Pigeons have been a part of Mike Tyson's life from before he threw his first punch. The former heavyweight champion says he owns "about 2,500" of the birds in various locations all over the country. Now, in the six-part documentary series Taking On Tyson, which premieres Sunday (10 p.m. ET/PT, Animal Planet), the 44-year-old Tyson will go beyond just raising the birds into the highly competitve world of pigeon racing, where specially bred "racing homers" are trained to cover a specified distance at the highest velocity.
SI.com spoke with Tyson about birds, what they've meant to him and how he's acclimated to pigeon racing -- a sport nearly as ancient as boxing.
SI.com: What inspired you to do a show about these birds?
Mike Tyson: I want to open people's minds and broaden people's horizons about this pigeon world. It's international, since before the beginning of Christ.
SI.com: Why has it endured as long as it has?
Tyson: Because it's ordained by God.
SI.com: I know you were exposed to keeping pigeons at a young age, but at that time did you know this fascinating subculture of competitive racing existed?
Tyson: I always knew about it. I knew it because I used to always see them going by as a little kid. I said, "Look where are those birds going?" It's such a phalynx position when they're flying. And then I realized when we used to fly our birds, the homing pigeons used to hit our birds and knock them out of the sky, they were moving so fast.
I'm really a neophyte in this racing stuff, but I've been a pigeon fancier for all my life. I'm an expert at that stuff, but I'm learning a lot of new things about pigeons in general. Pigeons are like people, because as time goes on, diseases evolve, the pigeons evolve, and we have to evolve and fight the diseases the pigeons have -- just like human beings.
• PHOTOS: Mike Tyson and pigeons
SI.com: What makes a good homing pigeon? What traits do you look for?
Tyson: What do you look for in a human being to see if he's going to make it in this world? You look for his intelligence, you look for his perceptiveness, you look for those things that show aptitude of intelligence.
SI.com: Is it apparent to anyone? Or do you really have to be experienced to have an eye for these qualities?
Tyson: You have to be very, very experienced.
SI.com: You've obviously spent so much time with birds on your life, but you said you're a neophyte when it comes to the competitive racing aspect of it. Do you feel like you have that sense of what makes a good racer yet?
Tyson: You have a feeling for them, an innate emotional feeling for them, because they might feel what your perception of a great bird is. It may not be the same perception of a world champion breeder, but your perception of a good bird, you may say, "Wow, I like this bird." But a professional, they have that objectiveness where they say this bird feels good but he's not going to be the best, he's not going to come in first.
SI.com: How old is a pigeon when you'd typically start training him? And how long is a typical racing career?
Tyson: From my perspective, I once had a bird for 17 years. With training, I first let my birds out at 30 days.
SI.com: In the first episode of Taking On Tyson, the birds are driven something like 150 miles from their coops and released. From there, they immediately find their bearings and return to their rooftops in New York City. Can you explain how they're able to find their way home over such great distances?
Tyson: That's something everybody wants to know. We like to think we know because this is the egoist's perspective of the racing world, but nobody really knows. We just know they do it. And we believe that we can enhance their ability to fly faster, and so we pat ourselves on the back. But other than that we really don't know nothing.
SI.com: How fast to they go?
Tyson: 55 to 60 m.p.h. Vinnie [Torre, Tyson's pigeon trainer in the series] said they recorded a record of 110 m.p.h. I don't believe it, but that's what Vinnie said. You'll have to ask him about that.
SI.com: What's the longest distance they can fly?
Tyson: What do you train them for? Two hundred fifty miles? Ten miles? A thousand miles? It depends on what duration you're training them for.
SI.com: A thousand miles? That's possible?
Tyson: Oh, that's nothing. Think about it. Are you familiar with Greek history?
SI.com: Sure, a little bit.
Tyson: Think about Xenophon. Xenophon and the Ten Thousand. When they marched to fight in Persia, when they went to Iran, they had to walk back to Athens and back to Sparta after the guys betrayed them. So that's like walking from New York City to Des Moines, Iowa. So 1,000 miles for a person, and they made it back in 215 days. A bird can make 1,000 miles in one day.
SI.com: What might not the average New Yorker know about this subculture that's very active in all five boroughs?
Tyson: That all pigeons don't have diseases. That pigeons don't transfer diseases to people. If anything people transfer diseases to pigeons. Some of them might look disgusting, but they're not going to give you a disease. Sometimes I walk by and some of them look pretty gross -- I'm like ugggh -- but you're not going to get sick.
SI.com: What's kept you connected to pigeons for so long in your life?
Tyson: Anyone who tells you they know why, they're lying to you. It just becomes a part of your culture, part of your existence in life.
SI.com: When humans compete in sports, there's risk of injury. Are there hazards for the birds as well?
Tyson: Absolutely. You never know. Sometimes they run into walls, they run into poles or wires. Hawks, falcons, eagles. There are so many predators. Everything's their mortal enemy, even a bee or a mosquito. So they depend on human beings to protect them, [like they have] since the beginning of time.
SI.com: The sport seems to be growing in inner cities today.
Tyson: I only knew one guy in my neighborhood -- Mr. Rogers -- that flew homing pigeons. He was a police officer. That was the only black man I knew who flew them. It always came across as [a sport] dominated by white men only. But now you see kids from the neighborhood, guys from the 'hood, everybody got homers now. Puerto Rican kids, black kids, everyone has homers. I could never have imagined street kids, hustlers with homers. Homers are the apex of the pigeon world.
Even though I just kept rollers, the homers are for the big boys. If you want to play with the big boys in the pigeon world, you got to get with homers. I don't think I'm a big boy then, because I'm not a homer guy. But if you're serious and you want to get some money, homers are the way, because some of the races are for millions of dollars. In Europe it's one of the biggest sports.
SI.com: Do you enjoy the competition in it?
Tyson: I'm always going to be a competitive pigeon flyer, not necessarily competitive in racing homers, but I'm always going to be a competitive with rolling pigeons.
SI.com: What's the difference?
Tyson: With rolling pigeons, it depends on the velocity and validity and the timing and the unity: the sync of the flying. You have to stay together for 20 minutes and you have to roll, based on the depth and velocity. The most [rolls] out of 20 minutes wins.
SI.com: Where would you find a good pigeon?
Tyson: You have to have certificates, you have to have bloodlines, you have to have the mother, their father, their great-great-grandmother. Some people have bloodlines for 150 years, some have some for 800 years. The bloodlines go way back before Christ.
SI.com: I've heard people talk about the spiritual aspect of the sport.
Tyson: It could be possible, but really I'm emotionally attached.