Thursday, Aug 9, 2012 5:10 PM UTC

Sparring with Mike Tyson

A documentarian visits the controversial boxing legend in his home for a stunningly frank conversation

Mike Tyson

Former heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson announces "Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth" a one man show on Broadway  (Credit: AP/Evan Agostini)

This originally appeared on The Classical.

“Myths and legends die hard in America. We love them for the extra dimension they provide, the illusion of near-infinite possibility to erase the narrow confines of most men’s reality. Weird heroes and mold-breaking champions exist as living proof to those who need it that the tyranny of ‘the rat race’ is not yet final.” — Hunter S. Thompson

Maybe the real subject of every interview is how you really can’t learn much of anything about anyone from an interview.

The Classical

Back at his gym in Los Angeles, the only instruction Freddie Roach gave after offering Mike Tyson’s phone number was a warning: “Don’t blindside him. It doesn’t matter if sent you. If you see Mike and you blindside him, he’s capable of attacking you.”

“I’m not looking to blindside anyone here,” I lied.

“Be careful, son.”

And then a couple months later I entered the front door of Tyson’s Vegas home through a thick cloud of marijuana smoke while he came down the stairs toward me with just one question:

“So how did this white motherfucker get inside my house?”

***

“Fighting to me is what theory was to Einstein or words were to Hemingway or notes were to Beethoven.”—Mike Tyson

On June 27, 1988, a 21-year-old Mike Tyson made in excess of 21 million dollars for 91 seconds of work. It took him just over 14 seconds to pull in more money than Michael Jordan, in his prime, made for an entire season of work that year. But maybe you never cared much about sports or athletes and preferred art instead. So maybe you’ll accept Warhol’s advice and measure the worth of an artwork by what you can get for it. At Tyson’s pay rate that night, after another round or so (227 seconds to be exact by my calculations), the work of art he displayed in the ring would’ve earned as much as Vincent van Gogh’s efforts on a canvas when Irises became the most expensive work of art in the world just several months before, selling for $53.9 million.

“Mike Tyson remains that rarest of all commodities. Instead of the human being sold as superhero, Tyson is the superhero who is selling himself as a human being.”—Wallace Matthews

At his peak, they used to giggle and tell you Mike Tyson never had a style, he just fought everyone as if they stole something from him.

“All things truly wicked start from innocence.”—Ernest Hemingway

Long before I ever had a chance to blindside him, Mike Tyson had blindsided me.

Even though we’d never met and I never saw it coming, the little boy in the photo booth saved my life. Mike Tyson as a destination didn’t mean anything to me until I’d gone back and packed some of his luggage to understand the journey. But I guess “Kid Dynamite,” like most boxers, was like any other powder keg made out of commonly found household items.

Start off with where the center of his universe is located: Brownsville, one of the most bleak dungeons of poverty and violence America could dish out. Install an abusive pimp for a father and have him abandon the alcoholic mother before Tyson’s third birthday. Make sure the mother fucks everyone in the neighborhood so the household and its inhabitants gain a glowing reputation from well-wishers in the community. Contaminate his soul with how worthless life is as people with faces he recognizes overdose or get robbed or raped or murdered. Make him an even more attractive target with no friends or any hope of protection in this milieu. Don’t let that kid walk in any direction without it feeling like a plank. Never let him turn a corner without being afraid for his life. And when anything catches up with him, make him too timid and sensitive to ever fight back. Hang cowardice as another millstone around his neck. And after you’ve torn his heart out, why not fan the scent? Best of all, when he begs for help, make sure his voice is the real Rosetta Stone to this kid. Make his voice so high and delicate he’ll be afraid to scream no matter how much he wants to. And if the pathetic little faggot everybody knows he is ever caves, why not go that extra mile and give him a lisp too. As far as he knows, he’ll be dead and forgotten before he blows out the candles for his thirteenth birthday.

But before you finish him off, give him one place to hide. Offer one place where he can run away and take refuge from the world. Let him stumble onto the rooftops of those abandoned tenements and fall in love with the pigeons up there. Watch him spend every dime he can scrape together for feed so he can reward the pigeons from his coop for doing everything he can’t, flying away and escaping all that suffering below. Make the relief of this experience something that marks him forever and leaves a trail that others can find and hunt down. Then some rapacious, observant monster in the neighborhood can notice the change on Tyson and follow him up there. He can trespass undetected into Tyson’s most private world and savor the pillage to come. Let him see the fully exposed scene of Tyson feeding and caring for his birds and allow him to grasp the whole story behind it, the whole pawnshop of broken dreams in his heart. Let him playfully hatch a plan to finish off another boy’s life that’s better than just pulling a trigger or pushing him off the roof. That way, when Tyson returns the next day to the rooftop and discovers one of his pigeons being choked inside the fist of this sadistic fuck he’ll beg him not to hurt it. Tyson can helplessly watch as the bully takes his time soaking up the pleas and enjoys the unraveling process of a shattered human being before casually twisting off the head of the pigeon and laughing at the heartbreakingly predictable outcome.

