Mike Tyson on life, LeBron James and his ever-changing quest to make good
MIAMI -- Archeologists recently discovered the remnants of an ancient Native American civilization in downtown Miami. Surrounded by towering, glittering buildings, whatever is left of the Tequestas, whose history dates back thousands of years, has slowly been uncovered. The findings have included portions of a village and even a burial ground, which the Miami Herald reported was destroyed to make way for a hotel long ago. The discoveries have slowed development projects, as city officials decide how to proceed while weighing this history against the future.
Just minutes from one of these sites, Mike Tyson plops down on a brown couch in a Brickell high-rise condominium. The 47-year-old Tyson happens to know a thing or two about buried skeletons, and he admits that he can feel the tug from the past as he tries to craft a new, functional life after retiring from boxing eight years ago.
Tyson has seen fame, infamy, marriages, divorces, celebrity, scandal, riches, bankruptcy, Hall of Fame inductions, felony arrests and convictions, major motion pictures, jail stints, counseling, rehab, sobriety, and relapses. Nevertheless, he is plowing forward in earnest with his latest venture as the frontman, namesake and promoter for Iron Mike Productions, which is staging made-for-TV fights. His fingerprints are all over the new company's efforts, from selecting the matchups, to mentoring the younger fighters, to attending the events to generate buzz, to leveraging his name to land national television broadcasts. To an outsider, he looks and sounds a lot more like an entrepreneur than an ex-con when discussing the project.
"My prior life, besides being successful in the particular sport that I invested in, was basically sex, drugs, alcohol, violence. Topped off with sex, drugs, alcohol and violence," Tyson tells SI.com on Wednesday. "I don't believe I'm that person now. ... I'm just a very sick person. I'm not a bad person. My actions would appear that I'm bad. That's what society defines as bad. I've got some emotional issues and probably mental issues too. But I feel like I'm winning the fight. It's not over, but I think I'm winning now."
His strategy, it seems, is to stay as busy as possible. He sat courtside with his 16-year-old son, Amir, for the Spurs' Game 3 victory over the Heat in the NBA Finals, and he is returning for Thursday's Game 4. Also on Wednesday afternoon's docket: Tyson met with fans at the Dominican Republic's Consulate in Miami and scooted across town for an in-studio radio interview, as he hypes a July 10 fight between Argenis Mendez and Rances Barthelemy at the AmericanAirlines Arena. Tyson hopes that he will have enough time that night for a birthday dinner with his third wife, Kiki, and fumbles briefly when asked how they celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary, which was earlier this month. "I bought her some flowers," he says, finally, with a shake of the head. "I have such a busy schedule. [Promoting] is different for me."
Tyson is driven to the interview in a Rolls-Royce Ghost, which is comped because the former undisputed heavyweight champion is still -- before everything else -- one of the most recognizable celebrities in the country. The car stops briefly before it parks, so that a driver can exit his pickup truck at a red light to wave to Tyson. As soon as Tyson steps out of his car, he faces a line of fans who clutch smartphones rather than Sharpies. He dutifully hands out the 2014 autograph -- a smiling selfie -- to building residents, front-desk staff members and gawkers. This scene repeats itself time and again every day, according to those working with him.
The only request Tyson refuses? To pose in front of the luxury vehicle, saying that doing so would make him uncomfortable. He doesn't openly reference his financial situation during the 30-minute conversation -- according to reports, he has blown through hundreds of millions of dollars -- but he repeatedly stresses that he's now pounding the pavement instead of floating along.
"[I had to] adapt in order to survive," he says of his new career, which is being undertaken with Florida businessman Garry Jonas. "If I wasn't able to adapt, I don't know what I would be doing. I'm a good student. I'm really good at emulating things. I can imitate this, I can do that. Probably not to the apex of that genre, but I can do it."
Father, husband, famous boxer, actor, businessman, icon, talent scout, hype man. Tyson is wearing a lot of hats. This week, with the Finals in town, Tyson is enjoying his share of hoops too. The Brooklyn, N.Y., native calls himself a "die-hard Knicks fan," but he doesn't react when Carmelo Anthony and Iman Shumpert are mentioned as possible candidates to be his current favorite player. "Goddamn Pat Ewing, [Charles] Oakley, Mark Jackson," he replies quietly, breaking into a wide smile.
