HENDERSON, Nev. – The hands that once caused so much fear, that once scrambled the brains of highly trained men, which caused elite professionals to cower in fear, now gently, tenderly, caress a pigeon.
Mike Tyson, former heavyweight champion of the world, the one-time baddest man on the planet, is now just a working stiff who hustles odd jobs to make a living.
Life is simpler now, more peaceful. He's doing what he loves, surrounded by people and things he loves. The zany, out-of-control fighter, who once gnawed an opponent's ear off, who bit another opponent on the leg during a news conference, who said he wanted to eat an opponent's children, is long gone.
That was Iron Mike, and this Mike Tyson wants no part of that guy.
He calls himself a "Nevada guy" now and says he wants nothing to do with living in Brooklyn, where he was born and raised. "Not even in a penthouse," he says, laughing nervously.
He's at home in the desert, with his new wife, two of his children and his prized pigeons. He's a recovering addict now, fighting daily to avoid the temptations of the drugs that nearly derailed him only a few years ago.
The Las Vegas area isn't generally the place for people with dependencies like Tyson. And from the backyard of his home, the lights of the famed Las Vegas Strip beckon like a Siren's song.
Tyson, though, insists he's found peace because he came to a realization that took him more than 40 years to accept.
"I used to think nobody liked me and nobody wanted to help me," Tyson said. "No. People were waiting for me to do the right thing. Once you help yourself, people will help you. That's just how it goes, and I found out late. People are just waiting for you to change so they can participate in cultivating your life. Or, they're waiting for you to kill yourself and watch you self-destruct.
"And what I finally learned is that people say, 'So, what are we going to do? I'm not going to help you self-destruct. If you're self-destructive, I'm going to stay away. But once I see you are trying to cultivate your life and change and throw away those bad habits, I'll get involved in your life and try to help. Other than that, I'm not involved.' "
He pauses and sighs.
"They're right, of course, but that's what I didn't realize," he said. "It just took so long for me to realize that people didn't just hate me. They hated the behavior they saw and they wanted to help me if they could, if I gave them a chance and try to start by helping myself."
Tyson makes money off of his name, but he insists he's far from the man he once was. He's found projects that keep him busy and pay him money and he's found that, surprise, surprise, people actually like him and enjoy hearing what he has to say.
He's starring in a docudrama series for the cable channel Animal Planet called "Taking on Tyson," that begins on March 6 at 10 p.m. ET and PT. The show is about racing pigeons and Tyson challenges some of the best pigeon racers in the world.
The former champion has long had a fascination with pigeons. He fought on the streets for the first time as a 12-year-old when a neighborhood bully in the tough, gritty Brownsville section of Brooklyn grabbed his favorite pigeon and snapped its neck, throwing the dead bird at him, its blood spattering him in his face.
He now has a coop in his home and has pigeons as his pets.
"I looooooove these things," he coos, softly.
Pigeons aren't high on most people's list of cuddly, affectionate pets. In many areas, they're considered a nuisance. Tyson, though, sees the birds differently.
They're majestic animals with distinct personalities, he says, the finest animals he's ever owned.
Tyson has had a rich history with animals, including exotics. Nothing, though, can match a pigeon in his eyes.
"Pigeons are the best," he said. "Of all the animals I've had – tigers, lions, bears – Oh no, none of them are even close to the same league as the birds."
Tyson says, "Oh no, no, no," when asked if he has a special understanding of the birds that others don't possess. It's his willingness to accept them that gives him whatever insight he has into their nature, he says.
"If you think you have some kind of different level of understanding of the animals, that's when you think you're special and that's when you get hurt by them," Tyson said. "That's when you lose it. These animals don't understand. Pigeons are man's first feathered friend, but they need us in life. We have a relationship, us and pigeons, especially the thoroughbred pigeons. People take care of them very well, but you know what? They'd only live two years on the street, if they're lucky. And that's if they're lucky."
Tyson fooled a lot of people by surviving a wild life, much of it spent on the streets, and making it past his 40th birthday still alive. He's 44 now and doing better than he ever has, he says.
He still loves the fight game – he enjoys both boxing and mixed martial arts – but isn't nearly as close to the sport that made him one of the world's most recognizable figures as he once was. Only a few days before a highly anticipated bantamweight bout between Nonito Donaire Jr. and Fernando Montiel at the Mandalay Bay Events Center that is just a short distance from his home, Tyson asks if any good matches are coming up.
But when the Donaire-Montiel bout is mentioned, Tyson is puzzled.
"Are they good?" he asks. "Excuse me for asking, but I'm not familiar with them. Is it going to be a good fight?"
Tyson is still a fixture at fights in Las Vegas, but says he believes the Ultimate Fighting Championship has surpassed boxing because of the way it promotes and stages its events.
"It's just more entertaining than going to a boxing match now," Tyson says of going to a UFC card. "When you go to a boxing match, once the fight is over, you're waiting for another match and there is nothing going on. We're just sitting there with an empty ring and nothing is happening. We might as well stand up, because the audience is the show there. If you go to UFC, 'Boom, boom, da, da, da, da,' it's like we're in a club, we're partying. Everybody's passing their drinks and it's a party.
"When the fighters come out, there's more music and they build a story up about the fighters and then there is the fight. The fights are awesome – they're awesome, really – and then, 'Boom,' the fight is over and then there is more music. It's a party and a fight at the same time. I know it sounds crazy, but that's what it is."
He chuckles and explains what he'd do if he were a promoter. He clearly has been paying attention, because everything he says makes sense.
He doesn't have an MBA but he has a sense of what moves people.
"You know, people will spend their last dime to be entertained," Tyson says. "They'll steal a meal and pay for their entertainment. When I was fighting, people watched because they thought I was nuts. They didn't know what might happen next. There was an entertainment aspect to that, that they wanted to see the unexpected, so to speak. They didn't know what might happen, but they thought something would and they wanted to see it.
"With this show, yeah, people are going to watch it because of me and because they want to hear me talk and find out what I have to say. That's part of it. But these other characters on this show are fascinating. I don't want to say their personal business, but when you see these guys, they're little, dumpy white men, fat and stuff. But if you ever get to know them, they're fearless. They're not afraid of nobody, with a gun or without. They don't look like those kind of people, because it's not stamped on their foreheads like it is with me. But you watch and you'll see."
He's eager to see the reaction to the show and believes it will be a hit, though not because of his presence. The birds, he predicts, will be the stars.
How can you not love pigeons, he asks? They're a huge part of his life these days and he often spends time caressing his birds, talking to them, quietly watching them soar above him.
"They all have their own personalities and there are some you like more than others," Tyson said. "But you know what? There are some people you like more than others. Sometimes, because of what you do, or who you are, you're forced to associate with people and you may not like them or you may not want to be around them, but you have to because of the situation you find yourself in.
"This is my opinion, but I love these birds. They're fascinating creatures and it gives me a good feeling, a sense of peace, just to be around them every day. It's not for everybody, but this is my life and this is what I love to do. I could be happy being around them and watching them for the rest of my life."
- Mike Tyson