Editor’s Note: Former heavyweight champ—and longtime Las Vegas resident—Mike Tyson is back in the news with his soul-bearing book Undisputed Truth, scheduled to be released November 12, as well the Spike Lee-produced documentary of the same name, which is set to air November 16 on HBO. While doing press to promote both products, Tyson revealed that he continues to battle demons—demons that he very candidly acknowledged were never far below the surface during this interview with Vegas Seven that was published April 5, 2012, in advance of his one-man stage show at MGM Grand.
Time was that a one-on-one interview with Mike Tyson was as comforting as a one-on-one encounter with a lion in its den. You didn’t know exactly when things would end badly, just that they ultimately would. On this day, though, the once self-proclaimed “baddest man on the planet” is as tame as a house cat as he holds court on the 28th floor of the MGM Grand. Nattily attired in a dark blue suit, Tyson has spent the last three hours meeting with local media to promote Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth, Live on Stage, his one-man show about his tumultuous life in and out of the boxing ring.
Because I’m the last in line to sit down with Tyson, I’m concerned he’s had enough and that my first question might be my last. Instead, the former champ’s famously tattooed face is all smiles as he sticks out his once-devastating right hand and greets me. Now 45, Iron Mike appears as fit, strong and—more than anything—content as ever. By his own admission, he has lived “a bunch of lives,” and there’s little doubt this current incarnation is his favorite.
You’ve said this one-man show will be a complete examination of your life—the good, the bad and the ugly. Why now?
I don’t know. I just wanted to do it, and I love entertaining people. That’s really who I am—that’s probably from the boxing bug. I just think I’m born to do this stuff. I know boxing is stereotyped as being Neanderthalic and pugnacious and stuff, but I just fell into the hands of a fight man [his late mentor and manager, Cus D’Amato] first. If I had fallen into the hands of a medical man, I would’ve been a doctor. If I would’ve fallen into the hands of a literature man, I would’ve been a writer. It’s just that he got me first, and I became a boxer. And I’m pretty extreme in my thinking, my personality, which is good and bad. Whatever I do I just give it my all, and that’s what I’m going to do with this show.
How much of it will be scripted?
It will be scripted, but it won’t be. The reason it will be scripted is so we can stay on track, for timing. Because I might get stuck feeling sorry for myself and start crying, and now the show is a disaster. So I’ve got to stay on script, stay in the bubble. But when I’m talking about Robin [Givens, his former wife], talking about my mother, talking about Cus, it pretty much won’t be scripted. It’ll be pretty raw and naked. And that’s really what it is: It’s a naked performance. Some people are going to like it, some people aren’t.
Your life has been an open book since you were 19 years old. What will you reveal in the show that we don’t already know?
I don’t know, that I masturbated a lot. Seriously. I was so focused on the boxing, all I did was train, watch boxing, [look at] magazines and masturbate—that’s all I did. I was a young kid.
You’ve overcome substance-abuse problems, lost a lot of weight and appear to be happier than you’ve ever been. What motivated you to finally turn your life around?
I made a commitment to my wife [Kiki, who co-wrote and produced the show] that I was going to try to live a better life—a better quality of life—and have more self-respect. I’ve tried to stay on that path and live up to that commitment. I’ve been married before, but I’ve never been committed before, probably because I never knew what the hell the word meant. I don’t know; it’s just a good journey that I’m on. And it’s pretty safe, too. I’m very safe. I never knew a commitment could give you safety. If I had known that, I probably would’ve made a commitment earlier.
Is it difficult to keep your old demons from resurfacing?
Listen: You know when they come out? When you’re around, when these [strangers] are around me, and the lights are on. That’s when they come out, when you start looking at these people like this over here [gestures toward two attractive young women for whom he just recorded a voice-over]. Certain things start going on. But this is what I know: I had a bunch of lives. I came back a bunch of times. And every time I came back I thought I could do the same thing, and I got [whispers] deeper. Just like rehab; every time you relapse, you go deeper than you were before. Now imagine how far I’m going to go if I screw up this time. I won’t be able to survive it.
What’s your greatest regret?
[Long pause]. I don’t know. I just wish I could’ve been nicer to people in my life. I wish I would’ve been nicer to my mother—but I [had] such a weird life with my mother. I love my mother, but I look at myself, and I’m such a better parent than my mother and father were—and I’m a horrible parent! [Laughs] My parents left us with nothing but a burial plot. [My kids] are in private school, they’re doing well, they have a healthy life. I just think I did better than my parents did for me. And that’s all I’m entitled to do.
What’s the hardest you’ve ever hit someone, in or out of the ring?
I don’t know. I’d have to go around and ask everybody I hit, “How did that feel?” I can’t tell you.
Were you ever concerned that you’d seriously injure or kill someone in the ring?
No, I was so afraid [for myself]. I was just hoping—I didn’t want to die. Thing is, it was either him or me. I always felt I was such a coward because I was so afraid before fights. I eventually realized that was one of the major reasons for my success: that I was in tune with my fears.
How were you able to hide that fear? Because no one on the planet knew you were scared.
Because I’m a great actor. You know, I cried before fights. I was so scared, thinking the guy was going to kill me. … I used to always tell Cus that I was a coward, and Cus said, “Really? Confidence in the hands of a coward—that’s a hard person to beat. That person’s almost impossible to beat. He’s fighting with so many emotions—he knows he’s a coward, he’s always felt he’s been a coward, but he doesn’t want to be a coward no more and he realizes the harder he tries, the more he feels like a coward. Until he realizes that fear is his friend and it helps him. But he despises his friend that helps him because it makes him feel like less than a man.”
What’s your opinion on boxing’s rapid decline, and do you think it will ever recover?
It’s going to recover once it receives a sensational heavyweight champion. They have to be developed; you have to start as a teenager and work your way [up]. It has to be a guy who understands the sport, who understands that you have to be exciting. As a young boy, 13 or 14, Cus said, “It’s all about bringing people [out of] their seats. You have to be exciting. When you fight, you want them to say, ‘When’s the next time we can see him fight again?’” That’s what stuck in my mind.
When I was a young boy and Cus used to send me out to the club fights as an amateur, he would say this—and I’ll never forget it till the day I die: “I’m going to be here by the phone. I expect that phone to be ringing off the hook all night. I expect them to be ranting and raving about you—ranting and raving! Don’t let me down!” That’s what he said before every fight. So I didn’t just have to win and be happy just to survive; I had to bring the fucking house down. Imagine that pressure at age 14, I had to bring the house down. “When that fight’s over, they better be screaming ‘When am I going to see you again?’” This is what this old man is telling me.
Where will Mike Tyson be on his 70th birthday?
I’m just hoping that I’ll be alive. Nobody in my family lived over 59 or 60, my mother died in her late 30s, my sister died at 25. I just want to be alive. I’m not looking for no celebration. I just hope I have some grandchildren, and I hope we get along and respect one another.
Are you surprised you’re still alive?
Yeah, I’m very surprised I’m still alive. And I’m surprised that I have any dignity left.