No athlete in the world has raised as many eyebrows or made as many headlines as Mike Tyson. While he was never the most technically proficient boxer, his savage, unrelenting onslaught ended many of his fights within the first round. His life has been a roller coaster ride few of us could ever imagine; escaping the ghetto as a boy—winning the WBC heavyweight championship at just 20 years old—soaring wealth and bankruptcy—prison—the death of a child—crippling addictions—a facial tattoo—and of course the infamous 1997 “Bite Fight,” where he bit off part of opponent Evander Holyfield’s ear.
10Mike Tyson vs. The Philosopher
Photo via California State University
Throughout his career, Tyson fought some of the most dangerous men on the planet, many of whom he beat insensate to the mat within the first round. But in 1987, the hulking boxer was once talked down by an elderly philosophy professor.
During a party in New York City, Mike had gotten into an altercation with teenage supermodel Naomi Campbell, whom he was dating at the time. When things got ugly, Naomi’s friend ran for help. The help came from a most unusual source: Instead of some burly fighter trying to end the lovers’ quarrel, a tiny 77-year-old man arrived on the scene. He was A.J. Ayer, a British philosopher.
Tyson was baffled and enraged by the elderly fellow’s intercession, screaming “Do you know who the f—k I am? I’m the heavyweight champion of the world.” Ayer replied, “And I am the former Wykeham professor of logic. We are both pre-eminent in our field. I suggest that we talk about this like rational men.”
Surprisingly enough, they began a conversation, and Campbell escaped. Of course, Ayer was probably better equipped to handle such a situation than most senior citizens; he’d been employed by MI6 during World War II.
In many of the world’s cities, pigeons are considered vermin, “rats with wings” that slime every surface with excrement. However, a young Mike Tyson was fascinated with the birds.
After a home burglary he performed when he was just 10 years old, he was left with a wad of money burning a hole in his pocket. He spent $100 on his own flock of pigeons, moving them a few at a time to a rooftop. Unfortunately, others learned where he’d stashed his birds and tried to steal them. When Mike confronted the thieves, a boy named Gary Flowers took one of the pigeons and ripped its head off, throwing the bloody remains at Tyson.
Encouraged by his friends, Mike attacked Flowers. One wildly flung punch knocked the other boy down. This would be the dawn of his legacy.
He soon developed a reputation in the neighborhood, and other kids would come to challenge him. By the age of 11, he was a street-hardened thug, but all these years later, his love for pigeons has never abated. He has even hosted his own show about the birds on Animal Planet, called Taking On Tyson.
Once upon a time, Iron Mike was a chubby little boy with glasses and a speech impediment, the target of plenty of neighborhood bullies. When he was seven years old, his mother lost her job, and the family was forced to move to a Brooklyn neighborhood of projects notorious for drugs and violence.
In one memorable incident, when Mike was in first grade, an older boy tried to rob him. When he didn’t produce any cash, the boy tried to take his lunch. Mike defended his snack, which he described as meatballs wrapped in aluminum foil. The other boy eventually beat him up, stole his glasses, and put them in the gas tank of a nearby car. Mike later explained, “I still feel like a coward to this day because of that bullying. That’s a wild feeling, being that helpless. You never ever forget that feeling.”
As he got older and developed his fighting skills, Mike began taking revenge on some of the bullies that had tortured him as a boy. He claimed, “That guy who took my glasses and threw them away? I beat him in the streets like a f—ing dog for humiliating me. He may have forgotten about it, but I never did.”
While regulations have greatly reduced the danger of boxing over the years, it is a gladiatorial sport, and people are sometimes badly injured or even killed. For example, in 1947, Sugar Ray Robinson had a nightmare that he would kill his opponent, Jimmy Doyle, in the ring. He threatened to quit the fight, but the promoters actually got a Catholic priest to talk him down. To Robinson’s absolute horror, he did indeed kill Doyle, an act that would haunt him the rest of his life.
Every boxer aims to knock out his opponent, but vanishingly few have deadly intentions. Mike Tyson was one of this rare lot.
During an interview, he claimed that he was “disappointed” he never killed anyone in the ring and that he actually felt jealous of another fighter who had. If anyone fought savagely enough to kill another human being, it would have been Mike Tyson, but that overwhelming aggression ended many fights within seconds, before any real damage could be done.
6His Wife Cheated On Him With Brad Pitt
Photo via Vibe
Some obnoxiously cutesy couples make “cheating” pacts (i.e., he can only cheat if he gets an opportunity to sleep with Jennifer Aniston, and she can only cheat if George Clooney happens by). They’re silly daydreams people cook up to pass the time, like wondering what you might do if you won $100 million in the lottery or suddenly acquired superpowers. These husbands gladly give their wives carte blanche to fool around with certain A-list celebrities if the chance ever presented itself. Mike Tyson actually got to experience this firsthand.
He was still seeing his wife Robin Givens regularly during their divorce in the late ’80s. One day, he dropped by to visit unannounced, only to find her sitting in a car with none other than Brad Pitt. Although Pitt has played tough guys in his movies, such as Tyler Durden in Fight Club or a bareknuckle boxing champ in Snatch, he was obviously no match for Iron Mike. Tyson claimed that Pitt was terrified and begged him not to get violent. At the time, he admitted “I was mad as hell,” but has long since gotten over it.
