by David P. Greisman
Maybe I identified too much with Mike Tyson. After all, I’d grown up with two loving, providing parents in middle-class suburban utopia, not as the poor son of a single mother who packed her family into a tenement in the Brooklyn slums. Never mind that I’d never been the heavyweight champion, never been in prison, never had millions of dollars and never spent myself into insurmountable debt.
But when Tyson had yet another incident, yet another tirade or loss of self-control, I knew better than those who said he was stupid. He was smart but troubled, and I had been, too, once again to a lesser extent. My youth had been one of antidepressants and psychologist visits, of failing grades and wasted potential.
Maybe I still identify too much with Mike Tyson, but it makes me relieved to see that he is the two most basic things I’d eventually aimed for: happy and healthy.
It also makes me relieved because I was there when it all ended for Tyson, when the former youngest-ever heavyweight champion now showed his age, when the one- or maybe two-time “baddest man on the planet” now was getting beat up by an unexceptional formerly anonymous opponent named Kevin McBride.
I watched as a fighter who had once instilled so much fear in his foes now sat on the canvas at the end of the sixth round, seeking the internal strength just to return to his corner. The referee motioned for Tyson to get up. Within a minute, the fight was over.
His career was over, too.
“I just don’t have this in my gut anymore. It’s just not in my heart anymore,” Tyson said at the post-fight press conference. “I’m not trying to take anything away from Kevin McBride. We know his record. We know his credentials. And if I can’t beat him, I can’t beat Junior Jones.”
He no longer had boxing. That left us worried about him no longer having anything remaining at all.
His financial and marital woes had been well documented, as had his brushes with the law. Tyson was broke, with massive debt to pay and with no more chance of the seven- or eight-figure checks that could help chip away at what he owed. He was resigned to this fate, to yet another obstacle that wouldn’t fold in front of him.
“My career has been over since 1990,” he said.
“I look good, I feel good but then when I went out there, I can’t do it. I felt like I was 120 years old,” he said.
“I’m not too interested in these swan songs,” he said.
Instead, he pondered the prospect of doing missionary work abroad.
“I just want to do something that has a more tangible effect for people,” he said.
Some of the fans that had found their way into the press conference tried to console him with applause. Some of the writers tried to have him look back at what he had accomplished in his career, not at how it had ended. He told those who stood up with an ovation to sit back down. They were embarrassing him, he said.
“You have to deal with the real, man. Don’t live in fairytales,” he said. “I’m comfortable with my stigma. I know who I am. I know what you think about me. I may be bizarre sometimes, but I’m very rational. I’m extremely rational. I understand my situation … I’m not going to lie to myself, and you shouldn’t allow me to do this as well.”
But he was back in the ring 16 months later for the October 2006 launch of what was supposed to be Mike Tyson’s World Tour, a proposed series of pay-per-view exhibition bouts. He went four rounds with Corey Sanders in Youngstown, Ohio, in what would be the lone stop on his world tour.
This could have been the beginning of a sad ending, the kind seen too often when professional athletes are forced to retire, when the spotlight fades, the bank account dwindles and the hangers-on disappear.
And it seemed for a bit that it would be that way for Tyson, too.
There was the drug addiction, particularly even more worrisome with a man who had never been known to exercise much control over his urges.
There were brushes with the court system: an arrest in Arizona on charges of driving under the influence and cocaine possession, then the paparazzi photographer in California who accused Tyson of attacking him at an airport.
And then Tyson found his own version of normal.
His career had brought him from fame to infamy, from accomplishment to embarrassment. His name was no longer just synonymous with sport, but with his in-ring and out-of-the-ring meltdowns.
That meant there was interest in Tyson, intrigue in his appearances, particularly after his time in the sweet science ended and he began to speak with more perspective, more introspection.
A documentary was made about him. He appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” to speak about his life. And his appearances weren’t all serious. Previously he had been a punch line — “What now?” was the set up. Now he was able to laugh at himself, singing on “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” showing up on an episode of a foreign version of “Dancing With the Stars,” stealing scenes in movies “The Hangover” and “The Hangover 2,” telling jokes on a televised roast of Charlie Sheen, even spoofing presidential candidate Herman Cain in comedy sketches.
There was nothing to be embarrassed about. He had become a different person, a man who found healthier ways to enjoy life. Once mythical, he’d now mellowed. He became more at ease with who he is, with his situation, with his struggle.
“I was Iron Mike Tyson then,” he told CNN’s Piers Morgan in an interview last week. “Now I’m not.”
His induction into the International Hall of Fame in 2011 was but the final chapter that allowed for him to officially close the book on boxing. He’d already been dedicating his life to more important things, particularly after the tragic, accidental death in 2009 of his four-year-old daughter.
In the years after boxing, his wife had brought him the strength and stability to start a new life he’d never envisioned himself surviving to see. He returned that, dedicating himself to responsibility, to living for more than the present and building a future.
It will never be easy. Not for a man who has seen and done regrettable things, who never truly rose above adversity because he kept on creating it for himself. It will never be easy for a man with demons and depression. The mental illness never truly goes away. It can be confronted, never conquered. It can, however, be controlled, not just with medicine, but with maturity.
Tyson, rotund in “The Hangover,” is now a lean vegan, slimmer than his prime fighting weight. He is healthy and, while he might not see it, he is giving himself the best possible change for happiness.
It didn’t come from the championship belts, from the millions of dollars, the fawning female admirers or the copious amounts of drugs.
It comes from focus on those immediately around you. And it comes from within —a realization that Mike Tyson couldn’t live without.
The 10 Count will return next week.
David P. Greisman is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. His weekly column, “Fighting Words,” appears every Monday on BoxingScene.com.
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