By Thomas Gerbasi
June 30, 2016
Mike Tyson is 50 years old. It’s a sentence many thought would never be written and the former heavyweight champion probably agrees.
It would be too far-fetched, too optimistic to think that “Iron Mike” really would be “Iron Mike,” settling into middle age with a smile on his face, a loving family, and a place as an ambassador for the sport he once ruled.
But he is.
To make it out of Brownsville, Brooklyn was remarkable enough. But to survive juvenile detention centers, prison, crippling debt, divorce and drugs, not to mention 58 professional fights, that was too much to ask.
He said on many occasions that he was cut from the cloth of a different breed of fighter. That breed – guys like Harry Greb and Stanley Ketchel – all died before the age of 35. Living fast and dying young was the blueprint, and Tyson was all too willing to follow it.
In 2012, before the premiere of his one-man show – Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth – I asked him the difference between the boxers of today and himself. He was blunt in his assessment.
“They don’t want to die for the people,” he said. “They want to fight and go to the after party too. They don’t want to die for the people where they may have to stay in the hospital while everybody else is in the after party.”
Win or lose, Tyson was willing to go to those lengths. And we loved him for it.
Perhaps no other fighter since the late, great Muhammad Ali has garnered such a loyal fan base and true iconic status. For those of us who are of a certain age, Tyson’s prime represented our prime. When Tyson was invincible, we were invincible, ready to take on the world, tear it down and build it back up in our own image. If you weren’t in your late teens and early 20s from 1986 to 1989, you probably didn’t get it.
And it wasn’t just what happened in the ring. There was the cast of characters around Tyson during his early career and championship prime. D’Amato. Jacobs. Cayton. Givens. King. Rooney. Every fight was like an episode of Game of Thrones. There was politics, intrigue, compelling storylines, and you knew that by the end of the night, somebody’s head was getting chopped off.
It’s a time we probably won’t ever see again in boxing. Or in sports. Whether “Kid Dynamite” or “Iron Mike,” when Tyson did something – anything – the world watched.
Yet as the turmoil grew more tumultuous, the tragedies more tragic, and the losses more crushing, we had to look even harder in the mirror at ourselves. If we were Tyson when he was invincible, who were we now, as adult responsibilities crept into our lives, and we suffered our own losses. We longed for those early days, but they were gone, and what kept Mike Tyson alive and moving forward was that he realized it. I asked him in 2012 if he ever went back and looked at his old fight tapes to relive the glory days. He didn’t hesitate in his response.
“I don’t watch that stuff no more,” Tyson said. “I don’t want to think about that guy, I want to think about this new guy that we’re trying to invent that’s gonna bring a light to this field.”
That field was entertainment, and while his appearance in The Hangover film series introduced him to a new generation, it was Undisputed Truth that let the world know that he had moved on, he had come to grips with his past, and that he was okay. And in a way, it let us know that we were going to be okay too.
“Whatever is difficult for me to go over, I’ll go over it with the audience and they’ll understand because I’m sure they’ve endured some part of that in their life, because you have to,” he said. “And sometimes to become this person that you’ve become in life you have to get through those difficult spots, and they have the opportunity to do it with me. We do it together.”
Mike Tyson was boxing’s last rockstar, and with the passing of Ali, he and Sugar Ray Leonard have to carry the torch as boxing’s ambassadors. Again, it’s something no one would have pictured at one time, and Tyson was cool with that. He didn’t even need to be mentioned with the sport’s all-time greats.
“I would like to hope that when they do mention my name, I don’t want to have to be the greatest fighter,” Tyson told me in 2012. “I want them to say that this was the meanest, the most ferocious and vicious fighter the world has ever known, and I’ll never see his kind again.”
Happy Birthday, Mike.