As he storms toward his showdown with Lennox Lewis, is Mike Tyson the ultimate psycho celebrity in the midst of a public breakdown -- or the shrewdest self-promoter in boxing history?
In honor of Sports Illustrated's 60th anniversary, SI.com is republishing, in full, 60 of the best stories ever to run in the magazine. Today's selection is "All The Rage," by Richard Hoffer, which was published in the May 20, 2002 issue. (Warning: Graphic language.)
Here, take a look: Mike Tyson is in his beachfront cabana in Maui, having run his six miles on the sand, in great shape (as far as you can tell) and strangely calm, given the intense nature of his preparations, the desperate state of his professional life, the shambles of his business affairs. He and one of his assistant trainers are hunched at a laptop, poring over a web page, picking out pigeons to buy online. (He has a thousand.) BehindTyson is a stack of books -- Machiavelli in Hell by Sebastian de Grazia and the Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology. Outside, you can hear a gentle surf, maybe 20 yards away. A trade wind moves small clouds across the baby-blue horizon beyond his patio. Tyson looks up as a parade of international writers files in, and paradise be damned, a shape of bitterness suddenly forms in his mind.
"All my antagonists," he says by way of acknowledgment, a Maui menace now. An idea! "I ought to close the gate and beat your f------ asses, you all crying like women. Just close the gate. Kick your f------ asses."
These are his first words as he disengages from the childlike innocence of buying pets. He is not serious, of course; he beats no f------ asses. But he means to demonstrate how easily he can shuck the cloak of civility when it comes to his public life. He is not to be trifled with. A day later, when he meets broadcasters separately (like the writers, handpicked and briefed to a comical fare-thee-well by a nervously grinning New York p.r. man), he tells a young woman reporter from CNN/SI, "I normally don't do interviews with women unless I fornicate with them, so you shouldn't talk anymore, unless you want to, you know...." He is not serious. Of course.
This is what everybody has come to see and hear, and nobody is disappointed. The rage is so ready that it seems practiced, the hatred by now ritual. Is it shtick? Or is it really a horrific unraveling? Questions to think about. Also: Does it matter?
For quite some time now Tyson has coasted on the fumes of his anger, as if it's all he's got left, as if it's all we want. He's long since crossed from boxing into a lurid show business where his chronic inability to exist in normal society has been all the entertainment value we need. Certainly, for years now, he's been satisfied to substitute aberrant behavior for actual athletic performance. And who can blame him? There has been no downside to that, except possibly an artistic or historic one. (He really could have been one of the greatest of all time.) Financially, it's been a bonanza. Outside of the occasional stretch behind bars, which is the acceptable, perhaps necessary, overhead in such a career, his perversity has paid off sensationally. Do you think Mike Tyson is earning a minimum of $17.5 million for his next fight because he's coming off a knockout of Brian (the Danish Pastry) Nielsen? Or because he bit Lennox Lewis on the leg at their last press conference? These days aberrant behavior wins every time.
Hey, it's nothing to get discouraged about. Ours has been a geek-oriented culture for a while, and to blame Tyson and his nervously grinning handlers for a business plan that exploits our low-rent entertainment requirements is hypocritical. He's delivering the goods, best he knows how. Lewis, who likewise is getting $17.5 million for their June 8 fight in Memphis, surely does not complain about having had to get a tetanus shot. (He doesn't even acknowledge it, so fearful is he--is everyone involved--of cancellation.) Showtime and HBO (like SI, a part of AOL Time Warner), which are cooperating on the promotion, are also somewhat less horrified than you might imagine as they lick their corporate chops over rising pay-per-view buys. Nor, for that matter, do we complain, even as we set aside our $54.95 for this next catastrophe. That would be hypocritical too.
In fact, aren't we all looking forward to it, a guilty pleasure if ever there was one, the chance to be ringside at some kind of personal disintegration?
