Mike Tyson’s birthday came June 30 (just four days before our nation’s). He is as American as apple pie — if the apples have been poisoned by a wicked witch.
I jest, of course. It is so easy to make jokes about the man who was the youngest heavyweight champion in history and who, in the course of an extraordinary two-hour interview the other day in the women’s room of the Phoenix gym where he is training for his next fight, showed he can joke right back.
It is so difficult to get a read on one of the most fascinating characters in American sports history. At once, he is insightful, witty and one of the stupidest men we don’t know. He calls himself the biggest fool in the world. He has said worse things about himself, and about others, than anyone has said about him. Yet only now, having just turned 38, he seems to be reconciling himself with his past.
For the first time since I’ve known him — and I’ve known him about 22 years — he talks nicely about Mike Tyson. He says he’s a "good guy." There is much there to support that belief, same as there is to deny it.
The day after his birthday he gave Tim Dahlberg of the Associated Press and myself glimpses of the latest "new" Mike Tyson. While I don’t think it’s easy to erase a professional lifetime of cynicism with one two-hour session (especially since we’ve seen Tyson turn on his considerable charm in the past), there seemed to be something different about this "new" version.
He is moving on, less with anger at the past. He is no longer the kid attached by umbilical cord to Cus D’Amato. He’s a father of five, the eldest is 15. He demands now to be treated like a man. Maybe he has finally become one.
He looks at the barren heavyweight landscape and knows there is one unlikely chance left for him to live up to the greatness that was his promise so many years ago. He is working hard. We could see it in his sparring, only his third day of boxing for his July 30 fight in Louisville against the former British champion Danny Williams. He was moving his head, doubling his jab, at least for a couple of rounds, before falling into his nasty habits of loading up every punch and forgetting about the combinations.
At 38, though, he was still able to show his great speed and there is no question the power is still there. At 38, though, the body starts sending out bad messages and in the middle of his sixth round, Tyson pulled up with some back spasms that he had first noticed on his run that morning.
It appeared that Tyson might forget about doing interviews and go see a chiropractor. Boy, were we wrong. He gave us two genial hours. He explained his disappointment in not giving us more of a show in the sparring, but the back began to lock up in his fourth round.
He joked about smoking pot, to the point where I thought he was going to ask if anyone had a joint on him. He kidded about his six-year-old son, Amir, becoming a Republican, a George W. Republican yet, and how he had no control. "I wanted him to be a Muslim, he turned Catholic," said Mike, not angrily, but with the resignation that all parents feel.
He said, yeah, he thought about going to one of the Phoenix strip clubs for his birthday, but he now had a "vampire’s cross" to ward off demons: "What will the kids think?"
Tyson didn’t want to really talk about the rape trial, even when I suggested that no matter what happened in that Indianapolis hotel room, there was no way he should have lost the verdict and maybe it was a fixed trial. He shrugged, and preferred to talk about the future.
He spoke of being unconcerned about being 38 years old and owing $38 million (I said, "Wait till you get to be my age").
"If I keep fighting, I can make $80 million a year," he said.
There is no more entourage of money-sucking leeches. Gene Kilroy, the great Muhammad Ali aide who befriended Tyson in Vegas, had always said if Mike could be broken free of the leeches, the world would see the nice guy beneath the bully faÃ§ade.
Tyson has been analyzed, psychoanalyzed, homoginized and simonized. He laughed at Teddy Atlas’s suggestion that his problem was having an identity and always playing roles.
"They’re not psychoanalysts, these guys are barely fight trainers," he said.
Shelly Finkel, who upgraded the July 30 opposition from the hapless Kevin McBride (Peter McNeeley II, I called it) to Williams, hinted that there might be a giant step up next, maybe someone like Antonio Tarver (there have already been talks) and Lamon Brewster. He was asked about Evander Holyfield, whom Finkel used to manage, and Tyson’s advisor repeated "Tarver and Brewster." I think he doesn’t want to see Evander hurt by this latest "new" Tyson.
Freddie Roach, who trained Tyson for that 49-second blowout of Clifford Etienne 17 months ago, said he has never seen Mike so happy, so committed to work. He talked about the four-headed monster atop the heavyweight division (Vitali Klitschko, Chris Byrd, John Ruiz and Brewster in case you forgot the names of the "champions") and said "there’s not one guy there Mike can’t beat."
That may be a sad commentary on the heavyweights, but it would probably be the best news the division, and yea, all of boxing, could have. That’s a new and "mellow" Tyson as champ.