5His Trainer Pulled A Gun On Him
Given his proclivity for petty crime and violence, Mike was locked up several times as a kid. He eventually ended up in an upstate New York facility called Elmwood at age 13. One of the counselors recognized his talent and recommended him to Cus D’Amato, a legendary boxing trainer.
One of Cus’s employees was Teddy Atlas, a trainer and commentator best known for a scar running from the left side of his forehead all the way to his jaw. He got the scar in a street fight in his youth, and it took 400 stitches to close. Atlas worked closely with Tyson, but the relationship fell apart in 1982, when Mike got handsy with a young girl related to Atlas’s wife.
When Teddy learned of the incident, he went ballistic, pulling a .38 pistol on the teenaged fighter and firing it at him, though he missed on purpose. Cus dismissed Atlas, and for more than 20 years, Teddy held an ugly grudge, calling Tyson a phony and a liar even years later.
In August 2013, the two men made amends of sorts when Mike admitted he was wrong, and the two shook hands. Atlas would later say, “I give him credit for showing a gentleman’s side.”
Many children of the 1980s will have fond memories of playing Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! on Nintendo. You play as “Little Mac,” a diminutive pugilist who battles uphill against a series of increasingly bizarre and powerful characters until reaching Mike Tyson, who can dash your hopes with a single blow. Rumor has it that Tyson signed over three-year rights to his image to Nintendo for a mere $50,000, as he had not yet become heavyweight champion when approached. Had they waited, Nintendo would likely have been forced to shell out millions more for the privilege of Mike’s image.
Capcom’s Street Fighter II also attempted to capitalize on Tyson, but without giving him any direct credit or recompense. When developing the game, they created a hulking African-American boxer named “M. Bison” as a boss character. However, when the game was ported for release outside Japan, Capcom switched around the names of their characters to avoid any potential legal trouble. The character was renamed “Balrog,” but traces of Mike Tyson’s bizarre persona remain; in one game in the series, he taunts, “If you fight like that again, I’ll bite your ear off!”
Perhaps the ultimate symbol of Tyson’s exorbitant wealth and eccentricity was his menagerie of big cats. Over the years, he has owned several Bengal tigers, even sleeping with some in his bed.
But by 2002, his finances were in complete shambles, and the expense of owning such animals was beyond the scope of his checkbook. Documents show that feeding a single tiger cost him in excess of $4,000 a month. He was forced to sell them off.
One of the cats, named Storm, was sold to Roy Cooper, the Indiana tattoo artist who gave Tyson his famous facial markings. Cooper kept three other tigers at the shop. The USDA later seized all of them for being kept in poor conditions.
When Mike appeared on Conan O’Brien’s show in 2013, he reminisced about his time with his tigers, recounting one time when one cat went to “give him a kiss” and accidentally headbutted him, knocking out his gold teeth. He claims that he would love to have another tiger but admits he would have to keep it at a private compound—his wife would never allow it around the children.
Photo credit: Brocken Inaglory
Over the years, Mike Tyson has proven to be a quote machine. Before his fight with Lennox Lewis, Tyson famously stated that he would eat his opponent’s children. Once, he claimed that he tried to bribe a zoo employee to allow him to fight the world’s largest primate. He said, “I paid a worker at New York’s zoo to reopen it just for me and Robin [his wife]. When we got to the gorilla cage there was one big silverback gorilla there just bullying all the other gorillas. They were so powerful, but their eyes were like an innocent infant. I offered the attendant $10,000 to open the cage and let me smash that silverback’s snotbox! He declined.”
Like many of Tyson’s stories, this tale’s veracity can probably never be established, but it does not seem remotely out of character. For those wondering what the outcome of such a contest might be, the wise money is on King Kong. It is somewhat difficult to test the upper limits of a gorilla’s strength, and estimates vary wildly. However, by way of comparison, chimpanzees have dealt terrible harm on humans in violent encounters. A male silverback is twice the size of a chimp, and its strength is likely proportional.
1The Fan Letter
While Tyson would have likely driven himself to financial ruin all by himself, the process was certainly sped up by the corrupt management of Don King. Precisely how much money King managed to cheat him out of is unknown, but estimates range into the tens of millions of dollars. Not only did King rob Mike blind himself, but he funneled money to his own family members by setting them in a series of bogus jobs.
One of these so-called employees was King’s daughter Debbie, who earned $52,000 a year for running Mike’s fan club. According to his chauffeur and assistant Rudy Gonzalez, Mike didn’t even know he had a fan club, but when he found out, he decided to go investigate the facility and see what was going on. When he arrived, he found crates of unopened letters, along with provocative correspondence and undergarments from women.
When Tyson and Gonzalez opened some of the mail, they stumbled across a letter from a woman who’d begged Mike to call and speak to her child, who was dying of cancer. He did so immediately, only to find out that the call had come a year too late. Upon learning the news, Iron Mike promptly burst into tears. Even men who long to kill others in a boxing ring can have a soft side.