This is how it has been with Tyson since he got out of an Indiana state prison in 1995, having served three years for raping Desiree Washington. His boxing career had splendid beginnings and was theatrical in its own right, but it quickly degenerated into a sideshow, and his followers became less fans than voyeurs, craning their necks for a peek at the type of explosive personality that repeatedly makes news for all the wrong reasons. Of course, as anybody who enjoyed the sight of Tyson biting a chunk of Holyfield's ear off might say, if watching a man having a nervous breakdown is wrong, I don't want to be right!
But he's not a complete madman and is, in fact, confoundingly human. Look at him again. Even as he vents, for the sake of performance or just his psychic survival--who knows?--he quickly relaxes into less threatening rants, becoming by turns interesting, funny, sympathetic, highly dramatic, atall times profane. However, it seems to be a given that he must deliver diatribe to remain authentic. This is the sad subtext of his career, even as he careens into Lewis in what may be the most lucrative fight of all time. He has scarcely done anything but talk, not for years and years, and even he knows it. After the Nielsen bout seven months ago (capping a comeback in which he fought just 19 rounds in five years, and against as marginal a lineup of heavyweights as has ever been assembled) he at first said he would need two more tune-up fights before he could ever face Lewis for the championship. That sounded about right.
Economics and age (Tyson will turn 36 this summer, Lewis is already 36), not to mention the unlikely and highly temporary alliance of rivals HBO and Showtime, each controlling one fighter, changed his mind. Tyson owes a fortune (to Showtime mostly, but to others as well) and can hardly defer a huge payday. Plus, inasmuch as he has proved highly unpredictable in the company of women and old men (road-rage assault, four months in jail), and it seems as though women and old men are everywhere these days--even at press gatherings!--any further abeyance is hardly prudent. At Showtime's offices there is actually a countdown clock that ticks off the seconds remaining to this financial absolution. (They wish.)
So, lacking recent bona fides (Lou Savarese? Julius Francis?), Tyson plays his part the only way he knows how. "I wish that you guys had children," he tells the broadcasters during their audience, "so I could kick them in the f------ head or stomp on their testicles, so you could feel my pain."
Oh, you can now add youngsters to that endangered species list. Old men, children and women--mind your asses, testicles and, you know....
Tyson, acting as a sort of aggrieved bully at every opportunity, has encouraged this characterization, but now it's worse. During his three postprison years under the promotion of Don King, he fine-tuned his portrayal of a fighter who was both dangerously savage and distressingly vulnerable. That was an important part of a comeback that began in August '95 and earned him $112 million for six fights (nearly as much as Tyson's lawyers claim King earned!), up to and including his disqualification in the second Holyfield fight, in June 1997.
His second comeback, begun after he served a "parole" handed down by the Nevada Athletic Commission after the ear-biting debacle, is now the subject of a $100 million lawsuit by Tyson against his former promoter (more on which later) but has otherwise proceeded without the cunning contrivance that King brings to boxing promotion. As a result Tyson's post-sanction career has progressed by fits and starts, with one irrelevant bout there (England), an insignificant one here (Michigan). No titles, no legacy, no savings have accrued in the past three years. Only the prospect of a bout with Lewis, in the talking stages since 1996, has kept Tyson at all relevant (and his nervously grinning handlers, in the hole for millions, hopeful). Big, wild talk is required.
Consequently, this latest campaign has been conducted without any subtlety whatsoever. Whether by calculation or by some organic loosening of his id, Tyson has become something of a symbol for prepackaged calamity: Just open and add opportunity. Disaster! Six servings! Against Francois Botha he tried to break an arm. In the Savarese fight he took on the ref. Two others since the Holyfield disqualification ended as no-contests (one of those not actually Tyson's fault). Of course, this is not to ignore his January press conference with Lewis, at which, in a mix-up during a photo opportunity, a Lewis camp member shoved Tyson, who had menaced the champion, and punches were thrown and legs (well, one) were bitten, forcing a continued exile from Las Vegas and an invitation from Memphis, where the money is presumably not Confederate.
