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.) Behind Tyson 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?
May 19, 2002
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
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
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, at all 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
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 postsanction 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
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
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
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
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
d--- 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
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,
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
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 d--- 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
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, accountingwise. "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
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
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.
Spending Time with Tyson
Even for one of the most highly paid athletes of this extravagant
era, keeping a rein on the ol' budget can be a challenge. After
all, to paraphrase Everett Dirksen, $400,000 in pet expenses
here, $3 million in jewelry there, and pretty soon you're talking
real money. The following financial data, drawn from a report
prepared by Mike Tyson's accountant and introduced in the U.S.
district court in New York in conjunction with the fighter's
lawsuit against Don King, provide a jaw-dropping look at the
truly heavyweight profligacy of Tyson (above at his
Bernardsville, N.J., estate in 1988). All figures are totals from
'95 through '97, the years following Tyson's release from prison
Household expenses (Ohio) $496,119
Household expenses (Las Vegas) $600,343
Household expenses (Conn.) $278,969
Auto insurance and repair $1,712,727
Training expenses $6,815,578
Nevada State Ath. Comm. fine $3,000,000
Lawsuit settlements $1,733,000
Legal fees $4,590,562
Pet expenses: pigeons, cats $411,777
Child support $228,821
Lawn care (Ohio) $338,858
Lawn care (Las Vegas) $309,133
Lawn care (Conn.) $100,376
Doctors' fees $1,158,418
Accounting fees $1,038,769
Cash & personal expenses $7,794,103
Pagers & mobile phones $239,552
Security (Ohio) $385,803
Gifts: cash, cars, etc. $1,031,191
Hotel & travel $598,815
Misc. other expenses $375,632
"ALL MY ANTAGONISTS," TYSON SAYS IN ACKNOWLEDGMENT OF A GROUP OF
VISITING REPORTERS. "I OUGHT TO CLOSE THE GATE AND BEAT YOUR
F------ ASSES, YOU ALL CRYING LIKE WOMEN."
TYSON ENJOYS CONFOUNDING YOU, BECOMING PLAYFUL AND THOUGHTFUL, A
GUY WHO MIGHT BE FUN TO BE AROUND IF HE WEREN'T PERIODICALLY
PROMISING YOUR DESTRUCTION.
TYSON KNOWS THAT HE HAD THE CHANCE TO BECOME A BELOVED FIGURE. "I
WOULD HAVE LIKED TO BE TIGER WOODS OR MICHAEL JORDAN," HE SAYS.
BUT HE LIKED "THE FORBIDDEN FRUITS."