Tyson * documental
La vie de Mike Tyson ressemblerait à s’y méprendre à un remake de la pièce d’Aristophane, Les Oiseaux. Ayant tourné le dos au passé, le dieu de la boxe mène aujourd’hui une vie calme dans le Nevada. Daphne Merkin a rencontré Tyson dans l’intimité du pavillon de banlieue, où il réside. Loin de l’image sulfureuse d’Iron Mike, elle esquisse le portrait d’un homme appliqué à chasser ses démons et à déployer de nouvelles ailes, consacrant son temps à sa famille et aux pigeons, auprès desquels il trouve paix et sérénité.
Il n’ a plus ses dents en or ni les attributs détraqués de sa gloire d’ antan : les fêtes sans fin, les voitures, les bijoux, le tigre de compagnie, les litres de champagne Cristal. Mike Tyson – qui selon son propre aveu était accroc “à tout” – vit maintenant dans un environnement tout autre, lumineux, qu’ il s’ est construit de ses propres mains. Loin des autres.
Mike Tyson Moves to the Suburbs – Daphne Merkin
The gold caps on his teeth are gone, as are the frenzied trappings of celebrity: the nonstop partying, the cars, the jewelry, the pet tiger, the liters of Cristal. Mike Tyson — who was once addicted, by his own account, “to everything” — now lives in what might be described as a controlled environment of his own making, a clean, well-lighted but very clearly demarcated place. The 44-year-old ex-heavyweight champion is in bed by 8 and often up as early as 2 in the morning, at which point he takes a solitary walk around the gated compound in the Las Vegas suburb where he lives while listening to R&B on his iPod. Tyson then occupies himself with reading (he’s an avid student of history, philosophy and psychology), watching karate movies or taking care of his homing pigeons, who live in a coop in the garage, until 6, when his wife, Lakiha (known as Kiki), gets up. The two of them go to a spa nearby where they work out and often get a massage before settling into the daily routine of caring for a 2-year-old daughter, Milan, and a newborn son, Morocco; they also run Tyrannic, a production company they own. It is a willfully low-key life, one in which Tyson’s wilder impulses are held in check by his inner solid citizen.
The astonishing discipline and drive Tyson once put into “the stern business of pugilism,” to quote the boxer Jack Johnson, is now being channeled into the business of leading an ordinary, even humdrum existence. It is impossible not to wonder whether this effort can be sustained indefinitely, whether you can reshape the contours of a personality by a sheer act of will, but there is no doubt that Tyson has committed himself to a wholesale renovation. He spends some of his time involved in domestic activities, accompanying Kiki and Milan to classes at Gymboree and doctors’ appointments or running errands, and some of his time furthering his post-boxing career, doing autograph signings, conferring with his agent and publicist about new opportunities. Although he no longer gets lucrative endorsement deals, Tyson earns fees for personal appearances in America and “meet and greet” dinner tours in Europe. He made a brief but memorable cameo in the blockbuster film “The Hangover” and will play a bit part in “The Hangover Part II.” He’s hoping to nab more acting roles — genuine ones, in which he gets to play someone other than himself. “I want to entertain people,” he tells me, smiling broadly. “I want a Tony award.”
As part of his cleaning-up campaign, he has been adhering to a strict vegan diet for nearly two years, explaining that he doesn’t want anything in him “that’s going to enrage me — no processed food, no meat.” He says that he can no longer abide the smell of meat even on someone’s breath and has dropped 150 pounds since he weighed in at 330 in 2009. “I’ve learned to live a boring life and love it,” he declares, sounding more determined than certain. “I let too much in, and look what happened. . . . I used to have a bunch of girls and some drugs on the table. A bunch of people running around doing whatever.”
