Mike Tyson's love for pigeons is the center of a new Discovery Channel… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
Before the heavyweight titles, the conviction and imprisonment, the divorces and the defeats, Mike Tyson had his birds.
As a young boy growing up in New York, Tyson raised pigeons as a refuge from the mean streets of Brooklyn. So, it's only natural that in his commitment to rid himself of personal demons, the 44-year-old former boxing world champion has traded fight for flight.
Once known as one of sport's most volatile and self-destructive figures, the older Tyson is center stage in Animal Planet's "Taking on Tyson," which showcases his entrance into the world of competitive pigeon racing. In the series, which premieres Sunday, Tyson joins forces with veteran pigeon trainers to put together a team that will compete in the New Jersey area.
"This is something that has really brought meaning to me and my life," Tyson said in a recent interview. "This is not a hobby. This is something we're going to do until the day we die. I love being in my pigeon world. It brings me a calm."
In an odd way, his passion for birds helped launch his future career in fighting. Though hard to envision today, Tyson as a youth was often the target of neighborhood bullies while growing up in the tough Brownsville section of Brooklyn.
On one occasion, an older boy confronted Tyson as he carried several pigeons home. The attacker grabbed one and, ignoring Tyson's pleas to give the bird back, twisted its head off and sprayed blood all over him.
"That was the first time I threw a punch," he recalled. He beat up the thug and for the first time in his life felt a real sense of power.
Tyson's bond with pigeons is no passing fancy. He is a scholar of pigeons — much as he was an expert on boxing — and has an encyclopedic knowledge of pigeons and their history.
"This is an amazing opportunity, to show why I love these birds and how great this sport is," said Tyson. "The pigeons are always loyal and loving. And racing pigeons is on a different level but is as competitive and intense as boxing."
Though he still bears the fearsome warrior tattoo on his face, Tyson appears smaller and less bulky than he was in his boxing days. During an interview, the boxer, who candidly addressed his rise and fall in the 2008 documentary film "Tyson," was mostly soft-spoken and displayed an easy charm that contrasted with his menacing reputation from years ago. And when the subject turned to his show and the birds, words flew out in rapid-fire bursts — not unlike the speed of his fists when he boxed.
Executive producer Jason Carey said Tyson had received offers monthly to do a reality show by other networks but was only interested in a project focused on his turnaround, a goal largely born of a renewed devotion to his family and his therapy for depression.
"I feel we're very lucky to be getting Mike Tyson at this point in his life," said Carey. "He seems to be legitimately trying to turn his life around. We all have an image of him that he and the media created. But he is now dedicated to the one thing in his life that has been a constant."
Carey added that he didn't expect any viewer backlash due to Tyson's past troubles, which include a conviction for rape — something he's always denied doing. "This is about Mike looking into the future and seeing what he wants to be."
But there is more to Tyson's life than looking back and his continued passion for birds. Thanks to his scene-stealing cameo in "The Hangover," Tyson has a new interest in comedy.
Tyson co-wrote and starred in a pre-Oscar "Funny or Die" clip with film critic Leonard Maltin. In it, the boxing great declared that Meryl Streep should win an award for "All the Kids Are Here" and then wondered about the chances of a movie called "Don King's Speech." Also, Tyson appeared in a skit on "Jimmy Kimmel Live" in which he played a speech therapist to former President George W. Bush in "The President's Speech."
And he would love to host "Saturday Night Live."
"I don't know where that comedian side comes from," said Tyson. "I've always been told comedy comes from a dark place. For me, I'm just enjoying myself."