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Thursday, June 30, 2016

Mike Tyson at 50: How boxing legend has changed over the years

Mike Tyson is 50 today, a birthday that many who knew the former heavyweight champion believed he’d never live to celebrate.

But he’s still with us, performing his one-man show, dabbling in other business ventures, and now very much just another guy trying to pay his bills, feed his family and live his life.

With the death of Muhammad Ali earlier this month, Tyson is now the most prominent retired boxer alive. He’s kind of the sport’s unofficial elder statesman, though no one has ever dared to describe Tyson as statesmanlike.

Tyson the fighter was a fearsome mixture of speed and power who achieved great heights but somehow never managed to be quite the fighter that Cus D’Amato envisioned he would be.

He’s a Hall of Famer, sure, and one of the most recognizable boxers ever. Few ever hit as hard or intimidated as much.

He bullied his opponents, but was too often bullied in his biggest fights. He was dominated by Evander Holyfield, routed by Lennox Lewis, outclassed by Buster Douglas.

Tyson the man was, at times, fearsome, insecure, loyal, introspective, loathsome, addicted, caring, funny and brutally honest.

He authored a 2013 piece in New York Magazine headlined, “My Life as a Young Thug.”

It’s one of the best insights into the complex personality Tyson would become as one of the world’s most famous men. He begins with a chilling anecdote:

“We were beefing with these guys called the Puma Boys. It was 1976, and I lived in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and these guys were from my neighborhood. At that time I was running with a Rutland Road crew called the Cats, a bunch of Caribbean guys from nearby Crown Heights. We were a burglary team, and some of our gangster friends had an altercation with the Puma Boys, so we were going to the park to back them up. We normally didn’t deal with guns, but these were our friends, so we stole a bunch of [expletive]: some pistols, a .357 Magnum, and a long M1 rifle with a bayonet attached from World War II. You never knew what you’d find when you broke into people’s houses.

“So we’re walking through the streets holding our guns, and nobody runs up on us, no cops are around to stop us. We didn’t even have a bag to put the big rifle in, so we just took turns carrying it every few blocks.

“ ‘Yo, there he goes!’ my friend Haitian Ron said. ‘The guy with the red Pumas and the red mock neck.’

“When we started running, the huge crowd in the park opened up like Moses parting the Red Sea. It was a good thing they did, because, boom, one of my friends opened fire. Everybody scrambled when they heard the gun.

“I realized that some of the Puma Boys had taken cover between the parked cars in the street. I had the M1 rifle, and I turned around quickly to see this big guy with his pistol pointed toward me.

“ ‘What the [expletive] are you doing here?’ he said to me. It was my older brother, Rodney. ‘Get the [expletive] out of here.’

“I just kept walking and left the park and went home. I was 10 years old.”

He was intimidating from his early days, and carried that into his boxing career. Particularly prior to his stunning 1990 loss to Douglas in Japan, opponents would cower in fear, so intimidated were they of his power.

Tyson, though, was never what he was made out to be. In a 2012 interview with Sky Sports, he spoke of how he used his ability to intimidate to his advantage.

“Intimidation is legal in all arts,” he told Sky. “In business, sports, conversation, negotiation. I could never have been successful just being Mike Tyson, just some tough kid from Brooklyn. I was smaller; everybody was bigger than me. I sold it to them and they bought it so now I’m ‘The baddest man on the planet’ and a scary guy.

“I loved the whole image of who I was. Not now, but back then that’s who I wanted to be – an invincible champion who nobody could beat.”

In late 2002 or early 2003, as he was training for a fight in Memphis, Tenn., with Cliff Etienne, I wrote a column on him in which I praised him for a change in his public behavior.

A day or so after the column came out, my phone rang. It was a 917 area code, but I didn’t recognize the number. The person on the other end asked for me and identified himself as Tyson.

I laughed to myself. This, I thought, was one of the worst imitations of Tyson’s voice I’d heard, and I’d heard many of them. But I figured I would play along until whoever it was revealed his identity.

