Seven years ago, Mike Tyson did what prizefighters are rarely willing or able to do: recognize when their time is up.
A mercurial figure of the ‘80s and ‘90s who often courted as much trouble outside the ring as he did inside of it, Tyson walked away from boxing after consecutive losses, telling spectators he refused to disgrace the sport with subpar performances.
Based on his past indiscretions, many expected him to implode. Retirement, however, had a strange effect on Tyson: Instead of feeling cast adrift, he appeared ecstatic at the prospect of leaving the fight business behind. Cameos in "The Hangover" films and viral videos turned public perception around; removed from the mindset of having to try to tear a man down with his fists, there was little trace of the savage behavior that made him famous.
The story of that transformation is part of "Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth," a one-man stage show Tyson is currently touring. As he prepares for his final dates in Atlanta, Newark, New York and Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Tyson -- an unabashed fight fan who recently appeared on "The Ultimate Fighter" -- spoke with ESPN.com about the past, present and future of mixed martial arts.
Jake Rossen: You’ve been touring the show for a few months now. When you started, was the idea of public speaking more nerve-wracking than fighting?
Tyson: Absolutely. I’m not the most didactic guy when it comes to my linguistics skills. Spike [Lee, the show’s director] hired a voice coach, a speech teacher, so I could pronounce the words in a proper fashion. I still sometimes garble my G's and R's, though.
They’re ready to film this for television, it’s gotten so good. Spike has hinted at it. Though I might talk too much and then he’ll say, "Hell, no, we’re not going to do it now."
Rossen: You were one of the first boxers to acknowledge mixed martial arts as a legitimate combat sport. Do you remember when you first watched the UFC?
Tyson: My friends were all at my house one day, and we see these guys promoting these cage fights, right? When everybody was over, people were normally inebriated, so we said, “We’re putting this on. We’re gonna watch this!” Next thing you know, we’re watching Ken Shamrock and someone fight. Bang! I’m saying, “This is real, man. This is on!”
We started watching it every time we got the chance. We’ve been following the guys since [Royce] Gracie, Shamrock, [Dan] Severn. It just kept evolving and evolving.
Rossen: At those early shows, sometimes people in the crowd would hold up signs saying, “Tyson vs. Gracie.” What would you think when you saw that?
Tyson: Yeah! That was so awesome. I love all kinds of fighting. To say I only love two guys putting on gloves and only punching, I would be a moron to say that.
Rossen: Did you ever seriously consider an offer to fight MMA when you were active as an athlete?
Tyson: Not really, because by the time it took off, I was already doing boxing. This is something you have to start when you’re 12 or 13. It has to be a passion. That’s the problem with boxing: There’s no passion. People want to be record producers, rappers. In MMA, you see that passion. Georges St-Pierre, this is all he wants to do. That’s why he’s so successful.
Rossen: But back in those days, it wasn’t so refined. I know it’s a hypothetical, but what do you think would’ve happened if someone had put up enough money for you to fight Royce Gracie? He was a much smaller man.
Tyson: It doesn’t matter. If I hit him with a good punch, OK, but if he gets hold of me and in a position I’m not familiar with, I’m not going to win the fight. I would have to be equipped with grappling skills as well. Gracie changed the whole game around. To be involved in this kind of fight, you have to know that style right off the bat.
Everyone learned his style of fighting. Everything we have now is because of the Gracies taking it to the next level. Their name isn’t on it, but that’s what it is. It’s Gracie Fighting.
Rossen: Have you ever grappled?
Tyson: Never in my life, no. Unless I had a street fight where I had to grab someone and slam them. [Laughs]
Rossen: There’s always talk MMA is set to “replace” boxing. Do you think the two will continue to coexist?
Tyson: I think there’s room for both [MMA] and boxing, but boxing just has too many black eyes. It doesn’t have a good image. In MMA, even though people are fighting, they have a good image. Very few of them get into tragic troubles where they’re beating people up and stuff.
Tyson: That’d be an awesome fight from the fans’ standpoint. All the fans want to see two invincible fighters from two different weight divisions. It would be very interesting.
Rossen: As a fighter, though, when you have a lucrative win streak going, do you think it makes either of those guys reluctant to do it?
Tyson: The essence of fighting is this: to push yourself to the limit. Say you get defeated. Do you push yourself to another limit to overcome that defeat? This is what fighting is about. That’s why it’s such a metaphor for life. Even though you’re going to lose and you know you’re going to lose, you still have to fight and fight to win.
Rossen: Are you more of a boxing or MMA fan now?
Tyson: I love MMA and love boxing, but I’m always watching the MMA stuff. With boxing, you don’t know if the guy’s going to get a [good] decision, you know? In UFC, there’s the Ultimate Fighter house -- you cultivate the fighters spiritually, work with them, it’s a team effort. In boxing, it’s like, “The hell with you.” The fighters dislike everybody. The MMA fighters are killing each other and they’re friends!
Rossen: You seem to have a good relationship with the UFC. Would you ever consider doing commentary for them if asked?
Tyson: Absolutely. I would also work in boxing if I could get a chance to clean it up, get it organized and government-operated. It has to be. Look at all the atrocities that have happened in the history of boxing.
Rossen: You’ve spoken before about being a huge fan of Fedor Emelianenko. Is there one fighter in the UFC you love to watch compete?
Tyson: It has to be Jon Jones. But I like Anderson Silva, too. And Cain Velasquez! He showed what a champion is. He took a humiliating defeat, came back focused and beat Junior dos Santos [in the rematch].
I look at MMA totally differently from how the fans look at it. I look at people overcoming adversities. Most guys being knocked out the way Cain was would’ve lost all of their spirit. He could’ve come back for a payday and gotten knocked out in one round. Instead, he examined his loss and changed the outcome.
Rossen: There are some parallels there to your own life. You have a charity now, Mike Tyson Cares. What gave you that initiative?
Tyson: My wife and I were piggybacking on other established charities. We were so happy we were able to put smiles on so many faces, get medication into hospitals, get people educated. We’ve gotten 7,000 homeless kids medical supplies, school supplies, by piggybacking with these other organizations. It gave us great satisfaction.
I just want to continue to be of service, continue to help people, and do good things in life. I want to have moral achievements more than tangible, physical ones.