February 1, 2002

Tyson, a Lovable Lunatic

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Lovable is probably not a word that’s often used to describe someone who’s threatened to rip another man’s heart out and eat his children. But, c’mon, admit it. Mike Tyson is lovable.

Not lovable in the sense that he’ll cook you candlelight dinners or in the sense that he’d be a good shoulder to cry on during The Bridges of Madison County.

I mean lovable in a more conservative sense of the word. Lovable because he’s enigmatic. Lovable because he’s spontaneous. Lovable because he’s bordering on lunacy. OK, maybe not bordering.

In my lifetime, I haven’t known a celebrity who has been more of a character than Tyson. This, after all, is the man who claimed that “I’m on the Zoloft [an anti-depressive drug] to keep from killing y’all.”

I’ve seen plenty of characters pass through the doors of fame in the last couple of decades: Woody Allen, Darryl Strawberry, Ted Kennedy. But none has had the lasting-power, the magnetic attraction to the front pages of newspapers that Tyson can claim.

From the time Tyson won his first heavyweight title as a 20-year-old in 1986 to earlier this week when he was denied a Nevada boxing license because of his idiotic conduct at a pre-fight public relations event last week (when he allegedly bit Lennox Lewis’s leg), Tyson has allowed journalists to write stories that they wouldn’t be able to drum up even on an LSD trip.

He’s managed to accumulate several fortunes, and he’s somehow managed to blow them all. He dropped out of high school, but he earned his GED (and converted to Islam) while in prison for a rape charge. He became so enamored with the writings and ideology of Mao Tse-Tungn” Nthat he now boasts a tattoo of Mao on his triceps. He actually even managed to force Britain to debate whether it was safe to sanction a visa for him so he could fight in Manchester.

But as Tyson himself argued in front of the Nevada Boxing Association earlier this week, he’s neither Mother Teresa nor Charles Manson. Yes, he’s called himself a hellraiser and his partying and womanizing antics are well-known. But, at the other end of the spectrum, every holiday season he returns to his native Brooklyn and hands out turkeys to the needy.

He’s mugged old women, robbed houses, and even begun riots in casinos. But he’s also arguably one of the greatest athletes this generation has ever known. But for the fact that his own reprehensible behavior has put him out of commission for several years of his prime, he could have probably held the heavyweight title for the last 15-plus years. The fact that even while in jail he trained like a madman —