This story covers Mike Tyson and his cannabis company, Tyson Holistic.
5-MeO-DMT, produced by the Colorado River Toad, and described as a “rocketship” compared to the “riverboat” of the DMT found in ayahuasca, is discussed (and “of course” Mike “smokes the toad”).
The article continues on to describe Mike Tyson’s personal evolution and the important role cannabis and other natural remedies have played for him and others around him.
The development of Tyson Ranch, focused on cannabis, and including a hotel, retail, glamping facilities, an amphitheater, and a university for cannabis education is reviewed in depth.
Around five in the morning, Mike Tyson opens his eyes, reaches for his lighter, sparks a joint, runs for an hour on the treadmill, showers, dresses, kisses the kids, kisses the wife, and eats some oatmeal, egg whites, and broccoli while he waits for the car that will take him to the office. The office is where blessings come into his life.
The office is a converted redbrick warehouse in El Segundo, California. It's located a few minutes from the airport, on a blank commercial strip across the street from a sprawling Chevron refinery. If you approach it via surface roads, you pass buildings bearing the names of the aerospace companies that transformed California in the 20th century—Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin—the way the booming cannabis industry is transforming it today.
You will soon forget this, though, because something crazy is almost always happening at Mike Tyson's office. You never know who will come around the corner, through the big roll-up garage door. Sean Penn came by one day, and Roseanne, too. One day, one of the creators of He-Man came in for a general meeting. He is now a professional inventor and wanted to see if Mike Tyson and his partners needed anything invented. When the inventor asked a room full of people including Mike Tyson if they remembered He-Man, Mike Tyson said, “Yeah, love that,” and then, by way of explaining what he loved about it, added, “Skeletor.”
The company that Mike Tyson and his partners are running out of this office is called Tyson Holistic. Ostensibly it's a marijuana company, one of more than 10,000 new businesses launched since California voted to legalize recreational pot in 2016—one more purple-green bud in a superbloom of weed start-ups. Taxation, community opposition, and a byzantine regulatory environment have slowed the state's evolution into a pothead paradise. But recreational weed is still projected to be a $4 billion-plus business in California by 2025, at which time legal marijuana is expected to be generating nearly $150 billion globally. Tyson Holistic is angling for a piece of that, putting Mike Tyson's brand on jars of Purple Punch and KO Kush, expanding into CBD dog treats and a hemp-oil-enhanced muscle rub. But Tyson Holistic is also a kind of magnet, an open door to new ideas and new ways of making money, and there are many of those, here in California after the green rush.
It's good for Mike Tyson to be in a place like this. Stabilizing. He comes in, checks out some meetings, checks on some deals, smokes a few joints. Possibly he will fall asleep in a chair in the back room, under a giant black-and-white photograph of himself surveying an expanse of desert where he will someday build the weed resort of the future, a project we'll get to in a moment. Usually he goes home at five o'clock to hang out with the family, maybe watch a little YouTube. But some days when Mike Tyson goes into the office in El Segundo, things happen to him that have never happened before.
One day a man named Dr. Gerry came by the office, to be Mike Tyson's guest on what ended up being the first episode of Mike's new podcast, an interview show called Hotboxin' with Mike Tyson. Dr. Gerry's real name is Gerardo Sandoval. He's a gynecologist and obstetrician originally from Guadalajara, Mexico, and an evangelist for the spiritually and psychologically transformative properties of a substance called 5-MeO-DMT, said to be the most powerful entheogen in existence—an express elevator to cosmic consciousness.
5-MeO-DMT is produced in large amounts by Bufo alvarius, a rare species of toad commonly known as the Colorado river toad or the Sonoran desert toad. When preyed upon, the toad secretes a venom that repels predators by causing them to, in scientific terms, trip balls.Psychonauts discovered that you can milk the toads' venom, dry it out, and smoke it. The substance's close relative, DMT, is an active ingredient in the traditional shamanic brew known as ayahuasca, but what they say about smoking the toad is that it's like riding a rocket to the same place of total ego death that ayahuasca takes you to by riverboat.
So Dr. Gerry sat in the podcast studio at the Tyson Holistic office and explained the toad to Tyson and his co-host, Eben Britton, who is a former NFL lineman turned cannabis advocate, with a canyon-deep Tony Robbins voice. Dr. Gerry told Mike Tyson that smoking the toad was “like freebase jumping into the heart of God and coming back, in just 20 minutes.” Mike Tyson sat calmly and listened. Then he went into another room with Dr. Gerry and smoked the toad.
Of course he did. There was never a chance that he would not smoke the toad. Dr. Gerry had him at So there's this weird thing, and you can smoke it.
“You have to look at it from my perspective,” Mike Tyson says, months later. “I'm going into this situation thinking I've seen everything. I had done some heavy drugs. I'd done acid before. So I'm thinking, Give me that stuff. Let me check this out.”
