By David Jenison
There are two types of performers that a smart ass is better off not heckling: comedians and ear-biting boxing champs. Nevertheless, the so-called “Baddest Man on the Planet” has had a few such moments with his new one-man show, Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth.
“I was on stage and someone started talking, and I didn’t know what it was,” recalls boxing icon Mike Tyson. “It was someone saying, ‘I’m going to kill you.’ That was on Broadway.”
He would have another threat on the Broadway stage, and during a speaking event in Australia, a man jumped from the balcony in an attempt to reach the boxer. Iron Mike has not had to deliver any Michael Spinks-like takedowns as of yet, but it doesn’t mean he won’t.
“It depends on what mood I am in and how I woke up that day,” he laughs. “I might do one of those rock ’n ‘ roll dives out into the audience. You never know.”
“It is going to be so awesome”
In reality, a Tyson 2.0 has emerged that seems more inclined to avoid conflict. In recent years, the notorious fighter has returned to the spotlight with appearances in The Hangover movies, Entourage and the Comedy Central Roast of Charlie Sheen, among others. Upon seeing Chazz Palminteri’s acclaimed one-man production of A Bronx Tale, Tyson found his new calling. He wanted to emulate that same format but with his own larger-than-life tale.
The autobiographical Undisputed Truth debuted last April with a six-day run at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas and followed with a Broadway production in August. His wife Kiki Tyson wrote the show, and Spike Lee directed it, having previously worked with the boxer on promos for the 1990 Tyson-Alex Stewart fight. Following these two successful runs, Tyson is now taking the show on the road all across the country, though the most interesting date is the tour opener, Feb. 12 in Indianapolis.
The average sports fan thinks Indy 500 or basketball when the Indiana state capital is mentioned, but boxing enthusiasts know it as the city that sent Tyson to jail for three years after he was convicted of rape. There are clearly more sympathetic cities in which to launch the tour, but the fighter embraces the challenge.
“I look at this as an opportunity for those people who witnessed that time—and we do have disagreements about what happened in the case—but they will see this is a different person now than they saw then,” says Tyson with sincerity. “It is going to be so awesome. Besides the trials and tribulations I had in Indianapolis, I have a great deal of friends there, too. I am just looking forward to it. I’m not one of those guys who is going worry on the past and trip on a door that closed on my face when I could concentrate on the one that is open in front of me.”
While most people believe O.J. Simpson was guilty, many people believe Tyson may have been innocent. Famed Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz even fought to appeal the verdict based on important information disallowed by the judge. If he was innocent, as Tyson still avows, he could easily be bitter. Instead, he only hopes the city sees a better man.
“Prison was an amazing experience for me, that I survived, and that I’m doing what I’m doing now,” he says. “[There is a difference between] how I conducted myself in Indiana in the early ’90s and how I conduct myself now, and that my first show can be in Indiana [is proof].”
Tyson had more low points after his first round of counting days behind bars—e.g., taking a bite out of Evander Holyfield and a road-rage incident in Maryland that sent him back to jail—but the fighter is now a sober, vegan Muslim. He is also grateful that he didn’t share a fate similar to Héctor Camacho, the over-the-top boxer who was murdered last November. Camacho, like the Tyson of old, had a history of legal troubles.
“My first reaction was, ‘God damn, I just saw the guy in Vegas,’“ says Tyson. “I also thought, ‘This could easily be me if I didn’t have these decisions in my life.’ I don’t know what his decisions were. People say it was over some rivalry stuff. I can remember being in a state where I am not going to pay the drug guy. I am tired of paying. I am a tough guy. Somebody is scared to fight you, but [they see] you when you are not expecting it and your guard is down and that is what happens. I am not saying that is what happened to Héctor, but in my situation, I was out there like that before I changed my lifestyle.”
Kind of Like a Bully
Camacho was 50, and Tyson is currently 46. Asked if he thought he’d make it this far, Iron Mike admits, “I didn’t think I would make it to 25. It was just God’s blessing that I went to prison. You know, I was just crazy. I know everyone says, ‘They robbed you of your time, robbed you of your time.’ Man, I was so out of control. I didn’t know how out of control I was until I was in prison. I took that as a blessing.”
He later adds, “At the level my notoriety was, I am out there reckless like that. You understand? I was out there, uninhibited, kind of like a bully. I am grateful that I turned my life around.”
