Call Tyson 'Mr. Nice Guy'

Originally Published: July 24, 2004
By Steve Kim | MaxBoxing.com

It used to be that getting into a Mike Tyson training session was like breaking into Ft. Knox. Now, as he heads into the twilight of his star-crossed career, his handlers have taken on a proactive approach to rehabilitating the image of the often moody and petulant Tyson.

It's a kinder, gentler Tyson. At least it is right now.

Back in the day, it wasn't unusual for "Iron Mike" to scowl at reporters -- when he'd actually speak to them -- and go off on bizarre rants before cutting off these interviews. Oftentimes it was hard to tell who was more relieved to end these gatherings, Tyson or the assembled media. Now, not only has Tyson's latest camp in Phoenix, Ariz., been an open house for the press, Tyson is not only tolerant of his visitors, he's downright amiable.

Gone are the loud chants of "Guerrilla Warfare!!!" or the pair of Don King puppets acting as co-managers, and various sycophants adding to an already uncomfortable atmosphere. What's going on here is just a professional training camp for a guy just trying to finish out his career the best he can.

"I don't miss those guys," says Tyson, of his former team. "Crocodile's a great guy, but I enjoy the team I have right now. We're serious at what we do and we're having fun and I don't have as much stress as I had before. You have to understand, those guys, they brought a lot of stress at one particular stage of my life and I added on to it. I got addicted on it. I just got addicted to the chaos."

Tyson is now surrounded by an eclectic mix of characters. Longtime friend and Catskill colleague Tom Patti, who's been a fixture in his life, aids the highly respected and tranquil Freddie Roach. Just to make sure there's still a bit of chaos and intrigue in this mix, there is boxing pariah Panama Lewis, who serves as an assistant and court-jester.

Every day around 1 p.m., Tyson arrives at the gym, gets his hands wrapped by Roach, and he gets to work. "Workman-like" would be the best way to describe his training for Danny Williams, whom he faces on Friday night in Louisville, Ky.

"The camp is being run by Freddie Roach, and he's doing a phenomenal job," says Patti, who like Tyson, shared a close bond with Cus D'Amato. "I'm very happy to be taking part. Having had a history with Mike, there's a little bit I can bring from the past, and if you couple that with all that Freddie's bringing and the team itself, it's a great combination. In the past I don't know that Mike's had as many competent people around him."

Those who work with the former heavyweight champion say that Roach has provided Tyson with a sense of stability and calm he hasn't had in a while. In seeing them work together, it's evident just how much respect he has for his trainer.

"Freddie's a no-good S.O.B," jokes Tyson, so that his trainer could hear him, when asked what he liked about him. "I don't know, Freddie's a good man. We work hard, we don't take it easy, we don't take any short steps. I'm just happy being here training with him."

For Roach this is his second go-around with Tyson, which means leaving behind his comfortable settings of the Wild Card Boxing Club in Hollywood, California.

Roach has enjoyed his time so much in Arizona, he speaks of perhaps moving full time to the desert.

"It's a good atmosphere," Roach says of this training camp, "We're all just trying to do our jobs. Of course Tom comes from the old school, the Cus D'Amato days, and he's trying to bring back some of those methods and so forth and just get Mike to think in those terms. And of course, I'm from the Eddie Futch school, so I disagree sometimes; some of those moves I really don't care for.

"But we're all here for Mike, though, and that's the thing about Panama. I know he's a controversial guy because of his past and so forth, but the thing is, when I say something in camp, he goes with it. He stands behind me 100 percent and he's a good asset in camp. The thing is, Mike likes him, he likes to have him around. He keeps Mike comfortable and the rest of the entourage does too."

It was once said about Bud Grant, the legendary coach of the Minnesota Vikings, that if you couldn't play for him, you couldn't play for anybody. The same could be said of Roach, whose honest and professional manner have made him a preferred choice among world-class fighters and prospects the last few years. In recent years, Tyson has gone through a myriad of trainers, but he seems to have really bonded with Roach.

"He talks about when he grew up watching me fight on ESPN, and he said that I was a warrior and tried real hard," says Roach. "Like the other day, he said, 'Freddie, if anyone ever messes with you, I got your back. I'll kill the guy.' And I told Mike, 'If someone messes with you, I'll kill him, too.' The thing is, I like Mike, he's just a likable person. People misjudge Mike. When you get to know Mike, he's really a funny, funny guy. He's a character."

What has surprised Roach is just how much he's taken to him.

"Definitely," he admits, "the thing was, going into it the first time training Mike for the Etienne fight, I was warned about everything and so forth. And he wasn't that bad to work with. Then of course we had the bad week where he pulled out of the fight, got the tattoo, the fight's off, the fight's back on, and no one knew where they were going."