The life that he has created almost from scratch over the last two years has been defined at least as much by what Tyson wants to avoid — old haunts, old habits, old temptations and old hangers-on — as by what he wants to embrace. One of the few links between his tumultuous past and his more tranquil present are his homing pigeons. He has been raising them since he was a picked-on fat little kid with glasses growing up in some of Brooklyn’s poorest neighborhoods — first Bedford Stuyvesant, then Brownsville — with an alcoholic, promiscuous mother given to violent outbursts, which included scalding a boyfriend with boiling water. (“He had a tough mother,” recalls David Malone, a childhood friend. “We knew to stay away from her.”) Although he has turned down requests to do a reality show, Tyson agreed to participate in a six-part docudrama about his pigeons called “Taking On Tyson,” that started being shown on Animal Planet on March 6.
The young Tyson turned to birds as both a hobby and as an escape; it was in defense of his pigeons that the timid kid who was called “sissy” and “faggy boy” got into his first fist-fight. When he was released from prison in 1995 after serving three years for the rape of Desiree Washington, he went to visit his coops in the Catskills. “The birds were there before boxing,” says Mario Costa, who owns the Ringside Gym in Jersey City and has known Tyson since the early ’80s. “He feels peaceful around them.” Tyson keeps coops in Las Vegas, Jersey City and Bushwick, and to this day he seeks out the birds when one of his “bad spells,” as Kiki calls them, strikes and his mood turns dark and agitated. “The first thing I ever loved in my life was a pigeon,” Tyson says. “It’s a constant with my sanity in a weird way.”
I have never been particularly drawn to boxing, but there was something about the younger Mike Tyson — his way of seeming larger than the sport itself, of playing out impulses that seemed all the more authentic for being so unmediated, whether it was his desperate bid for Robin Givens’s heart or his desperate biting of Evander Holyfield’s ear — that caught my attention. He seemed like a man in huge conflict with himself as well as with the forces around him — the media, the celebrity machine with its perks and dangers — in a way that suggested that he was both vulnerable to manipulation and leery of being manipulated.
In preparation for my visit to Las Vegas at the beginning of March, I communicated through e-mail with Kiki, who manages Tyson’s affairs, and the plan was kept loose: we were to meet at his house for several days of conversation, with no definite times fixed. I called the film director James Toback, who made an acclaimed 2009 documentary about Tyson and has known him since they met on the set of Toback’s “Pick-Up Artist” in 1986, to find out what I could about a man who came across in the film as both very present and elusive, weepy one minute and matter-of-fact the next, capable of self-insight but also hidden to himself. Toback told me that Tyson was unpredictable, given to sudden psychological disconnections that Toback referred to as “click-outs.” It was entirely possible, Toback said, that Tyson would back out of the interviews altogether. “Everything is contingent on the state of mind he’s in at the moment,” the director observed. According to Toback, he and Tyson shared experiences of temporary insanity — of “losing the I” — and “people who don’t understand madness can’t understand him. He’s quicker, smarter, sharper than almost anyone he’s talking to.”
He went on to say that making the movie had been an “exhilarating” experience for both of them and that he senses that Tyson is happier now, that he doesn’t have “the same degree of doom” he had before he met Kiki. Toback recalled their “late-night conversations about sex, love, madness and death” and then, lest I think I might intuit something about the ex-fighter that had escaped others, Toback suddenly issued a pronouncement: “No one gets him. You can’t get him if you haven’t been where he’s been.”
The first object that caught my eye in Tyson’s double-storied, sparely furnished living room was a plush, purple Disney child’s car seat, perched on a chair near the screen doors that led out to a swimming pool. There was also a child-size table and chairs, and a cluster of Mylar balloons tied to a bar stool in celebration of the birth of the Tysons’ week-old son, Morocco, who had a touch of jaundice as well as his father’s narrow eyes. The white stucco house is located in a gated community called Seven Hills, which has the hushed, slightly vacant aura of gated communities everywhere. The entanceway features a koi pond under Plexiglas, and the expansive, open interior is decorated in a style that could be described as utilitarian (the color scheme is plum, beige and brown) with rococo touches — there is a huge contemporary chandelier as well as two gilded brass mirrors over a glassed-in fireplace that match the ironwork frieze on the front doors.