So Mike Tyson heated up the toad venom in a little glass pipe. And what was clear almost instantly was that smoking the toad was not like doing other drugs. It was nothing like that. Tyson found himself in another dimension, moving fast, scared to death. He thought about his wife and his kids, how they didn't know where he was or what he'd just done to himself.
“I was just freaking out,” Tyson says. “I don't wanna do this no more. I want it to stop. Too late. Couldn't stop. I thought, I fucked up. Oh, shit. I fucked up. What was I trying to prove? I'm dead. I'm dead. It's over. My whole life. Boom. My life is gone. I took these fucking drugs and it killed me. There's no way I'm gonna survive this.”
But then the fear began to pass. Mike Tyson began experiencing beautiful things. He stood outside his own life and saw it stretched out in linear time, a continuum of Mikes coming and going. He saw Aztec symbols, bizarre pyramids, people who had died.
“It's almost like you die and you're reborn,” Tyson says.
He was happy, and he laughed in the room with Dr. Gerry, and when he came back to the podcast studio, he looked like he'd been crying. Dr. Gerry said he watched Tyson experience an outpouring of powerful emotions there in the room: “I basically witnessed Mike releasing all things that we carry.” When Tyson took the toad, he'd been struggling with that burden for a while. These days he's mostly sober, except for the weed he smokes pretty much all the time. When he met Dr. Gerry, he was in active relapse, in the grip of old habits. “I always had my cocaine, my alcoholism,” he'd say later. “That was my main stuff. My cocaine and my alcohol. And my sex addiction. Sleeping with strangers and stuff. It just all goes together.”
In the wake of the toad experience, though, all that feels like it's finally behind him in a way it's never been before. It feels like so many things are finally behind him.
“And I did it three times,” he says, laughing. “I stayed there. I had to do it again. What the hell? I wanted to go back.”
Mike Tyson at work in his El Segundo office.
If you had gone to visit Tyson Holistic in El Segundo even a few months earlier, you might have met a different Mike Tyson than the one hanging out there now.
One day last spring, a different Mike Tyson walked into a different Tyson Holistic office—a smaller one that they have since outgrown. He was wearing a black suit and a white shirt with no tie. A room full of guests had come to hear Tyson and a group of athletes, doctors, and businessmen talk about cannabis in sports medicine. Many of the guests were sports reporters, who were all dressed the same. When they stood together talking and eating Togo's sandwiches from the catering table, it looked like an open audition for the role of a guy in a blue shirt and tan pants.
The guest speakers took their seats in a semicircle of couches at the far end of the room. Tyson made his way to a leather cigar-club armchair at the 12 o'clock point. Once he sat down, he looked like he'd fallen into the chair from a great height and wasn't sure he wouldn't fall further. He gripped the chair's arms with big yet strangely delicate-seeming hands. His nails were long and buffed shiny. His black socks were transparent. The reflection of a fluorescent light bounced off his bald head. Eben Britton asked him to say a few words.
“Hello, everybody,” he said. “My name is Mike, and I've been fighting for 20 years of my life.”
The athletes took turns telling stories from the front lines of a world of hurt. The broad strokes were the same. They talked about fights, slams, falls, tackles, body checks, dead lifts. All manner of mental and physical suffering, coaches and team physicians passing out powerful anti-inflammatories and narcotic painkillers like Tic-Tacs. Trauma, and addiction. They talked about how cannabis had helped mitigate their pain.
“I was just freaking out,” Tyson says. “Too late. Couldn't stop. I thought, I'm dead. It's over.”
Mike Tyson sat quietly, sometimes looking at people but also looking at nothing. He was like one of those paintings whose eyes seem to follow you around the room. In a 1996 essay for Transitionmagazine, the critic Gerald Early wrote, “Tyson is not the sum of his myths; he is the remainder.” This was how Mike Tyson seemed that day—like what was left of Mike Tyson.
When he was 20 years old, Mike Tyson became the youngest world heavyweight champion in the history of boxing. In 1988, he and his then wife, actress Robin Givens, gave a joint interview to Barbara Walters in which Givens described him as an abusive husband. (Givens did not explicitly allege he hit her, but in 2009 Tyson told Oprah Winfrey, “I have socked [Givens] before, and she socked me before as well. It was just that kind of relationship.”) They were divorced in 1989. Two years later, Tyson was accused of raping an 18-year-old Miss Black America contestant named Desiree Washington in his Indianapolis hotel room. He was convicted in 1992 and released in 1995.
Even an increasingly diminished and distracted Tyson remained a powerful pay-per-view draw, and his fights against both worthy opponents and tomato cans brought in record-setting revenue. He was stripped of his boxing license by the Nevada State Athletic Commission in 1997, after biting opponent Evander Holyfield's ear during a fight in Las Vegas. His license was restored in 1998, and he continued fighting professionally until 2005, when he sat down after the sixth round of a fight with Irish boxer Kevin McBride and declined to fight on. At the post-fight press conference, he announced his retirement.
