By Thomas Gerbasi
“You've got to get to the stage in life where going for it is more important than winning or losing.” – Arthur Ashe
Days of Grace. The tattoo on Mike Tyson’s left arm, a portrait of the late tennis great Arthur Ashe and the title of his autobiography, raised a lot of eyebrows when it was first revealed, perhaps even more so than the inked headshots of Mao Tse Tung and Che Guevara that adorn the former heavyweight champion’s body.
The reason was simple. For years, you could have described Brownsville, Brooklyn’s Iron Mike as the anti-Arthur Ashe. Where Ashe was reserved, Tyson was in your face; as Ashe amazed with his technical brilliance on the court, the youngest man to hold the heavyweight title shocked with his ferocity.
But nearly seven years after his final fight against Kevin McBride in 2005, Mike Tyson, at 45, is no longer an angry young man. As he approaches the premiere of his one-man show – Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth - at the MGM Grand’s Hollywood Theatre in Las Vegas on April 13th (the show runs through April 18th), there’s a distinct sense that he’s moved on, even if the boxing world still remains fascinated with the man formerly known as “Kid Dynamite.”
“I don’t watch that stuff no more,” Tyson told BoxingScene this week when asked if he ever pulls out the old fight films to relive his glory days. “I don’t want to think about that guy, I want to think about this new guy that we’re trying to invent that’s gonna bring a light to this field.”
It makes sense. Because for all the good memories associated with his time in the ring, there are just as many bad ones, ones that make him look back and wonder how he was able to survive and make it to this point as a husband, father, and survivor. I ask him if he misses the sport at all.
“Yes, slightly,” he says quietly. “But that sport allows me to get too dark when I’m in it. I needed to have my dark side to really eclipse anything in that sport, so in order to do that, I had to think of myself better than I actually and truly was, and in doing that I offended a lot of people.”
These days, as the next generation of heavyweights plies their trade in a world sorely missing a Tyson-esque presence, the former champ’s workouts are limited to two hours a day of cardio and some work with a medicine ball for his abs. No speed bag, no shadowboxing, not even a few whacks on the heavy bag, though a look at him on his recent Animal Planet series Taking on Tyson showed that he could still rip off a hook or three.
“Nah, I don’t have it,” he said. “It takes a certain mindset for that kinda stuff. It’s all about enduring the pain, brother.”
Tyson has endured his share, not only in the ring, but primarily outside of it, where he has gone through the loss of his fortune, divorces, a three-year prison term for a crime he still insists he didn’t commit, and worst of all, the tragic accidental death of his four year old daughter Exodus in 2009. Perhaps it’s this humanization of a man that used to be looked at as invincible and a force of nature that made Tyson the figure he is now.
These days, a new generation thinks of him as the guy from the Hangover movies or the funny guy from various talk shows, and maybe that’s what people showing up for his show next week will expect, but he insists that he’s not preparing a scripted standup act.
“I’m not doing it from a funny perspective,” said Tyson. “People think I’m funny and I’m a standup comic, but that’s not who I am. I’m just expressing a story in the way I saw it happen and unfold. People may laugh about it, but it’s just my personal opinion of my life and how it unfolded and how I got in this situation that I’m in now.”
That does mean warts and all though, and Tyson, always an emotional person for better or worse, will not gloss over the tough times, as draining as that might get for him.
“Whatever is difficult for me to go over, I’ll go over it with the audience and they’ll understand because I’m sure they’ve endured some part of that in their life, because you have to,” he said. “And sometimes to become this person that you’ve become in life you have to get through those difficult spots, and they have the opportunity to do it with me. We do it together.”
Maybe that’s the secret of his appeal over nearly three decades. At least here in New York, and especially Brooklyn, Mike Tyson was one of us. Sure, he learned how to become a world-class fighter in the Catskills, but he was always claimed as a Brooklynite, even today as he makes his home in Las Vegas. When he soared, we soared, when he hit hard times, we either knew what that felt like or we were going to. And though he hit bottom, he kept getting up. Many, even Tyson himself, didn’t expect him to make 40 years old. It was unfathomable for a time just based on the way he lived. But he made it, and though F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that “there are no second acts in American life,” Tyson has found his, and the way he sees it, this may just be his true niche.
“This is what I was born to do,” he said. “I just happened to meet (trainer) Cus (D’Amato) first and he was a fight man, and he formed me to be a fight man. But I was born to be entertaining and spectacular and gregarious, and just dynamite. I used to think that. I’m not talking about my personal life, I’m just talking about me as an entity. That’s what my existence is really for on this planet, to entertain people and put joy in their heart.”
In other words, if not for a teenage detour to the Tryon School for Boys and a meeting with former boxer Bobby Stewart, who introduced him to D’Amato, this could have been a much different story.
“Absolutely,” said Tyson. “I was in the midst of gangsters and robbers and that’s what I was at first. Then I met Cus and I wanted to be this boxer guy. I’m whatever I want to be, and I want to be an entertainer now, and that’s what I’m gonna be.”
