When Mike Tyson was elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame last month, it came as no surprise -- at least to those of us not named Mike Tyson. Despite all his problems outside the ring and the soap opera life, Tyson earned his spot in Canastota, N.Y., as the youngest heavyweight titleholder in history and as a dominant champion.
Tyson was a dynamic, charismatic force who made nine defenses in the first of two reigns and became the undisputed champion. He remains one of the most recognizable people on the planet.
When the HOF announced the voting results, Tyson was traveling in China, making personal appearances as part of his deal to be something of a boxing ambassador in the country.
When I received election results announcing the class that will be inducted June 12, I called Jeff Wald, the "Contender" promoter and Hollywood figure, to see if he had heard. Wald and Tyson have been friends for years. Wald hadn't heard and said he would call Tyson, who wound up finding out about the election from him. Wald mentioned to Tyson that he had heard the news from me and that I was looking to talk to him about his election.
Late that night, maybe 11:15 or so, the phone rang. It was Tyson calling from an airport in China.
"I'm here for 10 to 11 days. I'm picking up a check," said Tyson, acknowledging his well-documented financial issues. "I'm in China. I'm a regular schnorrer now and pay the bills and all that stuff, but I love it. I love being a schmuck. I never thought about being in the Hall of Fame, only about how I'd make some money and send some money home."
Believe it or not, Tyson said he was "surprised" to be elected in his first year of eligibility.
"I have a different perspective of myself. I think everyone hates my s---. I offended a lot of people," he said. "I still don't believe the American people get me. They don't get me like the other people get me. Prime ministers meet me at the airport in other countries. In America, the TSA pats me down. The way people wrote about me, I never thought I would make the Hall of Fame because of the [Evander Holyfield] ear-biting s--- and trying to break Frans Botha's arm. Maybe it's me and I think everyone's prejudice against me, like I'm fighting a losing battle in America."
But Tyson also sounded truly appreciative of the honor. I told him that it was a no-brainer vote.
"I am very grateful that you and people voted for me," he said. "It will mean a lot to my children one day. I'm glad I made all these people happy fighting.
"I remember being 12 or 13 and reading the boxing encyclopedia. All of my idols were elected to the Hall of Fame. I am grateful this happened. Maybe my kids will get a kick out of it. It'll be an honor to be in there with my heroes."
Tyson said he never believed he'd be a Hall of Famer, but that Cus D'Amato -- his mentor, trainer and adoptive father -- did. D'Amato died shortly before he could see Tyson, at 20, win the heavyweight championship. His death was a huge blow to Tyson, who got choked up talking about him.
"Cus believed I could do it," Tyson said. "I didn't believe I could make it. I'm going to talk to him about it."
Tyson said he hoped to attend the induction ceremony, which comes just a few weeks before his 45th birthday on June 30 -- close to his two-year wedding anniversary with his wife, Lakiha Tyson. He said if he attends, he'll also stop by his old hometown, Catskill, N.Y., which is maybe a three-hour drive from Canastota.
"If I go to Canastota, I will stop by Catskill and see his grave and discuss that with him," Tyson said. "He liked champagne and maybe I'll go over there and crack a bottle over his grave."
Tyson said he doesn't dwell on his boxing career and that many of the memories have faded. But I asked him if anything stood out. I thought maybe he'd mention knocking out Trevor Berbick to win the title. Maybe knocking out Michael Spinks.
Instead Tyson had this to say: "I think my first pro fight had a big impact. I do these autograph signings. I never really did a public autograph signing, but I needed some money desperately and I went to a public autograph signing. They had William Shatner and R2-D2 there, all these washed-up guys. And I started signing and, I don't know, I don't think about my career. But I was at the signing and someone gave me a photo of my first fight.
"It was of me with Cus walking up a ramp to the fight. I'm 18 and the ramp is probably 75 degrees. And what's so interesting, I'm so young and I'm so excited to go up in the ring and Cus was holding onto the rail. I saw the picture and I started crying. We were going to take over the world, but nobody else knew who those two guys were going to be. I saw that picture like two or three months ago, and I thought that defined me. Me and this old man, we had dreams. I have no dreams now, just to make sure my kids can behave and don't wind up like me, that they are healthy and get an education."
Tyson was one of three fighters elected in the "modern" category, along with Julio Cesar Chavez Sr., the all-time Mexican great and three-division champion, and former undisputed junior welterweight champ Kostya Tszyu of Australia.
Tyson is a big Chavez fan and was happy to hear that they will be going in together. They fought together on many of the same cards when Don King promoted them -- Tyson in the main event and Chavez on his undercards. It was only when Tyson went to prison for rape that King heavily promoted Chavez, who became a pay-per-view headliner in his own right.
"I'm really more excited about that than my own induction," Tyson said of Chavez's election. "I'm really more appreciative to be on the same card with him. If anyone deserves it, it's him. I have a great deal of admiration for him. When I was in prison, he was holding the fort down. He never received the respect he deserved because he was not American or didn't speak English, or whatever."
When they fought on the same cards, Tyson would watch Chavez fight on a monitor in his dressing room.
"I did that all the time," Tyson said. "He never skipped [fighting] anybody. He was really an all-time great. I am so happy I was in the same era."
Tyson was also pleased to hear that Sylvester Stallone of "Rocky" fame would be going in with him in the "observer" category. Stallone, elected as a screenwriter, created Rocky Balboa, the most iconic fictional fighter ever.
Although some criticized Stallone's election, Tyson loves it.
"You know how awesome that is?" he said. "You know how many fighters he inspired from that movie? He had a helluva movie. He contributed to boxing. The body of work he created contributed to boxing. He contributed more than some champions did. You gotta contribute. You have referees, they contribute even though they didn't fight. [Stallone made a] big-time contribution."
Tyson sounded like he is in a good spot in his life. He said he's happily married and enjoying opportunities to make money in movies and television, while also still coming to grips with the 2009 accidental death of 4-year-old daughter Exodus, one of his eight children.
"This whole Hall of Fame thing really overwhelms me, though," he said. "To go in and be there with all these guys -- Henry Armstrong, Sugar Ray Leonard, Muhammad Ali. You look at the situation, I'm not ashamed of who I am. My mother was a prostitute, my father a pimp. I didn't do too bad. I didn't do too bad."