Many things have happened to Tyson since then. He eventually began telling the story of Mike Tyson, over and over, to anyone who'd listen. He became a professional narrator of his own rise and fall and rise and fall, a cauterized open wound you could walk around in. In 2008 he told his story in a documentary directed by James Toback; again in 2012, in a Broadway show written by his third wife, Lakiha “Kiki” Tyson, and directed by Spike Lee; and in 2013, in Undisputed Truth, a memoir written with celeb-bio consigliere and onetime Bob Dylan affiliate Larry Sloman. In each telling of the story, he demonstrates genuine self-abasing humility and undercuts those moments with bursts of sneering vitriol that seem equally genuine. Each account invites us into creepy, complicit spectatorship the way Tyson always has—first as a wildly successful practitioner of blood sport and then as a pop-culture train wreck. They're attempts to burnish a vexed legacy through confession.
On the issue of what happened between him and Desiree Washington that night in Indianapolis, Tyson has never wavered. He maintains that he was falsely accused and convicted, that his intentions were clear and the sex was consensual. He reiterates this assertion in the book, the stage show, and the movie. In Toback's film—a sympathetic portrait of a convicted sex offender by a director who'd later be accused of sexual misconduct by nearly 400 women soon after the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke—Tyson calls Washington vile names and then recites from Oscar Wilde's The Ballad of Reading Gaolwhile Toback shoots him silhouetted against a sunset.
The myth-maintenance in Tyson and Sloman's Undisputed Truth is less overtly toxic, but Tyson gloats about what seems to have been a GoodFellas-like incarceration experience, thanks to the largesse of starstruck guards; he enjoys a variety of food-delivery options and has a sexual relationship with his drug counselor. The book lays out the case for Tyson as a victim who became a victimizer, detailing the parental neglect and violent bullying he endured as a child (but not his kidnapping and molestation by a neighborhood predator, which he revealed in an ESPN interview in 2017). But Tyson's lifelong substance abuse is the book's real subject. His mother feeds him Gordon's gin and Thunderbird to keep him quiet. By age 12 he's sampled Mad Dog 20/20, Brass Monkey, cocaine, weed, hash, opium, acid, and angel dust. In the New York juvenile-offender system, he says, he's given Thorazine, a powerful anti-psychotic that makes him a vegetable.
He goes on and off Zoloft as needed so he'll be meaner in the ring. He is gacked and stoned a lot during his boxing career and occasionally even during boxing matches. And when he finally slumps away from the sport, his life is one circle of hell after another until he's finally in Phoenix, partying with fun-loving doctors who introduce him to the recreational use of a morphine drip.
He goes to rehab in Phoenix, as he soon will in many places. He gets treated for anger management and sex addiction. He watches La Vie en Rose and breaks down crying when they come to take Édith Piaf away from the prostitutes, because he understands exactly why she wants to be there: “Some people thrive in misery. You take away their misery and bring them into the light and they die emotionally and spiritually because pain and suffering has been their only comfort. The thought of someone loving them and helping them without wanting anything in return could never enter their minds.”
In the book, he describes himself as a “relapse artist.” The book ends with him sober and grateful for each day and determined not to fuck up. The cover of the paperback edition touts the addition of a new epilogue that includes a postscript about another relapse. For Tyson there is always another epilogue.
In October, a few months after the athlete summit, in a conference room at Tyson Holistic, the company's chief operating officer, Kevin Bell, unrolls maps on a big wooden table. Heavy white paper, images of the desert from the air—California in shades of gray, like the surface of the moon.
“This is I-10,” Bell says, his finger tracing the highway that cuts the map in half. Then he points to either side of the interstate. “This is Desert Hot Springs. This is Palm Springs.”
The site only looks remote. It's actually bordered on both sides by development. Golf courses, mostly. But then there's this one little plot—418 acres of untouched California desert.
“Let's say 420 acres,” Rob Hickman says. “Makes it fun.”
Hickman is a branding entrepreneur and movie producer. He had the idea for Tyson Ranch four or five years ago. Now there are plans for a luxury hotel and retail stores and facilities for glamping, an amphitheater for concerts, and Tyson University, where experts will teach cannabis-cultivation techniques to future farmers. There will also be a lazy river running through the whole place. Right now a water park in Waco, Texas, has the world's longest lazy river, but when Tyson Ranch opens, the longest lazy river in the world will be the one at Tyson Ranch. It'll take an hour to float the entire length of it.
You will be able to smoke weed pretty much anywhere at Tyson Ranch, except in areas where liquor is for sale, because that's the law. But weed will not be grown there, and if they decide they want it to be sold there, Hickman says, they'll partner with one of the big weed-retail companies, the way casinos rent space to Starbucks.
