Through all his highs and lows, in the ring and outside of it, Mike Tyson has always been obsessed with style. At the age of 56, he finally opens up about his tastes, extravagances, superstitions, encounters, spending and even humiliations. A dizzying account.
By Raphaël Malkin, in Boca Raton, Florida.
Translation from French by Helene Tammik.
Article originally published in L'Etiquette issue 10.
At the very end of On Boxing, Joyce Carol Oates’ famous collection of 1980s essays, this leading light of contemporary literature describes the noble art as “America’s tragic theater.” She places one man – just one – on the stage of that particular theater. “The single-mindedness of his ring style works to suggest that his grievance has the force of a natural catastrophe. That old trope, ‘the wrath of God,’ comes to mind,” Oates wrote about Mike Tyson.
At the time, the boxer had just won four consecutive world heavyweight titles, between 1987 and ’90, all by a knockout, no less. With those wins to his name, he was an American icon. Then came the fights, the drugs, the tax problems and three years in prison for rape. In popular American culture, Mike Tyson is viewed as a winner, a monster, a beast. But he is also a loser with a pronounced lisp and shameful tattoos. More recently, he has become something more, a man with his fingers in lots of pies, running a popular podcast and a company selling legal cannabis, and even touring in an improbable one-man show. With each new path, Tyson has always maintained his obsessive concern with appearances. The Mike Tyson of the past was the embodiment of proud, unapologetic bling, dressed to the nines, whether in front of Bruce Weber’s lens, alongside ex-girlfriend Naomi Campbell or dining with his great friend Gianni Versace. Today’s Mike Tyson, just as proud, sports a three-piece suit at every opportunity. Lounging comfortably on a big white couch in his home, he leafs through a coffee-table book full of black-and-white photos from his youth. “Look at that: I really was the most stylish man in the world. I always have been,” he says.
L’ÉTIQUETTE. Why did you wear only black in the ring?
MIKE TYSON. That’s the way it always was, right from when I began boxing professionally, at 18. Black was harmonious and very hard at the same time. It made me look ferocious, frightening. It showed that I didn’t give a damn about the guys I was up against, with all their flashy regalia. When the bell for the first round rang, I became a total bastard.
É. Did you have a special routine when you got dressed before a fight?
MT. I used to get to the changing room an hour early. I’d lie on the table or on the floor to have a nap, and then get dressed at the last minute. Always the same routine. My shorts were Everlast, very basic. My boots were handmade by a shoemaker in New York, T.O. Dey. And I never wore socks. When I was a kid running round the streets of Brownsville, in Brooklyn, I didn’t wear socks or have laces in my sneakers. It was my thing, a fashion state- ment. Next, they’d wrap my fists, very meticulously, and I’d put on my gloves. Then I was ready. Everything about me was really brutal, fierce. The only thing that counted was punching, nothing else. But after the fight, when it was time for the press conference, I always made sure I looked chic. The war was over.
É. What shaped your style and your taste for fashion?
MT. It didn’t come from my parents. I’m from a family that had nothing. I was dressed like a slob. But I grew up secretly dreaming of looking like the kids from New York’s private schools. I wanted to be like them. I wanted to be the best-dressed kid in Brooklyn. Do you want me to tell you a story?
MT. It’s something that’s important if you want to get a handle on me. I must have been 11 or 12. I spent my time looking after pigeons in a shelter in my neighborhood. One day, some older guys were hanging out in the area and asked if I wanted to go to a party with them. I immediately said yes. It was a first for me – the only time I got to go out usually was to church with my mother. But the trouble was, I looked really bad. I was covered in feathers and streaks of bird shit because of the pigeons. I needed to get home, have a shower and get changed, so I could at least be clean. They said I didn’t have time. When I got there, everyone made fun of me. Dozens of people were sniggering as I went past, and I felt like there were hundreds of them... They were wondering who this raggedy bum was. I started to laugh, too, but really it was to hide my tears. I felt ashamed. A big guy came up to me. He arranged to meet me the following day at the pigeon shelter. I turned up at the time he said, and he took me with him to rob some houses in the neighborhood. We used the money we made to buy some nice clothes for me. That guy taught me how to dress. He introduced me to fashion. When I went back to party at the place where all those people had laughed at me, they didn’t recognize me. I wasn’t the scruffy punk from the time before; they thought I was someone else. I was wearing good jeans, brand new sneakers and a polo shirt. Suddenly people admired me. There’s one thing you have to understand – in my day, in Brooklyn, you only got respect if you looked like you had style.
É. Did you commit a lot of robberies to buy clothes?
MT. We did it quite a few times. My friends and I would rob houses. We also shoplifted in stores and picked pockets on the bus. We were pretty versatile. I used my share of the take to buy loads of jeans – Lee, Jordache, Gloria Vanderbilt. It was the 1980s. All I thought about was clothes. I was always talking about fashion. It was insane, you have no idea.
