It wasn’t always like this for Mike Tyson, this warm cuddly affection we have for him. He stepped into the public limelight as boxing’s brutal destroyer, who in 1986 became, at a precocious 20, the youngest heavyweight champion ever. He scared tough, experienced heavyweights out of their shorts, before he inevitably knocked them out of them.
No-one could get close to beating Mike until he virtually threw the championship away four years later in Japan to Buster Douglas, having barely trained or taken the fight remotely seriously. That turned out to be not just an aberration, something course-corrected in a rematch — it was the beginning of a derailment and slide into physical decline and personal disgrace. In 1991, amid reports of excessive drug and alcohol use, he was accused of raping Desiree Washington, a charge he denies to this day, saying he “never violated her”. But, despite a weak case against him, he was convicted and sentenced to six years in prison, serving four.
His punishment had as much to do, he thought, with how white America viewed and despised a black man who was tougher than anyone else, and kowtowed to no-one. He certainly filled out the profile of the pantomime villain, on a limited spectrum of feared to hated.
He regained a couple of his championship belts soon after his release from prison, but never recaptured his best form and lost several subsequent fights, before one day literally just sitting down in the ring in the middle of a fight and quitting.
Somewhere along the line he reemerged into the sunlight as a joyous, beloved personality. There was his charismatic performance in the first Hangover movie (he was apparently messed up on drugs at the time and barely remembers getting through the scenes). He was a joke, but it was a comedy and he was in on the joke. From there he started popping up in other cultural touchstones, and showed a winning, softer personality in interviews.
Recently he converted to Islam — our interviewer, Jose “Pepe” Sulaiman, called it a “transformation” and asked me if that was the correct word. It is in the larger sense, if not the pure vocabulary sense.
Jose, a poet, photographer, painter and filmmaker, was born into boxing — his father, also Jose, was the legendary President of the World Boxing Council (WBC) and his brother Mauricio is the current head. “Pepe” as he likes to go by, had been trying to get an interview with Mike, who he’s known for a long time, for two years. When he was commissioned to take Tyson’s photograph for an upcoming book on the WBC’s greatest fights, he took the opportunity to “make a different interview, looking for a more personal rather than boxistico view of life. I knew he had a new perspective of life, so I went with something very different from everything he relates to.” Bob Guccione, Jr.
SPIN: First of all I’m going to read you something. According to Native Americans, when a pigeon is your power animal, here are four attributes they describe:
You enjoy being at home so much that you rarely venture out.
Whether you’re male or female, you have strong maternal instincts, are family-oriented and when you spend time with others, your family members are your first choice.
You have very clear and distinct moral values, although you don’t try to push them into others.
You’re proud of your accomplishments rather than resting on your laurels, you continue to aspire to other goals.
Mike Tyson: That’s the pigeon?
If the pigeon is your power animal, according to Native American traditions. How much do you relate to that?
[Mike takes a deep breath and responds with a broken voice]
My first fight was over a pigeon. And that led me to here.
Everybody knows you love pigeons…
But it’s deeper than that, it’s deeper than that. I have birds out there, I just feed them, I don’t do nothing with them, I have to have them around me, I don’t know why, I don’t even talk to them, I just go and feed them, never let them out, they’re gonna die in there. I don’t even know why I love them.
Even the word “power” takes you to other places.
No, power takes me to love. That’s the most, that’s the biggest power that we can ever encounter, it doesn’t get any bigger than that.
Do you think life is a competition?
Life is only a competition to improve life, but not to carry from an ego perspective. You know, make life reasonable for everyone, black, white, red, yellow, poor, rich, everyone. It’s just love is too big, I can’t even articulate love to you.
Doesn’t everybody live life trying to prove something to everybody?
My only struggle is to receive everybody as my teacher. I just have to realize everything I encounter is from a learning perspective and these are my teachers, regardless of what they might be, blind, they might be crippled, they might be homeless, might be superstars, might be beautiful, wherever it is, but I look at it from a learning perspective and they’re all my teachers.
I was thinking the other day, how much different is a man facing death to an insect or a bird?
Listen we’re so close to an encounter with death we don’t even know. You’re encountered with death right now.
Any moment anything can happen, we can die any second, and when you’re dying, life becomes more beautiful, everything you see — the tree is more beautiful. Everything looks better, the picture is more beautiful, everything’s more loving, you know?
I think death has a bad reputation. How could life be so beautiful and death be bad? Why would God want us to suffer, if everything we believe about God is true, which I believe, why would He want us to suffer? How could death be bad when everything is love?
I don’t think death is bad, I think that’s perhaps another form of life that we have to experience. I look at my kids as my time machine.
We live in a dual universe, it’s our human experience, duality.
