Published January 06, 2011
PASADENA, Calif. – As a kid growing up in a bad Brooklyn neighborhood, Mike Tyson was fascinated by the pigeons that flocked around his apartment building.
The birds, considered a dirty nuisance to most people, were beautiful to him.
"The first thing I ever loved in my life — the pigeon," he said. "They're so much like people."
The former heavyweight champion reconnects with his childhood passion in "Taking on Tyson," a six-part docudrama that debuts March 6 on Animal Planet.
"This ain't no hobby," Tyson said Thursday at the Television Critics Association's winter meeting. "It's a cultural thing."
He keeps his pigeons at a coop in New Jersey, tended by Vinnie Torre, Tyson's pigeon trainer and a racer himself. The boxer takes pride in having his birds appear clean and healthy.
"If your pigeons are healthy," he said, "you must be a clean and healthy guy."
Asked by a New York-based reporter how to rid pesky pigeons from her windowsill, Tyson drew laughs when he replied, "We don't want those birds."
Just like in the worlds of horse racing and show dogs, the best pigeons are the most prized.
"We're dealing with the creme de la creme of the pigeon world," Tyson said. "You want the best bloodline and you want your name attached to the best bloodline so everyone wants to buy your birds."
Much to his wife's dismay, Tyson can spend hours at the coop, staring at the birds as they flap their wings and hop around.
"I'm trying to look for two dominant personalities I want to breed," he explained.
Tyson said he thinks the show will give him a chance to broaden the horizons of people who don't know anything about the birds that have given him solace in his tumultuous life.
"There's never been a case of anyone catching a deadly disease from a pigeon," he said.
Torre added, "They're actually the thoroughbreds of the sky."
"The pigeons are man's first feathered friends, before chickens," Tyson said. "They were money in ancient times."
Although he's a longtime pigeon fancier, Tyson is a novice at racing the birds. Typically, they begin racing a mile and build up to 500 miles or more, with owners monitoring vaccines, vitamins and medication given to the birds.
"There's nothing like seeing a bird coming home," said Helder Rodrigues, a competitive racer from New Jersey who appears in the show.
The show takes Tyson back to his childhood neighborhood and touches on what he calls his "pretty colorful past."
"There's going to be some interesting things about my past you're going to find out," he said.