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Older 'Iron Mike' shows some surprising sides

I didn't know exactly what to expect from Mike Tyson.

I was in my teenage years during his wheelhouse time in the heavyweight division, and I've heard all the arguments from those in my generation who either rate him very high -- or significantly less so -- on the list of the division's all-time greats.

Of course, bundled with his menacing in-ring hit parade on the ESPN, ABC and HBO broadcasts of my youth, I also had a televised front-row seat for the instances where the man-child's off-hours behavior strayed quite a ways closer to one extreme than the other.

An allegation here, an arrest there, an ear bite here, an "I want to eat his children" interview there; it was all par for the course for "Iron Mike" back then, and I have to admit it left me questioning exactly what direction a solo interaction with him might take.

Would I get remnants of the angry young man from the '90s, the goofy cameo guy from The Hangover of a few years back or the renaissance raconteur from the last several months whose name has been attached to stage shows, documentaries, and, in his latest incarnation, a promotional company?

Turns out I got a little of all of them.

To be sure, Mike was intermittently vulgar with F-bombs, borderline silly when discussing weather in the Nevada desert and every bit a salesman when discussing the success that'd surely follow Friday night's debut TV card at Iron Mike Productions. If he had a script, it seemed, he'd memorized his lines.

But the more we chatted, the more the whole exceeded the sum of its parts.

Because, in addition to what anyone would have anticipated from a hyper- publicized persona with an agenda, he was also humble, introspective and almost shockingly honest -- three adjectives I'd not have figured I'd be needing when it came to a Tuesday interview post-mortem.

"My daughter was dead and there was nothing I could do about it," Tyson calmly replied, when asked to recall a bottoming-out point from which his subsequent -- and by anyone's measure, stunning -- comeback began. "I was high on cocaine. And I remember telling myself I need to just stop and try to figure this all out. I said to myself, if I just get an opportunity to put this behind me, I'll take it.

"I never would have expected it in a million years. We've all got God making plans for us, and I'm just very grateful for the life I have now. I try to convey my appreciation every day."

It was one of about 25 times he used the word "grateful" in a 15-minute chat. And had you told me beforehand that I'd have even asked the question of a guy whose sneer had routinely given grown men conniptions, I'd have suggested an immediate intervention.

But once we'd talked for 10 minutes and he'd given me answers similar to that one, I was so much at ease that I'd forgotten who I was talking to. In fact, were it not for the occasional unmistakable aside, I'd have never believed it was the same guy once billed as "the baddest man on the planet."

"Being 'Iron' Mike Tyson was a lot of work, a lot of (expletive deleted) work," he said laughing, giving thumbs-up to the notion that it's fun being him these days. "Do I enjoy being just Mike Tyson better? Hell yeah. 'Iron' Mike Tyson was crazy. I had to be ready to kill someone just for saying hi to me. This is a lot better life."

And, at the risk of condescending, he's turned into a lot better man.

As a younger guy and strictly a boxing fan, I neither understood nor sympathized with the plights of Tyson's youth -- which was more difficult on every level than mine. Now, as an older guy with a son and some dings and dents from living, I can appreciate the fact that he's come from a low place and gotten to a high one. It's commendable as a human being, regardless of the viewpoint on his ring skills.

Nice job, champ. After all these years, you've got yourself a new fan.

This week's title-fight schedule:

FRIDAY

IBF junior lightweight title -- Verona, N.Y.

Argenis Mendez (champion) vs. Arash Usmanee (No. 13 contender)

Mendez (21-2, 11 KO): First title defense; Six straight wins in the United States

Usmanee (20-1, 10 KO): First title fight; Fifth fight in United States (3-1)

Fitzbitz says: "It wouldn't look good for the Iron Mike conglomerate to have their incumbent champion get beat in their first Friday night TV card, so don't expect it to happen here." Mendez by decision

SATURDAY

WBC featherweight title -- Carson, Calif.

Abner Mares (champion) vs. Jhonny Gonzalez (No. 2 contender)

Mares (26-0-1, 14 KO): First title defense; Six straight wins in title fights

Gonzalez (54-8, 46 KO): Fourteenth title fight (9-4); Held titles at 122 (WBO) and 126 (IBO, WBC)

Fitzbitz says: "Looks like a nice matchup on paper, but Gonzalez was handled by the guy from whom Mares took the title, so it shouldn't be more than an exciting victory for the incumbent." Mares in 10

WBC super bantamweight title -- Carson, Calif.

Victor Terrazas (champion) vs. Leo Santa Cruz (No. 1 contender)

Terrazas (37-2-1, 21 KO): First title defense; Eleven straight wins since 2010

Santa Cruz (24-0-1, 14 KO): Fifth title fight (4-0); Ninth fight above 118- pound limit (8-0)

Fitzbitz says: "Santa Cruz is a nice TV fighter, throws combinations, works the body. But he doesn't punch exceptionally hard, which makes his work difficult. Still, he gets it done." Santa Cruz by decision

WBO junior bantamweight title -- Trelew, Argentina

Omar Narvaez (champion) vs. Hiroyuki Hisataka (No. 15 contender)

Narvaez (39-1-2, 20 KO): Eighth title defense; Held WBO title at 112 pounds (2002-09, 16 defenses)

Hisataka (22-10-1, 10 KO): Fourth title fight (0-3); Sixth fight outside Japan (1-4)

Fitzbitz says: "Challenger has come up decidedly short in each of three previous title-level opportunities, and his foe this time has lost one championship fight in 11 years. Do the math." Narvaez by decision

NOTE: Fights previewed are only those involving a sanctioning body's full- fledged title-holder -- no interim, diamond, silver, etc. Fights for WBA "world championships" are only included if no "super champion" exists in the weight class.

Last week's picks: 0-4

2013 picks record: 46-29 (61.3 percent)

Overall picks record: 509-181 (73.7 percent)

Lyle Fitzsimmons is a veteran sports columnist who's written professionally since 1988 and covered boxing since 1995. His work is published in print and posted online for clients in North America and Europe. Reach him at fitzbitz@msn.com or follow him on Twitter: @fitzbitz.