Tyson, who was never one to couch his comments in traditional sports quote, has dialed up the rhetoric accordingly. When he is not threatening old men, women and children, he serves vitriol to Lewis, offering to "smear his pompous brains all over the ring." This is a declamatory upgrade from previous offers, in which he proclaimed himself eager to eat Lewis's (unborn) children. Lewis, by the way, is not as excited by these threats as you might suppose. "He's nothing but a cartoon character," Lewis said when the parade of international reporters visited him for a response.
Still, this is great for the promotion of their fight, which will take place in a sold-out Pyramid in Memphis (although it has been reported that fewer than 2,000 tickets were actually available to the public) and which will certainly generate more than one million pay-per-view buys. (It will not approach the 1.9 million record set by Tyson-Holyfield II because of rampant cable piracy, say broadcasters.) The New York City press conference by itself increased awareness of the fight by a third, according to Showtime boxing chief Jay Larkin, even though as a fighter Tyson remains as suspect as ever.
The question becomes, how much is Tyson promoting the fight (which is in his interest, given that industry insiders believe he still owes Showtime $12 million, a figure that could be recouped only if the bout sells through the roof--and, in any case, he's still living large), and how much is he just going crazy?
Tyson enjoys confounding you here, becoming playful and thoughtful, a guy who might be fun to be around if he weren't periodically promising your destruction. Those books behind you, Mike, you reading those? "You think they're window dressing?" he says, laughing.
And then he goes on to discuss them, purposely poking fun at his own ignorance (in comparison with the better-educated "erudite" sitting beside him) but, at the same time, challenging your perception of him as an unwary brute. It is clear, even if he hasn't read as many books as he might like you to believe, that he has a surprising and wide-ranging curiosity and is capable of more absorption than a testicle-stomping savage ought to be. So he delivers a highly entertaining and informed treatise on John Brown, on Machiavelli. "A fool," he says, "but not a damn fool."
The parade of international media enjoys these departures into feigned normalcy and plays happily along. When Tyson touts de Grazia as "the most sophisticated writer since that impostor, what's his name?"--the clot correctly shouts out, "Shakespeare!"
"I like all those guys, like the Gatsby guy [F. Scott Fitzgerald!] and the guy who shot himself [Hemingway!]," Tyson goes on. "They were cool. Derelicts and drunks. They were hip. They were cool."
You see, he is not canned hatred after all, stir and heat. What he is, he would very much like you to know, is damaged goods, struggling for redemption, for knowledge, just like the rest of us. His excuse, in summary: "I don't know what to do. I'm from the ghetto. I don't know how to act. One day I'm in a dope house robbing somebody; next day I'm heavyweight champion of the world."
This would be more affecting, of course, if it were true. Not to disregard his early upbringing in Brownsville, but he did spend some formative years--age 13 on--in the Catskills refuge of his trainer and surrogate father, Cus D'Amato. Not many of his opponents enjoyed so generous a sponsorship.
His forays into citizenship, anything short of a book group, have sometimes been less than halfhearted, but he has made attempts. He recognizes that, within his life, he had the chance to become a beloved figure. "I would have liked to be Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan or Will Smith," he says. His nature thwarted him, though, because "I like the forbidden fruits, I like to have my ---- sucked." The outrage is not that he's deprived of the reverence bestowed upon that trio but that those three seem to operate above the law, his law, of hypocrisy. It is galling to him that Jordan, who was briefly separated from his wife (to Tyson's mind, because he probably enjoyed forbidden fruits), continues to enjoy respect. "Everybody in this country is a big f------ liar."
Still, he tries. Not too long ago, but well before this fight was announced, Tyson ran into Lewis at Crustacean, a Beverly Hills restaurant. Tyson's wife, Monica (they are in the process of divorce, precipitated by this very event, he says, half joking), suggested he say hello to his compadre.Tyson understood that this is how normal people behave and, forbidden fruits aside this one time, was eager to become part of the social contract--a father, a neighbor, a Muslim, a good citizen, a fighter well-met. Someone beloved. Yet when he tried to perform even this minimal act of civility, he was rebuked. "He looked at me and stared me down like a damn dog," he says. "Made me a punk. You see, I want to be a nice guy, but my wife, she hands him my nuts. Takes my balls away from me." It is exactly that difficult for Tyson, manhood.
