Mike Tyson is fast asleep.
The former undisputed heavyweight-boxing champion of the world-turned-entertainer is in New York to promote his autobiography, Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth, as well as his HBO special of the same name, a Spike Lee-directed taping of his acclaimed one-man show on Broadway. I ask him how he’s doing these days.
I’m doing good…I’m OK, just trippin’ out sometimes…I’m tryin’ to do better…
Before I know it, his eyes are closed. He’s snoring, seated upright, in his chair.
We decide it’s best to postpone our interview until the following morning, when he’s more lucid. When Tyson comes to, he motions toward his wife, Lakiha Spicer. “Let’s go to the strip club,” he says wheezily. “Yeah, if you want to die,” she quips.
The next morning, I’m waiting in the lounge on the 35th floor of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Midtown Manhattan. Tyson is running about 40 minutes late. When he arrives, the ex-pugilist is in decidedly better spirits. It’s 11:45 a.m., and the not-so-gentle giant is clenching the biggest tub of Pinkberry I’ve ever seen.
“It’s cookies and cream,” he says, smiling from ear to ear. “I just love Pinkberry.”
Tyson’s one-man show, for the record, is highly entertaining. Over an hour an a half, the 47-year-old opens up about his upbringing in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, how he got into boxing, his days in the ring, and his troubles outside it, including his marriage to Robin Givens and his conviction for the rape of Desiree Washington. It’s just Tyson, dressed in a white suit, a microphone, and a stage, along with the occasional image or video projected behind him. After a Las Vegas debut, he teamed with director Spike Lee to bring the one-man show to Broadway for a sold-out six-night Broadway run before taking it on the road, performing it in 36 cities over three months. It was Tyson’s idea to do the show, but Spicer, his third wife, wrote it.
Our waitress approaches and asks for our order. She’s quite attractive, and her name tag reads “HoneyLynn.”
“HoneyLynn! Ho-ly mo-ly,” says Tyson, erupting with laughter. But he’s all set with his bucket of Pinkberry. For now.
Speaking to Tyson is a roller-coaster ride. One moment he’s giggling like a kid on Christmas morning, and the next he’s giving you a silent death stare as if sizing up his prey. Back in August, Tyson seemed to be in a very bad place. In an interview with Today’s Matt Lauer, the ex-boxer said he’d fallen hard off the wagon after four years of sobriety and was “on the verge of death.”
“I just drank too much for that day and a half, but I’ve been sober now for two and a half months,” he says aggressively. Then he pauses, lowering his voice. “When I said ‘on the verge of death,’ everyone thought I was actually dying, but people didn’t care if I was dying, they just wanted to know when I was going to die.”
I assure him that people cared, but he isn’t convinced.
Tyson’s crazy life story begins in Brooklyn. The Tyson family—his mother, Lorna, brother and sister—moved from a nice apartment in Bed-Stuy to the tougher Ocean Hill neighborhood in Brownsville when he was “about 8 years old.”
“It got real bad, and then everybody moved out of the apartment building but us, so we were the only ones left in the building,” says Tyson. “We still had water and heat, but eventually people came in and stole the pipes, so we didn’t have any heat or water.”
“If my family structure goes down, I’m going to be a really interesting person that you couldn’t even fathom.”
He was a pudgy young boy and eventually fell in with a bad crowd. One of the scariest times from his childhood, which he detailed in a recent New York magazine piece, came when he was 10 and his burglary crew, dubbed the Cats, went after a rival gang called the Puma Boys.
“That was me shooting at people,” says Tyson. “My friends were having problems with them, so I said we should go down there to the park and show those guys a lesson. I had one gun, an M-1 from World War I, but it was sawed down a little bit. We got the guns from a robbery.”
His brother, Rodney, who’s five years his senior, came to the rescue. Another close call came when Tyson was 11. By that point, he’d become very involved in collecting and flying pigeons, which was a popular hobby in his neighborhood. “It gives you a lot of self-esteem if you have beautiful birds, and people talk about your birds,” he says.
“These guys wanted to throw me off the roof for stealing their birds,” he says. “They dragged me towards the roof, hitting on me, and a utility man heard me screaming and said, ‘What’s going on up there?’ And the guys let me go.”
Around this time, Tyson would smoke weed with his friends and watch them shadowbox. “I knew I could do it just from watching them,” he says. He eventually fell under the tutelage of boxing trainer Cus D’Amato and, after his mother died when he was 16, she left him in his care. Tyson was a dominant fighter known for his devastating blows. He won his first 19 professional bouts by knockout, 12 of them in the first round and, at 20 became the youngest boxer ever to win the WBC, WBA, and IBF heavyweight titles.
Tyson soon gained notoriety for his exploits outside the ring. He hazily describes an incident in Los Angeles in 1987 where he almost lost his life.
“Someone shot at me over some girl,” he says. “She liked me and I was dancing with her, and all of a sudden I heard someone yell, ‘Fuck Mike!’ and shots were fired, and they shot the girl I was with.”
At this point in the interview, Tyson calls over his assistant. He’s finished the giant tub of cookies and cream Pinkberry and is jonesing for another. His assistant obliges and moments later hands over another Pinkberry bucket. Tyson is ecstatic.
