By Scoop Malinowski
Mike Tyson suddenly strides into the room with the similar energy to how he walked to the ring, chin slightly tucked, walking with a purpose. His presence immediately arrests your attention. He took a few quick glances around, noticing the paintings and sketches of Reggie Jackson, Secretariat, and Marilyn Monroe, as well as a large black and white profile photo portrait of LeRoy Neiman, before pausing and then kneeling at the flower-covered casket of the beloved artist.
Tyson had been friends with Neiman for over two decades. Neiman always adored Tyson, always spoke favorably of him, even in the toughest of times. He went to visit him in Indianapolis. Tyson also visited Neiman in his studio on W. 67th Street in New York City, when he could.
Tyson, who arrived with his longtime friend Mario Costa, stayed at the wake for over two hours, paying his respects and talking with old friends like Ali associate Gene Kilroy, New York Times columnist Dave Anderson, Neiman assistant Lynn Quayle, “When We Were Kings” director Leon Gast. He also made some new friends, chatting with admirers and taking pictures.
Reverend Leo O’Donovan then initiated the eulogy segment and Tyson voluntarily stepped up first and offered this spontaneous verbal essay:
“I was 13 or 14 when I saw LeRoy Neiman on TV sketching at a fight. I said, ‘There’s the man with the white suit.’ That’s what people said, ‘There’s the man with the white suit.’ The man with the mustache. Looking so sophisticated. I said to myself, ‘Someday when I’m a great fighter, I’d like him to paint me.’ Years later I was invited to go to his studio to spend the whole day, after I was in jail. I spend the whole afternoon there. He would always see me and give me a hug and love, even at the time when most people were against me. He always respected me and made me feel good, when a lot of people hated me.”
After the Wake ended in the late afternoon on Sunday, Tyson was driven to Jersey City, NJ where he enjoyed a bean and rice soup dinner at Costa’s Ringside Lounge which is located on Route 1 & 9. He’s a vegan now, he wants to stay healthy so he can be there for his kids, he told me. We talk about numerous other subjects, like the Toback movie, Roberto Duran, Jiro Watanabe, Gustavo Ballas.
I told Tyson that Duran had told me that Tyson was at Madison Square Garden for the Duran-Moore fight in 1983. Tyson remembers it, saying that he was 17 then and boxing was his entire life back then, he was chanting “Duran, Duran, Duran! from the high up seats. Tyson also told me that he used to go to Duran’s favorite New York City hangout – Victor’s Cafe in midtown – to see the place where one of his favorite fighters spent time and hoping to run into him there. Tyson would go there even after he became champion. He said he finally met Duran before the Michael Spinks fight and gave his hero a ticket that night. I told Tyson that Duran had told me that you asked how would be the quickest way to finish Spinks and Duran answered, “Punch him to the body, hook to the body.” And Tyson followed Duran’s instructions, knocking out Spinks in the first round.
We talked about Duran-Leonard and Tyson said he only remembers two dates in boxing history – June 20, 1980 which when Duran-Leonard I took place, and also October 2, 1980, the night of Ali-Holmes. Tyson stated that those are the only two boxing dates he remembers, he doesn’t even remember the dates for his own signature ring moments.
The conversations free flowed. Tyson mentioned other lesser known fighters he loved back in the day – Jiro Watanabe of Japan, Gustavo Ballas of Argentina, Hilario Zapata of Panama. He watched them all, studied all the fighters he could.
A young Latina girl politely asked Mike while in the middle of the meal, if she could ask please for a photo with him, apologizing for asking while he was eating. She was so nice about it, and Mike wasn’t bothered in the least, he turned around and took the photo with her, and then resumed the meal and conversation. He and Mario suggested I add some red tabasco sauce to the soup to give it a little extra kick.
After we finished the fantastic soup, Mike went out around the back to see his pigeons which are housed in a coup on the property of Mario Costa. I was told Mike spent hours there on Saturday afternoon.
Then Tyson had to take a ride out to Long Island, he’s doing something to promote MMA. We said goodbye and maybe we’ll get to hang out again some time.
I remembered a quote LeRoy Neiman once gave me about Tyson: “So powerful and vulnerable at the same time. I’ve never known anyone who ever talked with or knew Mike that didn’t have good things to say about him. Add me to that discriminating list. There was only one Dempsey, one Muhammad Ali, one Joe Louis, each his own man. So too, only one Mike Tyson.”
RIP LeRoy Neiman 1921-2012.