A few hours before a certain plane was due to land in Mumbai, a photograph was doing the rounds on social media. It was a picture of Evander Holyfield’s right ear, with the caption: Beware, he’s coming.
For one of boxing’s most explosive and revered competitors, that infamous bite did nothing to tarnish his image. Instead it reaffirmed Mike Tyson image as the ‘baddest man on the planet.’
Certainly, Mumbai was gearing up for the former undisputed world heavyweight champion’s arrival in the country for the first time. His sheer presence created a buzz. Bollywood director Anurag Kashyap posted on social media: “I just shook hands with @MikeTyson at Mumbai airport… can’t believe it. What’s he doing in India?”
The 52-year-old made the trip to the subcontinent to promote the launch of the Kumite 1 League. And certain measures were taken to cater to his arrival. For starters, Salman Khan’s bodyguard ‘Shera’ had been hired for the task of looking after security. That added to the furore at the arrivals terminal.
A sizable delegation of fans, organisers and media had assembled at the airport, but once passersby caught a glimpse of Shera, they jumped to the conclusion that the Bollywood actor was about to walk out of the airport. But instead it was the boxing legend’s tattooed face that emerged. Tyson was garlanded within the battalion of bouncers that escorted him to his vehicle. And then the crowd started to swell even further.
At the hotel he was staying at, instructions had been passed on well in advance. A vegan meal was to be prepared for Tyson, who owns the record of being the youngest ever to win the heavyweight title (at 20 years, four months and 22 days).
More importantly though, a Play Station had to be arranged before he got to his hotel suite. It was a request to keep him occupied during his free-time.
How much spare time would he allow himself though is not certain.
“I ain’t here to party,” he says at a media conference, after arriving in a police piloted convoy of four SUVs. “I’m going to the slums.” One important piece on his itinerary is a visit to the Dharavi slums. “I am a slumdog,” he says, referring to his rough upbringing in a Brooklyn slum. “I grew up on the streets of New York. My ambition was to get out of it, and that’s why I’m here today talking to you. They might still call it ‘slum,’ but I still go back there to see my friends.”
Dressed in a trousers-Hawaiian shirt ensemble, Tyson was calm and soft-spoken, a stark contrast to the fighter he was in his heyday. That bite, in his rematch against Holyfield in 1997 resulted in a disqualification for Tyson after he tore off a bit of his opponent’s ear. Boxers are known to walk on the wild side. But that characteristic is something Tyson finds missing from the current crop of professional boxers.
“Now they are all straight guys and I was a young kid going wild, always getting into trouble,” he says. “I was always in the papers. The new guys are all focused on boxing. The difference is they are not personalities. These guys are straight gentlemen.”
There is a similarity he talks of though: the upbringing. It’s the same reason he wishes to visit the slums in Mumbai.
“The poorer you are, the better boxer you are,” he says. “All fighters from slums are successful, be it slums or a correctional institute.”
It’s been 13 years since Tyson fought his last bout, ending his 20-year career with a 50-6 win-loss record, and a name that is recognized through generations and all classes. In India’s he’s here to promote a mixed martial arts event, yet he speaks bluntly about the sport. “There’s no money here. Boxing is where the money is, I was in it for the money.”
During the weigh-in for the MMA fight night, held in the social square of a Mumbai mall, an emcee beckons the crowd to come closer to the stage – nobody does. But then Tyson walks up to the pedestal, and an audience gathers. Shoppers, college students, salespersons from stores in the mall, and the very police personnel employed to protect the legendary boxer flip out their phones to capture the burly American.
Tyson stands on stage, dutifully acknowledges the respect the MMA fighters give him during the weigh-ins. He then waits patiently till the bodyguards create a path through the sea of people before waving goodbye.