The following year, he married the actress Robin Givens, who famously threw Tyson under the bus during a 20/20 interview that September with Barbara Walters, describing their union as “torture, pure hell, worse than anything I could possibly imagine.”
“That was really evil stuff,” he says. “Robin was never pregnant, but she told me she was, and that’s why we got married. That was a lie and she should have owned up to that. I had never been in that kind of relationship with a woman and thought I had a nice girl. It wasn’t like I was the best husband. I was cheating on her, too, and we had fights, but that was between us.”
One of the more interesting tidbits from his one-man show involves a chance encounter with Brad Pitt, who dated Givens after she split from Tyson.
“I was waiting at the house for a while and heading back to my car to drive away, and a car pulled up with [Robin and Brad] in it,” he says. “I wasn’t interested in beating him up; I was interested in beating my ex-wife. If he had said something, that would have been different, and I probably would have attacked him. And if he was afraid, it was the first sign of him being a great method actor, because I didn’t see any signs of him being afraid.”
He pauses for a moment.
“With Robin, I was young. I was a dick. I’ve never been good at relationships. My mother’s never been good at relationships, and my father’s never been good at relationships. All my friends always had another woman in their life. I call it my ‘baseline bottom’—a lot of drugs, liquor, violence, and sex, where I’m not trying to improve myself as a person. I have intimacy problems. I cannot believe that I have a decent relationship now with my wife. I can’t believe it. It’s just something that I want to do. I’m very clear now, and this is what I want to do. With me being loyal and faithful to my wife, my demons are saying, ‘What are you gonna do, Mike? You gonna fuck this one girl for the rest of your life?’ That’s what my demons tell me, but I’m very familiar with my demons, and I know where my demons take me.”
I ask him about the worst place his demons have taken him.
“I’ve never hit my rock bottom yet,” he says. “I’ve got a few more highs and lows, really bad stuff in me. I don’t want to hit my rock bottom. My rock bottom is AIDS and all that nasty stuff. That’s my rock bottom. I don’t want to hit my rock bottom. It appears I have, but I haven’t. If I didn’t have my family and my support system, I would do some really bad things to people. Some really bad things. If my family structure goes down, I’m going to be a really interesting person that you couldn’t even fathom. You wouldn’t be having this interview with me in that situation.”
In July 1991, Tyson was arrested in Indianapolis for the rape of 18-year-old Desiree Washington, who’d been crowned Miss Black Rhode Island. Washington testified that she received a call at 1:36 a.m. from Tyson inviting her to a party, and the two eventually ended up in Tyson’s hotel room. There she said he pinned her down and raped her, ignoring her pleas for him to stop. Tyson maintained that the two had consensual sex. He was convicted of rape on February 10, 1992, and sentenced to six years in prison. Alan Dershowitz later filed an appeal on Tyson’s behalf, claiming that Washington had, on at least one other occasion, made a false accusation of rape and that the trial judge had blocked the testimony of several witnesses who could refute Washington’s claims. Tyson lost the appeal.
“The rape conviction in the Desiree Washington case is the reason why a lot of people don’t like you,” I say. “People forgive you for a lot of your past indiscretions, but this, they feel, is unforgivable.”
“I didn’t rape her,” he says. “They wanted to convict me more than anything in the world. There’s not a person in the history of that state that got convicted for rape that did less time than I did. They wanted to be known for the state that convicted me. If the hanging judge really believed I did that, they would have given me 60 years. But they gave me six, which got cut down to three.”
“Dershowitz claimed that she’d cried wolf once in the past,” I note.
“And what, you put yourself in a situation like that twice?” he says. “I just thought that was bullshit. I didn’t have a good image at the time and was very foul-mouthed. It’s just stereotypes. If you’re big, black, and strong, you’re a rapist; if you’re smart and Jewish, you’re a tax cheat; if you’re an Italian in a nice suit, you’re a fuckin’ gangster; if you’re a Latino, you’re having a bunch of babies and making money off welfare. These are stereotypes, and we get convicted in this country based on these stereotypes.”
On the subject of prison, our conversation eventually turns to Chris Brown, who is now in anger management. Tyson has some advice for the troubled singer.
“I just know the system,” says Tyson. “If he keeps getting assault charges, he won’t have the privilege of going to plush jails. If you’re a violent offender, you start going to places with violent prisoners. If he starts going there, he’s not going to like that. I used to have a lot of beautiful models and actress girlfriends, but at the end of the day, they don’t want to see you anymore, so he needs to watch out for that. You become a sad fucking case.”
Things, however, seem to be looking up for Iron Mike. The momentum began with his well-received cameos in The Hangover and its sequel, The Hangover Part II, and has continued to the present, with the release of his autobiography and his HBO special. He next takes his one-man show to Dubai, followed by some dates in Europe. He’s doing voiceover work for a cartoon show that will air on Adult Swim sometime next year called Mike Tyson Mysteries, a detective series with a talking pigeon as his sidekick, and he’ll also star in a film directed by Werner Herzog, as well as another movie, Algerie pour toujours, which will film next year in Algeria.
“My past doesn’t control my life and the way I live today,” he says, cracking a toothy smile. “I just don’t know why people continue to take to me and make me relevant in life. I don’t feel as relevant as people make me.”