In the pugilist's career turn toward the industry of self-flagellation -- hit yourself harder than anyone else to score in the lucrative self-help genre of catharsis -- Mike Tyson took his 600th jab at reinvention in The New York Times over the weekend in an op-ed piece entitled "Fighting to Kick the Habit."
Eloquently, and with a drill-down candidness, Tyson wrote of his New Year's resolution to conquer his struggle for sobriety by replacing "the cravings for drugs or alcohol with a craving to be a better person." Anyone who has ever lost a loved one to heroin or coke or an Oxy addiction can admire the message. Anyone who has ever nursed an alcoholic during a hangover -- and not the one glorified in the movie by the same name that ironically launched a previous Tyson reinvention -- can understand the sentiment. Addiction is a 24-hour shadow, a ruinous seducer whose whispers can be quieted with laborious discipline and support, but never vanquished with confidence.
Tyson's resolve collapsed in August. He started drinking again after five years of living the dry life. Over that period, he was depicted as Iron Mike with a soft side on every occasion. He was the scene-stealing philosopher on Hollywood's red carpet; the everyman in The New York Times piece, "The Suburbanization of Mike Tyson;" the "lisping wit" of the stage in The New Yorker's review of his one-man show on Broadway that has landed on HBO; the raw and powerful memoirist by The Wall Street Journal's account while writing his new book "Undisputed Truth;" and the star of a Fox Sports reality show that is humanizing to the reformed ear-muncher:
All good, right? Actually, good is the new bad for Tyson. "Strangely, times of success are most dangerous for me," he wrote in the Times op-ed piece. "When people tell me, 'You're great' or 'Your comeback is amazing' or 'You're a god,' I could feed right into it and go get high. Hey, if my life is so good, how could smoking a joint be bad? How could a shot of Hennessy or a line of coke be so bad when everything else I've been doing is great -- especially when there are beautiful, successful people feeding my ego and supplying the drugs?' So I've learned that when people congratulate me, that's when I focus on my flaws."
In other words, attention is his trigger. And the media is his drug dealer. By falling for his repeated tales of reform and doling out compliments that are fanned into accolades by his inner circle, the media -- writers, filmmakers, Broadway directors, reader commentators -- pops the tab on Tyson's beer.
So why venture into the taproom of publicity? If the tripwire for a relapse is public praise, media attention and ensuing glory, why sun yourself on a stage, Mike?
By indulging in a place that is bad news for him, it makes the serial revelations by Tyson sound more profiteering than prophetic. Addiction is his currency. Near the end of his career, he bemoaned boxing as a means to a dirty payday but boxed just the same. Now, Tyson bemoans the dangers of a spotlight but basks in it as the star of New Adventures of the Old Mike. This occupation as a reinventionist isn't new. If you go back to February of 1998, the terrific boxing writer for USA Today, Jon Saraceno, began a story with this opening line: "The latest reinvention of Mike Tyson's turbulent life begins today -- without the omnipresent Don King."
This was a fresh start, again. Tyson's late '80s violent marriage to Robin Givens -- "That was the best punch I ever landed," he once said -- was behind him. His 1992 prison sentence for the rape conviction of a beauty pageant queen was over. His career nadir in 1997, when Tyson morphed into the raging and savagely effective boxer he was trained to be, had come and gone with Evander Holyfield's ear.
Don King was his only demon, so he said. Tyson had burned through more than $200 million on Bentleys and Bengal tigers while living the lessons of excess from King. Right about then, Tyson began a career journey of trying to square his more ethereal incarnation with his repulsive younger self. It was futile. He kept going down the dark alleys of his soul, assaulting two motorists in 1999, testing positive for marijuana in 2000, and, of course, telling Lennox Lewis, "I want to eat your children" before their bout in 2002.
Tyson's sick ways had a way of discrediting his soul-searching veneer. Still, he picked up his image off the canvas again in 2004, and told USA Today, "I'm trying to be a decent man." He added, "Everyone wants to talk about my past. That's dead."
In truth, the past is his livelihood. The despicable acts, the public failings and outright lawlessness -- and the recovery from it all -- are his bread and butter now. In his one-man show, Tyson recites his personal history with charm and wit but with limited accountability. As always, he seems on the verge of getting it right, on the edge of kicking all habits, but he is not quite there. How can he find peace if being public is part of the problem, if media attention is a sirens' song for his addiction, if praise is the catnip for a collapse?
This is not to say that his relapse-recover-relapse cycling isn't authentic -- addictions aren't contrived -- but it's also good business to keep the world waiting and rooting for your soul to be whole. When will we really know Mike Tyson is at peace? When he no longer craves the stage.