It’s a whole new venue for Tyson, one where the blows are felt not on stage, but in the reaction of the audience, in reviews, and in box office receipts. He’s preparing as same as always though. For him, this is just another fight.
“A hundred percent,” he said. “I have to watch my weight, I’m counting calories, I’m taking care of myself, I’m getting massages, I’m seeing the chiropractor, I’m going over my studies just how I would do with my training, over and over in the middle of the night. It’s just like a fight. If I can’t be involved with something where in my mind, if I fail, I’m totally obliviated and humiliated, I don’t want to be a part of it.”
Anticipation is high for Tyson’s return to life under the bright lights, and without the curtain even going up for the first show, which was created after he and his wife Kiki (the show’s co-writer) saw Chazz Palminteri’s A Bronx Tale show, there is already high-demand for him to take his act on the road.
“Some people from other countries and continents already want the show and we didn’t even have it yet,” he said. “So we have to see how it goes. I have to look at my wife to see how my schedule is, and I would like for it to come to New York. But we’re gonna get a test try here.”
That kind of anticipation can cripple anyone, especially someone doing it for the first time. Yeah, Tyson has fought in front of millions before, but he did have someone sharing the spotlight with him, and having fists flying at your head will do a remarkable job of focusing you. But oddly enough, he likes that pressure, and he guarantees that this Vegas gig isn’t being used as a rehearsal for Broadway.
“I’ll go into this life the same way I went into my boxing life, with everything I have,” he said. “Blood, sweat, spit, guts, and I will die for these people on stage just the way I would fighting in the ring with Buster (Douglas), Evander (Holyfield), and Lennox (Lewis). I will die for you. You don’t have to throw in the towel for me, I will die for you.”
It may seem odd that the only fighters Tyson mentions are three of the men that handed him four of his six professional losses, but as the years have gone on, it’s clear that for him, boxing wasn’t about a perfect record; it was about the fight, and the heroes he had didn’t leave the game with a zero in the loss column. In fact, in many cases it was their losses that defined them. But that sense of history is lost on many young fighters these days, with their earliest point of reference possibly being someone like Mike Tyson. By contrast, Tyson always celebrated the legends of the game that came before him, sometimes 60 or more years before.
“I believed I was carrying all these guys,” he said. “I was mentioning all these guys’ names in the ring and I’m doing all this stuff and I better be able to carry my weight too. I’m carrying these guys on my back – Benny Leonard, Sugar Ray Robinson, Harry Greb, Mickey Walker, (Muhammad) Ali, (Joe) Louis. I can’t be mentioning these guys and throwing their names out like I know them if I’m not willing to sacrifice what they were willing to sacrifice and kick ass like they were willing to kick ass. No way.”
That missing ingredient that built the history of the sport, the idea that great fighters are made by great fights has hurt boxing in the modern era. Tyson believes it goes even deeper than that.
“Well, the fighters don’t want to hurt each other,” he said. “And that sounds so dark for a guy that’s going in my direction to say, but that’s just how it goes. In order to have great fights, the two people have to want to hurt each other.
“They don’t want to die for the people,” he continues. “They want to fight and go to the after party too. They don’t want to die for the people where they may have to stay in the hospital while everybody else is in the after party.”
Harsh, yes. True, yes. Does Tyson miss those days?
“I had my time, my time is over,” he said. “That’s how I look at it.”
Hearing that from most fighters would be a mournful epitaph on careers that are too short in a young man’s sport. Tyson has never been like most fighters. And a week from today, his days of grace begin as he starts a new journey on a new stage, one where he’ll hear the roar of the crowd once again. He admits that when he and his wife discussed creating the show, it was just a little lark, a way to make a few bucks and do something new, but deep down, he was ready to pursue a different kind of greatness.
“I want to be like Judy Garland and Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra and all those kinda people as far as entertainment is concerned,” he said. “That’s where my ego takes me. At first I wanted to do this show just for me and my wife to make a little money, something very small. So we go into this venture and the next thing you know, it’s an international scene, and it makes me a little nervous, but deep down inside, my ego said ‘yeah, that’s what you really want.’”
It’s a fighter’s mentality. If you put on the gloves and punch for pay, you don’t want to be mediocre, you don’t want to be an “opponent.” You want to be the best, and no matter what Tyson does, he will have a spotlight on him, something he’s dealt with since he was a teenager. And he’s not only become used to it, but he almost embraces it. That’s a rare gift, one in short supply these days. Sure, pound-for-pound kings Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather have rightfully been praised and celebrated for their exploits, but Tyson is boxing’s last rockstar. And while that’s cool and all, the Hall of Famer from Brooklyn would be content with another descriptive blurb about his legacy in the sport.
“I would like to hope that when they do mention my name, I don’t want to have to be the greatest fighter,” said Tyson. “I want them to say that this was the meanest, the most ferocious and vicious fighter the world has ever known, and I’ll never see his kind again.”