Tyson bought the place from a friend, the N.B.A. player Jalen Rose, in the down market of early 2007. (The property was originally valued at $3 million; Tyson paid around $1.7 million for it.) It was built, he says, as a party house, but he and Kiki have been pushing it in the direction of a more traditional family home, with clearly defined living areas and childproofed touches, like the Plexiglas panels on the stair railing. Tyson mentioned that he bought the house because it reminded him of a New York loft, despite the fact that he says there’s little he misses about his hometown aside from the pigeon competitions and seeing people from his old stomping grounds. “I have a big affinity with the guys in my neighborhood . . . the guys with the broken English and stuff . . . and then the pigeon world, it’s not like there’s a glass ceiling, the pigeon world keeps evolving with time. There are new diseases, there have to be serums for the new diseases,” he said, sounding momentarily like a biochemist, albeit one with an endearing lisp. “Antibodies.”
Tyson and I sat diagonally across from each other on black leather couches; in front of us was a glass coffee table on a Persian rug. He sipped from a cup of tea with honey and snacked on a banana. Kiki and her mother, who lives down the street and does a lot of baby-sitting, were upstairs with the children. Tyson’s assistant, Farid (also known as David), had picked me up at my hotel and had taken me to the house in a maroon Cadillac Escalade S.U.V.; Farid is a genial former I.T. consultant whom Tyson met in jail, although Tyson is at pains to point out that Farid was never a criminal type, just a geek trying to make some extra money on the sly. In person, Tyson’s voice is deeper and raspier than it sounds in TV interviews, and he cuts a much slighter, trimmer figure than you would expect. He wore a T-shirt that said TYSON on the back and very white running shoes. His head was shaved, and the left side of his face bears the dramatic tattoo of the New Zealand Maori warrior that he got in the beginning of 2003, but he seemed more shy than ferocious, more of an introvert than someone out to create a stir.
As the hours passed, Tyson grew less wary and more at ease about saying what was on his mind. An autodidact, he likes to discuss characters he’s read about, ranging from Alexander the Great to Constantine to Tom Sawyer, and he harbors a special fondness for Machiavelli. He knows the history of boxing inside out, watches films of Muhammad Ali and other boxers (including himself) most every evening, returning again and again to “Raging Bull.” He’s also something of a homegrown philosopher, peppering our conversation with hard-knock truths: “The biggest tough guy wants to be likable,” he observed. But there are also whole areas of his life he keeps firmly cordoned off, especially the raging Kid Dynamite days: “I think I was insane for a great period of my life. I think I was really insane. . . . It was just too quick. I didn’t understand the dynamics then. I just knew how to get on top, I didn’t know what to do once I got there.” He seemed to be edging closer to a deeper revelation, so I asked him if he had any regrets. He answered with rare snappishness: “I’m too young for regrets. I’m not in the grave yet.”
The first big change in Tyson’s convulsive life came when he went from being a ghetto kid whose world consisted of “a reformatory and welfare and rats and roaches” to being a rising boxing star living in a 14-room, antiques-filled Victorian mansion on 15 acres in the Catskills as one of the charges of Cus D’Amato, the legendary boxing trainer cum life coach. D’Amato, who was 70 then, was known for his stern credo of excellence, his ability to mold young talent and his eccentric, somewhat paranoid views; his protégés included Floyd Patterson and José Torres. The adolescent Tyson was introduced to “this old white guy” who didn’t know him “from a can of paint” by Bobby Stewart, a counselor at the Tryon School for Boys, the juvenile detention center where Tyson was sent after racking up a police record of street crimes. D’Amato saw Olympic potential in the surly, antisocial boy who could barely read or write. “He said, ‘Can you handle the job that’s at hand?’ And I say, ‘Sure, I can, I can do it,’ ” Tyson recalled. “But I really didn’t know if I could do anything.”
The young Tyson began training with D’Amato and his staff at the Catskill Boxing Club on passes from Tryon; in 1980, while still a ward of the state, he moved into what was a kind of boarding house run by D’Amato and his companion, Camille Ewald. Camille served as materfamilias to the group of troubled boys — there were no more than 4 to 6 fighters in residence at any one time — teaching them manners and how to do laundry. (Tyson remained in touch with Ewald, helping to support her and sending her flowers on her birthday, until her death in 2001.)
