Mike Tyson has shuttled between Memphis and Mississippi for a week, shopping for fruit at Kroger, hugging patrons at Walgreens, renting karate movies at Blockbuster, signing kids' boxing gloves, jogging along the river and working out to rap music at an upscale health club with neon lights and a tanning salon.
The Six50 Fit Club, located in a suburban Memphis strip mall, canceled aerobics classes this week to accommodate Tyson. The ladies grumbled -- oh, did they grumble -- but they still gawked, relishing the chance to eyeball the chiseled specimen, searching for signs of a crazed mind within. Was he really the menace to society they had heard about? Could you even tell? Two club employees carried their observation of Tyson all the way to the men's room, and when he finally exited a stall they ghoulishly speculated that the toilet seat might well fetch a tidy sum.
There is a freakish curiosity about Tyson now, the same seductive fascination that makes Americans crane their necks at highway collisions and lures them to reality television.
When Tyson steps into the ring tonight against Lennox Lewis, the undisputed heavyweight champion, a great many people will be watching to see if "Iron Mike" still wields the savage punching power that once made him the most feared fighter on the planet. But perhaps a great many more will tune in out of a sordid kind of wonderment. Will Mike Tyson munch an ear, elbow the ref, try to break his opponent's arm, knock down Lewis after the bell or do something else wild to get himself disqualified? People wonder because they know these things have happened before at Tyson bouts.
Mike Boen, the assistant manager of Six50, was wary when the Tyson retinue arrived by green Chevy Suburban for the first of his workouts. Tyson mostly spoke in smiles and whispers or not at all. "Do you know where a mosque is in Memphis?" he asked an Iranian man who stood silently near the juice bar, disposable Fuji in hand, waiting to take a photo the other day. But as the week wore on and Boen observed the courtesies Tyson extended to club members and staff -- the autographs, the pictures -- he became an apostle.
"The image people have of him is not the truth," Boen says. "I have developed a different impression since I met him."
There are no single truths about any man, which is why some view Bill Clinton as a reckless philanderer and others see him as a brilliant politician. The images of public figures shift over time, for consistency is one of life's hardest tricks. Thus, Elvis Presley goes from heartthrob rocker to fat druggie, Pete Rose from beloved "Charlie Hustle" to exiled gambler begging to be let into Cooperstown. You could remember Ezra Pound as the most influential poet of the 20th century, or you could remember him as an unrepentant Fascist.
Right now, Tyson is wearing the mantle of disgraced scoundrel. He's a convicted rapist who served three years in prison, with a long trail of other criminal and civil cases on his rap sheet. He is the kind of man who kicks a 50-year-old motorist in the groin in a fit of road rage, the kind of man who can no longer get a license to fight in Las Vegas, the kind of man whose expressed thoughts often careen from weird to vile.
"I normally don't do interviews with women unless I fornicate with them," he informed one female reporter recently. In trying to explain his vices to journalists recently, he offered this gem: "I think Jesus got high and smoked weed. It wasn't illegal back then."
Human beings, however, always have more dimensions than their public personas suggest. There are times when Tyson is childlike, times when pain overtakes the rage, moments when he is as reflective as someone who has received multiple degrees (Tyson never graduated from high school and failed the test required to get his General Equivalency Diploma).
During a 1998 Playboy interview, Tyson was sitting in New York's Central Park, people-watching, and noted how calming the scene was. "You know what I like looking at more than anything?" he said. "Young kids in love. . . . I never had that when I was young. I was never involved with girls. See those two young kids, holding hands? They don't know anything about love, but there's still that feeling. I just like to watch it because it's innocent."
Tyson has read Alexandre Dumas, quotes F. Scott Fitzgerald and has interesting things to say about Newt Gingrich. He put orchids on Sonny Liston's grave and tried to befriend gay protesters who came to Memphis shouting "Stop your homophobia!" He still remembers how kids made fun of his high voice when he was young.
He has been compared to Judy Garland, who came to stardom young and succumbed to its pressures, ultimately dying of a drug overdose. Garland, however, will always be remembered as the 17-year-old who played sweet Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz."
How will Mike Tyson be remembered? It is doubtful he will be immortalized with the great heavyweights he admires -- Dempsey, Louis, Ali. He has fought but 19 rounds in the last five years, his life caked in outside-the-ring drama. He turns 36 later this month, and tonight's fight with Lewis will likely determine his future. Should he win, he will be on top of the heavyweight world again.
And if he loses?