É. Then boxing became more important, and you moved in with your trainer, Cus D’Amato, north of New York. Did your style change after you met him?
MT. The idols of my youth were gangsters, outlaws like the cowboy Billy the Kid. But for Cus, Billy the Kid was a tramp who looked like crap in his old scarves and patched coats. It drove Cus crazy that I worshipped him so much. Cus said it was important to look respectable at all times. He swore by suits. Whenever I wasn’t in the ring, he wanted me to be well-dressed. One day, to make him happy, I showed up wearing a fine-looking jacket. He asked me where it came from, and I told him a friend had given it to me. “Your friend must have a lot of money!” he said. Actually, what happened was that I just paid a guy a few dollars to steal the jacket for me from a department store.
É. What did you buy yourself with your first winnings in the ring?
MT. On a trip to London, I bought a gold chain for $500,000 from the jeweler Graff. That was pretty impressive back in those days. As for clothes, when I wanted to be casual, I’d go to Dapper Dan’s on 125th Street in Harlem. I liked hanging out there with the gangsters, dealers and rappers. It was street culture. I’d usually turn up at his store in the middle of the night, around 3 or 4 in the morning after leaving a nightclub, a bit wasted. There were always people busy at work there. I’d go in and say, “Is my package ready?” I could drop $10,000 in one go. Then there were times when I didn’t pay. I ended up owing a tab of nearly $25,000 at Dapper Dan’s. I only paid him back a few years later, and I feel really bad about that. Sorry, Dan. When people saw me wearing Dapper Dan, they’d ask me if it was Gucci. I was proud to tell them it came from Harlem, New York. Back then, I didn’t give a damn about getting sponsorship from a brand. I would never have worn clothes I didn’t like. No way. My image was at stake.
É. Why was it so important?
MT. It was still that Brooklyn thing. Respect depended on your clothes. What I wanted was for people to know I had money without needing to say it, and style was the best way of doing that.
É. We remember Dapper Dan’s for that famous brawl with your rival, Mitch Green, one night in 1988.
MT. I was good friends with the guys from Public Enemy, and for one of their New York gigs I planned on wearing a jacket with “Don’t Believe the Hype,” the name of one of their best-known songs, embroidered in big letters on the back. Dapper Dan was making it. One night, very late, I drove to Harlem in my Rolls-Royce to pick up my package. On the corner of the street, I bumped into Mitch Green, who hung around there every day. He was a famous boxer from the Bronx who I’d had trouble beating a few months earlier during a fight at Madison Square Garden. After that defeat, his career sort of went downhill. He saw me and came straight over to pick a fight. He thought I hadn’t deserved my victory, that he was still stronger than me, that sort of bullshit. Then he started grabbing me by the belt. I thought he wanted to go through my pockets, and I got extremely violent. I punched him in the middle of the chest. He collapsed to the ground, and I carried on hitting him. I don’t like it when people try to take stuff from me. It’s like a reflex; I turn into someone else. I think it’s linked to my childhood, when people used to hit me so they could empty my pockets. Mitch Green was in a really bad way. But you know what counted for me the most that night? My clothes were impeccable, despite the brawl.
É. Speaking of which, you say that wearing pink makes you want to fight.
MT. Pink has a very particular reputation; people usually associate it with femininity and vulnerability. That’s wrong. Centuries ago, pink, just like purple, was the color of royal dynasties. It’s a very virile color. It’s a color for people who are fearless, warriors and killers. Whenever I wear a pink suit, which I do from time to time, it’s true that I immediately want to fight. It makes me feel like a bad motherfucker. I feel strong, ready for anything. I’m the baddest pink panther.
É. With your athlete’s build, was it hard to find suits in your size?
MT. What I wanted was to look like Arnold Rothstein, the Jewish New York gangster who rigged the baseball championships in 1919, or Lucky Luciano, who founded the city’s big mafia families. I used to read everything I could get my hands on about them to find out what they wore. When I began to make money, I had suits made in tweed or in really shiny sharkskin wool. I would go to 47th Street or Canal Street and visit the local tailors. The top of my body was much bigger than it is now, and it wasn’t easy for them to make clothes that fit me. I was always grumbling: “Do it like this! No, not like that!” As I kept winning in the ring, I began to drop more and more money on suits. Eventually I discovered Gianni Versace, completely by accident, in a store I liked in Atlantic City, the New Jersey casino city. One day, the owner, an Italian, made me try on this amazing suit. For the first time ever, I felt really good in a ready-to-wear suit. I asked who it was by, and my friend said the name Gianni Versace. I started getting all my clothes from him. Gianni was different from the other Italian designers, Giorgio Armani and the rest of them. He was a master, the ultimate embodiment of what the future would be. When I put on his clothes, it was like I was entering a different dimension. Versace was a particular period in time. People sometimes talk about the Versace era, and that’s exactly what it was. I remember one day my friend Luther Vandross, the singer – God bless his soul – told me with a laugh that every time he went to Versace, they said they had nothing left in his size because Mike Tyson had bought it all. I ribbed him so many times: “You can only dream of buying yourself this stuff! I’ll always get there before you!”