One interesting thing about Tyson Holistic as a quote-unquote marijuana business is that nobody actually farms or harvests or in any meaningful way handles the actual plant. They produce Tyson Ranch-branded containers designed to imply that Mike Tyson has, like, gotten out his jeweler's loupe and personally inspected the nugs inside and pronounced them dank. They make these containers available to third-party growers whose product meets a standard of quality and purity. The growers fill those containers with weed and distribute them.
This way, Hickman says, “we're not burdened with bad crops. We're not burdened with legalities. We're selling paper. Packaging. And market share.”
Bell is barrel-chested, with a shaved head and a long biker-ish beard. He's a company link to the pre-legalization cannabis trade. He's from New Orleans and has been in the game since 1989. He started the first hydroponics-supply store catering to growers east of the Mississippi, moved to Amsterdam as soon as he could afford it, moved to California when its laws began to open up, and began to discover how difficult it could be to make money growing weed in America.
“When I got to California, it was 48 a pound,” Bell says. “Now it's 16. Taxes have went up, power's went up, real estate's went up. All the profit's gone.”
Bell met Hickman across a negotiating table. Bell was working for some people who were trying to sell Hickman some land. “These guys were much like other people in the industry—mostly full of shit,” Bell says. “One out of a hundred things happens in the cannabis industry. Working with Rob on the other side of the table, I found it refreshing, because everything he said he was gonna do, he did.”
When the land deal fell apart, Hickman offered Bell a consulting gig on the spot, which turned into a full-time job.
“And two days after I started working for him,” Bell says, “I'm sitting in his backyard, and I go to pass a joint, and I notice I'm sitting next to Jean-Claude Van Damme. It's one surreal event after another when you're around Rob.”
Of course they've already shot a sizzle reel for a TV show. But because nothing at Tyson Holistic is only one thing, the show is also part sitcom and part infomercial. Hickman's plan is to work around the rules that still prohibit advertising anything cannabis-related on television by integrating Tyson Ranch products into a Curb Your Enthusiasm-esque workplace comedy about Tyson (as himself) trying to run a weed company with his knucklehead friends, played by people like Tyson's real-life friend, the comedian Russell Peters. They want Maya Rudolph to play Tyson's ex-wife.
Hickman is a heavyset man with a short gray beard, a grim resting face, and a tight smile. He's usually drinking something clear and fizzy from an enormous gas-station go-cup. For years he'd been a businessman—he launched an Internet-service provider with the late manager and producer Jerry Weintraub, and on his IMDb page he is listed as the former president of George Foreman Foods, the packaged-meats venture of boxer turned electric-grill pitchman George Foreman.
And then things took a turn. He lost $4.5 million on a movie project. He was struggling in his personal life. He was treating depression with alcohol and karaoke. There were some good nights. He'd sing and climb on top of the piano. He kept on doing it even when he realized he was sick. He had MRSA, which is like a staph infection, only hungrier—more tenacious and fast-moving and antibiotic-resistant. His liver and kidneys shut down. He remembers almost dying. From some anteroom of the bardo, he heard himself being given last rites.
“Which woke my ass up,” Hickman says. “When you get your last rites, it kind of makes you really get your shit in order.”
He began to stabilize. The doctors told him to stay off booze and pharmaceuticals if he wanted to live. They sent him to a naturopath, who put him on a bunch of cannabis-derived natural medications. He stopped drinking—when we talk, it's been eight years—and started thinking like a branding guy again, but about this substance that had changed his life.
He took some meetings with people in the cannabis space. They were not inspiring meetings. “It was just a horrible group of people,” he says. “I thought Hollywood was horrible. These guys are Hollywood, just not as slick. It's the same thing. Nothing's real. They all say they have something. They don't. It's just a mess.”
Hickman went back to producing movies. He produced Kickboxer: Vengeance, a reboot of the 1989 Jean-Claude Van Damme action classic, with the Gabonese-Canadian actor and stuntman Alain Moussi playing Van Damme's character, Kurt Sloane, and a year or so later he made a sequel to that reboot, Kickboxer: Retaliation. The role of Briggs—an American boxer who meets Sloane in a Thai prison and teaches him some new ways of enduring pain—was played by American boxer and sometime actor and lifelong pain-endurance expert Mike Tyson.
Mike and Kiki had just sold their share in a Los Angeles-area dispensary. The shop was profitable, but they were mostly living in Henderson, Nevada, back then, and it was pretty much impossible to run a cash business like that remotely, partly because cannabis-related transactions are still illegal activity in the eyes of the interstate banking system.
Hickman started thinking. Tyson had a story to tell. Tyson had become a dedicated marijuana user. After he'd endured years of more serious substance abuse, weed had helped him come out of the shadows. He was a chilled-out 50-something tennis dad who'd seemingly put active self-destruction behind him. Hickman says that by that point he had “a lot of major A+ stars coming at me, trying to coordinate some branding in the [cannabis] space.” He says he met with Snoop and with representatives from Playboy. But no one made more sense than Mike Tyson.
“It's changed his life,” Hickman says. “He's the perfect person.”
