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The softer side of 'Iron Mike'

From mugger to motivational speaker, the life of Mike Tyson has been a long, strange trip indeed. This Saturday, he'll be in Brisbane, launching a five-city tour of Australia called "Mike Tyson's Day Of The Champions," subheaded "Unleash The Spirit Of The Champion Within You." If the concept of Tyson as a motivational speaker strikes you as counterintuitive, you're not alone. The itinerary originally called for a stop in New Zealand, but Tyson was denied a visa to enter the land of the Kiwi due to his criminal past.

"The last five years, he's reinvented himself," argued tour promoter Max Markson, which on the surface appears to be true. But has Tyson really reinvented himself or has the mellow Mike been there all along, subjugated by circumstances both within and outside of his control?

Whatever the case, Tyson has nobody but himself to blame for his public persona. Forget the champion within. For decades he unleashed the spirit of his inner monster and seemingly reveled in his self-declared designation as the "baddest man on the planet." Nonetheless, anybody who spent time with him away from the flash mob of media that once dogged his every footstep will tell you Mike was always much more than a raging thug-turned-prizefighter. This was just as true during his reign of terror on both sides of the ring ropes as it is today.

Except for its barbed wire-topped fence and guard towers, the Indiana Youth Center where Tyson was incarcerated in 1992 for sexual assault looked more like a rural high school than a penitentiary. I visited him there nearly 2½ years into his sentence, in August of '94. After checking in with the authorities, I found myself alone in a conference room with inmate No. 922335 -- no guards, no lawyers. Just two guys and a tape recorder.

I hadn't spoken privately to Mike since November 1985, shortly after his 13th pro fight. Those were heady days, when the seeds of his success were sown and everything seemed possible. Even so, I recall coming away thinking how vulnerable this physically intimidating man seemed -- more man-child than monster, uncertain about himself and suspicious of his newfound celebrity status.

By the time I visited him in prison many years later, Tyson had soared to astonishing highs, only to crash and burn in the flames of self-indulgence. Moreover, he had changed very little from the confused man I'd interviewed at the offices of co-managers Bill Cayton and Jim Jacobs almost a decade prior. On both occasions, the themes were the same: alienation, distrust and bitterness, tinged with an underlying pathos rooted in a woebegone childhood. Even so, he was at pains to let it be known that he had retained a modicum of humanity despite his pathetic circumstances.

"I really wasn't a bad kid. I used to rob and steal," Tyson said. "Other people may consider that bad, but in my atmosphere and neighborhood, it wasn't s---. Other guys did worse. They murdered people."

We talked for more than 90 minutes that afternoon, and when it was time for him to return to his cell, Tyson stopped on his way out the door, picked a piece of lint off my sports coat, looked me in the eye and said: "Write a good story. I trusted you."

Underneath all the "I hate everybody" stuff, Tyson was like everybody else. He wanted to be liked; he just didn't know how to go about it. The posse of flunkies and freeloaders that surrounded him when he was released from prison were as much warders as the guards back in Indiana. I didn't realize how creepy Mike's situation was until we were reunited at his Las Vegas home over a period of several days in 1996. It was between the second Frank Bruno and the Bruce Seldon fights, and Tyson was living large in a Vegas mansion next door to Wayne Newton. There were several million dollars' worth of cars in the driveway and lions and tigers out back. Elvis would have felt right at home.

"This is Genghis Khan," said Tyson, pointing to a larger-than-life statue of the Mongol Emperor. "People feared him because he slaughtered the local population when he conquered a new land."

Khan was part of a collection of famous warriors Tyson had had sculpted to display in his backyard. He continued the lecture, sharing nuggets of info about each of the historic badasses as we walked down the row. Tyson was well informed about a surprising range of topics, and all that stuff about him reading the classics in prison is true. His take on Machiavelli was as funny as it was insightful: "He told me don't trust nobody. I know that already!"

So why couldn't this intelligent man stop doing all the stupid things that almost ruined his life? Most likely, he was simply trapped in a world where extreme violence is currency and the worst part of him was the most valuable part. As fearless as he was inside the ring, Tyson lacked the courage to break free of his image. Besides, he was having too much fun. It's not surprising that he soon became entangled in a web from which he would never totally escape the rest of his career.

By the time of the Las Vegas visit, Don King's grip was even tighter than before Tyson's fall from grace, which became apparent when our conversation was interrupted by a phone call from John Horne who, along with Rory Holloway, co-managed Tyson at the time. According to Horne, our group had already been there too long and he didn't want us taking advantage of Mike. It was a crock, and everybody knew it. Tyson dismissed the call with a shrug, and we picked up where we left off. He must have realized that somebody on his staff had phoned Horne to tell him how long we had been there, but he didn't say a word about it. Maybe by then Tyson was used to being spied on in his own home.

I went back and visited Tyson a few days later, and things couldn't have turned out better. He took his white tiger out of the cage and posed with it for a Ring magazine cover photo and took me for a ride in his new Ferrari. You got the sense that Mike enjoyed having somebody around who wasn't on the payroll. When I drove away that final day, I looked back and saw him standing in the driveway, a lonely man surrounded by people who would all fade away as soon as the money was gone. Worst of all, he knew it even then.

It wasn't until Tyson was washed up as a fighter that things started to change. Losing the very thing that had made him rich and famous gave him back his life. Not a bad trade-off compared to the plight of most ex-fighters. He was finally free to express a side of himself that had been long suppressed. It was that new freedom that made James Toback's documentary, "Tyson," and Mike's cameo in "The Hangover" successful. And it was why the former champ's one-man show on Broadway was so well received. The man came before the resurrection -- not the other way around.

Judging by the ovation that greeted Tyson at the Barclays Center's inaugural boxing card last month in his hometown, Tyson's army of loyal followers never deserted him. They loved him when he was a badass from Brooklyn bashing his way to the pinnacle of his profession, and they love him now that he has been rebranded as a repentant old rogue embarking on what amounts to one long confessional. They love him regardless, because they know he's for real. Even now, you can't fake being Mike Tyson.