Think brother. Who are you? I don’t know who I am, I’m a fungus on this planet, you know? It’s so interesting that if every fly on this planet dies, we’ll all die, if every bee dies, we all die, if every insignificant animal that we think is nothing, they die, we die. But if humans die, the world flourishes! So what does that tell you? We’re fungus to the world and it tries to get rid of us because we’re killing it.
So where do you find yourself in this huge mix of things?
I find myself um, I’m so small, I’m hardly noticed, but I make a lot of noise. That’s how I look at my life, I don’t even exist, but I make a lot of noise.
All nature lives on instinct and let me more or less relate this to boxing. When a boxer gets in the ring, instinct just kicks in, because it’s not possible to think in a fraction of a second. Did you feel that instinct kicking in when you fought, the instinct of an animal?
Listen, we’re all animals, we’re born animals and society taught us to be human beings and — just like animals, which we are — some get domesticated sooner than others, and some take a little longer to get domesticated. Some of us are ahead of each other, some are not. Some of us are lacking, but we’re trying, but some of us do have our animal instincts. That’s our survival mechanism and the people who don’t have it, they’re more acceptable to really supercilious illnesses, disease and constantly self-suffering and all that stuff.
Of course we are animals, but we have developed resources for our own benefit.
Until we have enough trust in the world we’re going to always have that self-preservation, because we really think that everybody’s against us. We think we’re out there by ourselves, no matter how much love is around you, you only got the instinct.
Whoa, I try to stay out of my own head, you know? I’ve been to all the worst neighborhoods, I’ve been in the worst countries in the world, I mean the worst and none of them is worse than in here [taps his head], it’s the worst neighborhood to work, oh man, especially if you don’t have no security up here, you’re going to be in some trouble, make sure you have your bodyguards when you go in this neighborhood.
You are a boxing historian. Did you learn from watching, did it help you fight?
I don’t care how great of a masterful teacher anybody has, if you want to be the best, you watch the best, you look at the best. You watch them and you have their lifestyle — don’t be like them, just have the lifestyle of the greatest. And it’ll take you anywhere you want to go, sometimes it takes you places that you’re unable to comprehend and handle, you know your skills take you somewhere that your brain can’t even handle, and that’s how we get in trouble, you know? I’ve been hanging out with these presidents and queens, what the hell am I doing? I’m a street kid. I know there’s people like this, but what am I doing?
Did you ever see the boxing life I as a sacrifice?
Absolutely, total sacrifice, if you don’t put 100 percent in here, you’re going to have a bad ending, you might not be able to talk, a real bad ending.
And now, when you became enlightened — I like to use the word enlightened — when you became a Muslim…
That’s a form of enlightenment.
I really wanna emphasize the change it had on you. Did your perception of boxing change at all?
Oh absolutely, but I just think, my perspective of boxing changed with my perspective on life, you know? And life is beautiful.
Is boxing a lonely sport?
Well listen, now it’s not lonely, when I was fighting it was lonely, now we have so many gadgets to keep us comfortable, before we had those tapes to keep watching, my thing was watching fights, so I got six weeks of training, I’m watching fights because that’s all I wanted, until I got to fight.
Normal people that have to fight don’t even want to look at any fighting and my trainer, Cus D’amato, thought something was wrong with me. He said, “you want to watch a fight before you…” [Laughs.] I mean, I just have to be into it, that’s who I am, got to be a part of my flesh, my brain, my mind. I knew all the champions, I met them, all those guys, I read about, I met them, like Ruben Olivares, Alexis Arguello, uh man, I met them all, all the fighters I looked up to, even the old guys like Kid Gavilan and all these guys, I mean Billy Graham, all these old guys, who fought in the ‘30s and ‘40s, who were like really old, like 70s and I met them. If anytime they needed money I always gave them money because without them, where would I be?
Everybody says, what are you talking… [Laughs again.] Without these guys, they gave me that inspiration, they may look like bones today but to me they’re superheroes, because I wouldn’t be here if this bum didn’t show me who he was.
I think ‘this is a god’ and these guys look at him, like ‘that bum.’ I look at people like Bobby Chacon, right? And he’s talking funny and I love the guy, he’s a hero to me, but people say, who’s that guy Mike? They have no idea where that guy has been. So those guys are my heroes, Ray Leonard, Benitez, all those guys, Haggler, Holmes, they’re my heroes because they help form me to be who I am today.
In your boxing days you were a destroyer, now, today, do you think you are a healer in any sense?
