The gray sedan motors down South Pecos Road through the warm spring afternoon, tracing a route parallel to the inferno shimmering four miles to the west. From the car's crowded backseat—squeezed happily next to his wife, Lakiha (known as Kiki), their 16-month-old daughter, Milan, and a visitor—Michael Gerard Tyson glances out his window, just long enough to catch the Las Vegas skyline glinting back at him like a fun-house mirror. "I can't believe how me and my wife don't go out now," Tyson says, chuckling. "My whole life was about that f------ Strip."
This is an article from the Aug. 2, 2010 issue
He is asked to clarify: Back when you were champ, you mean? Back when you were still fighting? "No," Tyson says, matter-of-factly. "Two years ago."
The voice, that of the most intimidating man in sports history, is now roughly an octave lower than is popularly imagined. Scratchier, too, rendering that familiar falsetto lisp an outdated caricature of the new Mike Tyson. Such a label, it should be noted—justifiable skepticism aside—is no exaggeration, either, no mere boxing inflation. Indeed, it's rather a matter of deflation. Since ballooning to upwards of 330 pounds as recently as last year, gorging himself on all manner of vices in all manner of, in his words, "dens of iniquity" (not least of all his own home), Iron Mike, at age 44, has shed a flyweight's worth of flab, dropping him below 220.
So ask the last great American heavyweight about that famous Fitzgerald line—you know, "There are no second acts in American lives"—and Tyson will quickly wave his hand, shooing away the notion as if it were a mosquito. "I had 10 acts!" he shouts. "But all those acts, the only thing I did was make money for myself. And I blew it all away, anyway."
In the car, a full 25 years removed from his pro debut against Hector Mercedes, Tyson recounts a story from a fairly recent disintegration. It was one night in 2007, and a friend of Tyson's had finally persuaded a friend of his, a drug dealer, to visit Tyson's room at the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino. So alarming was the former champion's addiction to cocaine that "I couldn't even get dealers to sell," Tyson explains.
"This street guy I didn't know from a can of paint came over," Tyson recalls. "And I thought, Wow, cool. Maybe this guy will party with me! But when I go to the desk and start cutting the cocaine up, all of a sudden this guy starts freakin' out, getting little tears in his eyes." As Kiki—who has heard this story before—discreetly turns and begins to breast-feed Milan, Mike reenacts the exchange in alternating voices:
DEALER: Nah, Mike. F--- this s---. Nah, I don't want to do this, Mike. Let's train, champ! Let's get in shape! I love you, Mike! You don't need this s---!
TYSON: Yo, dig, right? I appreciate you. But you sell drugs, right? Do your job: Sell. Drugs. Don't be the f------ moral police.
DEALER: F--- this s---!
And then said dealer snatched back all the cocaine he could carry and sprinted out the door. "I wondered, What did that guy expect when he came over?" says Tyson. "I guess he thought it was going to be for this whole party of people." Tyson falls silent, right as his house in Henderson, Nev., comes into view. "But it was just me," he adds. "All by myself."
Here he is now, the Baddest Man on the Planet, back again and almost ready for the glare of television cameras on a May afternoon in New York City. Foundation sits fresh on his cheeks. A black smock is lashed tight around that old cinder block of a neck, guarding his pin-striped 52-long from errant powder. Soon he is greeted by the waves of gentle cooing, more flattering even than what is showered on the adorable Milan, playing peek-a-boo in a corner of ABC's studio while waiting for Dad to sit down with the ladies of The View. Look at you, champ! You're so thin! You look great!
The appearance is pegged to Tyson's forthcoming reality show on Animal Planet, Taking on Tyson, on which he will engage in one of his old passions (pigeon breeding). But, really, this is just one sliver of a vast marketing and fund-raising campaign. By his own calculations, Tyson admits, he is "totally broke." And so you may have recently seen him in the The Hangover, or on Saturday Night Live, or at a film festival in Kazakhstan, or starring in an eponymous documentary by James Toback (Tyson), or on Ballando con le Stelle, the Italian version of Dancing with the Stars, with more still to come: a cameo on Entourage, naturally. Most of those cameos were pitched to him too, the monster now something of a jester, if not an easy laugh for a filmmaker or show host.
Even on The View, his relatively serious interview will be followed by the stunningly unserious: a "bra makeover" for full-figured women, comedian David Brenner and a surprise guest—Elmo from Sesame Street, with whom Mike, Milan and cohost Whoopi Goldberg pose backstage. Can we have a photo with Mike and Elmo? Come on, Whoopi, get in there! All the chatter is halted by a question: Wait ... you're a vegetarian? "No," Tyson replies, and then he carefully enunciates what he says next. "I'm a vegan."