Eventually, the fight was put back on at the 11th hour and Tyson made quick work of Etienne, making the "Black Rhino" extinct in less than a round.

Roach, though, is a bit surprised that he is working with Tyson again. Like everybody else, he found out that life on Planet Tyson is full of unexpected twists and bizarre moments.

"Getting closer to the fight I was working the mitts with Mike and then the day before the fight, I wasn't allowed in his room for some reason," recalled Roach of that hectic week in Memphis. "I don't think he was mad at me, but I don't know why he didn't want me in his room."

But soon, he was awakened with a call from his fighter at four in the morning, the day of the fight.

"He called me up, 'Freddie, can you come down and wrap my hands?' I said, 'Yeah, OK,' And then I wrapped his hands. 'Is that all you want, Mike?' And he asked, 'Is this the way you're going to do it tonight?' And I said, 'Yeah, same as always, Mike. You want to hit the mitts or warm-up or something?' He said, 'No, you can leave now.' "

Roach did not see his fighter until they both got to the arena a few hours before the fight. In the aftermath of Tyson's win, Roach was left behind and had to take a cab back to the hotel, never having spoken to Mike after the post-fight press conference.

"The thing is, I really didn't know if I'd ever talk to Mike again," Roach admitted. "Because he's not the type of person to stay in touch with anybody. I know that and we have a good working relationship; he's not my best friend in the world because I can't let that be. Because it would hurt the working relationship. So we're friends, yes, but it's all for work, though."

But Shelly Finkel, who advises Tyson, never doubted that Roach would be back.

"I didn't think there was anything," he says, "but when a year passes, you never know."

Finkel who visits the camp every other week, feels that Roach has been a positive influence on his fighter.

"I think Freddie Roach is a great person to be around," he says. "He (Tyson) has less people around who are giving him negative thoughts, and I think he's matured a lot."

And dealing with Tyson has been relatively easy in the past few months for Finkel, who at times has had to be a downright apologist for his client in the past. Finkel has a very easy explanation for this sudden shift: "I think age, looking at the end of the rainbow, it's not that far away; being that he wants to spend and provide for the future of his children."

"I thought we had a pretty good camp last time," says Roach. "But from then till now, he's a whole different person. This Mike Tyson, maybe he's broke right now, but he's a better person."

This Tyson is definitely a humbled man. After all, what humbles a man worse than going broke? Where he once had expansive mansions across the country with a fleet of luxury vehicles in each garage with a pet tiger or two thrown in, he now lives in a modest two-bedroom house -- just him and his pigeons.

So what's that like, living like one of us?

"I don't know," says a reflective Tyson. "That doesn't define a man. What defines a man is someone who's failed time after time again and still has the same enthusiasm, as a winner. And those are people who are men, people who don't stop and don't give up and stay persistent in their goals in life. Finance doesn't make a man, because you have a great deal of fur coats and houses and fancy cars -- I used to enjoy that life, but that doesn't make you a man.

"I could've accomplished that now; the only thing I have to do is just fight and I'll be a multi-millionaire. If I fight for a year straight, then I'd have all those trinkets and toys, but I don't think I'm that person anymore. I'm interested in raising my children and just providing for them."

Oh, so that's his motivation, fighting for his children, where five to 10 years ago he fought for just material gain, right?

"I don't know, I probably boxed for weed back then -- I'm only joking," he says, with a hearty laugh. "I just box to box, to satisfy other people's material motives, probably. I'm not necessarily fighting for my kids, but I'm fighting basically for my respect, self-esteem and -- of course -- I have my situation with my debtors and I don't want, when I'm no longer here, I don't want no one to say I was ever dishonest and didn't pay my bills.

"I just think that's one of the lowest and I just don't want to be one of those people. I'm just happy with the way my life is going, and like I was saying before, it doesn't make you less of a man because of a financial situation. I feel I could stand with any man in the world, psychologically, emotionally, physically. That's just how I feel in my life. I don't feel no man is actually better than me, even though they may think so, because of the ordeals that I've experienced in my life."

So, does he have any regrets?

"I don't know, nothing really," he says, before adding, "I just wish that I was more of a loyal person with my girlfriend, my wife. I was never loyal; my infidelity got me in more trouble because not having a strong relationship and partner environment allows other people to get involved in your life and poison your influence. And that's why I think a lot of trouble happened because of my relationships with my people and female companions."

As we spoke to Tyson on the second week of July, approximately three weeks before his return, he was lamenting a loss in his personal life.

"I broke up with my girlfriend; it just devastated me," Tyson revealed. "I don't even know why; it's just a woman. I'm so accustomed to being with her and talking with her. She was my friend as well as my girlfriend. She's pretty finished with me now because I'm a pig."

