Mike Tyson’s name is synonymous with controversy. Jailed for rape and famed for biting part of a contender’s ear off during a fight, he’s nonetheless one of the greatest boxers of all time. Now retired from the ring, the former world champion recently looked back on his life with a macabre reflection.
The boxer, who celebrated his 54th birthday in June 2020, looks different from the athlete of his championship days. Still trim and in shape, he now sports a beard more than tinged with white, as well as a clean-shaven head. Furrows line his brow and his face bears a striking warrior tattoo that he had done towards the very end of his boxing career.
His life is also a far cry from when he was one of the greatest sportsmen in the world. The former champion has set up a successful marijuana-produce business and aims to convert his sprawling ranch in California into a cannabis-inspired pleasure park. Tyson credits cannabis with his recovery from addiction to harder drugs.
The star has also performed a successful one-man show and now fronts his own podcast, HotBoxin’, which sees him interviewing celebrities and fellow boxers. Tyson has also appeared in numerous TV shows and movies. Sometimes, he’s a dramatized – and, in the Mike Tyson Mysteries, animated – take on himself. And in hit movie The Hangover, one of his pet tigers even appears with him.
If you thought all this would have kept him too busy for much of a private life, you’d be wrong. Twice divorced, he has seven kids – an eighth child sadly passed away. He converted to Islam while in prison in the 1990s, which he credits with helping to make sense of his life.
By all accounts, Tyson’s life could have turned out very differently. Born in June 1966, he was raised by his mom in a rough area of Brooklyn. When Tyson was a teenager, money was tight and he’s described how he learnt to be street smart. Rolling Stone magazine reports that the police had arrested him on almost 40 occasions by the time he reached his teens.
In that Rolling Stone interview, Tyson said that back then he’d have never have believed the success he was to have later in life. “I thought I’d be dead, like the rest of the people in my neighborhood,” he admitted. “If not dead, I would have ended up in jail most of my life, shot, or else I would have gotten a job packing bags at Key Food.”
Sadly, when he was just 16, his mother passed away. And what happened next was to alter the course of his life. The young Tyson, who was now at a penal institution, was adopted by boxing trainer Cus D’Amato. They’d first encountered each other at New York’s Catskill Boxing Club a few years earlier.
D’Amato developed Tyson’s career, training him in his signature “peek a boo” boxing technique. This is where a boxer protects his face by holding his hands in front of it, which also makes it easier to jab efficiently. Under D’Amato’s tutelage, Tyson was to become the youngest world heavyweight champion ever at the age of just 20 in 1986.
Tragically, D’Amato, too, was to pass away almost exactly a year before Tyson achieved this historic feat. The loss of both his mom and his mentor before he’d achieved his full potential was to have a profound effect on the boxer. “I never saw my mother happy with me and proud of me for doing something. She only knew me as being a wild kid running the streets,” he once said, according to Tripod.com.
Nonetheless, Tyson’s boxing career went from strength to strength. From his debut in 1985 aged 18, he won every contest for ten years, bar one shock defeat against Buster Douglas in Japan. When he retired in 2005 after a 20-year career, he’d lost only six matches of 58, although two were declared “no-contests.”
His phenomenal boxing career earned Tyson global infamy throughout the boxing world and beyond. He’s been classed in the same league as some of the most famous fighters ever to have lived, including legends of the ring Muhammed Ali and Rocky Marciano. But his incredible success was mired with controversy.
First of all there was Tyson’s reportedly abusive relationship with his first wife, actress Robin Givens. They wed in February 1988, but it wasn’t a happy union. During an appearance on 20/20, Givens said being with her husband was “torture, pure hell, worse than anything I could possibly imagine.”
Despite being sat next to Givens while she made such revelations to the camera, though, Tyson looked on impassively. A few weeks afterwards, Givens revealed that the couple were getting a divorce, which was granted on Valentine’s Day in 1989. The actress had described her husband as a manic depressive, and he was later to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2003.
Then, a few years into his sporting career, in 1992 the boxer was jailed for six years for raping Desiree Washington. The 18-year-old was Miss Black Rhode Island and had been participating in the Miss Black America contest when she was assaulted by Tyson. The boxer, however, served less than three years of the sentence.
During his time behind bars, Tyson converted to Islam. As a result, he started using the name Malik Abdul Aziz outside of boxing circles. He’s since spoken about how his religion has helped him become a better person. The fighter’s days as a contentious figure were far from behind him, however.
In fact, one of the most infamous incidents in Tyson’s life was still to come. In the summer of 1997 he fought Evander Holyfield in Las Vegas. The latter earned $35 million for the bout, with Tyson being paid $5 million less. But during the fight, Tyson bit off a chunk of one of his rival’s ears.
The incident was greeted with almost universal disgust. Tyson forfeited the contest and was fined $3 million by the state boxing authorities. A few days later, his fight permit was taken away from him, although less than 18 months after the event, he was allowed to compete again.
In 1999 Tyson found himself in trouble with the law once more, after attacking a couple of road-users in August of the previous year. Once again, he was sentenced to time in jail and made to pay a $5,000 fine. However, he spent only nine months behind bars before being released.
The ensuing period saw the swansong of the former world champ’s boxing career. Of the five fights over the next two years, he was to win three, while two were declared no-contests. But then in June 2002 Tyson fought Lennox Lewis and lost. A pre-bout press conference had resulted in a fight, due in part to remarks Tyson had previously made about Lewis’ family.
