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Here he is now, the Baddest Man on the Planet, back again and almost ready for the glare of television cameras on a May afternoon in New York City. Foundation sits fresh on his cheeks. A black smock is lashed tight around that old cinder block of a neck, guarding his pin-striped 52-long from errant powder. Soon he is greeted by the waves of gentle cooing, more flattering even than what is showered on the adorable Milan, playing peek-a-boo in a corner of ABC's studio while waiting for Dad to sit down with the ladies of The View. Look at you, champ! You're so thin! You look great!
The appearance is pegged to Tyson's forthcoming reality show on Animal Planet, Taking on Tyson, on which he will engage in one of his old passions (pigeon breeding). But, really, this is just one sliver of a vast marketing and fund-raising campaign. By his own calculations, Tyson admits, he is "totally broke." And so you may have recently seen him in the The Hangover, or on Saturday Night Live, or at a film festival in Kazakhstan, or starring in an eponymous documentary by James Toback (Tyson), or on Ballando con le Stelle, the Italian version of Dancing with the Stars, with more still to come: a cameo on Entourage, naturally. Most of those cameos were pitched to him too, the monster now something of a jester, if not an easy laugh for a filmmaker or show host.
Even on The View, his relatively serious interview will be followed by the stunningly unserious: a "bra makeover" for full-figured women, comedian David Brenner and a surprise guest—Elmo from Sesame Street, with whom Mike, Milan and cohost Whoopi Goldberg pose backstage. Can we have a photo with Mike and Elmo? Come on, Whoopi, get in there! All the chatter is halted by a question: Wait ... you're a vegetarian? "No," Tyson replies, and then he carefully enunciates what he says next. "I'm a vegan."
This part is no joke. Six months earlier, Tyson later explains, he'd run into former All-Star outfielder Eric Davis in Los Angeles. Mike, mind you, had no idea if Davis, then 47, had ever been a vegan. But "Eric was so immaculately built and looked so awesome that he inspired me," Tyson says. "I said, I'm going to go home and I'm going to stop." Eating, that is. Everything. "For every meal it was tomato-basil soup," Kiki confirms, most often served with Mike's new drink of choice, chamomile tea. After three happy weeks of this diet Tyson would declare, "Baby, maybe I'll be a vegan."
Tyson has since welcomed saltines, broccoli, rice, soy patties and baked potatoes, and never looked back. The change in his physical activity was similarly drastic: He would go to sleep at around 7 p.m., wake at 3 a.m., "walk around the neighborhood" for 180 minutes and then, in sets of 25 reps, complete his daily regimen of 1,500 total punches and arm extensions with 10-pound weights in each hand. At around 5 a.m., usually, Kiki arose, and they drove to the gym together two hours later.
And so it goes today. While the two also have dinner dates and play Trivial Pursuit and see movies, they strive for "boring," in Mrs. Tyson's words. Why? Boring is safe. Boring is healthy. And, yes, boring is avoiding the Strip and exercising whenever possible. The couple celebrated their first anniversary in June, and the moment underscored how much had changed from Mike's premarital schedule of near-nonstop clubbing, drinking and cocaine. "I'd have weeks without sleep," he says. "I'd just get 10 minutes of rest and be ready to go again."
Sesame Street's audience, in other words, was not his target demographic. "I was a junkie," Tyson says, his voice frothed with contempt. "I wanted to die. I hated living. You have no idea what kind of person I was on the street." The most recent charge in his lengthy police file provides one hint: In 2007 Tyson was sentenced to 24 hours in jail and three years' probation after pleading guilty to cocaine possession and driving under the influence in Arizona, where two of his children with an ex-girlfriend lived.
And yet such punishment still wasn't why he could suddenly muster a level of self-control that shocked everyone around him. No, none of Tyson's current discipline could hold without a tragic return to Arizona last spring.
Everyone hated Nietzsche," he is saying, standing in the kitchen of his $3 million Nevada home, mouth recently vacated of saltines. "Everyone associated [Nietzsche's concept of the] Overman with Nazism. But the Overman is a superior being only because he's supposed to endure everything a society has to give to him, and still he stands tall and absorbs it and he's a decent man and still hasn't hurt anybody."
Tyson's erudition aside, his critique of Nietzsche seems a sincere vision of a superhero that was sparked on May 26, 2009. Mike was with Kiki that day when he got a call: His four-year-old daughter (from an earlier relationship), Exodus, had stopped breathing. She'd been playing on a treadmill, Phoenix police explained, and her neck had caught in a cord dangling off the machine. "Something's wrong with my baby!" was all Mike could say, repeating the phrase over and over. He jumped on a plane to see her at St. Luke's Medical Center in Arizona; TV crews watched him wander the hospital in a daze. He could do nothing. The next day Exodus was dead.