I don’t know if I’m a healer but I’m being healed. I got to take care of my healing, I’m not even healed yet but, you know…
I’m talking about who I am, the secrets that I hide, my good points, my bad qualities, I put everything together, you know? I’m an inventory guy — you know what I do? At night I say, hey did I do this, I messed up on this, I messed up, yes I beat myself up, I’m really… I’m really strict in self-inventory, self-awareness. And I fuck up all the time.
What I mean is, you make people feel good and that’s an important part of that healing I’m talking about.
Yeah? That’s interesting you say that because sometimes I say to myself, when I’m being selfish, I say to myself, you don’t care about this life but you make so many people… so many other people happy, you know? I mean I think that’s why sometimes I’d be saying “screw Mike Tyson”, jump off the building, but so many other people go: “hey, Mike Tyson.” Out of all the things I’ve experienced in life, that never clicked to me that I’m somebody, I don’t even like to think of it. I don’t have the highest regards to myself probably, but I just can’t take my life like everybody, “hey mike, hey, that’s scary.” I don’t know, I was made to be that way, you know? To be scary sometimes.
It blows my mind that I can [make somebody’s day], that I’m able to do that because I don’t think I’m worthy of this stuff and I’ve had my demons and stuff. I get tricky with love. Too much love is tricky, you know?
And sometimes there’s a situation when you have bad thoughts about somebody but then you go with that someone and you do something good instead of hurting him.
Listen, this is what I learned, everybody that you fight is not your enemy, and everybody that helps you is not your friend. The people you fight are your best allies, in my experience, people I fought are my best allies at the end.
As I was saying before, we live in a dual universe, black, white, good, bad, God, Devil. We should always search to be in the middle because if you’re in the middle, you can see everything, have a little bit of everything.
Listen brother, do you really think there’s God, and the Devil has made his way in here and he’s just as equally as powerful? No, it’s not that way, in my perspective. God, he invented this guy, Satan, the Devil, to tempt us, to prove do we really love you or do we really like him. But to believe that this guy has a equal sharing with God, I just can’t see that, if that’s how religion goes, you know, I don’t see it from that respect. I don’t believe nothing could even stand next to God, can you imagine that?
We think that some code is going to change us all and make everything an enlightened world, but then life wouldn’t be exciting. If it was all just pure good, it wouldn’t inspire people. Adversity makes the strong stronger and the weak weaker, we need adversity in our life, we need to be competitive to enhance the world.
You need to know the hard part of life, to enjoy the good…
Listen, there’s no bad, it’s only what you think it is.
There’s no good, there’s no higher perspective. If you believe that’s good, then it’s good, you believe it’s bad, then it’s bad. Whatever you believe is true, no matter if it’s good or bad.
Some people say we have a seed of God, some others say that we are actually Gods in this life, what do you think?
I don’t know, I think God’s so far from our understanding that we have to make him up so many times. We have to make our own perspective, our perception of him. God just blows our mind, we don’t even know where the hell we are. How did we get here? What is that calling to be here, besides killing the planet, that’s what we’ve been doing since we’ve been here, killing the planet, killing people…
I look at myself as, um, as a seeker. I seek, you know? I mean, I understand that in order to be a master you have to be a fool at first, and I’m willing, but not many people are willing to go through that journey of being a fool. They want to be the master, but they don’t want to walk through the process.
That was part of the sacrifice we talked about earlier, but sacrificing in the best sense of the word.
I just think, as far as discipline, I think it’s very, very difficult to surpass me, I really do. I don’t think fighters could, I don’t think they could fast longer than me. I think it’s very difficult because I look at training and stuff from a different perspective. You can just look at the fighters now, they’re bigger but look, they have no respect, the way their bodies look, you know, they win fights but look how they look, that’s what you want to represent? I come in looking beautiful, the Heavyweight Champion looks beautiful. Right? You shouldn’t look like a hot dog eating champ, right?
Going back to Native Americans, they say we carry death, that death is always with us, It’s always on our left side throughout our life.
Definitely. Listen, why did the humans fall in love with anything death can touch? We don’t fall in love with our houses, we fall in love with our children, our wives and our family members, our dogs, our cats and death can touch all of that. We never love anything that death can’t touch.
Do you worry about dying?
Can you die right now?
That’s reaching our highest potential, isn’t it? Actually dying, to experience death, is something God can’t experience.
I never thought about God never experiencing that, so we are unique in that sense, we die, we experience death.
That’s the only reason God is jealous of us, He’ll never know the beauty of death. [Mike explodes in laughter] Oh, I’m so stupid, forgive me God.
A journalist friend of mine in Mexico, James Blears, suggested a question: If God came down and gave you a computer, or a phone, and said you have the chance to send an email to Cus D’amato, what would you write in that email?
[Mike thought in silence for a moment] What… what… oh shit. How did I do?
That’s what I would say, how did I do?