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Tyson finally finds peace … as boxing ambassador

Before Thursday, the last time I spoke with Mike Tyson was 2006. He was coming off a defeat to an Irish guy named Kevin. This might be acceptable, I remember writing, if it happens in an alley behind a tavern after a long night of drinking. But in my world, The Baddest Man on the Planet, which is what they called Tyson in his no-socks, no-boxing-robe prime, does not lose fights to Irish guys named Kevin.

It was after a “workout” at the then-Aladdin during a regrettable endeavor called “Mike Tyson Training Camp” when the fighter, who must have weighed 300 pounds, would waddle around the ring and throw left hooks at imaginary opponents or whoever suggested he lower himself to such a demeaning level. Training camp? For what? A fight on the carnival circuit against a dancing bear? It was embarrassing, and Tyson was almost too embarrassed to talk about it.

This was Mountain Rivera wrestling Haystacks Calhoun in the final scene of “Requiem for a Heavyweight.” Where once you felt fear in Tyson’s presence, now you felt remorse. Or pity, which is worse.

“I’m not a fighter no more,” Tyson whispered. “I don’t even have a fighter’s license. I don’t have an ideology of a fighter.”

That’s the thing about Tyson. For all his brutishness, for all his lack of formal education, he’d drop a word like “ideology” on you, to remind you there was something more going on inside that thick skull even if it got all twisted up by his upbringing, his sport and the sycophants who tried to make a buck off his innate ability to drop a man with one punch. Or, in the case of Michael Spinks, just by looking at him.

Tyson was 40 then, and I remember thinking he’d be lucky to make 41. He got into drugs, got arrested again, tragically lost a child whom a lot of people probably didn’t know he had, because whereas Mike Tyson had a lot of kids by a lot of women, people didn’t keep track of that stuff, the important stuff, like they did his knockouts and how many sutures were required to close the wound on Evander Holyfield’s ear.

But now, he’s an ambassador to China. Apparently, the government isn’t comfortable with the loan agreement, and they’re sending Iron Mike to renegotiate.

Actually, he’s only a “boxing ambassador” to China, for a group that wants to start a professional circuit there. Tyson seemed as nonplused by the assignment as the reporters at the news conference.

“When I think of ambassadors, I think of living off government money and jetsetting with girlfriends,” he said before urging us to ask more questions about what a boxing ambassador does, because he was just as curious as we were.

Just another attempt to make a buck off his name? Perhaps. But my impression of the Chinese is that they are honorable people, and this time Mike might even get paid. And I will say this: He’s trying to be an ambassador, at least in the way Warren Beatty was trying to be Leo Farnsworth in “Heaven Can Wait,” when he went into a boardroom and described business strategy the way his character, a football quarterback, would.

“Don’t you people have altercations with the Japanese people from time to time? You get a Chinese guy to fight the evil Japanese guy. Just like in a kung fu movie,” Tyson explained, and darn if I didn’t nod my head.

Tyson was engaging and hilarious. He was stealing the scene, like in “The Hangover.” He seemed to be genuinely enjoying himself and this new lease on life, if that’s what you would call landing a small part in a wildly successful movie — he’s already signed on for “The Hangover II” — and an imminent boxing ambassadorship to China.

“I took myself too serious as a fighter,” Tyson said. “At this stage in my life, I’m making a living. I’m laughing, hopefully without making a joke of myself.”

It sort of reminds you of George Foreman’s transformation from angry, sullen man into lovable TV star and pitchman, with the difference being that whereas Big George reinvented himself, Iron Mike seems willing to let others do it for him.

Maybe it was only for a day, but it was good to see him laughing.

Maybe it was just the lighting, but the tattoo over his eye didn’t seem nearly as bizarre as it had before.

Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352.

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