Video by Neil Harley
Along a strip of roadway on Tonnelle Avenue in Jersey City, N.J., a gritty neighborhood that is home to numerous auto body shops and industrial complexes, also lays claim to a bird sanctuary that helped save the life of former heavyweight champion, Mike Tyson.
Located behind the Ringside Lounge and Boxing gym, which is owned by long-time Tyson friend, Mario Costa Jr., stands a white, two-story pigeon coop, that houses between 600-800 birds, including rollers, Canadians and homing pigeons. A free standing, wooden door that is etched with the words, “Tyson’s Corner,” proudly announces that this is Mike’s home away from home. In addition to having coops in Jersey City, Tyson also has birds in Brooklyn and Las Vegas.
“The pigeons were with him even before he became a fighter,” said Costa, who was born in Portugal, before settling in New Jersey. “Those were his first friends.”
Costa, a long-time boxing enthusiast, first met Tyson in the early 1980s through his fight world connections. At the time, a young Tyson was living in the Catskills, N.Y., with Cus D’Amato and Camille Ewald, his lifelong companion, a few miles from a boxing gym where the legendary promoter and trainer groomed young fighters. Like Tyson, Cus had a number of pigeons on his property – a hobby Tyson first found solace in within the rough and tumble streets of Brownsville, Brooklyn.
Last March, Animal Planet debuted a six-part series on Tyson and his love of birds in a show called, Taking on Tyson, which also featured Costa.
“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 told Animal Planet. “Pigeons are a part of my life. It’s a constant with my sanity in a weird way; this is just what I do. If I’m lucky enough to die an old man, I’m going to have birds.”
Despite Tyson’s ups and downs both inside and outside the ring one thing is certain, the pigeons have always been a constant in his life. According to Costa, every time Tyson is in the New York area, he pays the Ringside a visit to check on his birds and to visit one of his oldest friends, Costa.
Mass Appeal: Mike was into pigeons even before he became a boxer, that’s going way back.
Mario: His first fight was over a pigeon. One of the kids in the neighborhood ripped the head off one of his pigeons and then he had his first fight. After that, he always had birds. He always had birds in these abandoned buildings and when he went to the Catskills, Cus [D’Amato] had a coop and he would always be with the pigeons there. When Camille [Ewald] and Cus passed away, that’s when I went up to the Catskills and I brought the birds here. We have the original doors, the bunks and the stands and things from the Catskills. The coops are almost identical to the coops in the Catskills.
How long did it take to build the coops?
M: We had to build them quickly. There was a time when Mike lost everything. He would come here and this would be the only thing that made him feel good. Every time he is in New York he comes here because it makes him feel good and he reminisces about the old days. The fancy ones [Ed. Note: fancy birds are the domesticated types, shown at exhibits, like show dogs.] that Mike likes are the flights and the Canadians and the rollers – the ones that fly and roll [Ed. Note: another domesticated bird, yet this type is skilled in acrobatic rolling in-flight.]
What is your relationship with these birds? How do they make you feel taking care of them?
M: When I was young, my father had homing pigeons. I love to be around these birds and it’s something to keep me busy. Sometimes the stress with the job and the business – you go up to the coop and you relax for a little bit, which is good. It’s nice to get away in the back. It’s a little paradise here.
How much love to do you have for showing people a gentler side of Mike?
M: You know, ever since I’ve known Mike I’ve known his gentler side. Sometimes people had the wrong perception of him. Being in the fight game, you always have to be brutal – you have to be an animal. That’s the nature of the game. I’ve always known Mike to have a softer side to him, because he always respected Camille Ewald, who raised Mike. Mike cared for her until the day she died. When he was in jail, he always called her at night to say goodnight. She was like his mom.
You’ve known him for a long time, you saw him on the way up and the way down. How did the birds help to mellow him out after he lost his freedom, all that money and people around him?
M: The truth is sometimes hard to believe. There was this one time where he lost everything and he was dropped off here at seven in the morning and he called me and asked me to meet him at the coop. He had absolutely nothing. He had no money, phone or jewelry on. He showed up in a T-shirt, shorts and had flip-flops on. He had absolutely nothing. It was a nice day and it was sunny. We went in the yard with the birds. He sat in the chair and he slept for two hours. He woke up and starting talking. I thought he was dreaming, but he was talking and saying, “I’m rich. I’m rich.” He said, “I have no money, I have nothing, but I feel rich.” Then he went to explain when he had the houses, five or six cars, lawyers, promoters, managers and all the money, he never had peace. At that moment with the birds, he was at peace and wanted to forget the past.
The pigeon game is an old-school hobby. Are people who have been involved in this happy that Tyson is giving it some attention on TV?
M: Since we’ve been on Animal Planet and people know Mike is interested and loves birds, he’s created a big interest in the pigeon world. A lot of guys will call me and want to give us their birds from other parts of the world. Just the other day, we got birds from California and from all over the world. I think people in the game are happy that Mike is involved in this. Mike has a real love for these birds – he’s always loved them, ever since he was little.