This part is no joke. Six months earlier, Tyson later explains, he'd run into former All-Star outfielder Eric Davis in Los Angeles. Mike, mind you, had no idea if Davis, then 47, had ever been a vegan. But "Eric was so immaculately built and looked so awesome that he inspired me," Tyson says. "I said, I'm going to go home and I'm going to stop." Eating, that is. Everything. "For every meal it was tomato-basil soup," Kiki confirms, most often served with Mike's new drink of choice, chamomile tea. After three happy weeks of this diet Tyson would declare, "Baby, maybe I'll be a vegan."
Tyson has since welcomed saltines, broccoli, rice, soy patties and baked potatoes, and never looked back. The change in his physical activity was similarly drastic: He would go to sleep at around 7 p.m., wake at 3 a.m., "walk around the neighborhood" for 180 minutes and then, in sets of 25 reps, complete his daily regimen of 1,500 total punches and arm extensions with 10-pound weights in each hand. At around 5 a.m., usually, Kiki arose, and they drove to the gym together two hours later.
And so it goes today. While the two also have dinner dates and play Trivial Pursuit and see movies, they strive for "boring," in Mrs. Tyson's words. Why? Boring is safe. Boring is healthy. And, yes, boring is avoiding the Strip and exercising whenever possible. The couple celebrated their first anniversary in June, and the moment underscored how much had changed from Mike's premarital schedule of near-nonstop clubbing, drinking and cocaine. "I'd have weeks without sleep," he says. "I'd just get 10 minutes of rest and be ready to go again."
Sesame Street's audience, in other words, was not his target demographic. "I was a junkie," Tyson says, his voice frothed with contempt. "I wanted to die. I hated living. You have no idea what kind of person I was on the street." The most recent charge in his lengthy police file provides one hint: In 2007 Tyson was sentenced to 24 hours in jail and three years' probation after pleading guilty to cocaine possession and driving under the influence in Arizona, where two of his children with an ex-girlfriend lived.
And yet such punishment still wasn't why he could suddenly muster a level of self-control that shocked everyone around him. No, none of Tyson's current discipline could hold without a tragic return to Arizona last spring.
Everyone hated Nietzsche," he is saying, standing in the kitchen of his $3 million Nevada home, mouth recently vacated of saltines. "Everyone associated [Nietzsche's concept of the] Overman with Nazism. But the Overman is a superior being only because he's supposed to endure everything a society has to give to him, and still he stands tall and absorbs it and he's a decent man and still hasn't hurt anybody."
Tyson's erudition aside, his critique of Nietzsche seems a sincere vision of a superhero that was sparked on May 26, 2009. Mike was with Kiki that day when he got a call: His four-year-old daughter (from an earlier relationship), Exodus, had stopped breathing. She'd been playing on a treadmill, Phoenix police explained, and her neck had caught in a cord dangling off the machine. "Something's wrong with my baby!" was all Mike could say, repeating the phrase over and over. He jumped on a plane to see her at St. Luke's Medical Center in Arizona; TV crews watched him wander the hospital in a daze. He could do nothing. The next day Exodus was dead.
When Tyson got home to Henderson he made a pact with himself, pledging, "This has all gotta stop." Adds Kiki, "Mike's always been kind of spoiled, pampered. This was probably one of the first times in his life when he was 100 percent present. He would take these deep sighs, like when you know the whole weight of the world is on somebody." Tyson would also hug Milan, who had been born only five months earlier, ever tighter. He and Kiki—whom Mike had been dating off and on since 2003—had already agreed to a July wedding, but on June 6 they decided to marry that very night, telling no one and making an exception to visit the Strip. And then husband and wife left the La Bella Wedding Chapel at the Hilton and came straight home.
The two had realized, Kiki says, that "tomorrow isn't promised." Which is not to say that their union is risk-free: Tyson's two previous marriages ended in divorce. He has also served three years in prison, from 1992 to '95, for raping beauty queen Desiree Washington (he continues to fiercely deny the charge), fathered seven kids with four women, served another 3½ months in '99 for assaulting two people after a traffic accident, declared bankruptcy in 2003 (having earned more than $400 million), and on and on. But Kiki, who had already been through a failed relationship with Mike when she was 24, isn't quite a babe in the woods either. In '08 she was jailed for six months for fraud and conspiracy after an FBI investigation into a so-called "ghost-teacher" scam, by which some members of her family had stolen $274,000 from the Community College of Philadelphia.