"It's over with for Mike," says former trainer Tommy Brooks. "I see Mike being depressed, on the verge of suicide. I see Mike intimidating somebody or they intimidating him. . . . Mike is living like [former heavyweight champ] Jack Johnson. He lives hard and he plays hard. And you can't burn the candle at both ends."
Getting Inside His Head
The question asked most often about Tyson these days has to do with his mental stability. Is he emotionally troubled? Too sick to be in a ring fighting? Crazy?
In considering Tyson's 1998 quest for reinstatement of his boxing license after he bit an opponent's ear, the Nevada State Athletic Commission asked that an independent medical evaluation be conducted. Tyson was interviewed exhaustively by a team of specialists at Massachusetts General Hospital and put through a battery of psychological tests over five days. The results, which were publicly released, provide an illuminating picture.
"I feel like I'm in a concentration camp," he told the evaluators at one point. On several occasions, he put his head down and buried his face in his arms. Asked about any suicidal leanings, Tyson answered that he had struggled with thoughts of hopelessness and self-destructive behavior all his life.
He described a history of repeated head injuries as a child, including being hit by a baseball bat and assaulted with a brick. Sometimes, he lost consciousness.
Some of the evaluators' tests exposed his weaknesses in reading, math and spelling. Because of behavioral problems, Tyson spent much of his childhood in special education classes. On several occasions during the evaluation, Tyson found the tasks too difficult and gave up -- such as when he refused to write a complex sentence dictated to him because he couldn't spell all the words. On other occasions, the frustrated former champ just decided not to follow instructions. For instance, he was asked to study a design for 10 seconds and then draw it when it was taken away, but Tyson started sketching the figure before it was removed.
Overall, the doctors said, the evaluation revealed "significant problems with trust, as he fears being betrayed," a naivete in his interpersonal relationships and social isolation.
But, as one evaluator wrote: "The testing did not suggest the presence of any major illness or personality disorder." Nonetheless, it was the unanimous opinion of the evaluation team that Tyson "should be engaged in a course of regular psychotherapy with the goal of building trusting relationships, understanding his emotional responses to specific situations, and anger management skills."
Tyson already had been diagnosed as manic-depressive in the mid-'90s, and for a while he took the drug lithium carbonate, a mood stabilizer. But that slowed him down, he said, so he stopped taking it. Beginning in December 1997, he began treatment with Richard Goldberg, chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at Georgetown Medical School. He also has seen a Denver psychotherapist with expertise in anger management who has worked with professional athletes. But it is unclear how long those sessions lasted and whether he continues to be in therapy.
"I have no self-esteem but the biggest ego in the world," he told his evaluators.
In one recent television interview, Tyson talked of how difficult it was to find the right medication. He has taken Zoloft, another antidepressant, but it renders him temporarily impotent, he said, which only inflames his temper since his personality is so "penis-centered."
He told Rita Cosby of Fox News that when he takes Zoloft, "I don't get an erection. I'm just gone then, man. I'm just gone."
A Hard Fall From Grace
It's easy to forget what Tyson once represented -- the classic American story of triumph over circumstance. A thugged-out kid from the streets of Brooklyn, Tyson had been arrested 38 times by the time he was 13.
He was at the Tryon School for Boys detention facility in Upstate New York when one of the school's counselors introduced the 13-year-old inmate-pugilist to the legendary trainer Cus D'Amato, who gained custody of him and later became his legal guardian. (Tyson's mother died of cancer when he was 16, and his father had never married his mother and was not involved in his life. He is now dead).
D'Amato predicted Tyson would become the youngest heavyweight champion ever, which Tyson did become when he knocked out Trevor Berbick on Nov. 22, 1986, at age 20.
D'Amato, however, was not there to see the fulfillment of his forecast. He died the previous year, leaving Tyson to be managed by partner Jimmy Jacobs, who became Tyson's next surrogate dad. It was during that period that the writer Joyce Carol Oates got to know Tyson well and wrote about him at length. "I was very impressed when I first met him by his seriousness," she recalls. He studied boxing like a professor, mining Jacobs's storehouse of 26,000 fight films and seeing himself as an inheritor of boxing royalty.
"Here was this talent who was rising rapidly through the heavyweight ranks," recalls Oates. "He knew he was good, but he didn't say the crude things he says now."
Known as Kid Dynamite then, he went to chichi New York parties, was spotted in the company of Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr., had endorsement deals with Pepsi, Kodak, Nintendo. He even did anti-drug commercials for the FBI and the State of New York. He was, recalls Oates, "an establishment guy."