Following two nights in Indianapolis, Undisputed heads out across the country with stops in San Francisco, San Diego, Los Angeles and—closer to the IE—Anaheim, among other cities.
“It is going to be a rollercoaster of emotions, my life, when I explain the story,” says Tyson of Undisputed Truth. “I am sure people understand about loss and victory and triumphs and mistakes and heartbreak—everything you have to experience to be a complete human being and to function in this world.”
Tyson also made sure the show didn’t gloss over any of his worst moments.
He continues, “My wife, who wrote it, tried to sugarcoat it at first. I had to explain that the people know this guy, not the guy you fell in love with. She had to write it down as I explained it to her, the kind of guy I was back then.”
Under the Magnifying Glass
Audience members will have different reactions to the story, and some will say he brought it all on himself, but one horror will touch even the most hardened skeptic. On Feb. 23, the show comes to Phoenix, which was the boxer’s home in 2009 when his four-year-old daughter Exodus died in a freak treadmill accident.
“I speak about my daughter during the show, and that is not a pretty sight,” Tyson says in a noticeably somber tone. “It is not like people are unaware of these issues. They have seen them in the press, but they don’t know the underlying factors, and I am expressing that [in the show]. I cannot lie to them because they’ll just say, ‘That is bull.’ They probably don’t know what really happened and what caused the altercations, but they know about the altercations. The underlying story, I am expressing that.”
In order to be so transparent, Tyson takes a novel approach. In his mind, the boxer tries to imagine that “I am an actor portraying Mike Tyson’s life” rather than retain a self-awareness that he says would be disastrous. Many of the experiences are still painful, but he feels he has to go there in order to show the power of redemption.
Tyson remarks, “I was put under the proverbial magnifying glass, and everybody saw my mistakes, but I have the same story that most people have, especially African Americans: never having both parents in my life, in and out of reform school, undisciplined, alcohol and drugs, violence, difficulty having relationships. All that stuff, a lot of people in my neighborhood had that problem. I was just fortunate enough to make it out successfully.”
He hopes his story can encourage other people to overcome these problems as well. He continues, “You have to go through that moment in life to be a man. You [might feel your] heart is totally disgusted and shattered and life is meaningless, but we come back from it. We come back. We don’t go the full nine yards. Everyone has to go through moments like that to become a human being, men and women, but we have to overcome it. I know you lost this or that, but it is not over.”
New Kind of Championship
As an extension of his life change, the boxer has started the Mike Tyson Cares Foundation. The goal is to lend a helping hand to young people born into similar situations as he experienced. In 2011, Tyson was enshrined in the International Boxing Hall of Fame, and he regularly makes the lists of the greatest boxers and punchers of all time. Nevertheless, the further he gets from his boxing days, the more he wants to leave a different type of legacy.
“[It is about] giving kids a fighting chance in life,” he says, repeating his foundation’s tagline. “Giving back is the ultimate feeling of satisfaction. You never know who these children can be. We give up on them before they have a chance.”
He later adds, “I want to champion in that more so than being a champion so-called ‘celebrity guy.’”
Tyson is still a work in process, which is part of the appeal in Undisputed Truth. These days, he actually exudes warmth and compassion, but this one-of-a-kind talent can still say the damnedest things.
During the conversation, Tyson delivers charming gems like, “Maybe I wouldn’t have slept with as many women as I did” when asked about doing things over and “I am like Frankenstein—it took a lot of people to put me together.” While he doesn’t know if St. Peter will meet him at the Pearly Gates, he says, “I just hope I make it to the Gates.” He even recounts how the FBI told him that famed boxing writer Thomas Hauser was a mass-murdering sniper, when he meant current Death Row inmate Dale Hausner. In the show, Tyson previously unleashed a brutal rant about his first wife, Robin Givens, that he has since taken out.
Undisputed Truth is also appealing because Tyson is clearly giving it his all. He is the youngest fighter to unify the heavyweight belts, and he brings this same fighting spirit to the stage. In fact, he even compares the one-man show to stepping into the ring.
“I have the same anxieties, the anxiety of failing,” says Tyson. “Whether it is a fighter or an entertainer, when his name gets announced, the only person he hears is the person who is not applauding. He does not hear the 50,000 who are. The doubt, the fear of being a failure is there.”
Tyson, who hopes to do an international tour in the future, does acknowledge one important difference between performing and fighting. With Undisputed Truth, Tyson concludes, “I don’t have to go to the hospital afterwards.”