(One of the privileges of this job is the chance to get to meet and interact with, even if only once, some of the world’s most famous and colorful personalities. The privilege goes beyond seeing them in the flesh, getting their autographs and having my picture taken with them. In a number of cases, you don’t even get pass their handlers to shake subjects’ hands, let alone pose for pictures with them. For me, the ultimate reward is getting to know them, albeit in a public setting, and seeing various facets of their personalities in both guarded and unguarded moments.
(Apart from covering events, I also get the chance to do personality profiles once in a while. One of my most memorable pieces features former world heavy-weight champion Mike Tyson. I flew to New York one cold spring day in 2011 to interview the champ with a roomful of colleagues the world over. Tyson was then promoting his docu-drama on pegion raising [and racing] for Animal Planet. It was quite an experience, as I was able to see the tender and human side of the man once dubbed by media as the “baddest man on the planet.” Here’s his story.–AYV)
Coming from an infamous former world heavy-weight boxing champion once dubbed by promoters as the “baddest man on the planet,” such words sounded surreal.
But Mike Tyson, also known for his short temper and reputation for getting physical with women, seemed like a changed man as he faced a group of foreign journalists early March at one of the Ritz Carlton’s function rooms in Battery Park.
He was chatty, upbeat and refreshingly self-effacing, as he talked about his troubled past, including his cocaine addiction, current projects and prospects for the future. Although he didn’t balk at saying the F word once too often, he managed to talk sensibly on almost anything, thrown his way, including his parenting style.
“I’m not saying that I’m a great parent,” he said. “Sometimes I should be shot for impersonating a parent. I just want to put those [good] qualities in them. You can only steer them so much. They’re from us, but not of us”
On matters beyond his control, Tyson is putting his faith in God, and hopes that whatever positive teachings and examples he gives his children today can lead them to become better, more sensible human beings in the future.
Like a young, well-conditioned boxer, he was able to quickly connect with journalists as they took turns asking him all sorts of questions—from prospects of making a comeback as a boxer at 44 (not a chance), to who his choice is as the world’s greatest boxer (Muhammad Ali, without a doubt).
But even Hitler, he cautioned, was best at what he did. So to him, it’s not just about being the best. Anybody, he said, can be the best. But what is he best at?
Battle with the bulge
He also talked about his life-long battle with the bulge and how he spends endless hours working out on the treadmill. A convert to Islam even during his heady days in the ring, Tyson has also recently turned vegan for health reasons.
He’s through with killer regimens months before a big fight. Since diabetes runs in the family (both his mother and sister died from diabetes-related complications), his main goal these days, he said, was to simply maintain a healthy body that’s strong enough to “carry my head.”
His main agenda, of course, was to promote “Taking on Tyson,” a six-part “docu-drama” (which its star insisted is the same as a reality TV show) on how the former champ turned from pigeon raiser to racer.
Tyson has three pigeon coops in the East coast, but his favorite by far is the one in Jersey City. Hidden behind a warren of small buildings housing a gym and Portuguese restaurant, the place is owned by good friend Mario Costa. He also took in fellow New Yorker Vinnie Torre, known in the sport as the godfather of competitive pigeon racing, as mentor and adviser.
The Roman brothers do the job of maintaining the coop, but whenever Tyson is in the area, he does the job of cleaning cages and feeding the pigeons himself, said Costa.
“He’s really hands on,” Costa, who has known Tyson since 1983 and is like a brother to him, added. “He never misses the chance to go here whenever he’s in town. We’ve never raced until the offer from Animal Planet came.”
Together with Tyson, these men make up his team dubbed as Tyson’s Corner. The place, which also goes by the same name, is not only home to some of Tyson’s best racing pigeons. Through the decades, it has become the man’s sanctuary through low and high points of his life.
He’s quotable quote on being humble was in response to a journalist, who caught the show’s first episode. The show made its North American debut a few weeks ago.
“Taking on Tyson,” which will have its Asian premier on May 10 on Animal Planet, caught Tyson during its initial episode in one of his pensive moods. He confessed that everyday has been a struggle for him to be more humble and grounded.
But Tyson is no Johnny-come-lately when it comes to raising pigeons. His love for pigeons, which antedates his days as one of the world’s best boxers, has since turned him into a pigeon racer fairly recently.
“There’s no money in this sport,” said Torre. “People like Mike do it basically out of love and passion for the birds. It’s also about bragging rights.”
