Editor’s Note: This column was originally published in April 2003.
It’s a beautiful morning in Harlem, sunny enough that someone like me feels safe strolling along 118th Street. Beaten-up buildings and abandoned plots swallow much of the block. A Cameroon tea shop provides the only sign of life. To understand someone who can’t possibly be understood, you have to come here. This is Mike Tyson’s home away from home.
Just 24 hours earlier, after the former heavyweight champ agreed to co-host Jimmy Kimmel’s show, we quickly assembled a crew and hustled back to New York. We were hoping to film a segment about his pigeon collection for the following week, though we weren’t sure whether he would show up for any of the tapings, much less this shoot. We only knew that Tyson kept his birds on a six-story roof here in Harlem. And he was supposed to arrive an hour ago.
“He’ll be here,” James Anderson tells me. “He’ll be here.”
While our camera crew set up on the roof, Anderson and I had been standing outside Tyson’s building, waiting for the champ to arrive. A burly African American with a commanding presence, Anderson could have played a sergeant in any ’70s police drama; you could almost imagine him ordering around Starsky and Hutch. Anderson has worked for Tyson since 1986, serving as a bodyguard, confidante and father figure, fading in and out of Tyson’s life like an old flame. Tyson’s lost four fights — one to Douglas, two to Holyfield, one to Lewis — and Anderson wasn’t working for him any of those times.
He’s more than just a good-luck charm. For all of Tyson’s considerable gifts in the ring, his lack of judgment crippled him over everything else. Like a woman who keeps attracting the wrong men, Tyson consistently trusted the wrong people — friends exploiting his generosity, women deceiving him for their own financial gain, promoters and advisers blatantly ripping him off — and those dealings scarred him more than any knockout. They hardened him, jaded him, turned his life into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Like Tony Montana in Scarface, Tyson embraced the role of “The Bad Guy,” eventually wound up in prison, watched his career fall apart, and that was that. A few more James Andersons in his life and maybe, just maybe, things would have been different.
After straddling the unintentional comedy line for years, Iron Mike fell off the charts two months ago, while training to fight Clifford Etienne in Memphis. Had that devastating defeat to Lennox Lewis last summer broken him for good? Covering the left side of his face, there was the bizarre tattoo of an African tribal design, which turned him into a national punch line again. There was the knockout of Etienne in 49 seconds, with Tyson claiming that he fought with a broken back, adding that the injury was “spinal.” There was a creepy SportsCenter interview in which Tyson came off like a raging lunatic. He seemed to be lashing out at everyone and everything.
Was Tyson losing his marbles? The owner of his favorite Cameroon tea shop — Tyson’s friend, Steven — blames the cameras and newspapers, claiming that they “bring out the devil in (Mike). Take all that away and he couldn’t be a nicer guy. Everyone around here loves him.” Anderson agrees: “Most celebrities develop a thick skin. But (Mike) doesn’t have one. When people say bad things about him, it hurts him. He can’t handle it. That’s when he gets into trouble.”
You could also argue that Tyson was a washed-up champion, someone who hadn’t defeated a meaningful contender in 11 years, an ex-con heading towards “Bolivian,” a double divorcee with few reliable friends and a dwindling bank account, the ultimate bully getting the ultimate comeuppance. For whatever reason, boxing fans still enjoy watching his fights even though he hasn’t trained seriously in years, even though his invincible aura was punctured years ago. Not since the first Holyfield fight has Tyson held his own against a world-class opponent. That was eight years ago.
Now he’s gathering himself for yet another comeback. Anxious to revamp Tyson’s image, his latest team of advisers convinced him to co-host Jimmy’s show. Anxious to make a splash in the ratings, we eagerly agreed to have him.
As it would eventually play out, Tyson was our most entertaining co-host of the past two-plus months — uproariously funny, stupefyingly strange, endearingly awkward, someone capable of taking over the show for segments at a time. He sang karaoke, sucked from helium balloons, interacted with guests, even taught Jimmy how to box. He remained compelling at all times, the good-natured bully with a heart of gold, the guy who crossed every line and kept you laughing while he did it. We weren’t just surprised, we were flabbergasted. This was a Mike Tyson nobody had ever seen.
Of course, standing on the corner of 118th and 8th in Harlem, I know none of this yet. I just know that Mike Tyson is late. And that he’s showing us his pigeons.
“Sometimes we get here at six in the morning,” Anderson says. “(Tyson) stays here until two at night, watching those pigeons fly around.”
