It's open Mike night when Tyson talks

5/5/2010 - Boxing
Ellen Wallop/YES Network

About two months ago, when the New York Yankees were in Tampa for spring training, Alex Rodriguez asked me, out of the blue, what it had been like to cover Mike Tyson in the 1980s.

"It was like covering you," I told him. "Only bigger."

Except to answer questions in a scrum, Rodriguez hasn't spoken to me since. Not a hello, how-ya-doin', not even a nod of recognition. Maybe he thought I meant it as an insult. Or maybe he saw it for what it was: the truth. Either way, he didn't like hearing it.

Early Tuesday morning in Harlem, more than 100 people lined up outside a grimy warehouse, in the area of the city where there's nothing glamorous about Park Avenue, where it still has an elevated subway line, for the chance to watch Mike Tyson be interviewed for a television program and to hear what he had to say.

He hasn't been an important athlete since 2002, when he got pummeled by Lennox Lewis in his last shot at salvaging a shred of his boxing career. Tyson hasn't, in fact, won an important heavyweight fight in nearly 20 years.

Yet, here were these people, waiting in the morning sun, clutching photos and magazines and T-shirts for him to sign, wanting to take home a piece of the champ.

They went home with a lot more than that.

You would think that, by now, Mike Tyson would have lost his ability to shock us, or to move us, or to even make us pause for a moment to listen to what he had to say.

You would think that after 25 years in the spotlight -- he made his professional debut in 1985, won his heavyweight title in 1986 -- after all the beatings given and taken, the messy marriages and divorces, the rape conviction, the drug rehab stints, the streetfights and, most of all, the ear bite, that the novelty of Tyson would have worn off, that we all would have tired of hearing his tale told and retold, dusted off and embellished for a new generation of virgin ears.

And upon seeing Tyson now -- his skull shaven, his face emblazoned with a Maori tribal tattoo, his once-massive body smaller and his head huge -- it is easy to forget just how formidable a presence he had been in his menacing prime all those years ago.

But somehow, he remains a singular, compelling figure, able over the course of a 90-minute conversation with a professional interviewer to make us laugh and cry and think. Unlike so many of the prepackaged, overprocessed and mega-rehearsed professional athletes who are churned out today by image-molders and shoe companies and uber-agents, Mike Tyson remains that rarest of all commodities.
Instead of the human being sold as superhero, Tyson is the superhero who is selling himself as a human being.

"Sometimes I'm a dreadful, disgusting human being," he told Michael Kay of the YES Network during the interview, which will air as a segment of "CenterStage" later this month. "I have a lot of pain and I don't know how to let it go."

Moments later, he said, "I'm living such an awesome life, it's scary. I ain't got no drama going on right now."

Mark down the date -- May 26 -- and keep the appointment, because as always, Tyson is must-see TV. Fighting or talking, he is about as compelling an athlete as this country has even known.

Over the course of 90 minutes -- which will be whittled down to an hour for TV, including commercials -- Tyson was alternately funny and frightening, inspirational and heartbreaking. More than once, he choked back tears. When speaking of his former trainer and mentor, Cus D'Amato, Tyson became nearly inaudible with emotion.

What came through was not so much a performance as performance art, a man exposing his humanity and laying bare his soul for the world to see, and not caring all that much about the reaction.

As he said, "My whole life is out there. I'm naked, man."

He spoke candidly of the brutality of his life in Brownsville before the reclusive D'Amato, recognizing the oversized 12-year-old's potential to wreak havoc and make millions with his fists, eventually took custody of him in his home in upstate Catskill.

Tyson moved through his glory years, becoming the youngest heavyweight champion in history ("I knew I would. I knew it like I know Sunday follows Saturday. It had been drilled into my brain."), through his decline at the hands of Don King and Robin Givens, to the lowest point of his life (the 1992 rape conviction and subsequent three-year jail sentence), and the lowest point of his career (the night he resorted to biting a piece out of one of Evander Holyfield's ears to escape a beating).

"I despised him so much because I admired him so much," Tyson said of Holyfield. "I wanted to kill him. I had been jealous of him from when we were kids. I'm a spoiled brat and things weren't going my way. I wanted to hurt him. So I bit him. I was just a [bleeping] mess."

Contrast that with the likes of A-Rod, professing to have "hit rock bottom" because he had to answer questions from Peter Gammons, or Tiger Woods sincerely apologizing to his corporate sponsors for having been a lousy husband, or Michael Jordan, who believes in nothing, it seems, but selling sneakers and underwear.

We forget that, at one point, there was no more well-known athlete on the planet than Mike Tyson, because boxing was a global sport long before baseball even knew there was a West Coast, or that he made as much in one night -- $30 million for the Lewis fight -- as A-Rod earns in an entire season.

No athlete has ever risen so high or fallen so far as Tyson did from 1986 to 1992.

And now, there are those who might be tempted to believe that his newfound self-awareness is nothing more than a newfound awareness that telling his story -- in all its gory detail -- can be a better living than getting punched in the head.

But those people either weren't around when it was all happening, or never really got it in the first place. And they certainly weren't in that studio when Tyson, in a strangled voice, said of D'Amato, "I wish I could say he was just this white dude that I played. I wish I could say he was just this piece of [bleep] that I used. But he made me. He broke me down, but he made me."

In many ways, Mike Tyson is both the American Dream and the American Tragedy, a gifted athlete built to succeed and a fractured person doomed to fail.

Now, nearly 44, he is taking what seems to be the approved method of career rehab for the washed-up and the never-really-was, about to become a reality TV star on a show featuring his lifelong interest in pigeon-racing.

He doesn't pretend to be anything that he is not, doesn't claim to have been born again or cured of his demons. Right now, he just seems content to recognize that they exist, and he's not afraid to share them with the rest of us.

"Sometimes I'm filthy. I'm wretched," he said. "And sometimes I'm not so bad. Mike Tyson ain't nothing special. Just another human being, trying to get along."

It's a lesson lost on too many of our most pampered and rewarded athletes, a lesson some of them may be doomed to repeat.

Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.