It's strange to hear the word “perfect” used to describe Mike Tyson in a commercial-branding context in 2019. “I know his demographics,” Hickman says. “I know 30 percent of people think he's a rapist and all this crazy shit. He's not. He served time 'cause he did some bad things, I guess. But [not] that one in particular.”
Hickman also says, of Desiree Washington, “She's going up to the Champ's at two o'clock in the morning—to play cards? What's she going up there to do?”
This is a callous argument and a shocking one for someone to make about a sexual-assault case in 2019. It's also more or less the argument made at Tyson's trial in 1992 by Tyson's own lawyers, who argued that whatever happened to Washington that night was on some level her fault, because she chose to be alone with a man like Mike Tyson.
But Hickman's real argument seems to be what he says a few seconds later: He's done his time. The revelations of the #MeToo movement have prompted a broader re-examination of the ways the American justice system and society at large have often failed to hold powerful men to account for sexual misconduct and other forms of abuse. But Tyson's celebrity didn't insulate him from the consequences of his actions. He was tried and convicted and served time. In the nearly three decades since he was initially charged, no evidence casting doubt on the charges or supporting Tyson's contention that he was wrongfully convicted has come to light.
“Mike Tyson's building a ranch out here, y'all! It's gonna have the world's longest lazy river! This shit is serious!”
What this means, among other things, is that we have all been aware of this all along. It's lately become a mainstream point of view that an ethical society should not allow its members to do business—or art, or sports, or to some extent politics—with people discovered to have committed crimes less heinous than the one Mike Tyson went to jail for. We are now a culture reckoning with its own failings, and it's possible that as part of this ongoing righting of the scales, we'll summon the moral authority to reach back in time and retroactively cancel Mike Tyson. But the fact will remain that for nearly 30 years, we chose not to—not because of some exonerating ambiguity or complexity surrounding what Tyson had done but because our interest in Tyson superseded our horror at his actions, because something in us did not want to look away.
His rape conviction didn't end his career, nor did it seem to hamper his 21st-century re-emergence. He walked among us as Irony Mike, gainfully employed as a winking self-parody, and found an audience again. Tyson's appearance as himself in 2009's The Hangover prompted no boycotts; Todd Phillips's movie raked in a domestic box-office gross of more than $270 million and spawned two sequels. There are dozens of photographs of Bradley Cooper mugging and taking fake punches from his co-star on the red carpet. Mike Tyson Mysteries—an Adult Swim cartoon in which Tyson, voicing himself, unravels Scooby-Doo-ish plots with the help of his adopted daughter, a talking pigeon, and the ghost of the Marquess of Queensberry—aired its last new episode just one year ago, in May 2018.
“We're into second chances,” Hickman goes on to say. “We love second chances. Everyone that's with us is getting one.”
And of course you could argue that Tyson has skipped a crucial step on the road to a second chance by refusing to acknowledge culpability for Indianapolis, aside from some remarks about having been ungentlemanly. Or that Tyson's ability to rebound as a celebrity pitchman moots whatever questions his story raises about the role of race in his initial trial and sentencing, and how clean a slate society owes released convicts.
But Mike Tyson would rather talk about the toad. He will talk to you all day about the toad, because the toad is a fun story, but also because it's a story that makes him feel good—it's a story about the better person he's potentially becoming, not the person he used to be. When you ask the new Mike Tyson about the old Mike Tyson, you run up against walls pretty quickly.
Tyson acknowledges but won't discuss his acquaintanceship with Donald Trump, who called Tyson's conviction a “travesty” on Howard Stern's show after it happened, and whose presidential candidacy Tyson endorsed in a 2015 HuffPost Live interview. (“We stay away from politics,” his publicist wrote me in August, before my initial round of interviews.) But he also recognizes apolitical questions like When was the last time you cried? and When was the last time you got angry? as problematic to answer; he scowls and says “Why?” to both. He comes to this room and tells his truth and only his truth, and his new friends speak admiringly of watching him open up like a flower. But maybe the better analogy is a drawbridge.
You could see how it was all supposed to work. The laws had changed in California, giving rise to a brand-new industry and potentially a brand-new class of industrialist. Those industrialists were busy uncoupling marijuana from its association with “drug culture” and rebranding it as an accoutrement of wellness, closing the gap between Pineapple Express and Lululemon. Was it so hard to believe that the same transformative process that redeemed the devil's lettuce could sweep up and redeem Mike Tyson, re-introducing him to the culture as a man of peace, a clean-living ambassador of chill?
This past February, on a windy and then chilly Saturday, hundreds of people gather outside Palm Springs, at the future site of Tyson Ranch, on a patch of desert carpeted in something synthetic and green, to watch Miguel and A$AP Ferg play at the inaugural Kind Festival, a kind of mini Coachella organized by Tyson Holistic to spread the word about the company and what it means to build here. Hard-faced locals in biker gear mingle with invited influencers, who dance from one selfie to the next in Penny Lane furs and indoor-outdoor lingerie, hitting joints and angles for the 'Gram.