The pigeons. People come and go, wives come and go, fights come and go but the pigeons endure. He’s been flying them ever since he was a little boy in Brooklyn. After Lewis savagely destroyed him last summer, the most humiliating of defeats, Tyson returned to Harlem and flew his birds for months on end. His wife filed for divorce. The boxing world left him for dead. He kept flying those damned pigeons. Earlier in the morning, I was talking with one of the locals who cares for Tyson’s birds when he’s away — a guy named Ron — who explained, “He likes the way they fly. I think he just likes coming up here. It’s his place. He relaxes up here.”
Tyson also feels comfortable in this neighborhood, one of the few remaining places where he’s still considered a hero. As Alonzo, one of the locals, tells me, “Everyone around here loves him. When you do meet him, you’re gonna be very surprised. He brings little gifts for people, he talks to everyone, looks out for everyone. He isn’t the guy that everyone thinks he is. He’s a good man.”
And now he’s pulling up in a white minivan. I’m about to meet Mike Tyson.
You notice his eyelids first: Swollen pieces of skin that hover over his eyeballs like mushroom caps. You notice the famous gold tooth that gleams in the sunlight. You notice how his giant hands feel like paws. You notice your heart pounding, prejudiced by every appalling story you ever heard about him. You notice his oversized head, thicker than a coconut, the ideal noggin to absorb a series of blows. And you notice how he maintains eye contact when he greets you, like he’s sizing you up and deciding, “I wonder what this person wants from me.”
Then, and only then, do you notice the tattoo, an almost indecipherable design which doesn’t stand out much more than the gray scruff on his face. I would even call it a little disappointing. Although I wouldn’t tell Mike Tyson that.
“Everyone’s on the roof,” I report.
“Let’s go then,” he mumbles.
Wearing a black jogging suit and a beige skull cap, Tyson leads me into his building and zig-zags up the narrow staircases, skipping happily, like a kid heading over to a friend’s house. He can’t wait to see his birds. “When I’m training, I run up these stairs with 100-pound weights on my back,” he tells me. I ask him about those months after the Lewis defeat, when the locals told me how Tyson visited the pigeons every day — sometimes for 18 hours at a time — and Tyson whirls around.
“You were asking people in the neighborhood about me?”
Uh-oh. I’m about to be murdered on a staircase in Harlem. And just when I’m about to start sprinting back down the stairs …
“Aw, that’s all right,” he finally says, smiling. “I got nothing to hide.”
We reach the roof. With charred doors and wires strewn everywhere, it looks like one of the leftover sets from Escape From New York. Three primitive sheds hold the pigeons, all of them covered by cages, looking comically desolate. This is where the ex-champ spends upwards of 18 hours a day? Up here? Glancing around at those abandoned buildings and beaten-up tenements, it’s what you would imagine Baghdad now looks like, only with the sounds of birds instead of bombs.
Walking around his sanctuary, Tyson seems taken aback by the number of people. He isn’t accustomed to seeing strangers up here. Uneasily, he shakes hands with our six-person crew, including Jimmy’s 69-year-old uncle, Frank Potenza, our “correspondent” for this piece. Then the champ starts pacing back and forth, finally saying, “I don’t want anyone here that don’t need to be here.” He isn’t ticked, just a little overwhelmed. No cameras have ever been up here. After we explain why everyone needs to stay, he finally relaxes.
Now we’re ready to begin. Uncle Frank moves next to Tyson, shakes hands and stands uncomfortably beside him, awaiting his instructions. Just six months ago, Frank was a retired ex-cop, living by himself in New York. Now he’s traveling the country as a correspondent for Jimmy’s show, appearing on camera every weeknight, even getting recognized right here in Harlem. For this particular piece, we’re concentrating on the awkwardness between him and Tyson — two guys with absolutely nothing in common — as they watch pigeons together. For once, Tyson won’t have to supply the unintentional comedy, not with Uncle Frank involved.
The cameras start rolling. Tyson escorts Frank into the first coop, telling pigeon stories and answering questions. Burned on so many occasions in the past, it takes Tyson time to drop his guard and realize that we’re on his side. Within 20 minutes, he brings Frank into another coop, then waves his arms so his pigeons will start flying around. It’s a cameraman’s dream: Mike Tyson flapping his arms, a demented grin spread across his face, his pigeons freaking out. You couldn’t make this stuff up.
When we reach his next coop — the flight coop — Tyson starts letting his pigeons out, and he’s whistling and carrying on, and those birds are soaring into the air, dozens of them at a time. These aren’t city pigeons, like the ones you would see in Central Park. These are real birds, beautiful birds.
“Where’s my stick?” Mike asks.