The 1990s were good to the Knicks and good to Tyson, at least at times. He recalls being invited to games by Pistons guard Isiah Thomas and attending All-Star Weekends. Tyson demurs when asked whether he has a rooting interest in these Finals, and he claims not to be an expert on the sport. But, in the very next breath, he excitedly provides a brilliant, hilarious player breakdown worthy of a color commentator's spot next to ABC's Mike Breen.
"Tim Duncan is very slow, almost like Frankenstein, but he gets there," Tyson says in that unforgettable nasally voice. "You see his arms and his upper body gets there before his legs get there. But he's there, like an octopus."
The Big Franktopus and friends dropped the hammer on the hometown Heat on Tuesday, delivering Miami its first home loss of the playoffs. Tyson, like everyone else in the crowd, marveled at the Spurs' early shooting success, and he took a beat to recognize the magnitude of their dominance for nearly two decades under coach Gregg Popovich.
A boxing prodigy whose every move and misstep was dissected by the national media, Tyson understands as well as anyone that the NBA is smack dab in the middle of the "LeBron Era," with every development filtering through the James lens. To many, the Spurs didn't win on Tuesday, LeBron lost. And a loss isn't just a loss for LeBron, it's a legacy hit, one step farther away from the Michael Jordan ideal. James responded to criticism of his crunch-time cramping in a Game 1 by calling himself the "easiest target" in sports. After Game 3, he and Dwyane Wade awkwardly laughed off a radio reporter who pointedly asked whether "lackluster offense" or "lackluster defense" was the biggest problem for the Heat.
"There's no doubt about it, him and Floyd Mayweather," Tyson says, when asked if he agreed with James' "easiest target" label. "Because he's great. Plus, when you comment about him, you get attention. 'Such and such said LeBron is this.' He gives light to people's negativity. ... [Remember], training is harder than the game. Somebody who has never played basketball is judging you for your every move, your every mistake. People don't know what it's like to put in the perspiration to become that person. You know how many great basketball players there are that still don't become stars? That [criticism] is just something that comes with the territory. It's something we have to handle. It deflates our ego."
Tyson is quick to grant that he -- in contrast to James -- struggled to laugh off or deflect barbs when he was at the peak of his powers.
"I was different than LeBron. I would attack my critics. I would physically attack them," Tyson says, instinctively balling up a fist and throwing a punch into the air for effect. "It's just part of the business. My experience in life just says you can't take it personal."
For all of his unlawful behavior and lingering regrets, Tyson is nothing if not incredibly lucid on this subject. He understands how the fishbowl works, and what life is like on the inside when things don't go as planned. Referencing recent comments by James, Chris Bosh and other members of the Heat, who adamantly maintain they tune out everything said about them, Tyson remains unconvinced. To him, competitive drive is inseparable from personal pride.
"When [James is] on stage with Wade, they have to take these questions," Tyson explains. "Sometimes you have to be defensive and say, 'I don't care.' How could you not care? This is your life's dream. Sometimes you don't want to give [the critics] the satisfaction of thinking that you care. You're in dire need of winning, you're in desperation [mode], but you have to care. If you didn't care, you wouldn't be doing this.
"Criticism gets to all of us. I don't care if it's just a small part of it. People don't like being corrected, even if [they're doing] the wrong thing. We want to make ourselves better so we don't have to listen to criticism. We're in a perfection-obsessed world, which can never happen."
As James chases his three-peat, with the chance to join Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal as the only players to win three straight Finals MVP awards, he has made it clear that his goal is to become the greatest of all time. Tyson, who was 50-6 with 44 knockouts, used to be put in similar discussions during his heyday. But with his fighting days long behind him, Tyson concedes any and all comparisons to the man he regards as the best in his sport: Muhammad Ali.
"I never really considered myself a great fighter, or the greatest fighter, [even if] I might have said that," Tyson says. "Muhammad Ali [was the greatest]. No doubt. Neophytes in boxing have no idea. In his prime, he looked more like a model than a fighter. But he's just mean, tough as a junkyard dog. You could beat him up all day and he's coming back at you. Don't expect to knock him out. He goes 15 rounds like it's nothing. You could shoot him with a shotgun, and if he's not dead, he's coming back. There's no quit in him."
If there's one thing about his career that Tyson is clearly proud of, though, it's his mental game. "They only saw the knockouts," Tyson says of those who have overlooked the role his mind played in his success.