It both is and is not a Mike Tyson weed festival. There's a giant inflatable heart by the front entrance, and on the heart there's a sign with Mike Tyson's face on it, promoting a charity raffle where you can win the chance to smoke a doob with Mike Tyson. There's also a raffle where you can win Mike Tyson's limited-edition Harley. The sign for that raffle calls it “Mike's Act of Kindness.” At Kind Festival, you can eat chicken strips and corn rolled in Hot Cheetos, and drink beer, vodka, rum, various wines, and two different kinds of Four Loko.
The Kind Festival name is consultant-brainstormed, chosen because it evokes high-grade kind bud but can also mean of a kind, of the same sort as well as generous and considerate. The idea is that it will grow into a viable festival brand, a mainstream music-and-cannabis event geared toward a less stereotypically stone-y demo than Rolling Loud or Cypress Hill's Great American Smokeout. Not calling it Mike Tyson's Crazy-Ass Weedfest is an investment in a long-term future.
It has been announced by the city of Desert Hot Springs that this year's festival has not been permitted as a “cannabis-consumption event,” and the festival organizers have confirmed that this is true, but everyone who's holding is just flamboyantly partaking whenever they feel like it, and when the DJ spinning between sets asks to see some hands in the air, the crowd continues lolling on ground-level fuzzy beanbag chairs, spaced-out and yawny.
“Mike Tyson's building a whole ranch out here, y'all!” the DJ tells the crowd. “It's gonna have the world's longest lazy river! This shit is serious!”
She drops Sheck Wes's “Live Sheck Wes” and everybody watches the sun set behind the cheesesteak truck.
Honestly, it appears to be pretty easy to burn one with Mike Tyson at Kind Festival, even if you don't win the raffle. He's backstage, on a couch, in a deluxe Mallard travel trailer full of family and well-wishers and exhaled weed smoke. People and smoke are always coming in and out. Here's Mike's old friend, the R&B legend Al B. Sure!, who pulls out his phone to show Mike a picture of the two of them hanging out with Bobby Brown way back in the day.
Mike's bodyguard, the former Hells Angel and Howard Stern regular Chuck Zito, stands around in front of the trailer in a shearling coat and a black Adidas tracksuit with red, white, and green accents and the words italian bad boy embroidered on the back.
“It's from Rocky IV,” Chuck Zito explains. “Sly—he sells 'em. StalloneStore.com.”
Sly doesn't sell them with the italian bad boy embroidery, though. Chuck Zito had that done himself. The sky above the trailer fills up with moths. On a patch of grass, Chuck Zito tosses around a piece of rawhide with Mars, Mike Tyson's enormous white goldendoodle.
A pale and intense young man in a camouflage jacket and Off-White Converse sneakers makes his way toward the trailer, leading a delegation of pretty regular-looking early-20s white dudes in streetwear who have evidently been invited to the festival because they're a huge deal on social media and have been promised a picture with Mike Tyson. Which can be arranged, except he's brought along six guys, which is at least one more guy than Chuck Zito and the people inside the trailer are comfortable letting into Mike's increasingly clouded airspace for a photo op at this time.
The leader of the influencer pack breaks this news to the sixth man of his crew, who is growth-spurt tall with a head of butterscotch-blond Sideshow Bob dreads. The guy looks crestfallen. The leader says he's sorry.
“You're a fuckin' legend,” the leader says. “You got swag. But I can't.”
Moments later the influencers emerge with their prize—smoke-hazed but Insta-ready snapshots of themselves with Mike Tyson, taken on one another's phones. “That one's fire,” one kid says. “Send me that.”
Here, maybe, is one referendum on Mike Tyson's future as a public figure—these kids' absolute conviction that a pic with Mike Tyson will move whatever social-media needle they live and die by. And then there is another one. The time comes for Mike Tyson to make his way to the stage. His whole posse—Eben Britton and Al B. Sure! and Chuck Zito and Rob Hickman, a whole champ-in-the-arena wedge of people—moves with him.
Between-sets music booms, and offstage Mike does a little fast footwork to a Run the Jewels song. He walks out onstage and hears a crowd chanting for him. Mike Tyson thanks everybody and does a little I'm not worthy bow. Then he brings out Rob Hickman, in part because Rob Hickman absolutely does not want to be onstage, and Tyson finds this funny.
When Kind Fest happened, it had been about a few weeks since Tyson had smoked the toad, and up in the VIP section, all anyone from Tyson Holistic could talk about was how it's changed him. He's like a philosopher, they said. It was clear we were living yet another Tyson epilogue.
Now it's a Wednesday in March. Eben Britton is smoking a joint in the Tyson Holistic podcast studio and explaining how he got here. A herniated disk two years into his NFL career. Back and shoulder surgery. A ruptured appendix. He managed his pain with weed and got a use exemption from the NFL so he could pop Adderall to face games he no longer wanted to play in. He wound up playing for the Chicago Bears, forgot to bring his pills to practice, cadged Ritalin off a teammate figuring there was no difference, flunked a piss test, and got kicked out of the NFL.
