• Steve Bunce

Tyson still fighting most dangerous foe

Steve Bunce August 28, 2013
Mike Tyson's life has taken himself to the darkest of places, both as a boxer and since leaving the ring in 2005 © AP

Making millions and winning world titles in the boxing ring is often not enough to change a man. There are fighters that simply will never change, never fully slip the chains from a childhood without hope. There are men that fight demons on the safe side of the ropes in a seemingly endless stream of rematches.

Mike Tyson continues to battle those demons today, at the age of 47 and almost eight years since his last professional fight. His press conference at the Turning Stone Casino in New York, where he staged his first boxing card as a promoter, ended with Tyson fighting back the tears, admitting to lying about his drink and drug use and declaring himself "on the verge of dying".

"I'm a bad guy sometimes," said Tyson, who revealed that he had apologised to former trainer Teddy Atlas, who 30 years ago was forced to pull a gun on Tyson to protect his family. "I did a lot of bad things and I wanted to be forgiven. In order for me to be forgiven, and I hope they forgive me, I had to change my life. I want to live a different life now. I want to live my sober life. I don't want to die."

This is Tyson going through the steps. The only surprise for me was that people were surprised by what he said - after all, Tyson has been in this turmoil before. That doesn't diminish its impact, but it shouldn't come as a shock. This is what happens when Tyson hits a low. He has been in and out of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous and understands how the program works - that you need to crash and burn to as low a point as possible before you can sort your life out. He has been in some savagely low places.

But Tyson is an extreme individual. He could lose 30lb, do six hours of yoga each day and get himself fitter, healthier, cleaner and clearer of mind than he has ever been - and within a week he could be acting like a down-and-out junkie, going through money faster than anybody.

Is Mike Tyson a troubled human being? Of course he is. Does he need help? Permanently. He began taking mood-altering medication for his various forms of depression in 1987. It's now 2013! This man has lived an extreme life - but he's exceeded all limits of what anybody thought him capable of handling.

We have been saying that Mike Tyson will soon be dead for 25 years - he's outlived dozens of the boxing journalists who said just that! The other day I read a great article on Tyson by my late pal George Kimball, who wrote for various Boston newspapers, covered great fights and wrote one of the best boxing books ever, The Four Kings. The article was maybe 23 years old, but even then Kimball admitted that nobody expected Tyson to be alive at 40 - including Iron Mike.

I've been with Tyson on a number of occasions over the years. I've seen him at his very best and worst, both inside and out of the ring, and I've seen him at his most out-of-his-box on both medical and illegal drugs in the years since he hung up his gloves. He can be a horrific human being to be around - and he can be unbelievably calm and peaceful when dealing well with life.

Mike Tyson became the youngest heavyweight world champion when he beat Trevor Berbick in 1986, aged 20 years four months © AP

As a fighter, Mike Tyson was the second-greatest heavyweight in history in his first two years as a world champion. The only heavyweight who ranks higher is Muhammad Ali in his 1960's heyday. If you consider Tyson's career in its entirety he wasn't as good as Ali, Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis or George Foreman, but only Ali's 1965-67 stretch, before his licence was taken from him, can better Tyson's 18-month reign between 1986 and 1988. But his appetite for self-destruction stopped him from ever reaching those heights again. Nobody can touch Tyson when it comes to excesses.

There have always been two sides to his character - in 2000 he famously said: "There's Mike, and there's Tyson." The fact that he is still as rational as he is shows just how complex his life must be. Following the death of his four-year-old daughter Exodus in 2009, he considered suicide. He talked about that one night in Manchester, and had an auditorium of around 800 people in tears. They'd come to see the 'Baddest Man on the Planet', the Mike Tyson once convicted of rape, the boxer who bit off part of Evander Holyfield's ear; instead they got a guy talking in brutally honest terms about how unbelievably low he felt after his daughter died.

Let's be clear: Mike Tyson's demons are not returning because he has been in touch with boxing again. He's never been that far from boxing - he'll show up at fights in Las Vegas, and he earns most of his living talking about life in the ring. Boxing did save his life, but perhaps - like dozens of other fighters - it just delayed the inevitable. Boxing saves you from becoming a petty thief or thug as a kid but that person, that wounded and damaged boy or man is still in there, unless you do something to change it. To his credit, Mike is trying.

When he sat down at that press conference, after the two main event fighters couldn't make it, the journalists there must have thought, "our prayers have been answered - we're getting one of those Tyson moments." I've been at a few of those moments, like when he'd had his face tattoo done and kept us all waiting in Memphis; he showed up two or three days later and granted us an audience. Then there was Hawaii, New York, London…

When you get Mike in a talking mood, there's no other fighter like him - past or present. I wasn't in Ali's changing rooms before and after fights, but I know what he did and how long he did it for. Trust me: Mike Tyson does far more soul-searching with the press around than Ali ever did. Nobody takes you into those darkest of places like Tyson - maybe Sugar Ray Leonard in his autobiography. But face to face? Nobody.

In some ways, if Mike Tyson was now a mumbling, stumbling wreck, at least we would know where we stood with him. But it's because he can be so erudite, so clear-minded, so determined to embrace change, that you can't help but hope he learns to beat his demons once and for all. Nobody is as honest as Mike Tyson, nobody.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Steve Bunce Close
Steve Bunce has been ringside in Las Vegas over 50 times, he has been at five Olympics and has been writing about boxing for over 25 years for a variety of national newspapers in Britain, including four which folded! It is possible that his face and voice have appeared on over 60 channels worldwide in a variety of languages - his first novel The Fixer was published in 2010 to no acclaim; amazingly it has been shortlisted for Sports Book of the Year.