"[Boxing] is psychological warfare, and intimidation is a part of it," he explains. "Intimidation is fair game too. It's not your fault if a guy has an inferior feeling about himself toward you. If you want to enhance that, there's no law against that either."
Asked how many times he entered the ring knowing that his opponent had already lost out of fear, Tyson doesn't hesitate.
"Many occasions. I couldn't count them, but on many occasions," he nods, before uncorking a punchline: "Then again, there's a flip side to that too. You can scare somebody into kicking your ass."
Tyson's controversies eclipsed his accomplishments, and there is no real debate about his spot in boxing's pecking order. James' story is still evolving, though, and Tyson speaks with both admiration and apprehension when he weighs what's to come for the King should the Spurs send him to his third Finals loss in five tries.
"I don't care how much our ego gets out of whack, we can only be the best in our time," he says. "That's all we can hope for. ... [LeBron] is just a baby, man. He's only 29. If he just keeps living positive, a lot of good things are going to happen to him, even if he doesn't win this championship. He has a whole life ahead of him, if he never gets discouraged and continues to go."
Even though Tyson doesn't rush to label himself a James fan, he refers to the Heat star as a "very dignified young man" and points out that the four-time MVP has generated very few real enemies relative to his immense success. There's a hint of vicarious living in Tyson's tone, perhaps because he realizes that James has avoided the most serious pitfalls that sidetracked Tyson's career and life. In James, Tyson sees an obsessive drive he can relate to, a thirst for winning that he first felt when he won a Junior Olympic regional tournament.
"I wanted more, I wanted to do this again, I wanted that feeling again," he remembers, his voice speeding up. "The [victorious] feeling gradually dissipates. You want to do it again. When can I do it again? [Winning is] absolutely, 100 percent like an addiction."
As if his infamous ear-biting incident wasn't evidence enough, Tyson takes a thorough "by any means necessary" approach to competition. Humorously, the ferocious fighter who scared his opponents into defeat before the first bell says he sees no problem with flopping in the NBA. Taking a dive is just about boxing's worst offense; Tyson simply sees acting as gamesmanship in basketball.
"Skullduggery," he calls it, laughing as a reporter mimics the type of flailing that cost Wade a $5,000 fine during the Finals. "That's all part of the game. Everyone has to get an advantage. It's not necessarily the best fighter or the best team that wins. There's so much more involved in sports than the physical activity. You have to use some of these tricks to offset them."
The time has almost come for Tyson's next media engagement. His handlers pore over the details of his ever-evolving itinerary. A cream Mercedes-Benz sedan that was owned and then lost by NFL bust JaMarcus Russell -- still emblazoned with "The Chosen One" in script letters inside the trunk -- arrives to whisk away a reporter.
Before Tyson departs, though, he is reminded of a story from nearly a decade ago, when he referred to himself as a "failure." Tyson might be able to avoid pictures with the Rolls-Royce Ghost, but he understands that he can't escape the ghosts of his past. He says he "absolutely" still feels like a failure. But Tyson doesn't stop there. He's only willing to say that he "would really like to believe" that he's made progress as a father, while acknowledging that he went years without ever talking to some of his seven children.
"I'm doing the best I can," he concludes. "I have to deal with the reality, from my upbringing, who I am, what I've endured in life, maybe my best is not enough. We just have to deal with it from there and [find a peace of mind] some way or another."
That confession quickly transforms Tyson from the life of the party to an object of concern. Once again, he's the ex-fighter whose present is defined primarily by his past, and whose future is tenuous. The fork in the road is right here: Will Miami find a way to preserve its ancient history, or will the city plunge forward in the name of capitalism and progress? Will Tyson backslide, or will his role as a promoter in a structured endeavor help him settle down for the long haul?
The substances are the biggest variable, and they are, Tyson admits, a lingering concern. He says he is sober, but ducks when asked how long that's been the case.
"Long enough," Tyson replies obliquely. "[Sobriety] feels interesting. It could go both ways: I feel like I'm fighting demons, or I feel like this could be a wonderful day today. Like they say, one day at a time."
A day can drag forever, especially when it's burdened with appointments, responsibilities and stressors.
"It's more like one second at a time," Tyson corrects himself, and then he's gone in the Ghost.
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