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April 24, 2014

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Mike Tyson confronts … Mike Tyson

Loved, hated or feared, Mike Tyson has always been the star of his own story. Now, he’s ready to tell the tale himself in a new one-man show

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Mike Tyson is eager to show off his birds. Pigeons, specifically, more than 100 of them. They chirp away happily in the backyard of Tyson’s Seven Hills gated community home.

Tyson’s pets are perched in tall, wooden crates whose chicken-wire doors swing open to freedom. He unhitches one of those wired portals and says, “Check this out.” Nothing. The birds ignore the act, content to playfully peck away at their food, themselves or each other. Tyson moves to the back of the cage, opens his hand and slaps hard at the surface. The birds stream out, up and away. Tyson gazes skyward.

“Look at how they roll!” he says as the birds align in a flurry. They circle the sky high above the property, tumbling and flapping as if eager to fly away, forever. You wonder if these birds will ever come home.

“They always do,” Tyson says, squinting as the birds perform their aerial artistry. “When they’re finished, they’ll come back. They’ll be fine.” And Mike Tyson, once the most feared man on the planet, smiles as if transfixed, watching this winged air show. He has long sought peace, and for the moment, he is there.

These pigeons offer a sense of calm, of melancholy, for Tyson. He relates to the birds for their flights of fancy, the way they rejoice in being set loose for an airborne recess. Watching the pigeons dance in the sky reminds him of growing up in a public housing apartment in the Brownsville neighborhood in Brooklyn, its concrete dwellings stacked tightly like so many birdcages.

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Mike Tyson handles one of his pigeons in the backyard of his Seven Hills home. He keeps more than 100 birds on the property.

“You couldn’t have pets where I grew up,” Tyson says. “But we had pigeons, and you could train them like pets. I’ve had pigeons since I was a little kid, hundreds of them.”

Tyson once said his first fight as a kid was sparked when he punched out a much bigger youth who had pulled the head off one of his pigeons. “I’m really protective of them,” he says, needlessly.

The former fighter is in a reflective mood these days. He’s long removed from the fighting career that ended in 2005, and relishing the opportunities of post-boxing life. These cash-inducing forays have been varied and lucrative enough to keep him from going broke: occasional appearances at World Wrestling Entertainment events (he’s due to be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame’s Celebrity Wing on March 31 in Miami), memorabilia signings at the Forum Shops’ Field of Dreams store, bit roles in movies like the two Hangover comedies and an Animal Planet reality series about him and his birds, Taking on Tyson.

Calendar

Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth
April 13-18, 8 p.m., $100.
Hollywood Theatre, MGM Grand, 891-7777.

But at the moment, Tyson is diving head- and heart-first into a major Las Vegas Strip production in which he is the sole star. Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth–Live on Stage will be unleashed at MGM Grand Hollywood Theatre from April 13-18, with Tyson telling his own story while video panels beam the pivotal moments of his life. The audience will hear Tyson’s live narrative juxtaposed with photos and footage dating to his childhood. And no time period, individual or topic in the fighter’s controversial life has been rendered off-limits.

He’s eager to confront and convey his abuse of alcohol and cocaine. “I can have an entire show just about drug addiction,” Tyson says, adding that he’s been clean and sober for three and a half years. “There’s so much to talk about. That’s the thing. No two shows will be alike.”

The Mike Tyson of today is not a brutal or menacing figure. He moves quietly—so stealthily that when he enters the living room of his own home, his movements are drowned out by a gentle water effect standing behind a sectional sofa strewn with puffy throw pillows.

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Mike Tyson's one-man show will run at the MGM Grand April 13-18 and will cover his life in all its complexity.

He’s fast to joke, quick to laugh. He cracks up talking about Las Vegas producer Adam Steck’s initial interest in a one-man show starring Tyson. In a circuitous path to partnership, Steck asked an attendant at the M Resort spa to pass Steck’s card to Tyson, because Steck saw boxer Zab Judah working out at that same spa and was told by the attendant that Tyson had also been spotted there.

Thus, a Strip production show starring Mike Tyson was born.

“What do you think about that?” Tyson says, laughing. “Me and my wife went and saw Chazz Palminteri perform A Bronx Tale onstage, and I’m feeling like, I can do that … then Adam brings this idea to us. I thought one of my friends set this up as a prank!”

