One of his favourite fighters is Canadian boxing legend George Chuvalo, considered one of the toughest boxers to climb into the square circle. Chuvalo fought the greatest heavyweights in the greatest era of heavyweight boxing, including Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Jimmy Ellis, Joe Frazier and Floyd Patterson. Never once in 93 fights was the former Canadian heavyweight champion knocked down.
But what Tyson, 45, appreciates more than that, is what Chuvalo has become: An anti-drug crusader who travels the country giving speeches to young people on the evils of drugs. Recently, Iron Mike and wife Kiki watched one of Chuvalo’s “Fight Against Drugs” presentations on tape and it brought them to tears. To Tyson, Chuvalo will always be a champion, even though he never actually won a world title.
“Listen, there’s more to being the champion than a belt,” Tyson says. “You can be a champion without a belt. (The belt) don’t mean nothing. (He’s a) champion in his conduct. A belt can’t define a champion.
“A f---ing belt, that’s man-made, a cheap belt. If that’s what defines a champion, then a champion isn’t even worth defining, then.”
Tyson was struck by how articulate Chuvalo is after all his wars in the ring.
“Isn’t that crazy?” Tyson says. “He took a lot of shots and he’s very coherent. And there are some guys that got hit and they don’t know their names — boxers, slick guys.”
Chuvalo once told me that one reason he never suffered boxer’s dementia, which seems to affect many former fighters, is because of his bull neck. Old-time fighters, Chuvalo said, used to work on strengthening their necks, so their heads wouldn’t snap around when they’re hit.
“Probably so,” Tyson says of the neck theory, “but I betcha (Chuvalo’s) got an extra-thick skull, too. Some people are born with an extra-thick skull.”
Tyson fought four Canadians: Lennox Lewis, Donovan (Razor) Ruddock (twice), Trevor Berbick and Conroy Nelson. He won his first world title against Berbick on Nov. 22, 1986, at the Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas and lost to Lewis for the WBC and IBF belt late in his career in 2002.
Numerous attempts were made over the years to bring Tyson and Lewis together in the ring, but it didn’t happen until Tyson had begun to deteriorate as a fighter.
One of Tyson’s most memorable quotes was in reference to Lewis, who turned pro in his native Great Britain after winning a gold medal for Canada at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
“I’m the best ever,” Tyson said before fighting Lewis in 2002. “I’m the most brutal and vicious, the most ruthless champion there’s ever been. There’s no one can stop me. Lennox is a conqueror? No, I’m Alexander, he’s no Alexander. I’m the best ever. There’s never been anybody as ruthless. I’m Sonny Liston, I’m Jack Dempsey. There’s no one like me. I’m from their cloth. There is no one who can match me. My style is impetuous, my defence is impregnable and I’m just ferocious. I want your heart! I want to eat your children!”
Today, Tyson is embarrassed by such antics, insisting his outrageous comments were the result of his insecurities and flair for the dramatic. He has nothing but good things to say about Lewis now, and virtually ever boxer he faced.
Tyson remembers Lewis from before they turned pro, when Lewis’ amateur coach, the late Arnie Boehm, who ran the Waterloo Boxing Academy, brought Lewis to the Catskills, in upstate New York, where Tyson lived with D’Amato. Like D’Amato was to Tyson, Boehm was a father figure as well as a coach to a young Lewis, who moved to Canada with his mother, Violet, when he was 12.
“He was a very nice kid,” Tyson says of Lewis. “When we were kids ... he lived with us for a few weeks. And he had Arnie. Arnie’s a beautiful guy. I like Arnie a lot. Cus liked him a lot, too, because it was two guys, these two white guys, and they had their fighters and you know they didn’t give up on them.”
Tyson says D’Amato told him one day he would fight Lewis in the amateur ranks.
“I was supposed to fight him in the world (junior) championships in the Dominican Republic (in 1983). But Cus didn’t want me to go there because he was scared these guys would have some kind of revolution,” Tyson says. “He was so controversy-driven ... always panicking, worrying about some revolution or something.”