D’Amato, meanwhile, devised a master plan whereby Tyson would be reprogrammed from street thug to warrior in the ring. “Cus was an amazing influence,” says Tom Patti, another D’Amato protégé, who lived with Tyson at the boarding house and played the role of big brother in his life. “He engineered his fighters and their success.” To hone Tyson’s physical skills, D’Amato taught him the two boxing techniques that he himself had developed and that were now his signatures — holding the gloves in a tight defensive position at ear level, and maintaining a consistent head motion before and after punching. As for psychological conditioning, Tyson’s ego was inflated nonstop: “They were telling me how great I am, telling me how I can do this if I really try,” Tyson explained, sounding decidedly of mixed minds when looking back on this approach. “They kept it in my head. It had me form a different psychological opinion of myself. No one could say anything negative about me. I always had to have the supreme confidence that I’m a god and superior to everybody else, which is just sick and crazy. But it had its uses.” After Tyson’s mother, Lorna, died of cancer in the fall of 1982, D’Amato became his legal guardian and continued to oversee Tyson’s training until his death in 1985. On Nov. 22, 1986, D’Amato’s tireless mentoring paid off big-time when Mike Tyson defeated Trevor Berbick and became the new world heavyweight champion (and, at age 20, the youngest in history), exactly as D’Amato had predicted he would.
Tyson lives less than half an hour from the raucous, 24-hour universe of the Las Vegas Strip, but it was preternaturally quiet in his house. The phone didn’t ring, and the silence during conversational pauses was broken only by an occasional crying bout of Morocco’s or some chatter of Milan’s that trickled down from the second floor. “It’s like a funeral home here,” Tyson said softly, as if he were thinking aloud. It was one of the few times he alluded to what appears to be the deliberate curtailment of his life, the lengths he and Kiki have gone to in order to keep his habitat free of too much stimuli or pressure, the better to preserve his somewhat fragile equanimity. At one point, Milan came into the living room and reached for a tiny handful of pretzels from a bowl. He picked up the toddler and hugged her tightly, then put his face in her hair. When he put her down, she stood against the couch across from him, and he kept his eye on her as she ate her pretzels. “Chew,” he said gently. “Milan, you’ve got to chew.”
Tyson has six biological children, who range in age from newborn to 20, born of three different women. A seventh child, a daughter named Exodus, died at age 4 in May 2009 at her mother’s home in Phoenix; she was strangled when her neck was caught in a cord hanging from a treadmill. Tyson caught a plane immediately upon receiving a call from Sol Xochitl, Exodus’s mother, about the accident, but by the time he arrived at the hospital, the little girl was already brain-dead. The loss of his daughter critically altered his once-tentative grasp on his own accountability. To this day, he blames himself for not being there. “It made me feel very irresponsible,” he says simply. “I wish she were here to hang out with Milan.” The effects of the tragedy reverberated throughout Tyson’s extended family: “The kids were very close to Exodus, and when she died we were all devastated,” says Monica Turner, his second wife. “I think that changed Mike forever.” Tyson refers to Exodus repeatedly during our conversations with evident sadness and insists on keeping her memory alive by counting her among his living children.
Tyson has been married three times; the first was to the TV actress Robin Givens when he was 21, after a fevered courtship. The yearlong marriage proved disastrous, culminating in an infamous 1988 interview with Barbara Walters, in which Givens described the marriage as “pure hell” — while he sat passively beside her, drugged on manic-depression medication. (“I’m tripolar,” he tells me laughingly when I ask him how he’d diagnose his condition today.) He went on to have two children with Turner; he also considers himself a father to Turner’s daughter Gena. Turner, who is on friendly terms with Tyson, filed for divorce in 2002, citing adultery. Along the way, Tyson, a notorious womanizer, sired two more children — 8-year-old Miguel and Exodus — with Xochitl. Tyson keeps in touch with all of his brood, speaking especially proudly of his oldest son, 13-year-old Amir, who is six feet tall. “He’s just nervous and afraid of life,” he says, sounding an apprehensive note. “But he’s doing so well. . . . There are no bad influences. I have so many hopes for him.”
