Mike Tyson is a lot of things. Former heavyweight champ. Fearless opponent. Knucklehead. Legend. Convicted rapist. Ear biter. Recovering drug addict. Actor. Husband. Father. Bad, bad mama jama. Feminist?
Tyson has lived under the hot glare of the spotlight since he bum-rushed the boxing world in 1986 and forced all of his opponents to ante up. Back then, Iron Mike was known for two things: knocking boxers out within seconds, and his too-small voice. And although Mike behaved more like an overgrown kid trapped in an insanely strong, grown man body, his inability to control himself nearly destroyed his life.
From the moment he donned his first championship belt, Mike Tyson ceased being a man and became a thing. A commodity to Don King; a hot head with quick fists; a felon who once bragged that he was comfortable in prison because he can make people “do anything”; a running joke.
Until I saw James Tobak’s 2008 documentary, Tyson, I concluded he was the embodiment of every negative trait I loathed in some men: entitled, careless, abusive. Until I saw the film I did not care how the man I watched dominate boxers during my childhood nearly self-destructed before my eyes.
Like most people, I saw Tyson as a barbarian. After all he fit so neatly into the crazy motherf–ker box that it seemed like it was custom made for him. But when the film, and subsequent Oprah interview aired, I began seeing him through new eyes.
For the first time he seemed vulnerable, not weak, but stripped of all of the false-bravado so many wear to cover their scars. And for the first time I actually listened to his story and I almost understood. I could see how a broken little boy who craved love and support, but instead was turned into a near-murderous machine could end up like this. While I cannot and do not condone his violent behavior, especially when it was directed toward women, I understood how he got there.
And now, it seems like he does too.
In the latest issue of ESPN magazine, Tyson opens up in ways that are so amazingly raw and vulnerable it nearly brought me to tears. While the interview could have focused on his comeback of sorts–the movie roles, the one-man show, and an upcoming cartoon–the piece showcased his humanity in ways many probably have yet to pay attention to.
“I’m a domesticated dick,” a pensive Tyson tells the interviewer. “I can’t believe my life is like this. I had all this money and all this fame and I didn’t get s — done. My responsibilities before were just going to the gym and bossing the people around me — ‘Do this, do that.’ That’s all I did.”
In the article we get a look at the new, more reflective Mike Tyson, who relies heavily on his wife and confidant, Kiki, and their uber-normal home life. Gone are the drug-induced rages and indiscriminate sex, these days Tyson tends to his beloved pigeons; drops his daughter off at preschool; attends a jobs fair for homeless women; and revels in being “henpecked” by his wife. But it was his willingness to speak candidly about his past treatment of women that caught my eye.
Once a womanizer, these days Tyson’s relationship with his wife Kiki is his lifeline. Though their marriage has not always been easy, especially in the beginning when Tyson first got out of rehab, he says he cannot live without her.
With Kiki, he’s given up control and shown what he would have considered abominable weakness before. “We get into arguments and she leaves the house,” Tyson says, to which his reaction is “‘Please don’t leave, please don’t leave.’ Before I would have been, ‘Get the f — out of here, bitch.’ I can’t believe it — I would have looked at myself as such a weak n — er, begging her to come back. But other bitches don’t have my heart.
And although Tyson is adamant he never raped former Miss Black America contestant Desiree Washington, he feels like his prison sentence was warranted because of the “pain, humiliation, and abuse” he subjected women to throughout the years.
So how does an admitted abuser, become a feminist? He realizes that everything he once believed about women was wrong.
“We are animals trying to be people, as Mark Twain said,” [Tyson] says when the topic turns to how men treat women. “And just like in school, some of us pass the test before others. I had a difficult time becoming a human being. I stayed in the animal category a little too long.”
Later, he adds: “We as people — men — in my experience, we are told we are superior to women, they come from our rib and this and that. That’s all our insecurity, to make us feel like someone, like a slave master. I’m so happy to reach a stage in my life, a paradigm shift. Everything I did believe was a goddamn lie.”
To be clear, Iron Mike doesn’t call himself a feminist. But neither do a lot of people who now question the patriarchal ideas they were taught to embrace (after all, the F-word is quite loaded as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie so eloquently explained). However, his new awareness of how dysfunctional his views of women once were, and his commitment to change is a damned good start.
Feminism seeks to ensure that all people, regardless of gender, are treated as equal human beings. And that’s what Mike Tyson wants–to be seen as human. It’s what we all want.