The same creature that provided Tyson with some solace during his tumultuous youth is again playing a major role in his life as he tries to completely shake off demons that hounded him in the past.
In fact, if it weren’t for pigeons, he probably wouldn’t have become a boxer. As a kid, he said, he’d hang around pigeon supply stores and volunteer to carry stuff regulars, especially the elderly, bought. He’d even help them clean coops.
“As a reward, they’d give me a bird,” he said. “I’d look for an abandoned building and put the pigeon in a box.”
Tyson threw his first punch when a neighborhood bully killed one of his pigeons and threw it in his face. Fat, bespectacled and wearing “funny clothes,” he found himself always on the defensive as bigger, meaner kids picked on him.
As a result, he’d often play hooky just to avoid getting into trouble in school. The young Tyson would meet with fellow outcasts who shared his fascination with the birds. Such was his enthusiasm that he’d even volunteer to search for lost pigeons, even if that meant walking several blocks and searching rooftops were they supposedly landed.
Life in the ’hood
The New York native also shared bits and pieces of his life while growing up in the ’hood (his dad left them when he was two, and his mom died when he was 16) and how he dotes on his two kids, Milan and Morocco, with current wife Lakiha Spicer. He’s been married thrice and has eight children with different women.
The turnaround, he said, happened when daughter Exodus, then 4, died several years ago. She was found at home tangled in a chord attached to a treadmill.
“When she passed away, I thought life was over,” he said. “But I realized life had just begun because now I have to live for her by trying my best to set good examples and not to live the way I’ve been living in the past.”
But Tyson, instead of dwelling on such setbacks, tried to keep the mood light. Instead of regretting what could have been, including his losses both inside and outside the ring, he steered the conversation to what could be, including his promising career as a comedian.
His guest appearance on the hit comedy movie “The Hangover,” for instance, has been so well received that he will be seen reprising his role in the sequel.
“We can’t dwell on [bad] memories,” he said. “We’ve got to change those horror stories and make them into winning stories. I can’t blame anybody. We have to have no excuses. We have to take the initiative and do whatever it is we want to do in life.”
At the same time, he also blasted Americans’ penchant for having an “orgasm” 24-7.
“Americans are spoiled,” he said. “They want excitement, happiness, entertainment every second, everyday. That’s not the real world. Happiness comes in spurts. You have to experience adversity to enjoy happiness. You can’t have it all the time. That’s like having an orgasm 24 hours a day.”
It also dawned on him that he’s been out of the limelight too long when he realized that he didn’t recognize a single face among the roomful of reporters.
“I used to know almost everybody by name,” he said. “But I’m thankful that you all came out of your way to hear what I have to say.”
Upon learning that this reporter is from the Philippines, he quickly broke into a smile, revealing his small, trademark gapped teeth, before saying “ah, Manny Pacquiao.”
We took it as an opportunity to ask him unsolicited advice—from one champion to another—on what he thought the still popular Pacquiao should do.
Advice to Manny
“He should always have a passion for life and never take it and his success for granted because they’re fleeting,” he said. “He should also be prepared to become just another face and watch other people take his place. He shouldn’t get too stuck with what’s going on because that’s just a small duration of his life. When it’s all over, he’s still a human being.”
To Tyson, the goal now is to become a better human being. Convicted of rape at the height of his career in the early ’90s, “Iron Mike,” as he was also nicknamed then, made a comeback soon after his release from jail three years later, only to further cement his image as boxing’s ultimate bad body.
During a rematch with then reigning heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield, Tyson bit and spat out part of his opponent’s ear. No one in the room dared asked him about that episode, and Tyson, at one point, quickly brushed aside a question on who his posse of friends in the front row were. Indeed, some old habits die hard.
“That’s none of your business,” he snapped at the reporter.
He also made his displeasure palpable when a Danish broadcast journalist, who wanted his opinion on the reported Holyfield-Nealson fight, described Brian Nealson as “fat and old.”
The F word
“Wow, that’s really nice, man,” said Tyson, trying to reign himself in as the reporter videotaped his reaction. “That’s really f—king nice.”
Asked what’s the best advice he’s gotten so far, Tyson had to pause for a few seconds before producing this gem.
“One of them is you’re old too soon, and you’re smart too late,” he said. “You also have to learn to let go of everything. The essence to happiness and oneness is to simply let go. It sounds pretty good, but it’s sometimes pretty discouraging—to be whole and peaceful, but to still want to excel. I didn’t think the two would go together.”