Iron Mike's Second Chance

updated 03/27/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/27/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

WHEN MIKE TYSON STRIDES OUT OF the Indiana Youth Center in Plainfield on March 25, a free man for the first time in three years, there's one thing he won't have to worry about. "When you come home, you don't want a cold pool," says Peter Talanca, one of five workers bustling to get Tyson's 30,000-square-foot mansion east of Cleveland—and his indoor swimming pool shaped like a boxing glove—ready for the former heavyweight champ's return. "The word is, everything has to be right for Mike."

The big question, of course, is whether everything is right with Mike. Through his teens and early 20s, Tyson was a wrecking ball in the ring—and, often, outside it. The last straw—his conviction in 1992 of raping 18-year-old beauty contestant Desiree Washington—was both tragic and unsurprising. (For his part, Tyson still maintains that Washington consented to sex. "I believe I'm innocent of this charge, and I don't have any reason to apologize," he said last year.) The world felt it knew the man who went to prison; Tyson, now 28, and many of those who have visited him claim people will be surprised by the man prisoner No. 922335 has become.

"I'm trying to start my life back," Tyson has vowed, with the same fervor with which he once proclaimed himself the "baddest man on the planet." There is little doubt he has learned something from his prison experience. Three months after his confinement, he was disciplined for threatening guards. But gradually the 5'11" boxer, who entered prison a doughy 275 lbs., some 50 over his last fighting weight, developed a different attitude—and a healthier diet. Tyson, whose comeback in the ring stands to enrich him by millions, KO'd the pounds by patronizing the commissary—where he has bought milk, cereals and canned tuna—instead of the prison mess. Now he is a sculpted 216 and, promoters hope, ready to rumble.

Though Tyson has had no access to boxing equipment, he has regained his fighting trim through daily workouts, including running and shadowboxing. "He's in probably the best physical shape ever, because there's been no night life, no alcohol," says promoter Butch Lewis, a frequent prison visitor who would like to take Tyson away from Don King, his current promoter.

Tyson has been exercising more than his muscles. For most of his time behind bars, the high school dropout's "job" involved attending classes, for which he was paid 65 cents a day. He even started studying Chinese, visitors say. He lined his 8-by-11-foot cell with more than 300 books and read two or three volumes, ranging from Malcolm X to Machiavelli, each week. Tyson was so impressed by two authors, Arthur Ashe and Mao Tse-tung, that he had himself inscribed with their portraits, one on each biceps, by an inmate tattoo artist. When Maya Angelou came to visit late last year, Tyson reportedly floored her by reciting some of her poetry.

"I met an old con," Tyson told writer Pete Hamill last year, "and he pointed at all the guys playing ball or exercising, and he said to me, 'You see them guys? If that's all they do when they're in here, they'll go out and mess up.' He said to me, 'You want to make this worth something? Go to the library. Read books. Work your mind.' "

Soon after entering prison, Tyson began studying the Koran intensely—both alone and with spiritual adviser Muhammad Siddeeq, a teacher who volunteers at the prison. Reared as a Roman Catholic, Tyson has retained his Christian name while embracing his new faith, which he credits with giving him discipline. "Being a Muslim is probably not going to make me an angel in heaven," Tyson told Hamill. "But it's going to make me a better person."

Friends agree he's ready to make a fresh start. "He went in as a reactionary child, and he will emerge as a disciplined adult," says Rock Newman, manager of Tyson rival Riddick Bowe. "He has used this time to serve him, as opposed to him just serving the time. He will emerge an infinitely wiser man."

He'll also be up-to-date. Tyson has received on average 150 letters a day and a stream of visitors, among them Spike Lee, Jesse Jackson and James Brown. They may have buoyed his spirits, but they also distracted him from his studies, said Superior Court Judge Patricia J. Gifford, who presided over Tyson's unsuccessful sentence-reduction hearing in June 1994. Gifford blamed the visits for Tyson's failure on a GED exam he took last year—by two points.

The visitor the former champ may have looked forward to most was a 4-year-old: Tyson's daughter Michael. (Little about the child or her mother is known.) Michael is the only surviving member of Tyson's immediate family besides his estranged older brother Rodney, a California pharmacist. Says Siddeeq of the little girl who answers to both Mickey and Mikey: "She is the spitting image of him."

There has been no sign of Tyson's former wife, actress Robin Givens, who last summer adopted a son, Buddy, now 15 months old. (Following the end of their stormy marriage six years ago, Givens claimed to have remained friendly with her ex.) But there has been evidence of a new woman in Tyson's life. Every two weeks Georgetown medical student Monica Turner, 28, reportedly has been spotted visiting the boxer. "He's known Monica for a long time," says Tyson confidant Rev. Charles R. Williams of Indianapolis. "She's been a great friend."

Tyson's most solicitous callers, of course, have been men who can't look at him without seeing dollar signs: a fight-card full of would-be managers and promoters. "I'm probably the only one who's been to see him who didn't leave a contract at the reception desk," joked Rev. Al Sharpton, the New York City activist and erstwhile Senate candidate. One of the more serious hopefuls is Lewis, who got one of his fighters, Michael Spinks, $13.5 million for 91 seconds of work, followed by a brief lie-down, against Tyson in 1988. Another suitor is '70s promoter Harold Smith, known both for the generous purses he paid his fighters and his 1982 conviction for embezzling $21.3 million from Wells Fargo Bank.

At this point, though, Don King's hold on the boxer appears to be unbreakable. King, 62, first promoted Tyson in 1988, three months after the death of Tyson's friend and comanager Jimmy Jacobs. (Jacobs was a long-time friend of the late Cus D'Amato, the legendary, single-minded mentor who plucked the 13-year-old Tyson out of reform school after seeing him spar.) "[King] has been there for Tyson," says Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, Showtime's boxing commentator. "There's nobody else I can think of that has even a minor chance."

Publicly the shock-coiffed King, now facing legal troubles of his own—a May court date on charges of insurance fraud—maintains that the next steps are strictly up to Tyson. "I want to show my love and respect for Mike Tyson and let him be the guy who says yea or nay to anything that comes in his life," he says. But privately the promoter has been overheard spreading the word among his neighbors in the exclusive, gated Foxe Chase community in Delray Beach, Fla., that the vacant lot across the street from his $700,000 house is for Tyson's next residence.

Tyson's current home, the brick mansion in Southington, Ohio, where the boxer is expected to spend most of his four-year probation, is also within the King orbit, just 10 miles from King's boxing camp. Set amid a rural landscape of open fields and farmhouses, it is an ideal location if the fighter is serious about his pre-prison resolve to "never go out again to a club."

Even if that resolution holds, his past will still haunt him. First, rape victim Desiree Washington, now a 22-year-old senior at Providence College in Rhode Island, is seeking civil damages for injuries suffered during the assault; her suit is moving through the Indiana courts. For another thing, published reports suggest that much of his $100 million ring earnings is gone—to managers, promoters and conspicuous consumption like his fleet of luxury automobiles, not to mention his own high-priced legal defense team.

This week, of course, all that could change. Says World Boxing Commission heavyweight titleholder and former Tyson sparring partner Oliver McCall: "If he got money problems, the day he get out he will have no more." Tyson stands to make millions for two or three tune-up fights while he rounds into shape. ("He has to oil his tools up, his timing, his rhythm, his balance," says promoter Lewis.) Then for a match against a serious opponent like Riddick Bowe, 27, a Tyson buddy who won the World Boxing Organization heavyweight title from Britain's Herbie Hide on March 11, "the two fighters would split in excess of $120 million," claims Rock Newman. "They could generate the greatest revenue ever."

Eager as he is for such a payday, Bowe is enough of a friend to express concern. "Everybody's making ail these plans for Mike Tyson, but Mike Tyson hasn't agreed to anything," says Bowe. "He knows what he wants, and his plans may be totally different from what they perceive. I just hope he can come back out, and whatever his dreams are, accomplish them."

PAM LAMBERT
JANA WILSON Indianapolis, SARAH SKOLNIK in Washington, KEN MYERS in Cleveland, LORENZO BENET in Las Vegas, LORNA GRISBY in New YorkCity, MEG GRANT and CINDY DAMPIER in Miami, ANNE LONGLEY in Providence and SUSAN CHRISTIAN GOULDING in Los Angeles

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