DUBAI, United Arab Emirates >> On his first trip to Dubai, former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson recalls getting off a plane wearing a traditional Muslim cap and robes, carrying a Quran and expecting to find a society strictly governed by conservative mores.
He was in for a surprise.
This is “a party place, a place you have a good time at. This is like New York City, man!” Tyson exclaimed during an interview Thursday with The Associated Press. “That’s what people think. They think of Dubai as some real strict Islamic place. … This place is so open. It’s just unbelievable.”
Speaking from a penthouse overlooking Dubai’s man-made Palm Jumeirah archipelago, Tyson said he believes a city like Dubai can show people the best of the Middle East, its people and Islam. He told the AP during a wide-ranging interview that his new project franchising Mike Tyson Fitness & Boxing Academy locations worldwide fits in perfectly with the sheikhdom’s desire to always be out front.
“People come over here and love this place. It’s just what it is,” he said. “I’ve been all over the world … and everything they’ve got there, they’ve got here.”
Tyson converted to Islam while serving prison time in the 1990s over rape charges. He said he has performed the hajj pilgrimage required of all Muslims, as well as other trips to holy sites in Saudi Arabia.
Tyson, once known as the baddest man on the planet, was known for his explosive punching and quick knockouts. He said the heavyweight world had sagged in recent years, though Saturday night’s crowning of British boxer Anthony Joshua as the new champion in his win over Wladimir Klitschko should reinvigorate the interest.
Told 90,000 people attended the fight, Tyson said “that’s what rock groups do.”
“He looks like the guy,” Tyson. “The look matters. Especially if you fight it matters.”
Asked what he’d tell Joshua, Tyson offered simple advice: “Take it very serious.”
“In boxing, you have to be more chaste than you are with your wife and your girlfriend, because if you don’t, you’re going to be in a bad situation. It’s going to hurt real bad,” Tyson said. “It may look like entertainment, but Klitschko is hurt real bad. Right now he’s in pain. That’s what’s going to happen if you don’t train and get in shape.”
In Dubai, he and his business partners hope to open franchises of his new gym. Tyson said he will be involved with the gyms and their direction. His partners offered few details about when and where they will open, other to say one should be in Las Vegas in 2018.
Dubai is more known for being a city of superlatives, ranging from being home to the world’s tallest building to the world’s busiest international airport. But sports also play a role in the city, though not now as summer approaches with its days of over 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit).
Horse racing remains the passion of Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who hosts the $10 million Dubai World Cup each year. Camel races see teams jockey their steeds with robots controlled by remotes from SUVs racing alongside them.
Outside of traditional Arab pursuits, long-haul carrier Emirates hosts the rugby sevens, golf tournaments draw top players and Abu Dhabi hosts a Formula One race. Pakistani cricket clubs, largely unable to compete in their own country over fears of militant attack, play in the United Arab Emirates. Meanwhile, galas and glamor regularly draw soccer stars and other athletes to Dubai.
Athletic endorsements deals also are common, as famed English soccer club Arsenal plays at Emirates Stadium. In Dubai, the most prominent athlete attached to a project is golfer Tiger Woods, who designed a course being built now that will be run by the Trump Organization.
Tyson endorsed Trump earlier during his presidential run and fought several times at an arena adjoining a Trump casino in Atlantic City at the height of his career. On Thursday however, a local radio host named Kris Fade who emceed the news conference with Tyson warned journalists that “we’ll eject you” if anyone asked about Trump. Public relations officials also stopped an interview with Tyson that had a question about Trump, though the boxer described the U.S. president as “a good man” when the camera went off.
But Tyson himself brought up Trump at the news conference after being asked by a female journalist if he refused doing interviews with women.
“What Donald Trump said: Are they your friend?” Tyson said. “I’ll talk to them. Bring your friend. I’ll talk to them.”