For almost two decades, there was nobody more feared in the boxing arena than Mike Tyson. He won his first 19 fights by knockout, and in 1986, when he was just 20 years old, he defeated Trevor Berbick to become the youngest heavyweight champion in boxing history. He went on to decimate the competition, mowing down boxing greats like Larry Holmes, Tony Tucker, Tyrell Biggs, and James “Bonecrusher” Smith. In one historic match, against Michael Spinks in 1988, Tyson knocked out the undefeated champion in just 91 seconds.
As time went on, he got more brutal in the ring. He took a bite out of Evander Holyfield’s ear. He said crazy things like “I just want to conquer people and their souls” and “my power is discombobulatingly devastating” and “I want to rip their stomachs out and eat their children.” And he started losing. But he was still one of the sport’s biggest and most memorable icons. Even when he got a face tattoo and seemed more like a self-parody than the undefeatable boxing machine he once was, he was still a legend.
Which makes his just-released memoir, Undisputed Truth—based on his one-man show, which debuted on Broadway in 2012 before going on a 30-city tour—all the more heartbreaking. Reading Tyson’s unflinching account of his upbringing in Brownsville, an impoverished and gang-ridden neighborhood in Brooklyn, his ferocity as a boxer doesn’t seem so much like a victorious march out of the ghetto as an emotional sickness he was never able to escape. Here’s an excerpt:
“I began to exact some revenge for the beatings I had taken from bullies. I’d be walking with some friends, and I might see one of the guys who beat me up and bullied me years earlier. He might have gone into a store shopping, and I would drag his ass out of the store and start pummeling him. I didn’t even tell my friends why, I’d just say, ‘I hate that motherfucker over there,’ and they’d jump in too and rip his fucking clothes and beat his fucking ass. That guy who took my glasses and threw them away? I beat him in the streets like a fucking dog for humiliating me. He may have forgotten about it, but I never did.”
2013 has been another roller-coaster year for Tyson. In addition to his stage show and memoir, his life story is the subject of a new Spike Lee-directed HBO documentary series, also called Undisputed Truth. He’s also gotten into boxing promotion, launching Iron Mike Productions and mentoring the boxing champions of tomorrow. But there have been dark moments. During a press conference in August, he confessed to reporters, “I hate myself. I’m trying to kill myself. I wanna live my sober life. I don’t wanna die. I’m on the verge of dying, because I’m a vicious alcoholic.”
I called Tyson to discuss his remarkable year, and a life that’s often been breathtakingly tragic. During our conversation, he flipped so easily between silly and sad, hopeful and hopeless, that I wanted to give him a big bear hug at the end and tell him everything was going to be okay. It’s an admittedly odd emotion to have for a man who once claimed he wanted to take a bath in a boxing opponent’s blood.
Congratulations on all the success lately. Your life story is becoming its own industry.
Thank you very much. Thank my mother and father for being such fuck-ups. [Laughs.]
Is it helpful to go back and revisit all these memories? Have you learned anything about yourself?
No, no, nothing.
Nothing at all? You don’t get any wisdom from hindsight?
None. It wasn’t good for me to think about these stories again. Because I realized what I really am. I realize I’m nothing. I’m absolutely nothing.
You don’t believe that, do you?
I do. When I went back to Brownsville and looked at the people I grew up with, they’re kind of creepy and scary. They’re like something from Night of the Living Dead. I was watching the last episode of (the Fox Sports series) Being: Mike Tyson, and they have these old videos of Brownsville from the early 70s, and you see kids jumping off burnt cars onto disgusting mattresses covered in drug needles. That’s what it was like to grow up there. We were animals. Worse than animals. But I am them. That’s my world.
Do you still have friends in Brownsville?
Well, a lot of them are dead or in prison.
Doesn’t that make you proud?
That my friends are dead?
No, that you’re not dead. You made it out. It could have been so much worse for you. But you overcame it.
No, no, no. Listen. I”m still those guys. If I was back in that environment, I could become them again. You put the most ferocious guys together and we fight for survival, for supremacy. That’s who we are. You can’t change.
You write in the book that you were a gentle kid. You didn’t want to be a fighter.
I didn’t. And I didn’t fight till a bully, Gary Flowers, killed one of my pigeons. He and his friends came over to rob me, take my pigeons, and I told them to stop. I saw that Gary had one hidden in his coat, and I told him to give it back. He said, “You fucking want this bird?” And then he snapped its neck and smeared the blood all over himself, and then threw the body at me.
Everybody was yelling “Fight him, Mike. Fight him.” Even his friends were telling me to fight him. I thought they were going to jump on his side, but it was just “fight him, Mike.” So I fought him.
And you won.
It was an amazing feeling. People were cheering, chanting my name. I never felt anything like that before. But it led to the dark side.
The dark side?
You need demons to be a champion boxer. To be in that frame of mind, to have that invincible feeling, you’re running away from something. I never knew really how short I was until recently. When I was fighting, I thought I was big. I thought I was a giant. I’m fighting guys who are like 6’5″, 6’6″, and I’m this little 5’10” squirt. But I always felt like a giant.
You got into boxing for the self-confidence?