So what happened?
There was not one moment that tripped Tyson's demise, but a series that led him down the path to ignominy. Some say it started with the death of D'Amato, followed by the death of Jacobs three years later. Then came the unraveling of a disastrous marriage to actress Robin Givens, followed by Tyson's partnership with Don King, which ended with a $100 million lawsuit Tyson filed against the promoter that is awaiting trial in New York. Tyson claims King ripped him off for millions of dollars, an accusation King contests.
"To put the whole thing in a nutshell, Cus died," says Kevin Rooney, who lived with Tyson for a while in the Catskills and trained him from 1982 to 1988 before being fired. "Mike just got lost."
How far he has fallen.
In 1988, the year Tyson knocked out Michael Spinks in 91 seconds, the Pepsi people had an Atlantic City party to unveil its Tyson spot for Diet Pepsi. Today, no mainstream product would come within spitting range of Mike Tyson. As Pepsi spokesman Larry Jabbonsky says: "I would think that was then, this is now. . . . Brand Pepsi is about youthful exuberance and fun and optimism and refreshment. I just don't think that fit would exist today."
A Heavyweight Spender
Tyson has been drawn to extravagance, ever since he shed his rags for the fruits of riches. At one point, Tyson owned six homes, including a barely used Connecticut manse with 61 rooms and 38 baths. He buys Benzes for his bodyguards. He saw Vince Phillips, a former junior welterweight champ, walking through the gym one day, down on his luck, unshaven, looking like a bum. Tyson reached into his pocket and gave him $10,000, according to former Tyson trainer Brooks.
But extravagance can spiral out of control. Tyson reportedly owes boxing broadcaster Showtime $12 million for advances paid several years ago. (Tyson is guaranteed at least $17.5 million for tonight's fight.) Brooks, who was fired by Tyson before the Lewis fight in a dispute over his fee, says it once took him three months to get paid. When he complained to Tyson, Brooks says the ex-champ told him: "I haven't gotten paid yet, either."
"That's something I could never understand," Brooks says. "How could somebody else control your own money?" But when Brooks would raise this question with Tyson, he would just reply: "Ah, coach, it ain't nothing but money."
That casual attitude can be seen in his approach to clothes. Troy McSwain, a Beverly Hills wardrobe designer who has worked with Tyson, figures the ex-champ must have a million dollars worth of clothing, so much attire that he no longer knows what he owns and where it's all located. There was a time when Tyson wouldn't leave a major city without visiting its Versace store.
With McSwain, he would order 30 to 40 suits at a time, suits for different homes and occasions. McSwain recalls getting a phone call at home from Tyson late one night, about two months before he fought Buster Mathis Jr. in December 1995. Tyson was watching a movie on tape called "The Affair," a World War II drama starring Courtney Vance as a black American soldier who has an illicit romance with a British housewife. Tyson wanted McSwain to design for him a naval dress officer's suit -- black, double-breasted, with gold-eagle buttons -- similar to the one worn by one of the actors.
Tyson gets many of the ideas about how he wants to look from movies. Though there was nothing special about this suit from a design perspective, Tyson had McSwain rent the video and fly from L.A. to Phoenix, where he and Tyson watched it together.
"He envisioned himself winning that fight and wearing that suit at the press conference," McSwain recalls. "He won the fight and he wore the suit."
After he KO'd Mathis in the third round, Tyson saw McSwain outside the dressing room and whispered into his ear: "Hey man, you made my dreams come true. Thank you."
Tyson has had a checkered history with women. His marriage to Givens ended with her taking to the television airwaves to complain of abuse. Tyson's current wife, Monica Turner, a Washington pediatrician, has filed for divorce, citing infidelity.
Besides the conviction in March 1992 for raping a Miss Black America contestant, Tyson has had other legal battles involving women. In 1998, he settled out of court a lawsuit filed by two women who accused him of verbal and physical abuse as they were dining at a D.C. bistro. One of them said she spurned his offer of $5,000 for sex. Over the years, there have been allegations by various women that Tyson harassed them at strip clubs or elsewhere, but no criminal charges have been filed.
Muhammad Siddeeq, who helped Tyson convert to Islam when he was in prison, says the boxer is an easy mark for what he calls "ambulance chasers."
"I have a lot of girls coming to me wanting to be with Mike," Siddeeq says, "and I tell them you are not being fair to yourself and to Mike. A lot of people are trying to exploit what they perceive as a weakness."