One of his workers scurries over, grabs a 20-foot bamboo stick with a garbage bag dangling from the end, then races it back to Tyson.
“Check this out, Uncle Frank, this is really fun right here,” Tyson says.
Whistling at the same time, he happily shakes his stick towards the remaining pigeons, who quickly veer into the sky. “Basically, I like to scare the birds,” Tyson explains. “I like to spook them, keep them flying high.”
Well, it works. Now they’re breaking into groups, flying in sequence, just like he hoped. Some of them branch off and soar into the clouds. You can barely see them. Others glide through the air, dipping over our heads, soaring back up, then — whoosh!!! — dipping down again. And it’s amazing to watch. We’re here in Harlem — six stories high, practically suffocated by the poverty — and it’s suddenly the most serene place on earth. This whole pigeon thing is starting to make sense. Maybe Mike Tyson isn’t crazy.
“Ronnie, look at ’em hooking,” Tyson sings gleefully. He’s referring to the birds circling above the building in sequence, turning on 90-degree angles, almost like they’re hooking around corners. Out of everything he loves about birds, this thrills him most. ‘”Look at ’em hooking,” he keeps saying.
This goes on for an hour. Tyson keeps letting out his various breeds of birds, explaining their histories as he goes. We keep feeding Frank questions. The birds keep zooming around. And Tyson keeps explaining his affection for pigeons to a 69-year-old stranger.
I’ve been doing this my whole life, longer than anything I’ve ever participated in besides breathing This is basically my office from six o’clock in the morning till two o’clock in the morning It’s like one of those boyhood diseases that you can’t get out of your blood I know people think I’m crazy because I’m a black, young, rich millionaire and I’m here flying pigeons, but this is what I’ve done all my life — I’m gonna die doing this.
“Wonderful, Mike,” Frank keeps saying. “This is wonderful.”
At one point, I tell Frank to ask about Tyson’s first fight, when he was growing up in Brooklyn and a local bully ripped the head off his favorite pigeon. Tyson kicked the kid’s ass. A legend was born. And as I’m feeding Frank the question
“No, no, no,” Mike says. “I don’t want to talk about violence, nothing violent. That’s not me anymore. I’m a peaceful man.”
The words hang in the air, just like his birds. I’m a peaceful man. The following week as co-host, Tyson would refuse to participate in an on-air pillow fight, using those same four words as an excuse: “I’m a peaceful man.” He would also refuse to spar with Jimmy during a taped boxing segment, playfully wrestling Jimmy to the ground instead. Clearly, he’s trying to reinvent himself. More than once in his dressing room, he would claim that Gandhi was his idol. He was serious.
As we spent more and more time with him, I would learn that Tyson is predictably sensitive and thin-skinned, perceptive enough to know when someone has taken advantage of him, painfully aware of his own limitations and demons, unable to corral his least flattering qualities, petrified of any situation where he might lose control. In other words, he’s the real-life Dr. Bruce Banner. You don’t want to see him when he’s angry, and frankly, neither does he. Maybe that’s why he can’t beat anybody like Lewis anymore, because he can’t channel his rage. He can’t control himself. And he knows it.
Here on the roof, as the birds keep soaring around, anything seems possible. Even Mike Tyson turning his life around. Exhausted from talking, Mike makes his way over the wall of the roof, the side that looks over 118th Street. “Hey, Money!” he calls down to a friend. Finally, he stands there, arms wrapped over the ledge, just hanging out. Terrified of heights, poor Uncle Frank wobbles in place a few feet away, unable to move any closer. Sensing Frank’s discomfort, Tyson calls him over and gently urges him to confront his fears. Uncle Frank eases towards the 4-foot wall. Carefully.
“It’s a phobia, baby,” Tyson explains. “Come on, brother, don’t be worried. Don’t be afraid of this s—.”
Frank reaches the wall, leans over and peers six stories down to the ground, his left hand gripping Tyson’s right shoulder the entire time. He did it. As Tyson congratulates him, Frank looks nervously into the camera and explains in a thick Brooklyn accent, “I have to hold on to Mike he’s a good guy to hold on to.”
He’s talking about Mike Tyson. And he means it.
We’re in Harlem, one of the most depressed areas in New York City, a place where you wouldn’t feel safe walking at night, a place which Mike Tyson still calls home. There isn’t much money left. There aren’t many fights left. Most of his friends have come and gone. This is where he’s meant to be, not in the ring, but right here, standing on this roof, staring up at the sky. And the pigeons keep gliding through the air, and they listen to him, and they circle above for hours at a time. Whoosh. They flap, they soar, they flap, they soar.
Eventually, they even come back.