What Mike Tyson Fears Most in His Fifties
Photo: Andres Ortiz

What Mike Tyson Fears Most in His Fifties

Hip-hop’s first undisputed champion goes deep on aging, parenting, forgiveness, and why he finally stopped killing hawks

Mike Tyson is in the midst of a challenge and his opponent is undefeated.

The challenger is engaged parenting.

“I suck at it,” Tyson says, a freshly-rolled weed stick in his left hand. “My wife and kids think I’m good [at it] because now my life is with my children, I’m present. I’ve never been that way before in my life.”

Milan and Morocco Tyson, his sixth and seventh children, are getting an evolved version of their 57-year-old father. He’s found the attribute that will define his legacy for the rest of his time on Earth—and it isn’t the leaping left hook that put a string of professional boxers on their asses in the late ’80s. Although that power punch helped earn him more than $400 million, transparency is his current superpower. He’s a master of bulls**t-free conversation that turns into commerce.

Tyson V2 rose from the ashes of Iron Mike. He wrote an autobiography (2013’s Undisputed Truth) replete with a traveling show and HBO special directed by fellow Brooklynite Spike Lee. This Tyson was vulnerable, serving tea the public yearned for. By delivering the details on just about everything—late mentor Cus D’Amato and shady promoter Don King, to name a few—Tyson controlled his narrative. As a result, this upgraded incarnation of Tyson was showered with empathy. His comedic side was lauded. He was no longer the scary boxer who wanted to digest children; instead he became the middle-aged man you’d let babysit your kids.

Tyson V3 is the most entrepreneurial of the three and arguably the most effective. He’s mastered how to mix his interests and celebrity cache while applying a business lens on top. He recently launched Tyson Pro, a line of boxing gloves made from the finest top-grain cowhide leather (TysonPro.com) and his cannabis business, Tyson 2.0. While the latter could result in a lucrative exit for the champ and his partner, Chad Bronstein, Tyson is most excited talking about the healing benefits of the drug and how it can help knock out depression.

Today’s talk isn’t about business or finance, however. It’s a conversation on being middle aged—the joys and the pains that come along with it. Over the course of an hour, Tyson and I cover the grown convo gamut. We discuss raising children, racism, and everything in between. He pulled no punches.

Photo: Andres Ortiz

LEVEL: People think about middle age with a glass-half-empty mentality. What's the biggest difference—physically and mentally—between a young Mike Tyson and today's version?
I'm a little bit less selfish than I was when I was younger. I just wanted what I wanted. I thought if I didn't get what I wanted, I didn't want to live. I was just an extremist when I was a young kid and have a little bit of that tendency now, but I wanted to be a champ so bad. I wanted it more than I wanted to live. I'm different now. My family's more important than my championship, my money, anything. Before it was just total focus on being the greatest fighter in the world.

I watched a clip of you and Muhammad Ali on Arsenio Hall’s talk show. Arsenio asks if you were to fight each other in your prime, who would win? You both say each other. That showed a moment of humility from you, but I don't think you give yourself a lot of credit for being humble at that time.
I don't know. He's the greatest. I had to be humble. I had no f**king choice.

How does humility come into play now that you're older?
I'm very conscious of it, and my life has been so much less complicated because of it. It's feeling conscious of people's feelings more so than I was before. It makes every day a great day of love and happiness. [There was] a lot of toxic activity when I was younger. I just wanted to do it all. I didn't think I was going to live long. Fifty-seven? No way I was going to make 57, so I was running. I got old too fast and smart too late, I guess, at that time in my life.

I got old too fast and smart too late.”

Does it become easier to forgive people the older that you get?
Absolutely. Because you're only killing yourself, and I know forgiveness is more powerful than a bullet, so I always use that power to forgive somebody.

When was the last time you forgave someone?
Last night.

Tell me about it.
Somebody had kept complaining and [was] trying to clean it up. “It wasn't my fault”, they were saying but it had to be his fault because we were only dealing with him. [I was saying to him], It's okay, brother. You know you were wrong. I know you were wrong, and it's okay. We love each other. Our journey in life is very short now, so we got to stop the bulls**t and just give out as much love as possible and respect.

Do you think about your mortality more now?
I think about my mortality consistently, but when I'm not thinking about my mortality, I'm living. I'm being a mortal and I'm enjoying my life as a mortal and I'm going to enjoy my life in the next world as well.

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There’s a story about a hawk that kills 98 of your pigeons. You end up setting up traps and capture this hawk, but when you come face to face with the hawk, you can't get yourself to destroy the hawk. You actually let him go.
Oh, no, no. I've destroyed many hawks in my time, okay? But I got older. This is what I said. This bird eats my bird, his babies then eat. But if I kill that bird, I'll kill two babies and then I have one over on him. Why does [several] birds have to die out of one pigeon? Hawks are born to eat. Pigeons are born to be eaten by prey. I understand the game of life.

