It was a great day for Mike Tyson on Tuesday.
He was still around, by all accounts, at 44 years old, happy, and very much healthy to receive the news that he had been elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
There are many, some of whom were part of his inner circle during his halcyon days as the baddest man on the planet, who feared he would never live to see this day.
His lifestyle was such, replete with drugs, alcohol, violence and more than a few shady characters, that the idea of a middle-aged Tyson playfully rolling on the floor with one of his children was one that many who knew him could never envision.
But there he was last week on CNN, doing an interview with Larry King, a normal guy just trying to get along, shooting the breeze with a fellow Brooklyn-ite. If you didn’t know that this was Mike Tyson – to some one of the most notorious athletes of the 20th century – you might have thought that King decided to interview a guy he’d struck up a conversation with at the bus stop.
Tyson captivated the world at an early age because he showed flashes that he might become the greatest heavyweight who ever lived. He won the title for the first time a little more than 24 years ago, knocking out Trevor Berbick in the second round of a fight at the Las Vegas Hilton.
Tyson was just 20 when he knocked Berbick out, causing Berbick to fall twice from the force of the same punch.
On that night, it was possible to believe that Tyson was destined to surpass Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano and Jack Dempsey and become the greatest heavyweight who ever lived.
His was “a can’t miss” show. He was a ball of fury, a lifetime of pent-up frustrations unleashed when the bell sounded. He was perhaps the most intimidating fighter who ever lived. No one who ever saw it will forget the moment when Frank Bruno was nervously blessing himself in his corner awaiting the start of a bout with Tyson. Fear was written across his face.
It was all a tease, because Tyson never came close to fulfilling the promise that he showed in the early days of his reign.
As he became more successful, as the victories and the knockouts piled up, his personal life spiraled out of control. It wasn’t long before Tyson figured out that he didn’t have to torture himself in training, that he didn’t need to be great in order to command great sums of money.
He could make tens of millions of dollars just by showing up. He lost the chance to become the best ever when he couldn’t control his urges, when the insane lifestyle he was leading became more important to him than the quest for greatness that he began when Cus D’Amato told him he had the talent to become something in boxing.
Mike Tyson the man was increasingly becoming a caricature of Mike Tyson the boxer, and he lived the kind of fast and loose life that often ends tragically.
“I was a real mean guy, Larry,” Tyson said softly, wistfully, on King’s interview show on CNN last week.
It was often hard to reconcile that side of Tyson, because there was often a sweet, unassuming side to him that wasn’t as public but that was very much real. Yet, Tyson chose the gangster lifestyle and it seemed for the longest time that it would consume him.
It consumed any chance he had of finishing his career as the best heavyweight ever. He was 35-0 with 30 knockouts at the apex of his career, when he knocked out a frightened Michael Spinks in just 91 seconds.
He was three days shy of his 22nd birthday.
He never came close to scaling those heights again, never looked so good, so fast, so powerful. He went 15-6 with 14 knockouts the rest of the way, many of his victims second-rate fighters in there because there had to be an opponent.
The guys who were not intimidated, who dared to fight back, generally won.
The winner, really, was Tyson's destructive lifestyle, which managed to do what no opponent had been able to do. Tyson told King that he's an addict and that, while he didn’t take drugs during his boxing career, he did drink heavily and would get drunk after every fight. He said he's been sober for 18 months.
“I don’t know if there’s two Mike Tysons, but everyone knows, who cares who you are, the richest person in the world, the poorest person in the world, hard times fall upon everyone,” Tyson told King. “And regardless of what kind of religion, you could be a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew, atheist, whatever you are, whoever we are, whatever we have with us, we bring our baggage to us, to our religion with us, regardless of who we are, we just have baggage that we have and we bring it with us. And until we work on the problem that is an inside job, we’re going to still be reckless and continue to get into a lot of trouble.”
Tyson’s had enough trouble for 100 lifetimes. He’s been places and done things that most of us can never so much as contemplate.
But now he’s 44, fighting the battle of the bulge, and excited that he’s about to become a father again. His wife, Lakisha, is pregnant with the couple’s son, who is due in early February.
He lost his 4-year-old daughter, Exodus, in a freak accident in May 2009. She was playing by a treadmill and got a cord tangled around her neck.
He spoke painfully of the incident to King, relating the feeling that every parent has who has lost a child.
“I don't know if I’ll ever get over it or not,” Tyson said.
But Tyson managed to get his life in order after that tragedy. He finished drug and alcohol rehabilitation. He became a more committed husband, father and friend. He quit living life on the edge and just began to live.
King asked Tyson, “Do you ever look back and say, ‘I’m not the guy that I was?’ ”
Tyson: All the time, all the time. Yeah. It’s pretty interesting that you said that. I look at that guy and say, ‘What was going on? What was happening there?’ You have no idea what was going on with my life back then with this guy. What was going on back then?
King: What most changed you?
Tyson: I don't know. I had to grow up. I had an incident where I lost my daughter in some family accident at home and it was just a time to grow up and wake up.
Getting elected to the Boxing Hall of Fame is little consolation for losing a daughter. But in the 19 months since that tragic day in Phoenix, Michael Gerard Tyson has seemed to have woken up, to have grown up.
In June, he’ll be officially inducted into the Hall of Fame in Canastota, N.Y., along with men he idolized like Ike Williams and Charley Burley and Sugar Ray Robinson and dozens of others.
He’s a Hall of Famer.
The good news, though, is that he's here to enjoy it.
- Mike Tyson