In early 2003, Mike Tyson was training in Las Vegas for what would turn out to be the final victory of his illustrious career, a 49-second knockout of Clifford Etienne on Feb. 22, 2003.
He was six or seven months removed from a beating at the hands of Lennox Lewis in the last title fight of his career. When that fight ended, there was doubt whether Tyson would ever come back.
Many had concerns about how he’d be able to live without boxing. His life was stranger than any fiction the best novelists could dream up, but boxing at least provided some structure.
But as he prepared for the Etienne fight, his behavior was on point. He was a role model to young fighters. He was saying and doing the right thing.
This is a guy who had been bashed in the media for his behavior, so it just seemed right that when he was doing the right thing, it should be noted.
I wrote a freelance column pointing that out.
A day or so after it was published, the phone rang with an unfamiliar number on the Caller ID. The caller identified himself as Mike Tyson.
Even though I’d covered most of his significant bouts at that point, it’s still not every day that Mike Tyson calls you at home so I was suspicious. Tyson’s voice was frequently imitated, and comedians used to make fun of his lisp and the higher pitch to his voice than his size suggested.
Something didn’t seem right. I wasn’t expecting Tyson to call me. The lisp seemed way overdone. It seemed that someone — perhaps a friend, perhaps someone just pulling a prank — had gotten my number and had called me imitating Tyson.
As the caller spoke, I said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Finally after listening for a while, I couldn’t take it any more.
“This,” I told the caller sternly, “is maybe the worst Mike Tyson imitation I’ve ever heard. Nice try.”
And I slammed the phone down.
The next day, I went to Tyson’s training camp to watch him work out. The only people in camp were Tyson, trainer Freddie Roach, AP sports columnist Tim Dahlberg and the actress Meg Ryan, who was taking photos.
When we went into Tyson’s locker room after his workout had ended, Tyson came up to me and said, “Kevin, I called you to be nice and respectful to thank you for what you wrote and you hung up on me and treated me like a [expletive].”
Yes. It was Mike Tyson. I’d slammed the phone in the ear of the guy once known as “The Baddest Man on the Planet.”
On Thursday, as I interviewed him about his life and the sport he once dominated, we reminisced about that event. He laughed uproariously and recalled it well.
It was a vastly different Tyson on Thursday than the guy who you saw during his fight career. He was a kid from the streets who was so good, so preternaturally gifted at such a young age that he was plopped into the middle of the heavyweight title chase when he was just a teenager.
In 1986, he became the youngest man ever to win the heavyweight title when he stopped Trevor Berbick at the Las Vegas Hilton (now the Westgate).
“When I was champ of the world, I was 20 years old [and] I had friends who were 15 years old,” Tyson, now 53, said. “I was hanging out with 15-year-old kids, 17-year-old kids. It was just a bunch of kids hanging out with a lot of [expletive] money.”
That led to a series of incidents and often outlandish behavior as long as his right arm.
He was an intimidating, seemingly out-of-control person, but that guy is long gone. Several of his classic fights were recently on ESPN2, but he didn’t even know it. He would only watch his fights if someone asked him to do it.
“And then they’d be pointing out all the mistakes I made,” he said, self-effacingly. “I don’t want to hear about all those mistakes I made.”
A lot of his critics back in the day predicted he’d never live to 40. He’s done a lot of things he’s not proud of, but the one thing Tyson is not is a fool. A fool doesn’t learn from his mistakes.
He isn’t educated but he’s a smart guy who has gotten to a place in his life where he just wants to stay home and enjoy his wife and children. It’s almost as if Mike Tyson the fighter and the Mike Tyson who was in the tabloid gossip columns is a different man than the 50-something guy with the graying beard.
“As time goes by, I find myself being a different person,” Tyson said. “I change. As time goes by, I find myself changing. Unwillingly, sometimes, but I find myself changing. I can’t stop it.”
Asked if he were changing for the better, he provided a thoughtful response.
“I don’t know what’s better and what’s worse,” he said. “I’m not where I was before. Happier, I don’t know if that exists, but I’m in a better emotional position than I was before.”
Mike Tyson raising money to help coronavirus victims
He’s a businessman now. He lent his name to Tyson Ranch, which is in Desert Hot Springs, California, about 60 miles from Los Angeles. His eyes light up when he speaks about it.
Tyson smiles broadly and begins in a quick description even before he’s asked a question.
“Tyson Ranch is awesome,” he said. “It’s my baby. It’s a high-tech, state-of-the-art, cannabis-friendly resort.
He’s using the money he earns to help the needy. His wife, Kiki, came up with an idea for a T-shirt that is raising money for COVID-19 victims. On it is a caricature of Tyson saying, “Washing your damn hands.” On the back is a cartoon panel showing the proper steps.
He lives a comfortable life, but he hasn’t forgotten those days in Brooklyn when he had next to nothing. He knows what it’s like to struggle and he is trying his best to make a difference. When he was on top, it was all too often about him. Now, in advanced middle age, he’s all about others.
“Yeah, the checks can come in but the whole purpose of the checks coming in is so the checks can go to people who need it more than we do like the homeless and the addicted and all that stuff,” he said.
This is the Mike Tyson many never thought they’d see: A man at peace with himself, content in the company of his family, thinking about the world beyond his doors and how he’ll be able to make a difference.
It’s good to see him like this. When he was on top and had everything he could possibly have wanted, he seemed empty, in search of something he couldn’t find.
He’s found it now: Peace. Inner calm. And that peace is allowing him to live his best life, help others and make a positive difference in the world.
The old Tyson, the one who was the idol of so many and who did both remarkable and reprehensible things, is long gone.
But I gotta say, I’m liking this version of Michael Gerard Tyson.
I like it a lot.
And if he calls, I promise not to hang up on him.
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