Lewis ended up winning the gold medal in the Dominican. They didn’t meet in the ring until 19 years later, when they fought as pros in Memphis and Lewis posted an eighth-round knockout.
As for the Canadian fight game, Tyson’s insight is extraordinary. In no particular order, he names Canadian greats from the past, names many fight fans wouldn’t remember.
“The great Johnny Coulon,” Tyson says. “Sam Langford, George Dixon, Lou Brouillard ...
“The Great Sam Langford from Canada,” Tyson says of the former world champion from Weymouth Falls, N.S., who had the infamous nickname The Boston Tar Baby.
“George Dixon, the first black champion on the record.”
Dixon, born July 29, 1870, in the community of Africville, which was part of Halifax, became the first black world boxing champion in any weight class when he claimed the bantamweight title in 1888.
He is asked if he remembers Shawn O’Sullivan.
“Very well,” Tyson says. “Knockout artist, 155 pounds.”
What about O’Sullivan’s 1984 Olympic Games teammate, Willie DeWit?
“Oh, they’re beautiful,” Tyson says. “They were great fighters. Willie was always a good kid.” DeWit is now a lawyer in Calgary.
One old-time great Tyson remembers fondly is former world welterweight champion Jimmy McLarnin.
“The Baby Face Killer,” Tyson says. “I talked to him in prison. I called him in California. I talked to him for a long time, for hours. He was really Irish (you know).”
McLarnin was born in Hillsborough, County Down, Ireland, in 1907 and moved to Vancouver with his family when he was three.
Another old-time fighter Tyson remembers is Yvon Durelle.
“Fisherman. Fought Archie Moore,” Tyson says. “A great fight. Knockdown fight.”
In a 1958 bout at the Montreal Forum, Durelle knocked Moore down three times in the first round and again in the fifth, but Moore rallied to win via an 11th-round knockout and retained the world light-heavyweight title.
Tyson also knew the Hilton brothers out of Montreal. They spent time in the Catskills with Tyson and D’Amato.
“I went up there and saw (Davey Hilton) fight Mario Cusson,” Tyson says. (I remember) Saint Catherine St. You could go there and buy marijuana ...
“We had fun (in Montreal). That’s the first time I’ve been to strip club or anything. I must have been 15 or 16.”
Tyson became particularly close with Matthew Hilton, the former IBF world light middleweight champion.
“I talked to Matthew (recently),” Tyson says. “He’s in Chicago now. But listen, I’ve been hearing that Matt was punchy and he was sick and stuff. (But) he’s very coherent. I heard he was blind, he couldn’t see. But he sounded awesome.”
As for his own boxing career, Tyson prefers not to look back. When asked if he is proud of what he accomplished — the world titles, the knockouts (44 in 56 fights), the 50-6 record — Tyson shakes his head.
“No. Cus wouldn’t have been happy with me as a fighter,” he says. “I made a lot of mistakes. I’ve been successful, but I didn’t do the way he taught me how to fight. (I’m) really mad (about it).
“In boxing, it’s about the art. The only thing you have to do is involve your spirit. It’s all about the art. The art is what deserves the respect. Not the individual. I took it from a (selfish) perspective ... it’s about me. And that’s when things ... even when it looked good, it wasn’t good.”
Tyson has mixed feelings about boxing and his career. On one hand, he says he was “so happy” to have been a fighter. On the other hand, well, there’s some bitterness.
“I would never want to do it again,” he says. “As a matter of fact, I despise fighting, really.
“But I love the fighters so much.”
Before exchanging farewells, Tyson tells a reporter how much he likes Canadians.
“I like Canadian people because they’re always really honest with me,” he says. “Most Canadian people are totally different than Americans, no doubt about it. But listen, if you have a best friend, and (he has) always been good with you, he’s not perfect, he’s a good guy, but you knew he was going to hell, would you still be his best friend?”
Absolutely, he’s told.
“One hundred per cent,” he says. “(But) in America, it’s not that way.”
Mike Tyson laughs and leans back on the couch.
He seems to be in a good place.