As the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, the boxer was famous for his ferocity. But outside the ring, he nurtured a gentler passion.
The mere mention of Mike Tyson’s name conjures up some of the most violent images in sport – the time he bit off Evander Holyfield’s earlobe, the occasion when it appeared he tried to break François Botha’s arm during a fight. The three marriages, eight children, the losing of a $400m fortune, being declared bankrupt, the arrests, the drugs, the alcohol. Then the rape conviction 20 years ago which led to him spending three years in jail. “I’m the baddest man on the planet,” he howled at anyone who’d listen and, all things considered, it was hard to disagree.
“I wasn’t a good person then,” he says. “I was raging and mad and angry, and the only thing I loved were my pigeons.”
And this is the fascinating thing about Tyson – even when he was chewing on the ear cartilage of his boxing contemporary and throwing devastating punches to become the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, he was returning to his pigeons afterwards and, in the words of his present wife Kiki, “holding them with such tenderness you couldn’t fail to be moved by it”.
Tyson loves pigeons. It may not fit with his killer image, but they’ve been a huge passion all his life, from when he was a nine-year-old kid, living in poverty; through the glory years of wealth and fame in abundance; to the troubled years and to the present day. Tyson has about 3,000 birds in open wooden crates stacked up in the garage next to his house in the LA suburbs. “I check on them all the time. I watch them pecking away and I watch them fly off,” he tells me on the phone from New York. “I have lovely white ones with black bars on them – they’re quite rare. I’m trying to breed a black one. A black one with white bars would be nice but it’s hard. I’m not there yet. Some of my birds are champions, some of them aren’t. Some of them strut around and can cost as much as $3,000, some of them are cheap. I love them all.”
But while Tyson has kept and bred pigeons all his life, he only started racing them last year.
“I’m the new boy to all this,” he says with a laugh. “I know everything about pigeons but not about racing. Some of these guys I race against know everything. I know nothing. I’m just a learner.”
Racing involves him training his pigeons every day that he’s home to do it. “It’s hard work,” he says. “Every morning I’m up and in the gym early then out to see the pigeons.” He describes training the pigeons to race as being like training a boxer for a fight – you start slowly and build up. “First a mile, then increase and keep increasing until you get to maybe 500 miles.”
Then, when it’s competition day, he takes his flock of birds to a designated starting point, sometimes hundreds of miles from their home, and releases them at the same time as his rivals release their birds. The pigeon recording the fastest average speed on the dash for home takes the prize.
Tyson first started keeping pigeons when he was a young boy living in a small apartment in crime-ridden Brownsville, still one of the most violent suburbs of New York. He had a tough upbringing; he was two when his father abandoned him and his two siblings, Rodney and Denise, to an alcoholic mother who was rarely at home. They had no heat or hot water. “It smelled of sewage,” is all that Tyson can remember of the place. “The only nice thing I remember about being a kid was my pigeons.”
At school, Tyson was taunted by bullies who laughed at him for his high-pitched voice and his lisp, so he would arrive late to avoid them and run home as quickly as he could afterwards. The pigeons he was allowed to keep up on the rooftops became his life. “I was fat and ugly. Kids teased me all the time. The only joy I had was pigeons.” Then, one day, one of the bullies, aged 15, came not for him, but for his birds. The attacker grabbed one of them, twisted its head off and sprayed its blood all over him.
In a scene that could have come from a Hollywood movie, Tyson turned. The nine-year-old boy puffed out his chest, hit the bully, knocking him out, and never looked back. “It felt great,” he remembers. From that day onwards, anyone who bullied him or came near his pigeons got thumped. But that’s where the similarity with a movie ends, because Tyson developed a lust for violence and he lost control. He joined one of the toughest gangs in the area and got into trouble constantly. By the time he was 13, he had been arrested 38 times. He ended up at reform school.
“They thought I was this big, out-of-control badass,” he says. “You know – big Mike in trouble all the time. But my pigeons never thought like that. My pigeons they were there for me. I never let them down. They’ve never let me down. Easier than people.”
It was while Tyson was at reform school that his boxing talent was spotted. School counsellor and amateur boxer Bobby Stewart offered to teach him to box if he’d work hard on his academic studies. He soon realised that, in Tyson, he had someone special. In 1980, when Tyson was 13, he took him to meet legendary trainer Cus D’Amato, who offered to take Tyson under his wing; he turned him into one of the most successful, and terrifying, boxers of his generation. Tyson became the youngest world heavyweight champion there has ever been when he was just 20 years old, but he was still out of control.
“I got addicted to the fame and people thinking I was great and did bad things, a lot of bad things. I wanted to fight everyone, every day. I didn’t care about anything. The only thing in my life then that mattered was my pigeons. I look back and know I wouldn’t have coped in my life without them. I could calm down with them, I could get some peace.”
Tyson lost only six of the fights he fought as a professional boxer, and won 44 of them by knockout.
Today, Tyson says he has his life on track. He’s happily married, and is working on stage and screen: he’s starred in both The Hangover films (as himself) and, earlier this month, on Broadway, he appeared in a short run of a one-man show about his life, Undisputed Truth, directed by Spike Lee.
“The show’s good. People enjoyed it when I did it in Las Vegas,” he says, as the show prepared to open in New York. “Life’s good now. Of course I still want to punch someone every day, but I’m not allowed to do it. The thing is – at least I know I’m not allowed now, not just know it in words, but actually know it inside myself. I don’t want to get in trouble now. I’m married, I want to look after my wife. I’ve got a future ahead and I’ve got pigeons to train. It’s all good now, not bad any more.”
Alison Kervin is a former chief sports feature writer of The Times and The Daily Telegraph.