He has always been desperate for approval and easily seduced by any interest shown him. From Cus D'Amato, from Don King. It is no great trick, for that matter, for writers, whose asses he would kick, to establish a rapport, however brief and self-serving. Just appear to take him seriously. "Mike," a man asks, "would you say that pigeons are the niggers of the bird world?" The question, while flabbergasting and pointless, is also flattering to Tyson in that it seems to respect his interest, his knowledge of the animal world vis-a-vis race, and, ultimately, his authority. He answers the writer at length, and they are friends for life.
He does want to be a nice guy, does want to be loved. Who doesn't, of course. Yet Tyson, millionaire champion at 20, has come to believe that love must cost. His two marriages--the first, to actress Robin Givens in 1988, the result of Hollywood opportunity; the second, the result of jailhouse visits--will certainly have been pricey. Far more reliable to engage what he calls "strippers and bitches" for purposes of comparatively cut-rate companionship. "No strip clubs here," he says, laughing at himself. "I didn't know that when I came."
Is it a matter of unchecked appetite? "I'm not criminally lascivious, you know what I mean," he says. "I may like to fornicate more than other people, it's just who I am. I sacrifice so much of my life, can I at least get laid? I mean, I been robbed of most of my money, can I at least get my ---- sucked?"
Or is it something sadder than that? "I'll tell a ho, here's some extra money, make me think you love me." He laughs.
Self-pity has always been the big equalizer in Tyson's life, as if it balances his recurring and violent hatred for others. "I hate myself sometimes," he says, slipping into a melodramatic mode that has ensured steady and sympathetic press over the years. What? A surprised scribe asks, "You hate yourself?" Tyson calculates the effect. "Every day of my life," he says.
As you can see, Mike Tyson is a franchise in need of constant tuning, the demands of manhood constantly up for calibration, and the franchise spends a lot of time in the shop. Does he hate Lennox Lewis? "I love Lennox Lewis," he says. "Of course I love him. He has the dignity of any fighter." Or does he hate him? "At that press conference, if I had the right crew, he should have died that night."
But this is a franchise many believe is worth keeping in working order. Showtime may have invested as much as $30 million in this latest comeback--"Let's say," says Showtime's Larkin, teasingly, "we've been supportive at key times"--and is a long way toward breaking even. America Presents, which was Tyson's promoter of record for a while, is on the ropes financially and is still trying to recoup more than $1 million of its loan to Tyson. Others may be on the line.
If past fiscal behavior is any indication, Tyson, too, needs this promotion to work. He is broke. "I've blown a half billion," he says, "money don't be a big issue for me. I like a good time more than money."
Apparently a good time costs money. According to court documents filed in connection with Tyson's suit against King, in which he claims King fraudulently diverted more than $40 million from him, it is not cheap being heavyweight champion of the world or even a defrocked contender. The documents indicate that the fighter was forced into an onerous contract that gave King and "co-managers" John Horne and Rory Holloway a full 50% of his income. King, who was supposed to get 30% (with an additional 10% each to Horne and Holloway), somehow wound up, according to Tyson's lawyers, with $113 million to Tyson's $112 million. "I guess I wasn't giving them my money fast enough," Tyson says.
King's lawyers call Tyson's claim "frivolous and deceptive" and have filed a counterclaim asserting that King had a 10-fight deal with Tyson, which the fighter breached after the second Holyfield bout. Tyson, they say, earned "millions more than he now claims," and King earned "a lot less."