Hey, he never told you his life was perfect. The reality is, Tyson will always have a bit of turmoil and tumult in his life. In many ways, he probably couldn't live without it.

But now the question is, can he still fight? While he'll always be a fascinating character, what attracted the masses to him in the first place was the ability to assault people in the ring. There was a certain rawness in his style that was so primitive -- yet also scientific, at the same time -- that you simply couldn't look away.

How much of this does he have left?

On this day he sparred five rounds with David Bostice, a decent heavyweight of today's era, that would have had a difficult time of staying just a few rounds with the vintage Tyson. But in this session, Bostice did more than hold his own. "The Boss" caught Tyson on more than one occasion with sharp, quick, right hands and effectively tied him up on the inside. What you got from Tyson were glimpses of what made him a feared heavyweight. He still has quick and heavy hands, but now the combinations that once flowed so easily are muffled. And instead of digging left hooks to Bostice's body, he swings wildly upstairs.

"Bostice is elevating his game because Mike's elevating his," says Patti. "Bostice is very capable and competent in the ring and an experienced fighter. And Mike's bringing the best out of him because Mike, day by day, is improving and becoming more the Mike Tyson I expect him to be."

He's not the Tyson of old, but he's trying.

"I'm happy with where he is right now," said Roach, after that day's training had concluded. "After having that long layoff after his last fight (17 months), today was his fifth day of sparring and he's showed flashes of the old Mike."

But according to Roach, even his fighter has his doubts and insecurities about his own ability to fight.

"He asked me yesterday, 'Do I look like a fighter?' I said, 'You're starting to look like a fighter.' It's coming back slowly and we have 21 days now till the fight and we've got some work to be done and his timing is getting better everyday -- it's just not there yet."

They say that the last thing a fighter loses is his punch. With that, Tyson still remains at least an outside threat in a mediocre heavyweight division. But with that being said, it's been about a year-and-a-half since his last fight, he was beaten soundly by Lennox Lewis before that, and it's been a while since Tyson had a victory against a respected foe. At age 38, not only are the sands of time running out, his body is no longer the machine it once was.

After his training was done, he had a chiropractic session to help remedy a lingering back problem. It's nothing life threatening, but it speaks of the mortality of a prizefighter. Hey, we all get old.

"The thing is, we can't battle age," admits Roach. "I mean if we could, it would be amazing. When we get older, we slow down a lil' bit, our reflexes go a lil' bit. But he's showing signs; he has power and he still has speed. He's probably not as fast as the Mike that won the world title, but he's still got great speed for a heavyweight and that's going to be a big factor for him. He's still probably the fastest-punching heavyweight out there."

Tyson readily admits that while he has aged and is no longer in his prime, he says don't bury him quite yet.

"The only times I'd say I'm inadequate is because I've had a long layoff, not just because I'm old. I'm still moving, I'm still throwing combinations and I'm working pretty hard. So the only times I feel the aches in my bones is because of inactivity."

There has been talk of a seven fight plan to relieve Tyson of his financial burdens in the next year or two. Does this old warhorse have seven bouts in him?

"I don't know anything about that," he says of his reported schedule. "I don't think I'm going to fight seven times, but then there's a possibility I might. I don't know, I'm fickle sometimes. Always, if the price is right, I'm willing," proving that he is still a 'prize' fighter. "But I'm just really putting a great deal of effort in and cultivating myself to get into better shape and condition, and then hopefully, you never know, I might fight ten times. I don't know what I might do. It's not written in stone I'm gonna fight seven times."

He is working hard, and in an ironic twist, he seems to be working more diligently for Williams than he did for Lewis. While he trains in the sweltering desert heat of Arizona - where it is routinely 110 degrees by noon - for the Lewis fight, he prepared in the less-than-Spartan conditions in Maui. Huh?

"I didn't take that fight too serious," Tyson says. "I trained hard physically but just didn't psychologically or mentally. I don't know, it's not the geographical location of where you train, it's the spirit in which you train."

Tyson has always had ambivalent feelings toward the game of boxing. While it's provided him with great riches and accolades, in many respects, what came along with it outside the ring has led to his downfalls. No fighter -- past or present -- knows as much about the history of the sport as Tyson, but oftentimes he wants nothing to do with the sport, itself. Does he even like boxing anymore?

"Ummm, periodically," he answers. "I mean, I wasn't going to train today; my back was aching, I was sore and then I came here and saw you guys and I started talking about fighting and I said, 'I wanna box, I wanna train.' It's moods. It's a mood swing sometimes when it comes to boxing. I really like boxing, and I know once I'm in the proper shape I need to be in, that I could just fight all day and box as long as possible."

It should be interesting to see what happens in the future with Michael Gerard Tyson. It always is with this guy.