Mike Tyson walks into the Ringside Lounge in Jersey City. Itâ€™s late afternoon on a Wednesday but feels after-hours inside the bar. A pink neon light faintly streaks the walls, which are covered with Tyson photos, and the ceiling, which drips with Mylar streamers. The music is loud. A birthday posse, four women, already drunk, shimmy around their stools as if they were stripper poles.
â€œWhatâ€™s the food situation?â€ Tyson asks the proprietor. â€œIâ€™m famished.â€
The house specialty is pork chops.
â€œYou have rice?â€ Tyson asks. â€œYellow rice? And carrots?â€
â€œSo mixed vegetables. SautÃ©ed onions, Mike?
â€œAnd what to drink, Mike? Tea?â€
Itâ€™s an unexpected order from the former most feared man on the planet, but itâ€™s what his new diet dictates. After retiring from boxing, Tyson struggled with drug addiction. He wasnâ€™t exercising, and he got so fat he thought his heart might explode. For more than a year now, heâ€™s been vegan. He claims to have lost over a hundred pounds.
As Tyson waits for his food, proprietor Mario Costa (â€œI own the blockâ€) scurries behind the bar and puts in a DVD to show on the flat-screen. Itâ€™s a teaser for Tysonâ€™s latest venture: an Animal Planet series centered on Tysonâ€™s longtime passion for pigeons. Tyson keeps thousands of birds in different coops around the country; that way, wherever he is, he can always spend time with them.
Tysonâ€™s having his own family-friendly show, and his return to New York to promote it, can be seen as completing the redemption of his image. â€œIsnâ€™t it crazy?â€ Tyson asks. â€œI go from being this horrible guy, this rapist, this psycho-man walking the streets â€¦ and now when I see these young kids on the street, they give me hugs â€¦ Ainâ€™t that some shit?â€
Behind the Ringside is one of Tysonâ€™s oldest coops, a houseboat-size structure with running water and heat. Ricky Roman, who looks after Tysonâ€™s birds in Jersey, calls it â€œThe Dream Coop.â€ Next to the building is a modest townhouse where Costa managed to squeeze a boxing ring into the living room. As heavyweight champ, when he was overweight and didnâ€™t want to be seen, Tyson did training sessions here.
Other than his pigeons, heâ€™s had pet tigers over the years. I ask Tyson if he were an animal, what animal would he be?
He looks up at the tinseled ceiling. He scratches his thick neck. â€œIâ€™d like to be a lion, but I think Iâ€™m a wolverine,â€ he says.
Wolverines: â€œTheyâ€™re like big giant rats. Theyâ€™re about 50 pounds and fearless. They fight to the death. They donâ€™t move fast. They walk slow because theyâ€™re not afraid of nothing. Thatâ€™s how I think. And they can be a little reckless.â€ But also, he says, â€œIâ€™d like to be a lion and have lion status: to make other people do my work and get the credit for it.â€
Tyson is now 44 and has had eight kids. His youngest, Morocco Elijah, was born in January. In May 2009, a daughter, Exodus, then 4, died after an accident involving a treadmill cord. â€œYou realize when you get older that life is not about acquiring shit, itâ€™s about losing shit,â€ he says. â€œYou lose your hair, your teeth, your loved ones.â€
Tysonâ€™s also lost wealth. He was once one of the Âhighest-grossing athletes in sports, generating over $400 million. But after spending a reported $400,000 a month, he filed for bankruptcy in 2003 owing close to $30 million. In a way, itâ€™s a liberating feeling for him to be broke. â€œI live a rich life,â€ he says. â€œPeople see me in a private planeâ€”itâ€™s probably my friendâ€™s plane. I mean, I donâ€™t have no fucking money.â€ Money, he adds, brings â€œa false sense of security. Sometimes you have so much money you believe you canâ€™t even die.â€
His order appears. The broccoli, carrots, waxed beans, and rice are arranged in a formation as elaborate as an English garden. I ask him what book he is reading.
â€œA [Natural] History of [Human] Emotions. By a guy named Stuart Walton. Itâ€™s real cool shit. You know some of the greatest minds, since like the 1800s, didnâ€™t consider jealousy an emotion?â€
He talks like a new man, but can people really change?
Tyson warms his giant hands on his tea. â€œI think we are born contradictions. The older we get, our thoughts change,â€ he says, â€œuntil we reach a paradigm shift, and we realize that everything weâ€™ve been learning is a lie, and we have to start all fucking over.â€
Down at the end of the bar, a cake is served for the birthday girl. The candle is in the shape of a giant penis. The birthday crew is dancing. Tyson gets up from his stool and does his own little dance; as they wiggle he wiggles too. â€œYou just canâ€™t control it,â€ he says.