Sam Donnellon: Mike Tyson has grown up

Mike Tyson is among the legends who will attend a boxing banquet in Atlantic City on Saturday.
Mike Tyson is among the legends who will attend a boxing banquet in Atlantic City on Saturday. (GETTY IMAGES)
Posted: June 01, 2012

MIKE TYSON and I go back 22 years, back to spending endless hours in his Tokyo hotel room shooting the breeze when he wasn't on the phone to Robin Givens, his estranged wife, back home. I worked for The National Sports Daily back then, and in a few days, he was going to be our first huge story, the photo of him on his knees grappling for his fallen mouthpiece through swelled eyes, an image no one but James "Buster" Douglas imagined or anticipated.

Those days in the hotel room before that fight were my first glimpse into how he thought, how troubled and confused he was, which is one reason Wednesday's 50-minute phone conversation will go down as one of the best days I've had in the business - better even than that Tokyo Sunday afternoon when his topple from "Baddest Man on the Planet" rocked the world and sent our just-forged friendship right into Don King's toilet.

Back then, he rarely made sense and was rarely honest with himself or with you. And when he was - such as when he postulated that Jodie Foster's character in "The Accused" deserved to be raped - he was downright disturbing. This was before he bit off the piece of an ear, spoke of eating an opponent's children and practically begged to be imprisoned, which he eventually was. This was before almost 2 decades of behavior that had many, including, at times, him, convinced we would not be reading about the guy into his 30s, never mind 40s.

"I try my best to disassociate with that guy," he says. "When I am watching that documentary 'Tyson'? Remember that? I cooperated with that. But if I was in a room with that guy right now, I'd be extremely uncomfortable. That guy would make me uncomfortable. Pretty dangerous guy."

The phone call was arranged by the good people at Resorts in Atlantic City, where Tyson, 45, is headed Thursday for Saturday night's All Star Boxing Legends Gala Tribute Dinner, a ticketed event open to the public for $100 a seat. Tyson will be one of several name boxers at the dinner, and he clearly looks forward to it.

"I don't know if I love it anymore," he says of the sport that earned him in excess of $300 million. "But I know one thing: I'm so proud to be part of that fraternity. It's like being a god. I don't care how much money another guy is making, I don't care how big he is, I don't care if he's a bum. If you're heavyweight champion, there's nothing like it. Nothing. Trust me."

It is 6:15 a.m. his time, Las Vegas time. I get him between his workout and before he lets out his pigeons. After that, there apparently is a drive to take the older of the two children he has with third wife Kiki to preschool. Professed to be clean and sober for more than 3 years after succumbing to a litany of addictions for much of his adult life, Tyson now speaks not of a second life - he's had a dozen of those, at least - but of a second-half of life.

It all started with the blockbuster hit "The Hangover," in which Tyson pokes fun at his own excesses and delivers the famous line, "We all do dumb [bleep] when we're [bleeped]-up." Unknown to me and most of the audience was that Tyson was still an addict when he said those words, but clean and sober by the time filming for the sequel rolled around.

He is asked whether his movie success triggered his sobriety.

"Definitely," he says. "That, and the death of my daughter. I've had so many second chances. I said finally, I better take advantage of this one."

He checked into rehab. He took it seriously, he says. He emerged not just clean, but with a story to tell, one that will make you cringe, laugh and angry, one that will make you dislike, pity and, yes, admire him. He took it to Oprah and Ellen and then it became a one-man show, 2 1/2 hours alone on stage in April at the MGM in Vegas walking us through his life, no detail disguised - including the 2009 death of 4-year-old Exodus from a cord on a treadmill. Tyson was not home at the time.

"It's very philosophical," he says. "And it's gut-wrenching as hell. I even go through the part about my mother, who was a prostitute, and my father was a pimp . . . "

Tyson's father left when he was 2. His mother died when he was 16. In between, there was all kinds of foreboding trouble on the streets of Brooklyn, N.Y., trouble that alarmed his mother and led to him being sent to a reform school in the Catskills. Tyson has a smart older brother who is now a physician in California, but his older sister got caught up in the street life and died at age 25. It's all there in the show and much, much more, including this little tidbit.

"My mother told me I was retarded," he said. "I'm serious. I used to get taken to these clinics and these doctors all the time, because my mother thought I was retarded. I just did crazy stuff. I went to the bathroom on myself. I was just a really disturbed kid. And she was disdainful of me, because she thought I would never amount to anything.

"So when Cus told me at 14 or 15 that I was the greatest fighter that God ever created and that no man can ever beat me, so even if I was knocked out as an amateur, it was so installed into my brain that I always believed that. I was still getting my ass kicked, but this was what I believed."

Cus was Cus D'Amato, the father figure/trainer who took Tyson from Tryon School For Boys into his Catskill home for the express, singular purpose of making him heavyweight champion of the world. For years, D'Amato received a free pass from Tyson for the troubles that followed, but the middle-aged man speaking on the phone expressed a more realistic view of the mentor who saved him from a hopeless path while aiming him toward the dangerous one he took.

"I don't agree with all of the things he did, but he did it with all the skills he had," Tyson says. "He was this old, Italian guy with a lot of pride who was humiliated, ridiculed kicked out of a game in which he gave his heart from when he was a young kid.

"Then he finds this young kid, 12, and he's already 70, and he doesn't have much time to live and he tries to cram everything he knows into this kid with just a little bit of morals, because he doesn't have time to throw all that moral [bleep] in. So he gives him a little bit of that, but the rest of it is just pure unadulterated fury . . .

"He was out for revenge and blood. And I was there ready to do whatever he told me to do. He barks, I bite. That's just how it went."

There is talk of the show going to Broadway and going on the road. Hell, there should be talk of a book, even amid the library of Tyson material already out there. None of them has this. The perspective of this larger-than-life creature who might finally have found his quiet place to take a stand.

Tyson was once convinced people wanted him dead and gone, wanted to take him down. Now?

"I'm very grateful," he says. "I don't know if people are happy for me. But what I want most out of life is just respect. That's what I am working on. I haven't received much of that or earned much of it. And in my journey from boxing greatness, you lose your honor. Honor can't be won; it can only be lost. And I realized that it's better to be a good man than a great man. When you're a good man, it's easier to hold on to your honor."

Has Mike Tyson evolved into a good man? The very thought is provocative, as unimaginable as that afternoon in Tokyo.

I had a good day then.

I had a better one Wednesday.


Contact Sam Donnellon at donnels@phillynews.com. For recent columns, go to www.philly.com/samdonnellon.

 

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