But instead, for the first time in his life, Tyson stood up for himself and used everything that held him down to unleash the first bars of his own Ninth Symphony with his fists.

I used to wonder how long after that moment, when the world first heard that melody, it took Tyson to realize what real problems were in store for him now. I used to wonder how long it took Tyson to get a whiff of us, and how, as Norman Mailer once said of a previously nightmarish boxer America had a fetish for, “… anyone is supposed to prepare to defend himself against the thoughts of everyone alive.”

At a certain point Mike Tyson and I reacted to violence a little differently. I was afraid to leave my house for three years while he became the heavyweight champion of the world. The thing was, at first, we reacted to it the same way and our cowardice and trauma defined us.

In the summer going into tenth grade, back in 1994, I wrote a letter to inmate number 922335, inside the Indiana Youth Center in Plainfield, Indiana. I’d never mailed a letter to anyone before. Up to that point the only letter I’d ever written had been a suicide note.

The week before, totally by accident, my mother had seen an interview with Tyson from prison and at the end of it she was crying. I only caught the last few minutes. My mother had hated Mike Tyson for the same reasons everybody hated Mike Tyson––yet, by the end of the interview, she loved him. I could see by her face that it made her heart sore. All I’d heard him talk about was reading books in the hole and his childhood. He was reading books my mother had always wanted me to read. She filled me in on the rest.

I was writing a convicted rapist a thank you letter. It’s true that I didn’t know whether or not Mike Tyson was guilty of raping an 18-year-old beauty contestant in Indiana. But I did know without a shadow of a doubt that he was responsible for sending me two places I’d never been on my own before: a boxing gym and a library. And, more importantly, I knew as clearly then as I do now those places saved me.

And, later on, those places led me to Cuba, something else that created its own catchy and mysterious melody standing up to a bully. Cuba led me to make a film about the role of boxing in that society since Castro’s design made it impossible to illuminate anything about a boxer in Cuba without illuminating life in Cuba for everyone else. And Cuba had taken me to America following the lives of defected boxers tired of living Castro’s broken dream only to be held even more hostage by the American Dream. One of those boxers, Guillermo Rigondeaux, had been trained by Freddie Roach. When I’d asked Freddie about how to get in touch with Tyson he shrugged and reached into his pocket and held out his phone, “I have no idea, but you could start with his phone number.”

***

So, once Mike Tyson got down the stairs, I answered his question about how this white motherfucker got inside his house.

“You brought me here.”

And after I’d unpacked how I’d ended up in Tyson’s living room, we both sat down opposite each other and he shook his huge head and smiled before asking:

“Is that all true?”

“What do you think?”

“So I’m guessing you being here, in my home, sitting across from me right now––I’m guessing this is pretty intense for you right now, huh?”

***

On Easter of 2010, the day I interviewed him, Mike Tyson’s boxing career had been over for nearly five years. Tyson had been more famous as a national punchline for biting off someone’s ear than any career achievement or even squandered potential. Besides that, a country 16 trillion in debt looked down upon and remained endlessly fascinated by the spectacle of how someone like Tyson could possibly have pissed away his fortune. The last picture I’d seen of him, taken a couple months before, showed a man who had ballooned to well-over 300 pounds. While he had miraculously dropped most of it since then, he looked deflated from his championship days. Tyson lived in a gated community just outside Las Vegas in the town of Henderson, Nevada. At the front gate a guard let me in just as I noticed Tyson’s assistant roll down a tinted window from his Range Rover on the other side of the entrance, pointing down the driveway for me to follow.

When Mike Tyson was only 18, his managers used to market him on posters, reminding you that if your grandfather had missed Joe Louis, or your father Muhammad Ali, don’t you miss Tyson. But what they didn’t mention was that Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali were a boy’s dream of a fighter. Before long Tyson understood his customers a little better and modified the sales pitch. Tyson figured out, in his era, that America really craved a nightmare.

“People are full of shit. They want to see something dark. People want to feel close to it and in on it, but, of course, only from the distance of their suburban homes. They want to have the benefit of comfort, security, safety, respect, and at the same time the privilege of watching something out of control––even promote it being out of control––as long as we can be secure that we’re not accountable for it… We wanted to believe that Mike Tyson was an American story: the kid who grows up in the horrible ghetto and then converts that dark power into a good cause. But then the story takes a turn. The dark side overwhelms him. He’s cynical, he’s out of control. And now the story is even better.—Teddy Atlas, Mike Tyson’s former trainer

“Okay,” Tyson glared, leaning forward in his chair across from me. A Sandra Bullock rom-com was muted on the flat-screen TV beside us while some of his children’s toys were scattered by my feet. “You said I was your hero growing up. I wanna know who your other heroes are then.”

“They’re all suicides.”

“Is that a prerequisite or something?”

“For a while there, to be honest, I never thought you’d ever live long enough that I’d have a chance to meet or say thank you.”

