LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Long before Mike Tyson became a world champion heavyweight boxer, he threw his first punch over a pigeon.
In fact, Tyson says, pigeons were his first love as a bullied kid on the tough streets of Brooklyn, and later on, birds gave him a sense of peace and tranquility before and after some of his most bruising professional fights.
Now, the man nicknamed “Iron Mike” for his ferocious boxing style is sharing that passion and showing a gentler side of himself in “Taking on Tyson”, a six-part documentary starting on the Animal Planet cable TV channel on Sunday, March 6.
“The first thing I ever loved in my life was a pigeon. I don’t know why...I feel ridiculous trying to explain it,” Tyson, 44, says in the documentary.
“Pigeons are part of my life. It’s a constant with my sanity in a weird way; this is just what I do. If I am lucky enough to die an old man. I’m going to have birds.”
“Taking on Tyson” is part reflection on a life that has scaled the heights of boxing and the lows of prison, and part glimpse into the sub-culture of competitive pigeon racing.
“I love pigeons and I thought (the TV series) would broaden the horizons of people who are not knowledgeable about pigeons,” Tyson told Reuters.
Tyson, who declared bankruptcy in 2003 and retired from professional boxing in 2006, has 2,500 birds in various locations. He had never raced them before, but set his sights on becoming a world champion in pigeon racing with all the determination he once brought to boxing.
“You gotta train every day, you gotta prepare. Just like a fight, you gotta prepare or you’re not going to do well at all,” he said of the regime for his pigeons.
“But you can have all the training in the world and it all comes down to the tenacity of the birds, their perseverance, and the will to win.”
The TV series focuses on the 300 racing pigeons in his “Tyson’s Corner” pigeon coop, next to the gym where he once trained for his most famous bouts in the ring.
For non-pigeon enthusiasts, the documentary also takes Tyson back to the places where he grew up, without a father and with a mother who died when he was 16 years-old.
He recalls that his first fight, at age 11, was with an older boy who pulled the head off one of his pigeons. By 13, he had been arrested multiple times for fighting and for petty crimes, and he was sent to juvenile detention.
The TV portrait paints a picture of Tyson that is far removed from the boxer who notoriously bit off part of Evander Holyfield’s ear in a 1997 heavyweight bout, or the man who served three years in prison for rape in the early 1990s.
Tyson says he is trying to “outprogram” himself from the crazy, out-of-control person he once was, and is humbler now. He has been writing poetry, and will share one piece “with a deep personal meaning” in the April edition of Oprah Winfrey’s “O” magazine.
But what will his boxing fans make of Mike Tyson, pigeon fancier?
“I don’t know what people are going to think,’ he said. “The guys that fly pigeons are not the daintiest people in the world. They are pretty aggressive.”
Elsewhere, Tyson recently filmed another cameo as himself in the upcoming “Hangover” movie sequel, and is due to play an alien in the 2012 release “Men in Black III”.
There could be more to come. “I’m going to give acting a try and see what happens. I’d like to try acting on stage — comedy, drama, anything. I could do ‘Othello’,” he said, referring to Shakespeare’s tragedy about a jealous lover.
“I know Othello pretty well.”
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte