JERSEY CITY, N.J. — It’s not hard to find Mike Tyson — it’s just difficult to get there.
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Start out at Madison Square Garden, the epicenter of boxing for years, and catch the first train to New Jersey. You’ll leave behind the glittering lights of New York City, slip quietly beneath the Hudson River and pass right by the quaint neighborhoods of Hoboken.
When you get to Journal Square, start walking, across the Pulaski Skyway and past St. Peter’s Cemetery, the overturned gravestones a tired reminder that Jersey City has seen better days. At the intersection of Tonnele and Manhattan avenues, step inside the dimly lit Ringside Lounge, the aptly named hangout for fighters and their fans.
Ask for Mario Costa, the owner of the joint, whose slicked-back hair and ever-present cigar give off a certain “Sopranos” vibe. He’ll take you around back and make the introductions.
This is Tyson these days, a TV personality, movie star, international ambassador — even if he’s not sure what that entails. An entirely new generation knows nothing about the heavyweight era that he once dominated, or the prison sentences and tabloid tales. The only crime they connect to him is robbery — every scene he stole during the smash hit “The Hangover.”
His new show on Animal Planet, titled “Taking on Tyson,” debuts Sunday night at 10 p.m. EST. The focus is on Tyson’s passion for pigeon racing, but it also brings viewers to places such as Jersey City and people such as Costa, who have stayed beside him through life’s turmoil.
“People are going to see what they want to see — they make their own images and perceptions,” Tyson said during a break from filming last fall. “I can’t make anybody have an opinion about me. Only thing I can do is treat them the way they’d want to treat me.”
Iron Mike looks into a steel gray sky and goes quiet, watching a pair of brown pigeons swoop and spin, climb and dive. They look like ballerinas unencumbered by gravity.
“That one’s just a baby. Look at him learning to fly,” Tyson says, pointing to another that looks no different from the other two. “He’s scared to tumble. He doesn’t know how yet.”
These aren’t your everyday rats with wings, those dirty pigeons you find under a highway overpass or pecking around for grain in the gutter. These are called “tumblers” or “rollers,” specially bred and cared for, birds that Tyson has been raising since he was a kid.
Tyson got into pigeons by tending those owned by others in his Brooklyn neighborhood. It turns out that raising pigeons is a common pastime in some parts of the city, and Tyson fell in love with the winged creatures almost immediately. He claims he never got into a fight until someone threatened his birds, so in a way, the pigeons also pushed him into boxing.
He kept the birds after going to the Catskills to train with Cus D’Amato, then continued to care for them after D’Amato died. Parts of the coop that he keeps behind the Ringside Lounge are taken from the coop he had back then, the doors and some of the lumber.
“This is always here,” Costa says as he chews on his cigar, waving at the rickety wooden structure, housing dozens of birds and big enough to walk in comfortably. “Mike will go on tours and do his movies and his shows, but when he comes back, these are always here.”
The coop is on a slab of concrete, down a narrow alley between buildings. But if you climb the metal fire escape nearby, then hop across the rooftops — being careful where you put your feet — you can find another small coop that houses only a handful of birds.
These are the racing pigeons, the ones that are the focus of the show.
Tyson acknowledges that he’s a novice in the sport, but that’s the reason Animal Planet has been following him. The network wants to see how the one-time “Baddest Man on the Planet” can stack up against people who have been breeding and training racing pigeons for years.
The sport was introduced in the United States in the late 1800s, and has grown to the point where there are about 15,000 registered lofts, according to the American Racing Pigeon Union.
Trainers bring their birds to a central location, sometimes several hundred miles from home, and outfit them with electronic timers. Then the birds are released and fly back to their coop, with the time recorded when they pass through the door. That number is factored into the distance traveled to determine their speed, and the fastest birds are declared the winners.
There is big money in pigeon racing. Breeders spend thousands of dollars on birds, and some competitions award up to $50,000 — not to mention the betting that takes place on the side.
Then there are the bragging rights, and to Tyson, those are more valuable than money.
“Slowly but surely, I’m gaining a name in the business, and I’m very grateful for that as well,” Tyson says. “It’s competitive, but it’s all in love.”
Tyson made a name for himself by knocking out anybody with enough chutzpah to stand across from him in a boxing ring. The youngest fighter ever to win the heavyweight title, he was so dynamic that folks would tune in just to see how long it’d take for him to win.
Things began to come unglued, though, after he was upset by Buster Douglas in February 1990. The following year he was accused of rape, and in 1992 he began serving what would end up being three years in prison. His comeback included biting off part of Evander Holyfield’s ear, saying he wanted to eat Lennox Lewis’ children and quitting against journeyman Kevin McBride.
That was the last time he fought professionally, despite financial trouble that forced him to file for bankruptcy. Today, he doesn’t miss the sport one bit.
“Best thing that happened to me was to retire from boxing,” he says. “I just didn’t want that no more in my life. It was just too chaotic.”
It seemed that Tyson was destined to fade into oblivion, like so many ex-fighters before him. But then something remarkable happened, something that brought him back into the spotlight.
It turned out he was pretty entertaining outside the ring, too.
He was the focus of an award-winning documentary by James Toback, “Tyson,” that took a stark, sobering and sometimes cringe-worthy look at his life. Then he appeared as himself in the comedy hit “The Hangover,” lightheartedly singing Phil Collins and ripping off a series of hilarious one-liners in the movie about a Las Vegas bachelor party gone awry.
Fans suddenly took notice of him again, and only in positive ways.
He plans to be a boxing ambassador to China, and has appeared on just about every talk show, from Jimmy Kimmel to Oprah Winfrey. He played himself on the HBO hit “Entourage,” presented at the 2010 Golden Globes and will be back for “The Hangover Part 2″ later this year.
And, of course, there’s his show on Animal Planet.
“Tyson’s passion for his pigeons takes my breath away,” said network President Marjorie Kaplan. “For years, he has been inspired by these birds. … ‘Taking on Tyson’ peels back new layers of the remarkable persona and deep humanity of Mike Tyson while also showing us a whole world we never knew existed right on the rooftops of New York City.”
Tyson believes he is in the midst of his greatest comeback, one that finds him walking the fine line of success that he once found in the ring.
Indeed, it’s not hard to find Tyson — because he seems to be everywhere.
“I just want to entertain,” he says. “Whether it’s boxing, acting, being a comedic, edgy — it’s what I’ve been doing my whole life. I just want to entertain people.”