LA-based playwright Randy Johnson is directing and, with Tyson’s wife, Kiki, co-writing the production. Johnson’s credits include Elvis the Concert, One Night With Janis Joplin and directing Pope Benedict’s most recent appearance in New York.

Tyson has performed such one-man, monologue-driven shows in the United Kingdom, where the events were teeming with drunks and sometimes wound up sparking tavern brouhahas.

That model won’t work, exactly, at Hollywood Theatre. What’s in store for audiences paying $99 a ticket (a VIP package offering a meet-and-greet and photo with Tyson is $499) to observe Mike Tyson live onstage? What is this show going to be about?

“What do you want Mike Tyson to talk about?” he counters. He’s serious. This is not a rhetorical question.

How about the death of Cus D’Amato in 1985 when Tyson was 19? Many observers feel D’Amato is the only person who could have kept Tyson from squandering his financial empire, falling prey to any variety of temptations, surrounding himself with unemployed yes-men and winding up broke and locked up.

D’Amato came upon Tyson the kid, enrolled in a reform school and arrested 38 times by age 13, and taught him to box. D’Amato would be a great place to start.

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Mike Tyson and Don King after the November 22, 1986 fight with Trevor Berbick that made Tyson the youngest-ever heavyweight champion.

“When you really think about why I’m successful in fighting, it’s not because I’m a tough guy. It’s because of Cus. He’s my whole barometer here,” Tyson says. “When he first met me, I was just a kid who knew how to beat people, lie, steal. How can you take a guy whose family was never much, on welfare, always watching his mother being abused—how do you get this guy who comes from that, and an old Italian guy take this damaged kid and get him to think, ‘I’m a f*cking god! I’m invincible!’ How does that happen?”

Tyson says that is the one area of his life that is a complete mystery. “I went from Point A to Point B, and I had no idea how to connect the dots.” He is certain he was driven alternately by fear and shame.

“You would not believe how scared I was, of other fighters, of Cus, of everyone,” Tyson says. “I was born in hell, so every step up is a step out of hell. I fought a lot in shame, for who I was. It was big in my life, oh man, really big. What I’ve realized is, I’m just a scared, wimpy kid. I was using violence as a neutralizer, for protection, for security. Cus was able to channel all that fury and make me a fighter, and told me, ‘I will be somebody! We will be somebody!’ I was fighting and thinking, ‘They will not forget Cus! They are gonna know us!’”

There’s no sense of time in this conversation, no emphasis on the importance of any one particular event in Tyson’s life. He’s obviously attempting to finally gain ownership of his own story. Some topics he hasn’t touched on for years, but he’ll reopen those files for audiences filling the Hollywood Theatre, because they will want to hear it all.

Tyson has long contended that he was not guilty of raping beauty pageant contestant Desiree Washington, a charge for which he spent three years of a five-year sentence in federal prison in Indiana. He did not do that to that woman, he says, but in a karmic sense, he committed enough awful and felonious acts that he should have been locked up for any number of transgressions.

“I’ve hit women, yes,” he says. “I’ve been hit by women, too. This is a time where everyone is really anti-bully, but I’ve been in those fights. I was an animal in a lot of ways. I committed ominous behavior. I wasn’t mature enough emotionally to handle my anger, and I wasn’t secure in myself as a human being to act like a human being.”

We talk about his rocky marriage to Robin Givens, during which she told interviewer Barbara Walters that living with Tyson was “torture, pure hell.”

“I don’t know, I haven’t talked about Robin Givens in so long that I don’t know what I’ll say,” he says. “It might remind me of a lot of anger. Some of this stuff, even right now, I don’t know what to say. ”

But he knows just what to say about the feeling of being imprisoned from 1992-1995.

“Being in prison, to a certain degree, was a weight off my shoulders. I realized how stressful I was when I was out on the streets. I couldn’t get out of my own way. I was just a mess,” says Tyson, who spent his time in his jail cell reading literary and political giants such as Machiavelli, Voltaire, Dumas, Mao Zedong, Marx, Tolstoy and Hemingway. Kiki marvels at the wealth of information stored in her husband’s brain. She talks about visiting Europe, and Iron Mike suddenly knows the rich history of a particular township or centuries-old structure.

And Tyson remembers leaving prison, and realizing the world had hardly forgotten him.