This faux Tyson was thanking me for the column I’d written. It went on too long, so I interrupted. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. OK, Mike,” I said. I then said, “Nice try,” and hung up the phone.

The next day, I phoned Shelley Finkel, a prominent boxing manager who has subsequently been inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

He asked me if Mike ever reached me.

“He was looking for your number,” Finkel said.

Only then did it hit me: It was the real Tyson, and I’d hung up on him. Oh boy.

A few days later, I met my friend, Tim Dahlberg, the outstanding columnist for The Associated Press, at the Golden Gloves Gym in Las Vegas. We were going to watch Tyson train and then interview him afterward.

Few people were in the gym. Freddie Roach was training him at the time. The actress, Meg Ryan, was there, shooting photographs of Tyson. And maybe there were a few of Roach’s assistants. The gym, normally bustling with activity and filled with sweaty bodies, was strangely empty and largely silent.

When the workout ended, Tyson, Roach, Dahlberg, Ryan and myself headed into the locker room. Tyson looked at me sternly and said, “Kevin! I called you trying to be nice and to thank you, and you treated me like a [expletive]!”

There was silence for a second, and it was a tense silence for me. Then he grinned, bear-hugged me and patted me on the back, laughing at the mistake I’d made.

He began to speak to Ryan about her mother’s tigers. Tyson loved tigers and once owned several. Ryan told him that, no, her mother never owned tigers, but Tyson kept on.

It turned out he’d mistaken Ryan for another actress, Melanie Griffith, whose mother, Tippi Hedren, did once own a tiger.

He was down for discussing just about any subject, some often bizarre. But in the aftermath of his disqualification against Evander Holyfield in their June 28, 1997, rematch at the MGM Grand Garden, I learned he wasn’t always so eager to talk.

I was covering the fight for a Las Vegas newspaper. A publicist escorted me into the back area after Tyson had been disqualified for biting Holyfield to see if I could get a comment from Holyfield about what had happened.

The door to Holyfield’s dressing room was locked. We waited for quite some time until we were told that officials from the Nevada Athletic Commission would allow no one in to speak to him.

We were heading out when we noticed Tyson leaving with his entourage. He was surrounded by members of his team and security detail, much like a president would be surrounded by the Secret Service.

I decided to see if I could get a comment. I shouted the question, “What happened, Mike?” as he was walking swiftly toward a waiting limousine. One of his co-managers cursed at me.

Tyson stopped, sneered, and said, “He [expletive] butted me. Didn’t anyone see he kept [expletive] butting me?” And then the group rolled on, shoving him into the limo and into the dark of the night.

He later became fast friends with Holyfield, and the two joked about the bite fight many times. When Holyfield was hawking barbecue sauce, he got Tyson to join him and they did a skit in which Tyson pretended to gnaw on his ear again, this time with some of the sauce.

It was hard to believe on the night that he’d bitten Holyfield that he’d ever return to fight, let alone to become a popular elder statesman.

He’s reviled by many for his 1992 rape conviction, which to this day he denies he did. He’s admitted to just about everything else he’s ever been accused of, but he still vigorously, angrily, denies having raped beauty pageant contestant Desiree Washington.

So he lives in this odd universe, where there is a segment who hate him no matter what and another segment who love him no matter what. It’s the feelings of the group in the middle that’s not so clear.

He’s constantly mobbed whenever he appears in public and almost always gets the loudest roar when he attends a major fight and the celebrities are introduced to the crowd.

His one-man show remains popular and he’s a frequent television guest. He lives a vastly different life than he did during his hedonistic days as the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, but there is one simple fact about his life that no one can dispute:

He’s alive at 50, when many who knew him in his teens, his 20s and his 30s doubted he’d make it to his 40s.

He blew more than $300 million in boxing earnings, but he’s back, living comfortably if not lavishly, and no longer the subject of dire predictions about his future.

That, more than anything, is the ending to the Mike Tyson saga few saw coming.

Happy birthday, Champ.

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