The downside of interviewing Mike Tyson on the phone: I don’t get to see what his face tattoo looks like up close. Upside: I can ask anything I want, with little fear of getting my jaw broken.
So when the former heavyweight boxing champion, ear-biter, convicted rapist, born-again vegan, pigeon racer, movie star, politician, philanthropist, and “prostitute hunter” (his words) called Friday morning, I had high expectations for Charlie-Sheen candor. “Kid Dynamite” would be weeping by the time I was through with him, and next thing I knew I’d be on a plane to Vegas for a green smoothie and a hug.
Michael Gerard Tyson had just got back to his hometown Thursday night from the premiere of Scary Movie 5, his latest big-screen foray and one of a whirlwind of projects into which the 47-year-old tough guy has hurled himself, all part of a stunning bounceback from a life once characterized by a never-ending series of rock-bottom moments.
The biting of Evander Holyfield’s ear. The rape conviction and six-year prison bid. That time he said “I want to eat your children.” The death of his 4-year-old daughter, strangled by a cord dangling from a treadmill. Umpteen stints in jail. Next to Mike Tyson’s low points, Charlie Sheen and Lindsay Lohan are the Bobbsey Twins.
Now, though? The guy is Lena Dunham-ubiquitous. He’s got a one-man show, directed by Spike Lee. He’s a key figure in the effort to win a pardon for boxer Jack Johnson. He’s doing a series on Animal Planet about pigeon racing. Scary Movie 5. He’s been on Oprah and the Today show. And perhaps the craziest twist of all: he no longer eats meat. That’s right. The dude who BIT ANOTHER DUDE’S EAR has given up the carnivore lifestyle altogether.
How the hell did that happen? This being America, I guess it’s not all that surprising. If disgraced New York Times reporter Jayson Blair can remake himself into a life coach, if intern-chasing Bill Clinton can with a single speech basically hand a sitting president four more years in the White House, if Michael Vick can be allowed to own dogs again, Mike Tyson can worm his way back into America’s hearts. We love comebacks for the same reason we love train wrecks: they make us feel first superior and then inspired and then let down and then inspired again, a perfect metaphor for our own crazy mixed-up lives.
But Mike Tyson? A few years ago, the best he could hope for was a shitty reality television show, à la Tonya Harding or Danny Bonaduce. You know, the kind of entertainment where he’s the butt of the joke.
Then came The Hangover, that raunchy, hilarious movie that brought Tyson back into our lives as his own self-deprecating self, and a star was reborn. All the former boxer had to do was pick up the phone, and he’s unafraid to admit it.
“I got a phone call and went to the show,” Tyson told me. “I had no idea it was going to be such a sensational show. Now people know me who never saw me fight before.”
That was just the beginning. Tyson’s role in that one movie led to one offer after another, and he takes very little credit for any of it.
“I’m very grateful,” he said. “People offer me jobs, direct me, I just let them do their jobs.”
“I thought boxing was what I was born to do, but it’s not. It’s entertaining people. Three hundred years ago, I was that guy on the plantation, playing a banjo.”
Of course, there’s more to it than that. To maintain a schedule as grueling as Tyson’s requires either an unsustainable cocaine habit or the other extreme: veganism. When Tyson’s 4-year-old daughter died in 2009, that was his personal turning point.
“I’ve never been the same since,” he said. From then on, “I wanted to change my life. I became a vegan, started detoxing, cayenne pepper, all that stuff. Eventually everything started working. I’m very grateful that God has given me a second chance.”
One of the many glowing reviews of Tyson’s honest and autobiographical one-man show, Undisputed Truth, asked whether we were laughing at him or with him, a question I put to him on Friday morning. It makes no difference, he said.
“I don’t care how they’re laughing, as long as they’re laughing,” he said. “Laughing heals pain.”
Tyson knows it is an entirely different thing, to hold an audience’s attention not by knocking someone out but by talking. He insists he’s just as capable with a microphone as he is with a boxing glove.
“I’m very good at entertaining people,” he said. “I don’t like admitting that—it comes across so wussy. You’d never think of me like—what’s that word?—I’m a prima donna. I like to evoke feelings, emotion. It’s what I was born to do. I thought boxing was what I was born to do, but it’s not. It’s entertaining people. Three hundred years ago, I was that guy on the plantation, playing a banjo.”
But enough with the warm and fuzzies. You were in The Hangover, Mike. What was the craziest, most Hangover-esque night of your life? He struggles to pick one:
“Too many crazy nights. Going to somebody’s house and it’s not their house. People are in the house sleeping and I’m in somebody’s house I don’t know. My friend gave me the key, and the key worked!”
What about the hookers, Mike? You called yourself a “prostitute hunter” on the Today show....
That’s where his rep cuts into the line. I had forgotten she was even there. “That was a long time ago,” she snaps. “He’s got time for two more questions.”
Two more questions. I haven’t asked him if he misses bacon, if he really thinks Chris Brown is “a wonderful kid,” if he’s still buried under a mountain of debt. But I wimped out and asked “What’s next?” to which he starts rattling on about finishing his tour and blah blah; and then another thing I’d been wondering about, a thing he said in a recent interview when she asked if he had any regrets. He said he didn’t.
“No. Everything happens for a reason,” he told me. “If I did it differently, I wouldn’t have had the life I have now.”
No doubt about that.