The first time Mike even saw their child was at the Sundance Film Festival last January, where Tyson was being screened. Kiki had just gotten out of prison and Milan was three weeks old; predictably, husband and wife agree, the reunion was "really weird, really awkward." Expectations were low. But since May, despite all the odds, Tyson has kept that pledge to himself. Says Kiki, who first met him when she was a teen, "We're just one happy, seemingly dysfunctional, but very functional family."
And maybe that's the best way to put it. Maybe Mike needs someone who can countenance his brutal honesty and tolerate his tales of debauchery. Even more, maybe Tyson needs someone who makes him want to be better at an age when he is personally shocked to even be alive.
"I realized that if I wanted to have a healthy life and if someone was willing to love me, then she deserved the best I had to offer," Tyson says. "She deserved the best of me physically, emotionally, spiritually. And it wasn't easy, trust me. Could you imagine messing with me, and I'm an addict, and I've got the Mike Tyson God Ego going on? But I planted the seed in my mind, and I didn't let it die. I nurtured it and nurtured it...."
In marriage, the two say, he has not cheated on her. He has not hit her. He has not done cocaine. He has cut out the enablers from his old life. The relationship seems to have done more for him than any of his assorted rehab stints. "I don't deserve my wife and children," Tyson says. "I just knew that in order to make this work, all that other stuff needed to die."
Sometimes it all moves too fast for him, he admits. Sometimes, Tyson has realized, he must remind himself to "pump his brakes." Mike Tyson is still an addict in recovery, a man with innumerable vices, coming to grips with himself every day. Boxing, for example, is "not a part of my life no more," he says. "It's over. A wrap." But he will still accept invitations to attend the biggest fights—this is another Strip exception the couple will make—and Tyson, world-famous since he was a teenager, easily latches on to memories from those days, mentally stepping back into his old black-trunked self and hating the costume, all the yelling at members of the media and screaming "F--- you" at the world. "Who am I?" he asks at one point, laughing and putting his head in his hands. "What the f--- was that guy? It was a character I invented. But that was me."
While he may continue to crave the feeling of invincibility he had when he was young and undisputed, he loathes the reality of what that extreme life triggered: hates what he was. Standing in his living room in Henderson one afternoon, talking to his wife and a family friend, he discusses one such episode. In 1989, three years after becoming the youngest heavyweight champion ever, at age 20, Tyson accepted an honorary doctorate from Central State University, a historically black college in Wilberforce, Ohio. "I got there, and all these girls are happy to see me," Tyson recalls. "I'm having a ball; I think I'm somebody." So atop the dais the next day, he devised a punch line: "I don't know what kind of doctor I am," Tyson proclaimed, "but from the look of all these pretty black sisters, I hope I'm a gynecologist."
Back then, at least some people laughed. Today, however, there is dead silence in the room, finally broken by Tyson's rasp. "Two years ago," he says, "I talked to some people about my mother. And I learned that she went to school right down the street from [Central State]." His voice grows louder. "And I was down there and said some stupid, dumb, ignorant s--- like that. My family waited to get a mother------ like me"—even louder now—"and I embarrassed 500 years of our family! As they waited for me to get there! To say something for them! And I embarrassed them!" Tears are welling in Mike's eyes when Kiki interjects, "They were proud! You were a kid, honey!"
"Baby," Tyson says, "no. That was a real bad one. A bad one. No excuse.... My mother and her family thought that education made them somebody. I could have said something awesome! I could have explained how my mother went to school. But the first thing I thought about was my d---." He pauses. "If I didn't have a d---," he quips, exasperated, "I could've run for president or something."
Instead, Tyson will keep going on this promotional circuit. At least for now. He does need to pay his bills, and he wants to "be a good provider" for his wife and children. But the refurbished pop culture icon? Make no mistake: "I'm a f------ clown," Tyson says. "I'm a joke. My life is empty being that guy. I want to count for something. Not in the name of God or any religion, but in the name of just self-dignity. I just want to do nice things so my kids can respect me."
So it is that after The View appearance, alone with a visitor in a room at ABC's studio, he will speak for 20 minutes about his dream to be a missionary to a Third World country, to help those less fortunate. "I want to live in a hut in Burma," Tyson says, and his voice sounds like a child's again, rising on the last syllable. "I do. I would go tomorrow."
Once again, Mike Tyson doesn't seem to be joking. But right before the curtain can rise on another, even more startling act, the father remembers to pump his brakes. He exhales. He speaks of the new him, and his marriage to Kiki, and giggling Milan. He reminds himself of the past still receding, further away with each new second, further away than the Baddest Man on the Planet had ever bothered to imagine.