Boxing found me, I didn’t find boxing. I never in a million years thought I was going to be a boxer. I never wanted to be a boxer. I just wanted to be in vice.
Vice? Like drugs and-?
Whatever. All of that. All we knew was vice. We were born below the starving line. What do you call it?
That’s it. We were starving. And that’s what excited (trainer) Cus (D’Amato) when he found me. He was sky-high when he learned I was dirt poor, that I had nothing in the world. He was happy about that. I never understood till I got older. He used that hunger and that desire to make me a better fighter.
In August, you revealed that you’re still struggling with a drug and alcohol addiction. At the time, you said you’d been sober for 12 days. Are you still on the wagon?
I haven’t touched anything. And when I said that, I’d only got drunk once. It was one day. And before that, I’d gone four years without a drink.
That’s not bad.
Normally when I relapse, I relapse for the whole year. [Laughs.] I go on some really serious bends. I’m just glad I picked myself up and got myself back on my feet. That’s a sign of growth, I think.
You claimed you were on the verge of dying. Was it really that dire?
There was no doubt about it. Listen, that’s the only purpose in getting high or drunk for me. I don’t do it to have fun. I get high and drunk to die.
Really? That’s your sole intention, to kill yourself?
Have you ever overdosed?
I overdosed many times. It was my wife and my mother-in-law that brought me back from the dead. I never saw one doctor. My wife and mother-in-law saved me. I’m just grateful that I’m not in the dark any longer. I’m in the light. And once you’re in the light, you say “What the hell was I doing in the dark?”
Even though you say you wanted to die, were you scared when you saw what happened to other addicts, like Amy Winehouse and Heath Ledger?
It really did scare me. I saw Heath Ledger a week before he passed away. I was in rehab at the time. I was on a date and we went to Chateau Marmont. Heath and a friend walked by, and he saw me and we smiled at each other. He came over say hello, and he was very friendly. A week later, he was dead.
It could have so easily happened to you.
But that’s what I expected to happen. That was glory to me.
Glory? Is that the right word?
Absolutely. It was all about glory. Death was glorious.
Explain what that means. Why would it be glorious to die?
Where I grew up, if somebody dies, they just drop you off on the street or the garbage bin or something. Nobody stays with you or calls the cops to explain what happened, especially if there were a bunch of drugs in the room. But if you die because of drugs, you don’t know that. It feels glorious. If you have to leave this world, that’s the way to do it. Go out feeling glorious. That’s what drugs do to you, how they warp you. It’s a disease of the mind.
Besides making you look forward to death, how did drugs change your personality?
Drugs make me love everybody. Or it could make me ready to kill everyone.
So it’s a coin toss?
Yep. I never knew for certain.
You apparently smoked weed before an infamous bout with Andrew Golota in 2000.
I smoked a joint the day before, because I was nervous. He’s really big and scary looking.
Didn’t they give you a drug test immediately after the fight, which came back positive for marijuana?
I don’t remember. All I know is, I smoked it the day before.
Well, that must’ve been one hell of a joint.
I needed to calm down a little bit. Golota got me really nervous. He’s a scary dude.
You’ve actually got an amazing sense of humor. Your one-man show has some great one-liners.
There’s one part where you tell the audience “Don’t worry. You will all leave here with two ears tonight.” That’s freaking funny!
I like it.
Were you surprised that you had a talent for making people laugh?
When it first happened, when I started doing the show, I was offended. I’m telling people about my life, and they think it’s funny and laughing. I didn’t know how to take it. But then I came to the conclusion that if they’re happy and they’re laughing, then it’s a good thing.
Last April’s Fools Day, you tweeted that you were “at the doctors office this morning. Getting this tattoo removed from my face. This is going to be painful.” And people believed you!
That surprised me. I thought it was obvious I was joking.
You never considered getting it removed?
No, no, no! This tattoo is stuck to me. It’s part of me now. I would never take it off.
Even ten years later, you have no regrets? It still feels like the right decision?
Do you remember why you got it in the first place?
I was going to put some hearts and stuff on my face, but my friend, who’s a tattoo artist, he said no. He was like, “I’m not going to do that stuff. You’ll regret it. Let’s find something better.” He convinced me to put some art on there. And this is what we both came up with.
Does it have special significance for you?
It’s a Māori symbol for a warrior tribe, from the native New Zealanders.
Yes, but I mean what does it mean to you? You don’t have ancestors in New Zealand. Why does that symbol speak to you?
I don’t know. [Long pause.] I was a warrior back then, and I wanted a warrior symbol.
Your last fight was in 2005, against Kevin McBride. It was kind of anti-climatic.
That’s for sure. [Laughs.]
You quit in the middle, giving him a technical knockout. If you had it to do over again, would you want to go out differently?
We all have those regrets. But that’s just the way it was meant to be. I wasn’t interested in fighting no more, so I left. And I’m glad I did. The best things in my life happened when I stopped fighting and had to look for another job.
It turned your life around?
Not right away. I had to find myself. I had to hit rock bottom. But that’s how I learn. I got to feel the pain. I have to touch the fire and find out that it’s hot. That’s how guys like me really succeed.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the December/January 2013/14 issue of Malibu Magazine.)