“There were all these helicopters over the prison. It was like being under siege or something. It felt like I was going back in,” he says, laughing. “What kind of sh*t is that? How many millions of people watched that? ... You know, being a former addict, I was addicted to that—that was a drug. The cameras, the fame; it’s a narcotic. Fame is a theatrical trip.”

Tyson knows audiences will expect a thorough canvassing of the night in 1997 when he bit Evander Holyfield’s ear and touched off a near-riot at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. He laughs as he says he should have “thought that one through,” rightly reasoning the act cost him millions of dollars—$3 million held initially from his purse from that fight and several million more in future paydays in Nevada and elsewhere. He and Holyfield have since reconciled, and swapped Twitter messages after Holyfield tweeted a photo of the two taken in 1987 at a news conference in Atlantic City before Tyson’s title bout with Tyrell Biggs.

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Mike Tyson moments after the infamous ear incident during his 1997 fight with Evander Holyfield.

“I was a real prick back then,” Tyson says of the night he bit Holyfield. “I deserved everything I got.”

His time with promoter Don King will also feature in the show, as King is often held largely responsible for Tyson’s professional decline. That’s a particularly delicate topic, as Tyson says, “I don’t know, what I can and can’t say, legally. But you know I’m going to hit that, full speed ahead.” The last time the two spoke was at the World Boxing Convention at Mandalay Bay in December, with no resulting bloodshed.

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Family photos at Tyson's home, including one with wife Kiki and daughter Exodus, who died in 2009 in an accident at the family's Phoenix home.

And Tyson is also careful of unforeseen ramifications—emotional or legal—when talking about the May 2009 death of his 4-year-old daughter, Exodus, who was found by her 7-year-old brother, Miguel, tangled in a cord connected to a treadmill at the family’s home in Phoenix. Exodus died a day later, and Tyson still displays a photo of her on his player piano. “I just have to make sure I can control my emotions, and I think I will be able to, by that time. I’m starting to work on that now,” he says. “The police, the people who did the autopsy, couldn’t really determine how she died. They said, ‘Some way this got around her neck.’ Some way? How? Tell us how this got around her neck. I didn’t want to discuss this, but I may have to touch on that, too. It’s possible I’ll get a lawsuit after that one, if I start expressing my opinions about certain things.”

During a recent conversation at his home, Tyson snacks on grapes and celery in the family kitchen. He’s now in “good living condition” and has eaten a strictly vegan diet for two years. Kiki says she often wakes up to hear Mike working out in the family’s weight room. He has dropped, likely, 80 pounds since 2008, when he ballooned to 300 pounds as he quit training, ceased taking care of himself and fought substance abuse.

“People will not be my friends any more if I have a drink. When I have a drink, or use drugs, I am an animal. I don’t deserve anything delightful or good under those circumstances … All these guys dying from ODs, they didn’t do more than me. Very few people have a personality like me. I’m so primitive.”

Tyson has survived, and he is happy for that. His self-effacing quality is owed largely to the fact that he is still, in fact, living.

“Sometimes I watch my old fights, my old interviews, and I’m so angry. I have everything, but I’m so angry,” he says, laughing. “I don’t know what the hell that’s all about. Now I have nothing, and I’m so happy!”

He sees what has happened to the great fighters, how such mythic figures as Muhammad Ali have been slowed to a standstill from brain injuries medical experts trace to too many blows to the head.

“I don’t look at it from a fatality perspective, like, ‘Muhammad Ali was in the ring too long, and he took too many punches and wound up with this particular illness,’” he says. “But I’ll tell you one thing: There’s no greater sight than to see a man of that great status deal with adversity, you know? He handled it with dignity.”

Would Tyson handle such a debilitating physical condition with that same dignity? He laughs once more.

“A guy like me, if I’ve got a broken leg, I don’t want to see nobody,” he says. “Let me get in my bedroom and lock my door!”

The former fighter once wondered if anyone would be interested in a public revue of his life and career, which could well represent one of the great American tragedies. But that is not today, not in his estimation.

“I just want to live well, do the right things. I’ve had a long time of doing the wrong things,” he says. “Believe me, I’m not Mother Teresa, but I’m not Charles Manson, either.”

And you can take it from the man himself, full of fear and drama and humor. Like all those pigeons, Mike Tyson is spreading his wings, as only he can.

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