, and maybe now being rich again. What the hell? They like me now?
WRR: You proved F Scott Fitzgerald wrong. I’m sure you’ve heard the cliché, ‘There are no second acts in American lives.’ I never believed that. I don’t think Fitzgerald did either. I think that life and especially American life is all about an endless series of second chances.
MT: He was a very depressed, manic type of guy. His wife was insane, you know what I mean? They were some party animals, though. He didn’t embrace his homosexuality, Scott Fitzgerald, you know what I mean? Zelda made him comfortable. It’s a shame, she went insane. I think about him a lot. You know the house he used in The Great Gatsby. That was Otto Kahn’s house. That huge house. He was a big banker, but he moved out to Long Island because his neighbors in New Jersey didn’t like him because he was Jewish. That was sick, but that’s the way it was back then. I always look at that house and think about the book.
The Jazz Age writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, whom Tyson admires, was the icon of 1920s New York, much as Tyson was in the late 1980s. Fitzgerald like Tyson was washed up and broke by the age of 40, all of his books out of print. If Fitzgerald epitomized the Jazz Age elite in New York, perhaps the same could be said of Tyson about the sinister beat of the Rap Age. Tenuous maybe, but food for thought. Tyson was certainly an outrageous, self-promoting icon as was Fitzgerald. And how fitting is it that he made his comeback playing himself in a movie called The Hangover. Comparisons can be odious but still . . . Like Fitzgerald, Tyson sacrificed his talent to celebrity, money and addiction.
WRR: Have you been to this part of the world before?
MT: Never been to Poland. But I’ve been to Moscow, Spain, Istanbul, Slovakia, Finland. I was in Chechnya.
WRR: That was dangerous.
MT: That’s the kind of guy I am. If I’m not doing something where I can get obliterated then I won’t do it.
WRR: Have you changed then? Do you now have better control of the animal that lives inside all of us? Have you thought of some deeper purpose.
MT: You know what I wanted to do with my life, but then I have the kids. . . What I wanted was to be a missionary. I was thinking about that recently. About 5 years ago.
MT: I felt my life was a waste. If I wasn’t doing anything for myself, I thought that at least I should help people. You know, go to Chechnya or some of these places. I dated a missionary. They have their own little thing going. It’s just what they do . . . They help people. . . I don’t know. We all provide from different perspectives.
WRR: How important is Islam to you? You converted as did Muhammad Ali. Is he a hero?
MT: He is everyone’s hero . . . When I think about Islam, I think from this perspective: I believe Allah is God. I believe Allah created you. Allah created the planet. Allah created everything. I believe it’s wrong to kill any of God’s creations. That’s what I believe. Do you think I think Allah wants what’s going on in Israel now? All that is ridiculous. That is all about power. People kill over religion.
WRR: You are taking the Christopher Hitchen”s line now that religion poisons things.
MT: All I know from history is that a lot of people died over God. But God is here for life. God’s not here for death.
WRR: Maybe you need to do what George Foreman’s done. (Become a preacher.)
- No, that’s not who I am. I’m just the kind of guy who is going to tell you black is black and white is white . . . And people won’t like me because of that. I’m not politically correct. That’s what fucked my life up. Not being politically correct.
WRR: (softly like a radio playing in the background) Well there were probably a few drugs in there and a lot of money
MT: I’m never gonna be that kind of guy . . . I’m just not that kind of guy. I’m never going to say what the masses believe if I don’t think it’s true. I’m not going to do that.
WRR: Speaking of losing lots of money, which we weren’t . . . You know I have a friend who lost $70 million in less than ten years.
MT: I lost much more than that.
He is really tickled now.
MT: Nigger ahaaaaa ha ha ha ha . . .
WRR: I told him I’m going to interview Mike Tyson pretty soon, and I said to him you’re obviously not as smart as Tyson is, because you couldn’t make as much to lose.
MT: Tell him I lose that in a year . . .
WRR: But you are getting it back. Getting some of it back anyway
MT: Man it’s not about money. It’s not money. It’s the greed that gets people.
WRR: All right then. You fought figuratively and literally for what you’ve got. How do you deal with greed and with power?
MT: You despise it. The strong should do what the weak do. The weak despise what they can’t consume. They can’t consume power or wealth. They hate or despise it. They find a reason to believe that it’s bad and it’s crippling the world. It might or might not be true. But they find a reason. They fight the battle by despising it.
There is a pause while this sinks in. Time is running.
WRR: Is boxing show business?
WRR: Are you like a stunt man?
MT: No. I’m not a stunt man. I’m a magician. I’m an illusionist. I make you believe something is happening that is not actually happening.
WRR: How do you do that?
MT: It starts before the press conference. I tell you everything that I’m going to do to you. I saw myself as king of the fight world because I had had a miserable life and to me it was like the miserable shall inherit the crown. My opponent is a dog at my feet. That’s how I would do it.
WRR: So you would transform yourself. Like Ali.
MT: Ali wasn’t good at intimidation, but he was good at making people believe what he said was true.
WRR: Did you learn some of that from him?
MT: Pretty much. But when people ask me which fighter I’m closest to, I say Roberto Duran. I took Ali for what he was. Roberto Duran represents me. Ali is tall and beautiful and elegant as a fighter. I’m short and ugly. Ali was very dignified. He doesn’t curse. I tell people to suck my dick, you bitch. Motherfucker. That’s my language. Roberto Duran talks like that. He grew up tough. Ali is the greatest fighter who ever lived, and he never had a street fight. Never. That was his confidence. Confidence breeds success and success breeds confidence.
WRR: Hand in hand.
MT: Confidence applied properly becomes genius. There is nothing like confidence. For instance, take a woman or a man, anyone you want and give them all the qualities of success: big dick, big brain, beautiful body, whatever it is that when you see them makes you think they are going to make it. . . Give them all of it. Finance. Wealth. All of it. But don’t give them confidence. Now push them out into the world. And they fail. Now, you strip away all of those assets. Then push him or her out into the world, and they succeed. That’s how it goes. I don’t know why. But that’s how it goes.
WRR: It’s not the closed door that you concentrate on. It’s rather opening the door. You said that in a previous interview somewhere.
MT: Yes. People are so busy looking at the closed door that they don’t see how to open the one right in front of them. ‘Why did they close the door on me? I deserve more! I’m entitled. I’m more educated!’ Forget it. Just look for how to open the door. Of course you don’t give up, if it doesn’t open the first time. Take an actor who goes for auditions. They have been working for ten years. If they don’t get the role, does that mean that all they did is done in vain? No! Keep doing the work. Keep doing it until that door opens. It will open if you keep knocking . . . and if it doesn’t then break it open.
WRR: Deafness to the word, No.
MT: Yes. The power of the word No is so strong, it’s hard to be deaf to it. You understand No before you understand Yes. No has such an overwhelming effect on you. (Laughs) It’s overwhelming. It’s crazy how much power that word has: NOOOO! So don’t listen to the people who tell you, No.
And with that David says it’s time to go. They have more meetings.
WRR: Thank you, sir, for your time.
MT: Thank you, brother.
Mike Tyson has only been in town for a few hours. There are promotions to do. There is money to be made on the comeback trail, even in a place as strange as Poland.
* * *
Note: At his request, Mr. Tyson is now reading God’s Playground, the excellent history of Poland penned by Norman Davies and presented to him by your correspondent. (I gave him a copy of my book, too, just in case you were wondering. Peace.)