“Me neither,” Tyson said under his breath, looking over at his wife in the kitchen and then back at me. “I was sure I’d be dead by now, too.”

“On the way over here I drove through Las Vegas for the first time. I’ve never had a desire to see Las Vegas. I hate everything about it. Joe Louis was a hero of mine. And even more depressing than a whole city built up by all the loss and suffering of ruined lives, it’s the idea of someone like Louis, after all he did for this country, ending up broke and strung out on drugs working as a greeter at Caesar’s Palace that—”

“You,” Tyson said, and pointed his finger at me. “You know what your problem is? You’re too sensitive. You probably don’t think you had enough pain in your own life so you take on the pain of other people to make up for it. Taking on the pain of my life or Joe Louis’ life doesn’t help us. It doesn’t help you either.”

Tyson scratched the tattoo of Arthur Ashe on his shoulder while his mother-in-law scurried into the kitchen with Tyson’s baby in her arms.

“What was the next book you read after all those biographies on me?” Tyson asked.

Days of Grace by Arthur Ashe,” I shrugged.

“Didn’t anyone warn you that it’s dangerous meeting your heroes?”

“You’re not a very easy person to have as a hero, Mike.”

“That’s true,” he smiled. “But how am I doing so far today?”

I smiled back at him.

“That Jewish proverb is true, man. ‘The brighter the light, the darker the shadow that’s cast.’ Whatever people think of me, most countries in the world that I visit, it’s kings or presidents that want to greet me. I’ve been the most famous face on the planet. Why do you think that is? I’ve met anyone you can meet. And we’re all part of the same club. The feeling of worthlessness is what drove us to greatness. Content people don’t strive for anything. They don’t have to. I never walked out to the ring without having dreamt the night before of losing.”

“When I mentioned to Freddie Roach that you were one of the most knowledgeable boxing historians in the world he interrupted me. He said, ‘Not one of, Mike Tyson is the greatest boxing historian who ever lived.’”

“So what’s the connection with you and Cuba? That’s what my assistant mentioned you wanted to talk to me about.”

“I know you were in Cuba back in 2002.”

“How the fuck do you know that?”

“I was in Havana when you arrived.”

“Okay,” Tyson conceded. “I was there.”

“What were you doing there?”

“I wanted to meet Teofilo Stevenson.”

“Did you have a chance?”

Tyson shook his head. “I got in some trouble and had to go.”

“I interviewed Felix Savon over there who turned down a lot of money from Don King to fight you. He won three Olympic medals. From 1986 until 2000 he won just about every amateur competition he entered. He told me he would have beaten you. How do you think you would have done?”

Please. Next question.”

“If you had to choose between Fidel Castro or Don King, who do you think would be worse fighting for?”

“Cubans aren’t fighting for money. They’re fighting for glory. They’re saying they’re better than money by turning it down. They’re better than us as human beings. All that stuff.”

“If you were born there and could only make money by leaving your family. If that was the choice you had to make. Could you do it?”

“Where I’m at now. No. I couldn’t leave my family. But I was born here. They’ll put me in the ground here. Those Cubans like Stevenson or Savon represent all that insane stuff over there, I represent all our insane stuff. You have to think that boxing is just narrative. Stories. Why was everyone willing to put more money in the cash register for mine than anyone else? Was I the best? Maybe. But I had the story they cared about most. They saw themselves the most in me, whether they admit it or not.”

“I heard you answer that question once by saying it was because you were angelic and scum. Is that America too?”

“Who knows.”

“I saw an interview with you once where you were crying. You were young. You weren’t champ yet. But you were upset because you said how much you missed fighting when it wasn’t just about the money.”

“Listen, man. I can’t really believe this because I still can’t figure out how you got in my house today. And I can’t believe I’m going to talk about this to a stranger but listen. You said the first book you ever read was about my life. Whatever. At least then you probably know what human being brought me more pain than anyone. And that woman, my mother, she was dead before I was 16. I’m the son of a pimp and an alcoholic. But if I ever brought anything home of value into my mother’s house, she knew I’d stolen it. I never saw her proud of me in my entire life. Not once. And somewhere, somewhere I always had that in my mind. I was fighting to make this woman who caused me more pain than anyone in my life…” Tyson cleared his throat and wiped his face a couple times. “Deep down, I was always fighting to make that woman… I wanted to make that woman proud of me. That’s what I was always fighting for.”

Right then a clock next to us tolled, then once more for two o’clock. Tyson cradled his face in his hand and cleared his throat. The moment was gone and the assistant entered the room and told Mike Tyson they had appointments to meet.

“You like F. Scott Fitzgerald, man?” Tyson asked.

“Yep.”

“He said something like, ‘There are no second acts in American lives.’ Some shit like that. Maybe I’ll prove him wrong.”

Brin-Jonathan Butler’s boxing documentary Split Decision is currently launching on crowdfunding site IndieGoGo. Check out trailers and more here. He has written for the Toronto Quarterly, the Rumpus, Annalemma Magazine, Fight Hype, and the New York Times.