Teflon Mike

Mike Tyson: Why Do We Forgive Him?

Tricia Romano writes about how a convicted rapist became culturally cuddly.

Erik Kabik, SPI Entertainment, Kirvin Doak Communications / AP Photo

Mike Tyson might not be the boxing heavyweight champion of the world anymore, but he's the champ of the comeback: he's just finished his first one-man show in Las Vegas and he just launched an iPhone app. As he nurses his hopes to get his show onto Broadway, he’s also busy flying to Poland pimping energy drinks and telling overseas audiences during appearances about his lifelong goal: becoming a missionary.

Before her ill-fated talk show folded on Oprah's network, Rosie O'Donnell had the boxer on as a guest, and later he helped her celebrate her 50th birthday and sang her “Happy Birthday.” After, she Tweeted: "u r quite lovely with such an open heart - ur family is beautiful - so r u - xxx see u in Vegas !!!"

And last year, the convicted rapist and former drug addict went on Ellen DeGeneres’s program and told her he had changed his life after the tragic accidental death of his 4-year-old daughter. He said then that he had been sober for two years, and thanks to his vegan diet, he was no longer a “fat cokehead.” (If you’re keeping track, that’s two feminist lesbians in Tyson’s corner.)

His evolution has been ongoing. In 2008, when he was the subject of Tyson, an award-winning documentary by James Toback, he spoke of how he’d changed after converting to Islam: “I became more humble and more subservient because that’s what Islam is about.”

Here’s Tyson’s other side: “Put your mother in a straightjacket, you punk-ass white boy! Come here and tell me that, I’ll fuck you in the ass, you punk white boy, you faggot! You can’t touch me, you are not man enough. I’ll eat your asshole alive, you bitch,” he raged at a 2002 press conference, his first after serving his three-year prison sentence for rape. “Fuck you, you ho, come and say it to my face. I’ll fuck your ass in front of everybody, you bitch! Scared of the real man. I’ll fuck you till you love me, faggot!”

And that’s the edited version.

It feels like Mike Tyson’s been on an apology tour for the last six years. Like other troubled men in showbiz, Chris Brown, Charlie Sheen, and Tracy Morgan, Tyson is trying to overhaul his image. He’s certainly faired better than Sheen at the confessional concert, and in many ways, he shows true remorse. Unlike some of the others, he seems to have succeeded in tapping into our sympathies with better skill—even though Tyson’s crimes against women are arguably the most egregious.

In many ways, he represents a number of archetypes beloved by Americans—the underdog who succeeded against all odds, the bad boy with a heart of gold, and the savage beast tamed by age, introspection, and massive amounts of psychotherapy. When the massive brute force of his physicality is underscored by the soft, high lisping voice, it is easy to think of Tyson as a teddy bear—it’s a romantic notion, even. But Tyson himself will tell you, as he did audiences in Vegas. “I’m really an animal, guys. I’m just dressed up nice.” Why do we —particularly women—continue to root for Mike Tyson, rapist, accused wife beater, and self-admitted “pig”?

“I think there is some magic to being the heavyweight champion of the world. And it's hard for Americans to break up with those people at the end of the day,” said Danyel Smith, the former editor in chief of Vibe and Billboard magazines, who is writing a book about African-American women in pop music.

“People remember the Mike Tyson of yore,” she said. “I’m not a huge boxing fan. But I remember the talking points about him,” she said, listing the mentor relationship with his late trainer Cus D’Amato; his hard-knocks background as a juvenile delinquent; and later, his involvement with Don King, which drained the boxer of many of his millions. “He was an underdog. Then, it got complex.”

That’s an understatement. Ever since he lost his heavyweight title the first time to Buster Douglas in 1990, he’s been on a perpetual uphill climb. He’s been in and out of courtrooms and jails—for bankruptcy, including suing his former managers for financial fraud, has answered to drug and alcohol charges, groping allegations, and has been divorced twice, most famously to his first wife, Robin Givens, the beautiful actress who claimed that living with him was pure hell, and alleged that he’d hit her. Along the way, he bit Evander Holyfield’s ear in a rematch and was banned from boxing, got his face tattooed with a Maori warrior symbol, and had another career renaissance with a memorable part in The Hangover in 2009. When his daughter died the same year in a freak accident, it sent Tyson in a further state of introspection and earned him condolences the world over.

“He's definitely one of the more interesting stories in the history of modern sports, you know, modern celebrity,” said Touré, the author of Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness. “With the exception of the woman he raped—he [didn't] hurt anybody, he just hurt himself. You know, he’s just been sort of screwing himself, and when that's the case, a person becomes something of a tragic figure that they sort of came from nothing, rose to this height based on talent, passion, and knowledge, and then screwed himself and got screwed financially speaking.”