He gathered that this turn of events was the universe's way of telling him it was okay to move on. Curious about what else the universe might have to tell him, Britton—who'd done mushrooms once or twice during his pro-football career—embarked on a psychedelic odyssey that began with about six months of heavy LSD consumption and moved on to him in the Amazon doing kambo, a medicine ritual involving the secretions of the giant monkey frog.
“They burn holes in your skin and then spackle in the frog medicine,” Britton says, “and you have a purging experience. They call it the warrior's cleanse.”
One of the things the frog-medicine ritual supposedly does is open the door for synchronicities to begin multiplying in your life. It was not long after Britton took the frog medicine that Rob Hickman called and asked him to help with the summit at Tyson Holistic, which turned into a job—and the chance to sit in this room with Mike Tyson and watch him be funny and alive instead of dead-eyed and sad.
“When I came in,” Britton says, “Mike was in a very dark place. There was a darkness around him.… And Mike has literally turned from the ferocious warrior up on the mountaintop, living in isolation, to this spiritually awakened shaman/cannabis-entrepreneur warrior of the light.
“Mike made a decision when he was a kid,” Britton says, “that he was going to be the most vicious he could possibly be, to show the world that it couldn't get him down. And I think what the toad did was it just released him from that. It showed him it was okay to be vulnerable.”
It's precisely that shift—from Iron Mike to Toad Mike—that makes Tyson such an important voice on issues of mental health and masculinity, Britton says.
“Mike, being the character that he is, he has the potential to change the world,” Britton explains. “Being this vicious, demonized character that he has been, to now opening up and being real and talking about all of the things he's been through and done and how he feels about that? That changes the way people think. There are so many men out there just totally fucking lost, because we've been brainwashed into believing that being a man is this certain sort of thing. And it's killing us—it's killing men.
“That's why this is so important,” he continues. “Because what other male figure is talking about that stuff—who can be as impactful as Mike Tyson?”
Don King told Mike Tyson not to mess with the imam's stepdaughter, and mostly Tyson didn't—not because Don King told him not to, but because the imam's stepdaughter wouldn't have it. Lakiha Spicer was 19 then, and Mike Tyson was 29, and soon enough the tornado of Mike Tyson's life picked him up and set him down somewhere else, and they didn't see each other again until five years later, when Kiki was 24 and living on her own in New York.
“It was a roller coaster after that,” Kiki Tyson says. “We started dating. It was crazy. He was a lunatic, y'know? So many women. I would break up with him, I'd be emotional. It was a lot. But we were always really good friends.”
Kiki is 43 now, elegant and poised and sharp. She's been married to Mike for ten years, and he still makes her laugh. They have the same twisted sense of humor. They have been through some shit together, not all of it Mike-inflicted. In 2008, she served six months in federal prison after collecting $71,000 in salary from an alleged no-show job at a Muslim academy run by her parents. Her stepfather, Shamsud-din Ali, was convicted in 2005 of fraud and racketeering charges uncovered during a massive FBI investigation of possible links between drug dealers and Philadelphia city politics; Kiki's mother also served a brief prison sentence after being convicted of fraud. At the time of her incarceration, Kiki was pregnant with Tyson's daughter Milan, who was born in December 2008; Kiki and Mike were married the following year.
“He used to be addicted to chaos, because that's what his whole life was—chaos. And when it's too calm, some of that residue kicks back in.” —Kiki Tyson
Maybe in part because of all this, she can meet him without judgment. She always has. Even when he came out of rehab, overweight and loaded up on psych meds, moving like the walking dead. Zombie swagger, Kiki used to call it.
“All he wanted to do,” she says, “was eat Cap'n Crunch and watch reruns of Law & Order: SVU. His personality was not there.… When he was on all those pills, he was existing, but he was like, not home,y'know? It's kind of like the Sunken Place, from that crazy movie. He was in the Sunken Place.”
They tried taking him off everything, but when Tyson's on nothing at all, he wakes up every night like clockwork, convinced his life is over. “I don't know what this thing is that talks to him,” Kiki says, “but it says, Nobody loves me, my life is over, I'm going to die soon.”
So the weed is a compromise. Kiki doesn't smoke much—maybe four times a year, and only when the kids are asleep. But the only thing she minds about Mike's intake is the ashes. They have white carpeting at the Newport Beach house—Mike has some kind of mental block about putting his joints in the damn ashtray, and at Tyson Holistic there's usually a half-smoked Mike jay parked on the edge of any given table or counter, like a little gray-and-brown pupa on a branch—and when he's at home, Kiki has to follow him around with a Dustbuster.