É. And you ended up meeting Gianni...
MT. In the early 1990s, I was going out with Naomi Campbell. We’d met at a party through some friends from New Orleans. She saw that I was wearing all this Versace, and eventually she said, “You know, I’m friendly with him.” My instant reaction was, “What does that mean? That you talk to him?” “Well actually, I work with him!” I couldn’t believe it. She wanted to do something nice for me, so she organized a meeting at Gianni’s, on Madison Avenue in New York. His sister Donatella was there, too. Naomi might say that it wouldn’t have happened without her, but I’m confident I would have met Versace somehow or another; it was meant to be. The day we met, obviously I was wearing Versace. I looked like a real model. I wanted to know all about his life. I bombarded him with questions, including asking what was the very first garment he ever made. He told me it was a dress for his mother. We had lunch together that day, I’ll never forget it. He was so calm and distinguished; it was impressive. When he ate, he flipped his tie over his shoulder, which was both weird and very chic. Gianni was suave, but he was also very competitive. I saw a lot of myself in him. He was driven by the same sense of competition as me. He wanted to be better than everyone else. He wanted to beat the other designers, even physically. I guess it was the Italian in him. He said to me: “I don’t want you to wear anything other than my brand. Don’t go wearing Armani or anything else, okay?” He also told me: “Please don’t buy anything else in my stores. I’m going to make your suits myself.” He must have made me around 15 suits, but that didn’t stop me from still buying everything in the stores, right down to my underwear. At the weigh-ins before my fights, I’d often be wearing Versace underpants. It was my thing to make sure I felt comfortable... I always wanted more Versace. You know what? At the exact moment Gianni Versace was being buried, I was in one of his stores buying clothes.
É. You were sexy in Versace?
MT. Oh yeah. That’s the thing with Italian clothes. I was never into the baggy look, even when it was the fashion. I’ve always liked close-fitting clothes. I wanted to show off my body. My wife always brings it up. She’ll say, “Doesn’t that feel too tight, Mike?” Not at all. That’s how I like it.
É. Which is your favorite garment from the Versace era?
MT. In 1991, when the brand’s famous Pop Art collection came out, I bought a T-shirt with the faces of Marilyn Monroe and James Dean on it. I can’t have worn it more than five times. I didn’t want to risk damaging it or having it stolen.
É. You really worry about having things stolen. Who would even think of stealing from Mike Tyson?
MT. You know, at the height of my boxing career, people would do anything to steal my clothes. Wherever I went, especially parties, I’d have things stolen, like my tie, a bowtie, my jacket. People took advantage of me being drunk. In the end, I didn’t want to risk it anymore, so I’d even go out without a jacket on.
É. Did people sell the clothes?
MT. No, I think they wore them. I’ll tell you something: when I was at the top of my game, I really was the best-dressed guy in New York. I epitomized what people wanted to be. I was dressed the way they dreamed of dressing. No one was better than me, it wasn’t possible. So yeah, people wanted to wear my clothes.
É. And here you are this evening, dressed like any other tourist on a spree in Florida.
MT. I’m not interested in bling now. I don’t wear my old jewelry anymore. These days you see guys with several million dollars’ worth round their necks. I’m not going to put on my old rocks and look ridiculous next to them. On top of that, I’m incredibly clumsy. I’ve broken an unbelievable number of watches and pieces of jewelry in my life. I’ve dived into my pool with them or accidentally bashed them when I had them on my wrist. I’m a brute. These days I only wear my wedding ring. In the past, I was quite capable of dropping $20,000 on a jacket and $50,000 on a fur coat. I’m not crazy like that anymore. I don’t care about telling other people I’m the best because I’m wearing the most expensive stuff. I don’t even buy Versace now. My kids make fun of me, telling me I don’t know how to dress anymore. They think Michael Jackson and Prince dressed better than me. They kill me. But what do they know?
É. Do you think you’ve become normcore?
MT. What’s normcore?
É. It’s a dad style, quite ordinary, nothing but the basics.
MT. Man, that is absolutely not me. I was in Saudi Arabia just recently, and I treated myself to four Tom Ford suits there. I’m more reasonable nowadays, but I haven’t stopped being into fashion. Even now, in my houses in Las Vegas and Los Angeles, there’s nothing but clothes everywhere. When I do photo shoots, I always need to have an iron at hand, because you can’t wear an Italian suit with a creased shirt. I’ve gotten annoyed with my press officer a few times because I didn’t have an iron. All these beautiful clothes I still wear, they’re there to remind me why I fought so hard when I was young. I was traumatized that time I turned up at the party in Brooklyn covered in pigeon shit. I swore to myself that no one would ever laugh at me again.