Was that the thinking at that time?
No, no, you’re hurting my baby, I want to kill you. Absolutely. But they compensate for each other. The birdie, the corn, the hawk eating my bird, he feeds his baby and that's the circle. Pigeons got such an advantage because people take care of it. Nobody's taking care of the hawk. Nobody takes care of the f**king buzzards. They got to fend for themselves.

As we get older, how hard is it to make friends?
It's too easy for us to receive associates, so friends are very rare. But what do we consider a friend? Somebody that when we’re down, they won't kick us? How do you define a friendship? It's to be loyal to me whatever I do and I'll be that way with you? How do you establish friendship? Do you establish it through your children? Do you establish it through your job? What degree of friendship are we looking for? Are we looking for somebody to take care of us? Are we looking for somebody to be an emotional cheerleader? What are we looking for in a friend?

There's a part of us that we don't want nobody to know, but it comes out in our children. We see things that we don't like about ourselves and we try to check him on that so he won't be like us.”

I’ll try to qualify: Someone who's going to have that unconditional love for you but also be able to check you when you're doing something that's not right.
A friend to me is somebody that would treat you the way he wants to be treated. That's a friend. And expose to him who you really are…When a friend is down and out, if we can't help him financially we stay with them physically to help them get in a better situation.

Who was the last person that you gave the friend title to?
This woman right here. [Points to his wife, Kiki]

You know what they say: For your partner, your wife, to be your best friend, that makes the relationship that much stronger.
I just think as you get married more so it's about doing the right thing more so than being ... know what love is to me? Love to me is when we can't have sex, we're too old and we're together. We have no more physical attraction only from, I don't know, a human perspective that you're a man, I'm a woman. We love each other. But I think family is just really meant to raise the family that comes after them and vice versa. They're going to raise their kids after them and they're going to use what they learned from their father, their mother and their grandparents, and then their kids are going to learn from them and us, my wife. That's the way I would like to be. That's a perfect world for me seeing my grandkids. That's a perfect world.

N.O.R.E had Irv Gotti on his podcast, Drink Champs. Irv tells N.O.R.E that he doesn’t need friends because he’s so content with his family. What do you think about that statement? Does that resonate with you?
No, it doesn't. Not at all. It's not a reality in my world… I could never say I don't have any friends because how did I get here? For him to say he has no friends indicates he did this all by himself.

How has parenting changed in middle age?
I suck at it. My wife and kids think I'm good because now in my life with my children, I'm present. I've never been that way before in my life. Now that I have [children who are] 14 and 12, I'm just really present in their life.

Do you parent your sons differently than your daughters?
Yeah. I slack up on my daughters, but I don't give my boys too much slack. I have to redefine our relationship because sometimes I'm hard on them. I got to remember they didn't grow up in Brownsville, so they don't need to be treated hard.

Why does that always seem to be what happens with dads and sons?
There's a part of us that we don't want nobody to know, but it comes out in our children. We see things that we don't like about ourselves and we try to check him on that so he won't be like us.

Because we're trying to create this better version of ourselves?
Yes. And we don't want them to be like us. We don't want them to have our dark secrets.

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You never got to see your mom be proud of you.
Oh, no. Not at all.

How much do you blame you being on Thorazine for not allowing her to see your full potential?
Let me tell you something. One of the greatest things that ever happened to me was—and it sounds cold—my mother passing away. Because my mother would've babied me. When she found out I boxed, she said, "You know Joe Lewis." She said, "It's always somebody better, this and that." And she just couldn't see her little baby boy being the heavyweight champ of the world. She talked about Joe Lewis and Muhammad Ali and these guys. "You can't be like these guys," and all that stuff because she saw me only doing crime, doing bad s**t, quitting school. She never saw me with no good qualities. Always this little criminal street urchin [and I’m] gonna be the champ? There's no way. She thought those white people, Cus and them, was doing something to me up there.

Cus D’Amato wasn't lenient on you. He kept you straight and was critical in the best way. Did you take anything from his parenting skills?
He was a good parent. He was stern, but he was a good parent and he had a good heart that he never showed people… Do I take it to my parenting? I'm not that good as a parent. I'm working on it. I'm getting better, but it's a slow pace. What's the blueprint of being a good parent? Tell me. I want to know, too.

“Forgiveness is more powerful than a bullet, so I always use that power to forgive somebody.”

There is no blueprint. We're all learning on the fly. Definitely with the first one. The ones that come after, I think it gets easier, but they're all so different, it's not like they're carbon copies of each other.
You have all boys. Imagine if one day your little baby daughter's in here with her boyfriend and they're hugging and kissing right in front of you like you're not even there. That day may come. How am I going to deal with that? I'm going to kick the guy's ass and she's never going to come back anymore. She'll probably move in with the guy. You got to let that shit go by because she'll run away with him. You just have to know when to push or not to push.

One of the things I love about Cus D’Amato is he made “no” a foreign word to you.
That's what he said… Same words, just like that.

Looking back on that, I feel it gave you this drive and tunnel vision. Do you push any of your kids that hard?
No, because they don't deserve to be treated that hard. I took all the punches so they don't have to.

