‘We were always poorer than anybody and it made me feel like my family was less worthy than anybody else’s. So when I was a young kid I used to get picked on and bullied and I would go robbing, hoping guys would accept me in their gangs and stuff. All the time, I used to dream about kicking everybody’s fucking ass and killing some people.’
A frequent resident of Brooklyn and Bronx police cells by the age of 13, the adolescent Tyson had no interest in the Seventies boxing goliaths of Ali, Foreman and Frazier. He only ever saw one Ali fight, on a TV in a bar: ‘I was doing my pickpocketing shit and it was easy, because everybody was watching the fight.’
Despite this indifference, Tyson excelled at boxing in reform school, where an ex-pugilist teacher spotted him and delivered him to the tutelage of Cus D’Amato, a septuagenarian trainer who had nurtured Rocky Graziano and Floyd Patterson. Tyson arrived in his care a ticking time bomb of volcanic hormones, wrath and insatiable self-disgust.
Did you realize immediately that you were brilliant at boxing?
‘I never realized I was brilliant! I never thought I was nothing! I was just a thief; there was nothing good about me. I was a little scared boy who wanted to be a tough guy. I thought I was shit, until Cus told me I was a gigantic reptilian Tyrannosaurus Rex monster. He built up my confidence, but he built it so high that he made me into a fucking megalomaniac.’
D’Amato also turned the permanently enraged Tyson into a fearless, ferocious fighting machine. His speciality? Psychotic ultra-violence. After turning professional at 18, he won his first 19 fights by knockouts. Twelve of them came in the first round: most of them in the first minute.
How did you get so psyched up to charge out of your corner in those first few seconds and wreak utter, bloody carnage?
‘Cus used to have me professionally hypnotized two or three times a day – before sparring, before training and before fights. My objective was to destroy.’
Did you ever feel sorry for the guy you were beating to a pulp?
‘No, because Cus didn’t like me being sensitive like that. He wanted me to be emotionless. He said feelings mean nothing. Feelings have nothing to do with your life. The only thing that they do is distract you.’
This is the Tyson we remember, of popular memory and legend; the barbaric automaton, the genius brute, red of tooth and claw and powered by homicidal fury. Hell-bent on annihilation, he virtually dismembered all that came against him, rising through the ranks until he defeated Tony Tucker in 1987 and became the first fighter to hold all three world heavyweight championship belts.
Thus began his imperial period during which he routinely – and with maximum violence – swatted away challengers like flies. His apex arguably came in June 1988, when he faced Michael Spinks in a title bout billed as the evenly balanced battle of the two finest fighters on the planet. Tyson had Spinks on the canvas and out for the count with 30 punches in 90 seconds.
He must have felt on top of the world.
‘Shit, all those fights are like a blur to me now…’ the man in the New York hotel room tells me, before allowing a truer memory to surface. A smile spreads across his face: ‘Man, I felt invincible. I felt like a god.’
Yet Mike Tyson was a god with feet of the finest, weakest clay. Naturally, his precipitous rise to success had not eradicated his urge towards self-destruction: it had merely given it a bigger stage to act out upon. After the death of D’Amato, he sacked his long-term coach, Kevin Rooney, as rumors spread that he was training less and partying harder. In February 1990 in Tokyo, in one of the biggest upsets in sports history, Tyson lost his world crowns to 40-1 rank outsider Buster Douglas. It was the first time he had been knocked out.
His personal life had similarly dissolved into anarchy. There had been a tempestuous, allegedly violent marriage to soap actress Robin Givens, who divorced him after telling US chat show host Barbara Walters that life with Tyson had been ‘torture, pure hell, worse than anything I could possibly imagine’.
So what? Mike Tyson was still the Baddest Man On The Planet: he was unlikely to go short of female company. Boxing groupies queued up for him.
‘There was just so many women, and I never treated them with respect because I had seen men have no respect for my mother,’ he says now, with a mirthless laugh. ‘It got to like I just wanted to hold someone, so I’d make sure someone was next me every night just in case I wanted to do it.’ Another laugh. ‘Like most celebrities, I didn’t want a wife – I wanted a slave. A hostage.’
It was this brutish, unreconstructed attitude that led to Tyson standing trial in Indianapolis in 1992 accused of the early-hours-of-the-morning rape of 18-year-old beauty queen Desiree Washington (a crime of which he still vociferously and bitterly pleads innocence in his Undisputed Truth tour). His truculent, hostile attitude in court led to an inevitable guilty verdict. He spent the next three years in prison.
Notably, Tyson still talks about his incarceration with an air of simmering resentment.
‘I went in 270lbs and I came out 216lbs,’ he remembers. ‘And I always knew I’d box again and I’d be world champion again. When people like Bowe and Holyfield, or Lennox and McCall, were fighting for the titles, I’d phone my friend’s house and listen to the fights down the phone.’
Did you come out of prison a better man, or just an angrier one?
‘I came out real angry and bitter. That’s why I got in more trouble and I didn’t care who I hurt. I was a real bad, bitter person.’
Whipped back into shape by his time in prison, Tyson regained two of his three heavyweight world title belts within 18 months of his release. What followed was grisly beyond belief, and the episode that will forever define him in popular culture, as he left Evander Holyfield’s ear in tatters in the Vegas MGM Grand Garden Arena ring.
What was he thinking of when he bit him? Did he hate him? I have hardly got the question out before Tyson interrupts me.