Tyson finds peace through pigeon hobby

LAS VEGAS -- The entourage has vanished now, and so too has the sense of menace, as if he has cast aside the brooding, guarded intensity he used to wear as a protective cloak.

On this day, Mike Tyson enters the room accompanied only by one friend and -- randomly, it at first might seem, but perfectly normal given the new circumstances in which he finds himself -- a representative of Animal Planet.

He seems smaller, too, and not just in that he has shed the extra weight he carried with him for a while. He is not tall for a heavyweight -- his listed height of 5-foot-10 always seemed a little generous-- but he once gave the impression of measuring almost the same from shoulder to shoulder as from head to toe. Now, he seems more like a physically fit man entering middle age than an explosively violent wall of muscle. Perhaps the difference in breadth is genuine, perhaps it is apparent, an artifact of him conveying an air of friendliness rather than intimidation, of genuinely appearing not just happy that I am talking to him but honestly humbled by the fact that I should want to.

There was always more to Tyson the heavyweight champion than the fact that he happened to be very good at his chosen profession. A perfect storm of drama and contradictions swirled around him endlessly, and we watched fascinated as it threatened, and ultimately was able, to engulf him.

In the ring he was more like Popeye or Bluto than Patterson or Louis: Fans watched not because they admired his head movement or his peek-a-boo defense but almost in hope he would launch an opponent into the air with one punch. Yet that same fierce in-ring warrior was famed for his love of, of all things, pigeons. He proclaimed himself the Baddest Man on the Planet and spoke of driving a foe's nose into his brain, but he did so in a lilting lisp that seemed more suited to a small child.

He was capable of violence and rage inside the ring and out, and then of moments of shyness and even diffidence.

Watching him from afar during those years, I always felt that he seemed like a man trapped -- trapped behind a facade of his own construction, trapped in a sport and profession that once he had loved but that, for the lengthy final act of his career, formed a cage from which he couldn't escape. It was an opinion he was happy to endorse.

"Getting out of boxing was the best thing that ever happened in my life," he agreed, leaning forward for emphasis. The burden had weighed on him, the burden of carrying a caricature of himself that he had created.

Growing up in Brooklyn, he had been "a little fat kid with glasses" who was frequently on the receiving end of bullying. When some older kids found the pigeons he kept and threatened to take them, his first response was to call for his mommy. She chased off all but one of the offenders, who escaped with one pigeon under his shirt. Young Tyson pleaded for him to give it back -- which he did, after a fashion, pulling off the bird's head and throwing it at its appalled owner. Even then, the young Tyson had to be goaded into fighting the bird's killer, but a few flailed punches later, he emerged victorious, and suddenly everything was different.

In a matter of moments, his fists had earned him a respect that he had never experienced before, but even as he became progressively more at home in a violent life, he exaggerated his ferocity to over-compensate for the fat little kid who dwelled within him, until eventually his sometimes monstrous alter-ego consumed him.

He is reluctant to talk about his years in boxing, the two-plus decades of his life that publicly define him.

"How do you feel, winning the heavyweight championship of the world at just 20 years old?" Shrug. "I don't know." "Any moments that stand out in your memory?" A grimace and a shake of the head.

"It's all a blur," he says. "I did some horrible things in those years. I was a monster. I can't even believe some of the things I did. I don't like to think about them, so I try to forget that whole period of my life."

On most other topics, he is disarmingly open, an interviewer's delight. Although he is dismissive of his intellect, he is nonetheless intellectually curious, fascinated by the world around him as if he is discovering it for the first time. When I give him a copy of a book I have just published on polar bears, he surprises me by talking about polar bears interbreeding with grizzlies, and the tricks they deploy to catch seals. At no point during our time together is he more energized than when discussing the non-violent revolution in Egypt.

He is more than willing to open wounds and reveal inner details and emotions, but mostly, it seems, when such conversation validates his self-image. At the heart of Mike Tyson, it seems to me, is a man who does not very much like himself, who is appalled at what he has done and what he is still capable of doing should he lose the self-control he has finally been able to establish. Many times he expresses the belief that he does not deserve the good things that have happened to him, or the good people who have entered his life, and when one suggests that those people must have seen something decent about him, he is swiftly dismissive.

"No," he insists. "They're suckers."

When I ask him if he is happy these days, he demurs. What, he asks, is happiness? It is as if he is reluctant to admit to being at peace for fear that doing so will dull the edge, cause him to drop his guard, and allow the monster to return. But if he won't completely acknowledge contentment, he readily agrees that life now, after two years of sobriety, veganism and happy marriage (and a new baby, born just two weeks before our meeting), is a welcome and unexpected improvement over what had come before. And he frequently expresses his astonishment that he should be in such a place and a gratitude for the fact that he is.

He is entertaining the public again, which he loves, but doing so without the violence, instead showing a humorous side in "The Hangover" and its upcoming sequel, and a more introspective streak in a 2008 documentary, and in his new Animal Planet series, "Taking on Tyson," which begins airing March 6 and returns him to his roots, back in Brooklyn and caring for pigeons.

It is as if, closing in on 45 years old, he has an opportunity to begin anew, one that he intends to grasp more successfully than the earlier opportunities he fumbled.

On his way out the door, he pauses, and suddenly and unexpectedly exclaims, "You know, a hundred years is nothing. Nothing. Yet that's all the time a human has to live on this Earth, if he's lucky. But it's nothing. It's gone, just like that."

He shakes his head, smiles and thanks me again, and is gone.