Photo: Andres Ortiz

Have any of your kids experienced racism and then came back and told you about it?
My oldest son, when he was a little boy—probably six, seven—he asked his mother. He said, "Mommy, what's a ni**er?" That was his first experience with it.

If you're an African-American or Black…and you're 15 and never heard somebody call you a ni**er except a white person or something, that's interesting. But mostly that was going to happen every year. In the city, everybody heard the word ni**er. It doesn't even offend us. We call each other ni**er. But say we live in the suburbs and we're doing well and someone calls us a ni**er. Whoa, that takes you back for a minute because living in this neighborhood you believe we're all good friends because we all live here. That's not necessarily true. Sometimes you are friends with them and they say the word ni**er still.

I preach about being aware of surroundings with my older son and try to make him aware that he will be treated differently.
Well, listen, I look at life differently sometimes when it comes to racism, Blacks and white and all that stuff. I'm just not going to let anyone prevent me from living the life I want to live. Maybe this will last for the rest of our life and after that too, but I'm not going to let that prevent me from living the life I want to live. I'm going to say this: I think people use that for an excuse. They give white people more credit than they deserve, or people that's not their race.

“I'm talking to those younger kids and they say, ‘We're kings, brother. We ain't no n**gas.’ They're right, though. Little n**gas are right.”

And you say that to say we shouldn't give their derogatory words as much power as we do?
If someone can make you angry, then they own you. So we're going to continue to be owned by these people from a word? Somebody can call you a ni**er. Well, I heard that word before. I shouldn't be shocked. We get humiliated when we hear that word and somebody calls us that in front of a lot of people. But we say it to each other every day. I'm working on stop saying the word n**ga.

You got to let your son understand we're coming out of the n**ga era. Guys like me, and probably guys born in the 1970s or something like that, they're not going to say n**ga no more. Probably 1980s. That word is going to be really intense because they're going to look at themselves as gods, as kings.

Man, I hope you're right. I would love for that word to disappear.
Listen, we're only n**ga because we call ourselves. We're not ni**ers because they call us ni**ers.

Meaning we need to change the mentality? Is that what you're saying?
Well, we're not going to do it. The generation afterwards is going to do it… I see it coming. I'm talking to those younger kids and they say, "We're kings, brother. We ain't no n**ga." I say, "Oh God, I know where this conversation is going." But they're right, though. Little n**gas are right, right? They're right.

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You’ve been name-checked a lot in hip-hop. Do you have a favorite reference?
I'm just humbled that they mentioned my name. I consider myself the hip-hop champion. I'm the first champion that the hip-hop generation ever had.

Say more about that.
I say that I'm the champion of the generation of hip-hop and that's the reason why I'm in their world. That's why they mention me in their songs and that’s not me being, I don't know, egotistical. They rap about their life, what's involved in their life. What did they do? What did they see? They saw me in a club. They saw me on television fighting. They saw who I had hanging out with us. I'm one of those guys. If I wasn't a fighter, maybe I'd be a rapper or something.

Mike, why do you think material things matter to us so much when we're young?
When you never had it, you want it, but when you get it, you don't want it anymore. That's just how it is. Look how much we've been deprived because of our situation in life and every time you see it on television, you may see some Caucasian wearing it and that's superior to you. "I want to be like that. That's superiority."

Nobody takes care of the f**king buzzards. They got to fend for themselves.”

Do you remember the moment where your homie took you to get the Shearling coat and the Pumas as a child and you went back to the club the next night, I think, and the reception you got while you were wearing those things was so much different?
Now listen, two or three nights before, they were laughing at my clothes so much I was crying. The whole little dance place. Everybody was making fun of me…I started laughing but I was ashamed. And then some other guy said, "Yo, Mike, come meet me and be at the pigeon coop in the morning." So I went to the pigeon coop and he said, "Come with me."

And we went robbing houses. Because he put me in the window and had me knock on the door to see if anybody's there. We wiped these people out, got guns, jewelry, money. We wiped them out and he would give me a little bit of money. I got $300. He must have got $10,000 or something. And he gave me a couple of hundred. But when he gave me the money, he took me shopping and taught me about clothes. Ever since that day, people looked at me different.

…I think it all comes down to, the lack of it... We want people to love us even though we say, "F**k them n**gas. I got my family and my friends." We want people to be feeling, "Hey, give me your autograph. Let's take a picture." We want all that stuff. That was attractive to us because people see us looking good. "Hey, you look good. That's a nice jacket you’re wearing. Hey, last night you were looking hot." We want affection because we don't think that much about ourselves, but we believe we should be treated like that.

I see.
The most successful people have the biggest ego, but the lowest self-esteem.

There's a Kanye West lyric that's similar to that.
That's the real deal. You can't be successful by loving yourself. You got to hate yourself and think everybody else hates you. "I'm not beautiful. I want to turn beautiful. I'm ugly now." The most gangsta, fly s**t anybody could ever do is change their life. You get no flyer than that.