Tyson’s next fight, in February 2003 against Clifford Etienne, was to be his last success. The result was far from a foregone conclusion, though, and Tyson’s physical condition was called into question beforehand. Moreover, by late summer, Tyson was bankrupt.
Tyson lost his final two fights in the summers of 2004 and 2005, the penultimate match marred by a leg injury. In his final bout, the boxing legend conceded the contest while the fight was ongoing. He later claimed that he’d lost his spirit. “I was just fighting to pay off the bills,” the BBC reported him as saying. “I’m not an animal anymore.”
After retiring from professional boxing, Tyson was arrested in December 2006 on narcotics and DUI charges. He told officers that he was an addict and began rehab early in 2007. In September however, he was handed a 24-hour prison sentence for his actions.
Although he reportedly made efforts to clean himself up, in August 2013 Tyson admitted that he was an alcoholic. He said he’d lied to Ellen de Generes during an appearance on her show two years earlier, when he’d claimed to have kicked his addictions. But by the end of the year, he seemed to be back on the wagon, telling Fox News that he attended the 12 Steps sessions on a daily basis.
And these days, Tyson’s life is very different from that in days gone by. Having dealt with the tragic accidental death of his daughter Exodus in 2009, he told Fox News in the same interview that he spends as much time as possible with his family. The former “animal” has also set up philanthropic organizations to help children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Indeed, Tyson in 2020 is a far cry from the Tyson of the past, and it’s something he recognizes in himself. Becoming visibly emotional, he said on his Hotboxin’ podcast, “I know the art of fight, I know the art of war… That’s why I’m so feared, that’s why they feared me when I was in the ring.”
“I was an annihilator, that’s what I was born for. Those days are gone,” Tyson continued. “I’m empty, I’m nothing. I’m working on being the art of humbleness. That’s why I’m crying, because I’m not that person anymore. I don’t want that person to come out because if he comes out, hell is coming out with him. I hate that guy, I’m scared of him.”
The boxer’s humbler, more philosophical outlook was evident in a soul-searching March 2020 interview with The Sportsman. During the conversation, he made a bleak revelation. Tyson declared that he isn’t afraid of what’s in store for him after he dies. In fact, it’s something he came to terms with years ago.
“Life is pretty interesting. We’re born not knowing, we die not knowing where we came from. But our life prepares us for death,” Tyson said. “We still don’t know s*** about it, but when we get to a certain age, we’re not scared of dying no more, like it was when we were young.”
Tyson was then asked, “Was death on your mind a lot back then? You were doing a dangerous job…” He replied, “I knew there was a possibility that I could die during training, during a fight. I knew that. But I wasn’t scared, because I thought if anybody was going to die, I would do the killing.
“That self-confidence was a survival mechanism,” Tyson continued. “But now, from my experience, from what I believe, the more I know about not existing, the more willing I am to die.” And when questioned about whether he looked forward to death, he had an answer that few can have expected.
“Yeah, I don’t fear it,” Tyson stated. “Living might be more complicated than dying to me, the belief of it. I don’t know if it’s true, because living takes a lot of courage. Without the courage, you can’t handle living. Living is a journey, living is a struggle.
The former world heavyweight champion added, “People have everything and they still can’t do it, they struggle. We take ourselves too seriously. We think we’re somebody. Who the ****? We’re nothing! We come from ****, we think we’re special! Fame is ****.”
There’s little doubt that Tyson’s soul-searching is in some part due to him having found peace thanks to his religion. Talking about finding God, he said, “I like to believe I’m a better individual now. I keep my salvation with Allah.”
Tyson seems to have found peace with his former sparring partners, too. And even Holyfield appears to have forgiven him for biting his ear off during that bout all those years ago. Appearing on the star’s Hotboxin’ podcast, Tyson started off by explaining that they were well acquainted before the fight.
“We’ve known each other since we were kids,” Tyson revealed. Later in the chat, Holyfield said, “Mike bit me, I bit somebody too.” Tyson replied, “Thank you, thank you for forgiving me… This is so interesting, how many people have paid me money to take pictures biting their ear.”
“I’ve recouped the $3 million I was penalized for! That’s crazy,” Tyson continued. “Why would you want to take a picture of me biting your ear? $250 bucks and 2,000 people!” Another interviewee on the podcast was heavyweight world champion, Tyson Fury, who was named after his host. And Fury later told U.K. radio station Talk Sport that Tyson’s people demanded more than $600 million for him to step in the ring with Fury.
Fury turned down the offer, explaining, “For me I would have loved to share the ring with Mike Tyson, but you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Mike Tyson could still knock a wall down and if he hits me with a few shots then people will say Tyson Fury is no good and a 53-year-old man beat him up.
“But if I wallop Mike in the first round, I’m a bully. It’s a lose-lose situation for me,” Fury added. “Alright, I might be gaining some money, but it’s not money I need for fighting a man past his best.” Tyson may now be past his prime in the boxing world, but he’s nonetheless forged successful new paths for himself.
His podcast, acting work and cannabis farm, as well as a lack of fear about what’s to come, have surely helped change him into a much more relaxed individual. The angry Tyson of years past has morphed into someone who’s very content with the life he has now. “I’m very grateful,” he told The Sportsman.