This is the hardest thing about being married to Mike Tyson—most of the time, anyway. “Mike can sometimes resort to old patterns of mental self-destruction,” Kiki says. “Like, when things seem to be going too good, something happens in his head. I think it's fear-based. He thinks, How can I fuck this up? He used to be addicted to chaos, because that's what his whole life was—chaos. And when it's too calm, some of that residue kicks back in.”
Last year he went through a “weird period,” Kiki says. He was going to clubs again. Hanging out with the type of person who thinks it's badass to be seen hanging out with Mike Tyson. Up to no good.
“I was using cocaine,” Tyson says. “I think I was on cocaine when I did the toad. I was just a mess. I had a bunch of fucking girls I was fucking. It was horrible stuff, man. I was caught in a vicious cycle and I couldn't stop. Even if I wanted to, I just couldn't stop. I was sick. I didn't care about nothing.… Say I see a girl, have sex with a girl. Then I'm guilty. Now I wanna do a line of cocaine. Now I wanna drink. Now I just wanna destroy my life, 'cause I'm killing myself with guilt.”
Since the toad, Tyson says, “I don't wanna go out. I don't wanna fuck nobody. I just don't want to be on that side of the world anymore.”
Kiki says he doesn't wake up at night anymore, not since the toad. Mike says he only smokes dope, never drinks or does anything harder, unless you count the occasional toad hit. He feels like a positive force in his family, in his business.
I ask if he likes himself better than he used to.
“I don't know,” he says, a little sad all of a sudden. “Ask me that in my next interview, okay?”
“When I started doing this story,” I say to Hickman, “when I pitched it, I said, Mike Tyson's starting a weed company. Do you still think of it that way, at this point? Or was the weed always just the thing that was supposed to get you to the thing?”
“It was never a weed company,” Hickman says, laughing. “That was just the easiest thing for people to gravitate to.”
I wasn't sure if this was a weed story anymore. What it felt like was a story about a sultan who falls asleep for years, and while he sleeps his subjects build a city of wonders around him, and all anybody can talk about is how pleased the sultan will be when he wakes to see it, this city built in his name.
Back in October, when Hickman sat in this room, all you could hear was drilling and hammering, the sound of contractors transforming this building to suit Tyson Holistic's needs. Now it's a podcast studio.
Meanwhile, Hickman is meeting architects for Tyson Ranch. He's negotiating the company's first round of outside financing. For the moment, he and two other partners have financed everything personally. He thinks they'll exit within the next few years. They've already had offers. He names a big private-equity firm, says it's off the record. “The offers,” he says, “are already staggering, for what we've created.”
He says they have big bands “standing in line” to play the next Kind Fest, scheduled for this fall. He says they're now buying “biomass” from a grower in Kentucky—bales and bales of pot, bred with low THC so they can transport it across state lines—and moving it to manufacturing plants they're building in Henderson, Nevada, and Nashville, Tennessee, and Pueblo, Colorado, where they'll turn it into pharma-grade CBD isolate and sell it to cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies.
Hickman says he's in negotiations right now to build another Tyson Ranch, on the border of Florida and Georgia, two states that don't currently allow recreational pot. They will. But even if they don't, Tyson Ranch will still put a wave pool there.
Even if the regulatory pendulum swings back in California, Hickman will get something from that 418 acres out by Desert Hot Springs.
“I'll have a Great Wolf Lodge for kids,” he says. “I've got TopGolf. I'll have the longest lazy river. They can drink piña coladas and float around all they want. I have a stadium that will house UFC events, boxing events, big concerts. I'll have a university teaching people agriculture and how to run businesses, that's in a curriculum from UCLA. Even if I have to cut marijuana out of it—I still got a pretty cool business to run out there.”
And it all seems so perfect and it all seems so positive and stigma-free, and it also seems like the last remnants of the hippie dream being sucked down deep into the lungs of 21st-century capitalism—and meanwhile here's Mike Tyson on a couch in the next room, in his dad jeans and his big white dad sneakers and a button-down shirt printed with pictures of a windblown ocean.
A minute ago, he was watching Patrick Roy and Mario Lemieux go at it on YouTube, but now he's just puffing a joint and looking contemplatively at one of those channels that show nothing but ultra-HD drone-overflight videos of beautiful places seen from the air. A shot of London on a clear bright day gives way to the coast of some Pacific island, thick green bushes against tall stone cliffs. Mike Tyson thinks about how humbling it all is, looking down at bushes that are probably bigger than he is. Mike Tyson wonders what kinds of animals there are in those bushes. Mike Tyson imagines what it would be like, to be there under the cliffs, on beaches inaccessible by land.
“It's beautiful, man,” Mike Tyson says, and the scene changes again, and now we're so high up all we can see are clouds, and in his chair at the office, Mike Tyson falls asleep and maybe even dreams.
Alex Pappademas is a writer who lives in Los Angeles.
A version of this story originally appeared in the June/July 2019 issue with the title "Mike Tyson Smokes The Toad."