Tyson knows from bad influences, if only because he has been susceptible to so many of them since the death of his mentor and his own emergence as a sports superstar. Following a brief glory period in the late ’80s, when he was arguably the most popular athlete in the world, asked to do endorsements for Pepsi, Nintendo and Kodak, and hired by the New York City Police Department to boost recruitment as well as by the F.B.I. to do public service announcements to keep kids off drugs, Tyson began spiraling out of control. His self-destructive patterns, which had been refocused by D’Amato, came to the surface once again, aided and abetted by the boxing promoter Don King, who successfully wooed Tyson in the wake of his split from Robin Givens. (Tyson filed a lawsuit against King in 1998, claiming that the promoter stole millions from him.) Once a money-making machine worth $400 million at his height, Tyson was reduced to filing for personal bankruptcy in 2003; he was $27 million in debt.
In late December 2006 he was arrested in Arizona on charges of drug possession and drunken driving, and in February 2007 he checked himself into the Wonderland Center, a rehab facility in the Hollywood Hills, for the treatment of various addictions. Carole Raymond, a warm-sounding woman with a thick Yorkshire accent who worked as a staff member at Wonderland during Tyson’s stay, remembers that he had trouble finding a facility that would take him and that he came to them a “beaten down” man. Still, she remembers him as funny, “very humble” and eager to embrace the program’s ethos. “People who come from fame or money have a hard time grasping the idea of recovery. He wanted to be emotionally better than the Mike Tyson who was always boxing.” Tyson, in turn, credits the “life skills” he learned in rehab with coming to his rescue when a crisis hits: “You don’t know where they came from, but you’re on the top of your game. You’re suited up and ready to work.” When I asked him why he stayed at Wonderland for as long as he did — more than a year — he leaned over as if to emphasize what he was about to say. “I felt safe.”
As befits someone who has been alternately idolized and demonized by the press, Tyson is leery of the public’s continuing interest in his saga. He says he believes that celebrity made him “delusional” and that it has taken nothing less than a “paradigm shift” for him to come down to earth: “We have to stick to what we are. I always stay in my slot. I know my place.” He asked me outright, “Why do you want to know about me as a person?” and at one point, anxious that he might be boring me, he got up to show me photographs from the glory days in which he is posing with other boxers (Ali, Rocky Graziano, Jake LaMotta) and with big names like Frank Sinatra, Tom Cruise and Barbra Streisand. Underneath his deliberate calmness and considerable charm, there is something bewildered and lost-seeming about Tyson. Indeed, he refers to himself as a “little boy” who “never had a chance to develop,” and it is in part this conception of himself as missing out on a crucial period of maturation that fuels his present focus. “This is what the deal is,” he said. “People just wait for you to grow up and do the right thing. They’re just waiting for you to participate in the improvement of your life as a human being. When are you going to do it?”
The most important and sustaining influence in Tyson’s current incarnation as an introspective mensch rather than the Baddest Man on the Planet is the presence of his wife, Kiki, whom he has known since she was about 16 (they met through her father, who did some boxing promotions); they exchanged their first kiss when she was 19 and had an on-and-off romance for more than a decade. They tried living together in Kiki’s apartment in Manhattan in 2002 after Tyson’s defeat at the hands of Lennox Lewis, but it was, she says, “a disaster.” “He was used to juggling a lot of women.” They remained friends even though the relationship didn’t work out, had another fling in 2004, lost touch again when Tyson was in rehab and then reconnected when Tyson called her after he got out. Their daughter, Milan, was born on Christmas 2008, and they married on June 6, 2009. “We know all of each other’s secret stuff,” she says. “He told me everything, and I told him everything. We fight hard, but I’m very much in love with him.”
