Meet Mike Tyson, pigeon fancier.
Yes, the man once known as “the baddest man on the planet” is now the bird man of Jersey City, N.J., a pigeon enthusiast challenging other like-minded pigeon people, members of an elite community in and around the New York area, to race their flocks against his in “Taking on Tyson,” his new Animal Planet reality series premiering Sunday night at 10/9c.
Tyson, 44, has maintained coops of pet pigeons since he was a boy growing up in one of the rougher neighborhoods of Brooklyn, N.Y, where rooftop pigeon houses have long been a part of the urban skyscape (among the most famous pigeon keepers in pop-culture history was Marlon Brando’s character in “On the Waterfront,” a washed-up boxer who found solace among his own pigeons in Brooklyn’s Red Hook section).
Today, Tyson’s pigeons reside on a rooftop in Jersey City, part of a block of properties – including a boxing gym – owned by a long-time pal. This friend, the cigar-smoking Mario Costa, is one of the “cast” members of “Taking on Tyson,” along with other friends and pigeon experts who have joined with Iron Mike to take on other local pigeon clubs in pigeon-homing races.
Comprising just six one-hour episodes, “Taking on Tyson” (narrated by actor Michael Kenneth Williams of “Boardwalk Empire” and “The Wire”) is no ordinary reality series. For one thing, it’s filmed so beautifully that you’re likely to look at pigeons in a whole new way (other than pesky scavengers living off crumbs dropped by humans).
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And unlike most American TV shows, this one is the subject of intense interest from media around the world, where “Taking on Tyson” will debut over the next few weeks and months. Tyson is so famous internationally that a news conference held in a hotel meeting room in lower Manhattan on Friday drew nearly 60 members of the foreign press, many of whom flew in from nearly every continent just to ask him a few questions.
The group, which included xfinitytv.com, learned that Tyson was drawn to pigeons at around age 11, as a lonely boy who gravitated toward the birds as a way of escaping the bullies who bedeviled him at school.
“You bond with the bird,” Tyson said, struggling to explain the hold this lifelong hobby has on him. As the foreign reporters asked him questions about his life today, you got the feeling that this series represents his attempt to show the softer side of a man who has put the violence of boxing behind him in favor of a less-stressful life devoted to God.
“I love all God’s creation,” said Tyson, now a peace-loving Muslim who was once so fearsome that he used to threaten to punch his opponents with such force that their noses would pop out the backs of their heads (which they very nearly did).
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He said he’s been an animal-lover all his life, once owning a tiger that knocked out one of his teeth with a head butt. “Before I was asked to be part of the team, I always watched Animal Planet. I love animals – even the ones that don’t love me,” he said, adding that he said yes to “Taking on Tyson” primarily for the paycheck. “Somebody [from Animal Planet] offered me some money,” he said. “I thought it was crazy [for someone to make a TV show about pigeon enthusiasts]. “We’re grown men braggin’ about pigeons! I didn’t think anyone would be interested in this kind of stuff.
“I look at life from a different perspective now,” he said, revealing how religion, philosophy and therapy has helped exorcise his demons. In fact, after taking a number of questions about boxing, he asked the group to get back on the subject of pigeons. “We’re talking about birds here,” he said. “I hate boxing!”
Now, he says he’s able to laugh at himself, which is why he delights in participating in comedy bits such as the one he filmed for Jimmy Kimmel’s post-Oscar show recently – a spoof of “The King’s Speech” in which Tyson played a speech coach working with President George W. Bush. “I want to entertain people,” he said, adding that he’d like to take up acting. He said he loved appearing in the 2009 Ed Helms/Bradley Cooper film comedy “The Hangover,” in which he played himself.
He was so relaxed at the news conference that he good-naturedly answered a question from an Italian journalist who asked him if it bothers him – as a pigeon fancier and as a vegan – when he sees people eating squab (a baby pigeon). “Before I was a vegan I used to go to Mr. Chow’s to eat that squab appetizer – that was off the hook!” Tyson said.
With his new show, Tyson hopes to shed some light on the obscure sport of pigeoning. “I look forward to broadening the horizons of pigeon fanciers around the world,” he said.
“Taking on Tyson” premieres Sunday, March 6, at 10/9c on Animal Planet.