Mike Tyson: 'I Want to Live a Positive Life'

updated 03/28/2011 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 03/28/2011 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Just a short drive from the Las Vegas Strip, site of some of his notoriously brutal fights, former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson makes a weekly stop at a local Gymboree class. There, he and his 2-year-old daughter Milan get down to serious business: blowing bubbles, singing songs and tumbling on soft mats. Afterward, they may stop at a public playground. Other days it's straight home to Tyson's five-bedroom house in nearby Henderson, Nev., to watch Blues Clues or to marvel at Tyson's 2-month-old son, Morocco. Though Tyson, 44, has fathered seven children by four different women, he was never one to put family first-until recent years. These days each moment he spends with one of his children is something to be cherished. "I don't deserve this," he says. "And I never want to lose it."

Which may be particularly surprising for a man once known as "the baddest man on the planet," a nickname that was well-earned: He did three years in prison in the early 1990s after being convicted of raping an 18-year-old beauty queen and was disqualified in his 1997 attempt to regain his heavyweight title when he bit off part of challenger Evander Holyfield's ear. But today Tyson is a sober, slimmed-down and seemingly serene family man who insists he finally has his demons under control. "I don't believe nobody becomes no new person," he says. "But we can change our conduct." His kinder, gentler side is being further burnished by his latest enterprise, Taking on Tyson, a six-part reality series on Animal Planet that chronicles his lifelong passion for breeding, and now racing, pigeons. "In the past the world looked on Mike as a pariah," says Jason Carey, the series' executive producer. "But the Mike Tyson I know is really at a stage in his life where he is trying to transform himself."

Tyson's transformation is at least partly born of tragedy. In May 2009 his 4-year-old daughter Exodus died when her neck got caught in a treadmill safety cord in her mother's Phoenix home. When Tyson, who was not married to the child's mother, heard the news, his first response was to fall back on his signature anger. "I was filled with rage," he says. "But then I realized I couldn't go that route if I was going to leave any dignity to my daughter's name." Instead, 12 days after Exodus' death, he embraced a new model for life and married Lakiha "Kiki" Spicer, 34, whom he had known for 17 years and whom he credits with the positive turn in his life. He says that Kiki, his third wife, "gives me stability. She's not dark like me." She, in turn, calls Tyson a "hands-on dad" (though he doesn't change diapers) and credits her husband with facing up to the profound loss of his child. "Mike," says Kiki, a former marketing director for a sportswear company, "didn't run away from it as he might have in the past."

In step with his emotional metamorphosis, Tyson has also adopted a healthier physical lifestyle, a process that began when he underwent rehab in 2007 and sobered up ("I was addicted to everything," he says). A strict vegan, he recently lost over 100 lbs. after topping out at 350. "I was obese and feeling sick," he says. "So for six months I only ate tomato basil soup and water, and I did a lot of walking." He also makes sure he's in bed each night by 8 so that he can begin the next day at 4 a.m. to tend to the 100 pigeons he keeps cooped in his garage. "I've always loved them," says Tyson, who began raising pigeons as a boy on the rooftop of the Brooklyn, N.Y., apartment where he grew up. Before becoming what even he describes as "an animal," Tyson says, "I was a little fat kid with glasses with no one to talk to. But the birds I could talk to."

Once estimated to be worth $300 million, Tyson (who spent himself into bankruptcy in 2003) now says he lives paycheck to paycheck-"But they're big checks"-making personal appearances and performing in films (The Hangover and its upcoming sequel). "I have more bills than I have anything," he says. "But the debt I've got now I know can be paid."

But Tyson's biggest debt, he says, is to his own family, which he had ignored for all too long. Since Exodus' death and his marriage to Kiki, he has worked to repair relations with his older children, who range in age from 9 to 21. "Mike has always loved his children, but he's a much better dad now," says lifelong friend Dave Malone, who maintains pigeon coops for Tyson in Brooklyn. "He's calmer and more at peace with himself." Even so, Tyson feels he has a long way to go with his kids. "I don't deserve their respect yet," he says. "I just want them to like me."

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