Kiki, who is 34, is a well-spoken, down-to-earth woman who seems pleasantly oblivious to her own exotically good looks and celebrity status by virtue of being Mike Tyson’s wife. Making a viable life with the complicated, demon-haunted man she has married requires patience. “It’s a struggle,” she says, speaking about his relapses post-rehab. “You’re always an addict and have to work at it. It’s easy for him to fall back in his own life. He surrounds himself with people who are sober and doesn’t go out to clubs. If his pattern shifts, you know something’s wrong.” Perhaps because she has known Tyson for so long, she’s clear-eyed about his failings. “He slept with every kind of woman you can think of,” she says. “Now he wants someone who knows him and can be good to him. We’re rebuilding our lives together on a positive note.” Tyson, meanwhile, seems continually struck by his good fortune in having Kiki, whom he addresses as “my love,” by his side. “I never thought we’d be together,” he told me. “I thought we’d be sex partners. I told her not marry me.” A few seconds later he adds: “I want to die with her.”
Despite their cushy lifestyle, there isn’t money to throw around as there once was. But Kiki, for one, seems indifferent to the sort of lavish expenditures that Tyson’s former fortune once enabled him to make: “Mike always says he’s broke, but it’s relative. That type of stuff isn’t important to us. We want to build a nest egg for our kids’ accounts. I’m not impressed with money like that.” Meanwhile, although Tyson still owes a substantial amount —“a few million” is how Kiki puts it — in back taxes, he is adhering to a payment plan. He has a financial planner who negotiated a deal with the I.R.S. regarding the purchase of his house, which was paid for in full. If Tyson misses his high-rolling days, he isn’t letting on: “If you make a lot of money, you end up being around people you don’t want to be around,” he says. “Guys on allowance. It takes years to gather the audacity to get rid of them.”
On the Saturday before the premiere of “Taking On Tyson,” Mike Tyson was in New York with Kiki and their two children, doing publicity for the show. I met him in Bushwick, in front of the rundown row house where he had gone to see his birds. Kiki had taken Milan to the American Girl store to meet a friend. Tyson was with Farid and his friend Dave Malone, who tends to the Brooklyn coops. On the drive back to the Ritz-Carlton in Battery Park, where he was staying, I found Tyson to be in a contemplative mood. Or maybe he was feeling remorseful; he had just come through one of his bad spells — what Toback alluded to as his “click-outs” — in which he feels alternately so low that he wants to jump out the window and so angry that he wants to crack someone’s head open with a pipe. “They come on you,” he told me, “out of the blue.” The birds helped him regain his footing, as they always do, but these bouts must take a toll on him (not to mention Kiki), opening up the floodgates of the past. Driving through Brooklyn, we passed a bunch of kids playing handball, and he reminisced: “When I was poor, I used to play handball. That’s how we all start.” He called Kiki to check how the play date was going, sounding sweetly affectionate, and then on the way into the hotel posed patiently for a photographer with an excited bride and groom who spotted him coming in.
In his hotel suite, Tyson was excited to tell me about a book he was reading — “A Natural History of Human Emotions,” by Stuart Walton — and asked me to read aloud a chapter on jealousy. We discussed the difference between jealousy and envy, and when I asked whether he ever envies his children getting the sort of parental love he never had, he said, “How did you know that?” I asked him whether he misses the glamour of his old life, and he answered, “That’s not who I am anymore.” Around 5:30, Kiki returned with Milan, who triumphantly marched in, carrying a new American Girl doll aloft. Tyson and his wife kissed each other, and he said, “I’m sorry if I upset you.” She answered serenely, “That’s O.K., honey,” as she went to get ready for their night out.
A cynic might wonder whether the kinder, gentler Tyson is merely another act, a construction every bit as deliberate as he claims his invincible Iron Mike persona was — “a vicious tiger,” as he describes it, “out there to kill somebody.” And there is indeed, something of the actor about Tyson, warming to his new role as a humbled rogue, a gentle giant with his delicate birds. But there is also a kind of heroism in his effort to construct a more accountable self, a reaching across the decades of excess back to the more disciplined days in the Catskills with Cus D’Amato. Now, however, the focus is not on invincibility or greatness, but on the perhaps more elusive goal of keeping his furies at bay and trying to master his unrulier impulses rather than letting them control him. It’s sure to be one hell of a match.
Daphne Merkin (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a contributing writer. Her last cover article for the magazine was about her life in therapy.
Editor: Vera Titunik v.titunik-MagGroup@nytimes.com