No matter where the truth lies, it's almost impossible to imagine that a more favorable division of income would have left Tyson a nest egg. In the three years before his estrangement from King--from 1995 through '97--Tyson spent heroically. According to court documents, accountant Mohammed Khan set forth Tyson's finances and told the fighter his spending was in the deficit area, accounting-wise. "Moe," Tyson told him, "I can't have it and not spend it."
Said Khan, "Mr. Tyson makes his money and he spends his money, and nobody can tell him anything about it."
Here's how to go broke on $112 million: Spend $115 million. Through the 33 months of Tyson's first comeback, Khan's accounting statement shows that Tyson spent $4,477,498 on automobiles and motorcycles. Under the item "cash & personal expenses" (walking-around money), average monthly outlay came to $236,184. Jewelry and clothing: $94,555 per month. He spent $411,777 on pigeons and cats. (He owned a lion, which he famously sparred with; "Oh, my God!" King yelled at the sight of the big cat's swiping at Tyson. "He done give him a right-hand paw!") He gave a birthday party in 1996 that cost $410,822. Taxman? He got $32.4 million. Houses, of course, were expensive. Lawn care for his Las Vegas home (one of three he owned) was $309,133 for that period.
He gave automobiles to 15 women and two men: Alicia, Gabriella, Tiffany, Hillery, Jeannine, Rosalinda, Isadore....
This is magnificent spending, unrepentant spending, championship spending. Did it persist? Well, not likely, considering that his purses after his Nevada suspension totaled an estimated $58 million before anyone, including the government, had gotten a cut. Pagers and cell phones, $7,259 a month? Those were the days.
Still, Tyson has not taken to canning vegetables out of his various backyards. And being Tyson, in certain fundamental ways, will always be expensive. "I need the fancy cars," he explains, "to get the fancy [women]." Apparently, that is not subject to budgeting. "Shouldn't I enjoy my life?"
That has always been the champion's prerogative, but Tyson has not been champion for some time. He and his camp talk as if the title is his due, that the fight amounts to a formality. And, at least until he and Lewis finally step into the ring, he will have his supporters, people who can't imagine Lewis (who has had some uncertain performances himself) fending off a wildly charging Tyson. It's true, Lewis has not faced many fighters as fast as Tyson; David Tua, whom Lewis beat easily, compares in stature but in hardly anything else.
And Tyson's resolve seems impressive. He told one of his current trainers, "I quit fighting 10 years ago; now I'm getting ready to start fighting again."
But Lewis is a strangely confident, if comparatively quiet, athlete, who seems to rouse himself for big fights. (His two losses, in which his chin was proved to be weak, were to lesser opponents and were both conclusively avenged.) His jab might keep Tyson off him, and with his greater size (6'5" to Tyson's 5'11") and strength, he may be able to suffocate Tyson as he tries to bore in, which could produce an unexciting but somewhat predictable result.
The thing is, hardly anybody's going into this bout expecting a wonderful athletic event. Is there curiosity as to who the better heavyweight is? Some, but not enough to justify the magnitude of interest in the fight. Six years ago, when Tyson's resume still had some boxing highlights in it, the bout might have deserved the buildup on its merits. But now, with Tyson long since passed into a weird psycho-celebrity culture, in which his eventual breakup is the entire point, Lewis only serves to legitimize his challenger's notoriety. The pleasure is a little less guilty for Lewis's involvement. You're free to enjoy the vagaries of brain chemistry without hating yourself too much.
Discouraged? Maybe you should be. Tyson is correct to say that we've all exploited him--for the dark thrills he provides, for this little peephole into alternative humanity--and that we should all feel a little disgusted with ourselves. What hypocrisy, that we condemn him as we order ringside tickets. He is boorish, unforgivably irresponsible in the preservation of his talent, a sad case who can't decide if he wants to be loved or hated and who may not even be able to tell the difference anymore. Yet he is utterly irresistible.
But in our defense: The example of a man who chooses to disable his impulse controls is not always a pleasant one, but it's instructive, maybe exhilarating even, to see where such exaggerated independence leads. As if, the pigeons circling to roost, we didn't already know.