He dropped to his knees, bent over, and kissed the beige carpet inside the headquarters for the Islamic Center of North America. With that, Mike Tyson made it from convict to convert. A half-hour after he walked out of the Indiana Youth Center on Saturday morning with unchained hands and unchallenged freedom, Tyson was joined in prayer by Muhammad Ali and Don King. The holy war over his body was won, but his soul was still up for grabs.
Tyson declared himself a Muslim by leaving prison in a white kufi at 6:15 a.m., sliding into a black limousine and leading hundreds of onlookers and reporters on a brief but wild chase through the frostbitten Indiana farmland. It ended at the mosque, where Tyson stepped out of the limousine and prayed for his salvation.
Four helicopters swirled above, more than a hundred supporters buzzed outside, and about 20 media types - allowed to observe without the assistance of tape recorders or cameras - watched in shoeless incredulity inside as Tyson, Ali, King and 50 or so others paid homage to Islam.
Tyson repeated verses in a special prayer of thanksgiving, but did not speak to the assembled media. Afterward, he met with Ali and other Muslims, then headed out the back door, prepared to begin the chartered journey to his Southington, Ohio, estate. Before Tyson disappeared for good behind the tinted windows, he waved to the adoring fans.
“We love you Mike,” they called back. Then he drove away from his rape conviction and toward another pot of gold. A helicopter clocked Tyson doing 110 mph on I-70.
“Islam embraces everybody,” said Raheem Pittman, a 15-year-old Muslim in attendance. “Mike Tyson is our brother now.”
But is Mike Tyson a changed man? The first step in rehabilitation is admission, and Tyson still maintains he didn’t rape Desiree Washington in the early hours of July 19, 1991. Three years of hard time did not soften that stance. It is something a kufi can’t hide.
The fans never cared, though. Some 10 hours and 200 miles removed from Michael Jordan’s homecoming for the ages, Tyson was made out to be an exiled king. Outside the prison, along U.S. 40, the banners carried only messages of encouragement. Four college freshmen from Decatur, Ill., said they made the 2 1/2-hour drive to witness the release because they pledged to do so once Tyson was found guilty on Feb. 10, 1992, of one count of rape and two counts of deviate sexual conduct.
“We always thought he was innocent,” said one of the freshmen. “What was that girl doing up in his room so late?”
Another in the group proudly displayed a T-shirt he bought for $10. “Tyson is Back!!!” it screamed on the front. “Now Justice Will Be Served,” it said on the back.
Tyson, a six-digit inmate, is going to become an eight-figure fighter. Meanwhile, Washington lives a cold, victim’s life in Providence, R.I. Is this justice? Is it right that Tyson was showered with celebrity visits while Washington was branded a liar and worse?
“Everybody is getting all excited about Mike Tyson fighting again and making all kinds of money,” said Myra Terry, president of the National Organization for Women’s New Jersey chapter. “And the woman he raped will never forget the way she was tortured. But that’s a problem with society, glorifying sports figures. This is something we deal with when we watch sports and root for the killer. ‘Kill, kill, kill.’ There’s a whole mentality that goes with that. The next step is, ‘Get her. Rape her.’ It isn’t that farfetched.”
Because an Indianapolis jury believed Tyson adopted this mentality, the Indiana Youth Center served as the media capital of the world Saturday. Reporters from across the country and England, Italy, Germany, France, Japan, Brazil, Russia and Norway gathered behind yellow crime-scene tape for an 8-second glimpse of Tyson. The parking lot in front of the prison’s administration building was littered with trucks and satellite dishes. Writers stood for hours in the 30-degree temperatures, choosing position over warmth.
With a bright quarter-moon suspended over the razor wire, with inmates staring through distant bars, with the local radio station taking Tyson requests in the final hours - “Freebird” was a popular choice - the event began to unfold at 5:30, when 10 Muslims arrived.
Twenty-two minutes later, King, Tyson’s co-managers, John Horne and Rory Holloway, and Tyson’s apparent love interest pulled in front of the jail’s main exit. King and his men paced nervously in the building’s foyer until Tyson was done with the paperwork. When he walked down the steps and toward the car, Tyson was surrounded and hidden. He sat in the back of the limo, led out by a police escort. The chase was on.
The cars flooded U.S. 40, using the four pursuing helicopters as tour guides. The word was Tyson was indeed going to pray, but nobody knew for sure. The streets were so clogged en route it had the look of that closing scene from “Field of Dreams.” As cops cut off traffic, motorists began leaving their cars and running toward the copters, running toward a mosque atop a grassy foothill.
Muhammad Siddeeq, a King backer and Muslim adviser to the Indiana Youth Center, directed the ceremony. Ali and Tyson prayed in the front row. Don King, sure to convert soon, worshipped from the row behind. When King bent over, he only appeared to be kissing Tyson’s feet.
The Baptists lost Tyson, who looked small and light after fasting through February in observance of Ramadhan. Muslim officials said they didn’t know whether Tyson planned to change his name, but maintained a change wasn’t necessary.
“You just saw the commitment,” said Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, former light-heavyweight champion and current Tyson confidant. “Islam is nothing new for Mike. He’s been committed to this for a long time.”
So has Ali, who didn’t speak but didn’t have to. On a 200-yard walk from the mosque to his Cadillac, Ali hugged three young boys, signed autographs and shadowboxed reporters. His body trembles from all the punches, but the eyes are still sharp. On Tyson’s day, he drew the bigger crowd. On Tyson’s day, he delivered sunshine through the clouds.
But even Ali could not make the day right. He might have told Tyson about his own three-year ban, the result of his refusal to be inducted into the Army during Vietnam. He might have informed Tyson that, at age 28, he came back to win the title.
Yet he might have also told Tyson that the Supreme Court reversed his conviction in 1971. Tyson will be granted no such luck.
Still, when Tyson landed in his private jet and made his way home, there were more displays of support outside the gates. “O.J. Your Welcome Here, Too,” one ungrammatical sign read. Another carried this message: “Champ We Miss You.”
Tyson was gone for a very good reason, and that cannot ever be forgotten. He was not on sabbatical. He committed a violent crime, one that may have destroyed a promising life. He has a criminal record that starts at age 12. He has four years of probation to negotiate.
“Don’t expect him to step out and be an angel,” Siddeeq said. “But his intent, his concern and his effort is moving in a very positive and progressive manner.”
Not that it matters. Folks just want to see Tyson fight and are willing to pay big money for the privilege.
“This whole Nike idea that Michael Jordan is the most recognizable athlete in the world is rubbish,” said one English journalist dispatched to Plainfield. “You take a picture of Michael Jordan to the average English village and they wouldn’t have any idea who he was. You take a picture of Mike Tyson to the average English village and you get instant recognition.”
Tyson gave his prison instant recognition, one it can live without. When he was called from his cell for the last time, Tyson shook hands with Phil Slavens, the associate superintendent, and told him he never wanted to return. “Thank you for being fair,” the fighter said.
This was no admission of guilt, but it was a start. Another celebrity in attendance Saturday, Hammer, claimed these were the sounds of the new Tyson.
“He’s coming out a tougher man, a better man, a wiser man and a more spiritual man,” Hammer said.
But is he truly a changed man? That answer cannot be found under a kufi or inside a mosque, but in the heart. The Muslims won the war for Mike Tyson’s body. Only Mike Tyson can win the war for his soul.