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A sympathetic figure, Tyson has been repentant about many aspects of his behavior. In Tyson he admitted that he was addicted to “leeches,” and his downfall was his own fault. He’s the tough guy who is not afraid to show emotion and vulnerability, often choking up during interviews. At the same time he is self-deprecating and charming.

But with regard to the women in his life that he has wronged, he is less than forthcoming. In Toback’s film, he still refers to Desiree Washington, whom he was sent to prison for raping, as “a wretched swine of a woman.” In 2006, he told Greta Van Susteren, he was still infuriated with Washington. "I just hate her guts. She put me in that state, where I don't know,'' Tyson said. "I really wish I did now. But now I really do want to rape her.”

In 2008, his views on women were still not evolved and were disturbing and contradictory. He told Toback, “What I want in a woman is protection, loyalty, companionship. I want her to protect me, have my back to the bitter end.” But he also said: “I like a strong woman with massive confidence and then I want to dominate her sexually. I like to watch her like a tiger watches their prey after they wound them.” He admitted: “What I want is extreme. Normally what I want is not as extreme as they want.”

And if you believe the reviews of his Vegas show, Time magazine writes that his attitude is not much changed in this regard: “He brings up his ill-fated marriage to the actress Robin Givens as a way to ridicule her.”

How do we reconcile this man with the one who appears on Conan, joking about getting dissed by Givens for Brad Pitt, and feeling as humiliated as any mere mortal would.

Or the man who told Details magazine in 2010: “I wasn't half the man I thought I was. So if there's a big plan now, it's just to give—it's selflessness, caring for the people who deserve it.”

“We talk about America being the land of second chances,” said Smith. “He’s like on his, what, 17th?”

Still, she said, women’s sympathy for Tyson, “remains at a distance,” said Smith. “He’s not Muhammad Ali at the end of the day.”

Chris Brown serves as one clear parallel to Tyson. When Brown beat Rihanna’s face to a pulp a few years ago, the outrage was palpable; yet a disturbing number of women were all too ready to “let Chris Brown beat” them up after his last appearances on the Grammy’s.

And he didn’t even have to go on the apology tour. Still, it feels like more people are more willing to take Tyson, the convicted rapist, under their wing than Brown, who agreed to plea deal for a lesser crime.

Touré called Tyson and Brown a “false comparison,” but said that sometimes a public’s willingness to forgive is loaded by what the person was before, and who they’ve become. “How much does their scandal surprise us? R. Kelly is sleeping with underage girls. Was that a shock? No! It was not. It becomes an asterisk hanging over his career, but it didn't shock us,” he said. “When Mike Tyson raped a woman, people were hurt and angry, but they weren't shocked. And it feels bad to say that, but this was a person who was vicious and highly sexual. It didn't cause you to recalibrate the Mike Tyson in your mind. But you know at the same time he paid a debt, he went to prison, he did several years,” he said.

“Chris Brown is opposite on both those scales. What he did completely shocks and surprises us and demands us to completely change what we thought about him and who we thought he was. And he didn't pay. He did not pay for beating her up."

If Chris Brown were smart, he could learn from Tyson. “Tyson is a Shakespearean extravaganza,” said Smith. “We are still early, early in the first act of Chris Brown's life.”

“It's hard—forgiveness is supposed to be right thing to do,” said Smith of Tyson’s mistreatment of women. “We are all supposed to be trying to forgive people. These men have done things that are so difficult to forgive, much as maybe we would like to think a good thought about him moving through his life,” she said. “When you think about somebody that big and that strong being a man and putting his hands on a woman, you just become frightened of him and frightened of the idea, the thought, the reality of that kind of physical and emotional pain being actually inflicted on someone.”

The fundamental question that continues to center around the boxer is can a violent person change—and has Tyson really changed? At least, in some ways, it seems like he has.

During his Conan O’Brien appearance the comedian remarked that he watched Tyson’s turn as Herman Cain in a Funny or Die video and thought: “This is really funny. This is not the Mike Tyson that I first started watching in the '80s. You are such a different guy now.”

Tyson responded: “Well, I have the dark side, but the dark side gave way to the light.”

Touré, who has interviewed the boxer in the past, believes that Tyson has turned a corner. “Now he's much more a nice guy, more affable. He seems much sweeter. He sort of disavows the sort of warrior who he was. He's willing to make fun of himself,” he said. “He's basically, like, "That guy? I would be scared of that guy.”

“People get old. They have to spend more time with themselves, with other smart people and caring people,” said Smith. “Maybe they do change. It's the best you can hope for someone who has lived the life that he's lived.”