It's not as though Tyson is running away from women. In January 1990, he met Wonda Graves at a private club in Manhattan. According to an interview with Graves, Tyson observed her slapping a guy who had grabbed her behind and was impressed. "They need to call you the champ now," Tyson told her, according to Graves.
Another night, she wound up at Tyson's apartment. Graves said she had sex with Tyson and got pregnant. The encounter is the subject of a paternity suit that is pending in Montgomery County Circuit Court 12 years later.
Tyson has so many attorneys and handlers involved in his affairs that it is difficult to discover who represents him on any given matter. New York authorities said they had been unable to serve Tyson with papers regarding the paternity suit. Several attorneys who have handled other criminal and civil matters for Tyson said they were unaware of the paternity suit. When Shelly Finkel, Tyson's manager, was asked about the case and who was handling it for Tyson, all he could say was, "I don't know."
Trouble in Paradise
Paradise is supposed to be soothing. So Tyson trained in Hawaii for a month, before chartering a private jet that took him to Memphis on May 31. In Hawaii, he stayed in a $1,500-a-night villa at the Fairmont Kea Lani resort, on the southwest shore of Maui.
He was there to prepare for the fight, but in between he played cards, watched DVDs, read books. His girlfriend brought his newborn son over for a visit, his fourth child by three women. In the ring, he was flooring sparring partners, eight or nine of them.
By Tyson's standards, Maui was boring -- no strip clubs, something the former champ said he didn't realize until he got there. But he had celebrity visitors: NBA all-star Kevin Garnett was staying three doors down.
Trainer Ronnie Shields stopped by the Kea Lani one day after workouts. The fighter was reading Bernard Goldberg's "Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News." He read some passages to Shields, telling his trainer that if he ever wrote his own autobiography, he wanted Goldberg to work with him. "Mike likes guys who speak their mind."
But then Tyson spoke his mind, and he and his camp were reeling for days. A handpicked group of reporters was invited for interview sessions and what emerged was often shocking, sometimes combative, perhaps cathartic.
"I wish that you guys had children so I could kick them in the [expletive] head or stomp on their testicles so you could feel my pain, because that's the pain I have waking up everyday. . . .
"Suppose I took you from somewhere with no mother, no father. If you came where I came from, it would affect you. One day I'm in a dope house robbing someone and the next day I'm the youngest heavyweight champion of the world. . . .
"I'm just a dumb pugnacious fool. I'm just a fool who thinks he is someone. Then you want to tell me I should be responsible. I'm angry at the world. . . .
"At times I come across as crude or crass. That irritates you when I come across like a Neanderthal or a babbling idiot. I like to be that person. . . . That's who you come to see. . . .
"To be honest, I'm just a dark guy from the den of iniquity. I've been there my whole life. . . .
"The pimps, the hos, the players, the people who have been cast aside, the people who have been lied to, the people who have been falsely accused, the people who were on death row and killed for crimes they never committed . . . those are the only people who showed me love."
The rants caused some of Tyson's staunchest supporters to retreat. "I don't know if he does this to gain extra publicity or if he really is insane," says Wanda Bruce, an Oxon Hill beauty salon owner. She heads the group, Women in Support of Tyson, which spoke up for the boxer at a D.C. boxing commission public hearing when promoters were trying to lure the Tyson-Lewis fight to the nation's capital.
The women in Bruce's group worry about the image of black men and would like to help Tyson rebuild his character. "But Mike seems to put us in an unpredictable situation because most people look at us like we're crazy."
Of course, Tyson thinks most people look at him like he's crazy. He has said as much, internalized it almost to the point of acceptance. It's the kind of acceptance that resigns one to an image that can't be flipped.
Gordon Marino, a philosophy professor at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, visited with Tyson in Maui. A former boxer, he was assigned to write an essay for the New York Times Magazine. One evening, Tyson asked one of his aides to find Marino. "Bring that guy here. He knows Danish." Tyson was on the Internet trying to order a rare breed of homing pigeon and needed an ad translated. Marino, an expert in Kierkegaard, had lived in Copenhagen for three years. So he obliged. He was struck by how subdued Tyson was in front of his computer and how agitated he had been, by comparison, when he had faced boxing writers in an interview session.
Some of the questions, he thought, might do that to anyone: Do you see your life ending violently? What do you want on your tombstone?
"People have an image of him he feels is impossible to break through," says Marino. "I could feel a palpable sense of pain from this guy. To me, it's like he is on top of a building and everybody's yelling: 'Jump! Jump!' "
Harris reported from Memphis and Merida from Washington. Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.