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Undisputed Truth

Mike Tyson (with Larry Sloman)

(Blue River; US: Nov 2013)

Spoiler alert: At the very end of his rambling, rollicking memoir, Mike Tyson makes it clear that he’s an addict.


Of course, he’d already done that numerous times throughout the previous 572 pages, in unsparing, profane and often hilarious detail.


His addictions are the basic ones: sex, drugs, adulation, affection. He made tons of money in his boxing career, and burned through damn near all of it. He was fortunate enough to be plucked from a life headed for the penitentiary, but ended up there twice, anyway. He was groomed for success, but not for handling it. He was a deep student of ring history, but seemed to have learned nothing from what the masters he studied endured after their fighting days ended.


By rights, he should be a sad and pathetic case, a cautionary tale in a sport already overflowing with them. That’s the argument Brin-Jonathan Butler makes in “Requiem for a Welterweight”, his November 2013 profile of Manny Pacquiao for SB Nation in which he includes Tyson in the list of boxers whose lives fell apart when they could no longer win.


That list is long, storied, and tragic. Joe Louis was in debt to the IRS, and ended up shaking tourists’ hands in Las Vegas. Muhammad Ali, perhaps the athlete in any sport most gifted with gab ever, is but a shell of that now, having taken so much punishment in so many epic bouts that TV networks sometimes feel compelled to caption his soundbites, as if he were speaking something other than English. Joe Frazier, his defining nemesis, died in obscurity. And then there are the many, names we might know and names we probably don’t, who fell victim to bad decisions, unscrupulous management, and the need to feel the rush of the great punch, the roar of the crowd, just one more fateful time.


At any of numerous points, Tyson has been each of those figures. Were the historical pattern to hold, he would still be one of them today. So why, then, is he on HBO making us laugh?


Partly, because he’s Mike Tyson, and anyone who paid attention to sports in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s will never forget him – nor, for that matter, will many who paid attention to boxing only when he was in the ring. He was the first great heavyweight after Ali, and I am not alone in asserting that so far, he is the last one, too. Say what you will about the pound-for-pound worthiness of Pacquiao, Floyd Mayweather, Oscar de la Hoya and all the other recent greats of lesser weights, but no one who is not a boxing fan gives a crap about any of them (please turn elsewhere for hand-wringing think pieces about the sorry state of boxing, of which there have been more than a few). However, we are hardwired to pay attention to the heavyweight champion, and have been for 100 years-plus and counting, ever since the days of Jack Johnson.


We came to associate the heavyweight champ, more than all the other champs, with a sexy brew of power, swagger and danger that drew us like moths to the flame. They were the biggest, they were the baddest. It was Louis, after all, who united black America around radios every time he fought, and not Henry Armstrong, a Louis contemporary who once held the belt in three weight classes at the same time. It was Ali, then known by his government name Cassius Clay, that the Beatles paid a visit to in the midst of the first rush of American Beatlemania.


And it was Tyson who put a distinctive stamp on that legacy, with the swift and efficient brutality with which he dispatched his opponents. You could not be ten minutes late to a Tyson fight in his prime, or else risk missing it. Where other bouts featured a round or two of jousting about, feeling out the other guy, Tyson seized the moment immediately, and by the throat. In his prime, he was ruthless. Despite not having the imprimatur of Olympic gold (as did Ali and George Foreman, among other champs), he found himself on a fast track to the title, and at age 20 became the youngest champ ever. The future seemed bright, as long as suckers continued to prove willing to risk dismemberment for a payday.


Tyson was not only the champ of his sport’s era, but also his culture’s era. He emerged onto the mainstream as did hip-hop, and shared much in common with it. He came from mean streets and a dysfunctional home; his father was a pimp who blew through the house once a year. He caught a break in the juvenile justice system – that’s where he discovered boxing, and was brought to the attention of trainer/ philosopher/ mentor Cus D’Amato – and ran with it.


Once successful, he lived large: he did what he wanted, when he wanted, and who he wanted to do it to (okay, maybe too large). He embodied an angry, embittered race pride unimaginable in the days of Ali. He got himself (what he thought was) a ride-or-die chick, in the form of Robin Givens and that train wreck of a marriage. Even the amiable rapper Fresh Prince (who would become Will Smith when he grew up) cut a track speculating “I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson”:




And then it all – the hubris, the arrogance, the disdain for the craft that likely had saved him from God knows what – came crashing down on a Saturday night in Tokyo in 1990 against a journeyman palooka whose mom had just died. Tyson’s career, his life, was never the same after James “Buster” Douglas sent him to the canvas for the first time ever (although Tyson argues to this day that he should have won two rounds earlier but got screwed by the referee’s slow count after he decked Douglas). He had some further success in the ring, but never again carried that same aura of menace and invincibility.


In the proceeding years, emerged the Tyson most of us know. The man jailed in Indiana for raping a beauty pageant contestant (Tyson will tell anyone who asks how trumped-up and bogus that whole ordeal was), the biter of Evander Holyfield’s ear in mid-fight (he has a perfectly good explanation for that too), the serial womanizer, the would-be eater of Lennox Lewis’ children, the guy with that weird-ass tattoo on his face, the cokehead.


Tyson, to his credit, does not shy away from any of this. No one who works with Spike Lee to mount the one-man show Undisputed Truth, tours it all over the country, and gets the film version in rotation on HBO, can be said to be hiding from his past. All the basics are there, starting with that tattoo being deployed as a curtain-warming logo: experiencing structure and discipline for the first time in his life under D’Amato’s wing; the Givens disaster; his still-burning hatred of what promoter/scoundrel Don King did to him and his money; even the infamous street brawl with Mitch Green, a fighter whose name is known today only because Tyson kicked his ass outside a clothing store.


The show is at times quite funny; who knew the muscle-headed thug had a sense of humor? If you can get past the lisp, he’s pretty articulate, too. Tyson has a gift for introspection and storytelling those who are predisposed to disdain him as some sort of anti-social beast might find surprising (something else, perhaps, he shares in common with hip-hop).


He elaborates on the stories he tells in his show, and many more, in the book by the same title (constructed with the help of Larry Sloman, who collaborated on Howard Stern’s books and other celebrity memoirs). The Tyson here is as ruthless in his honesty about his foibles as he was in the ring. He owns his past. Moreover, he accepts his present and embraces his future.


As you encounter his adventures of sex and drugs and you’ll-have-to-read-it-for-yourself-to-believe-it, you might wonder why he didn’t end up dead at any of several points. He did try to get it together, several times in fact. None of those efforts stuck until he met his current wife, Kiki, and even that relationship has had its moments. But as the book moves through his post-boxing years, you’ll see how he was touched by the kindness of strangers time and again – even if life had to drag him kicking and screaming to meet his better angels. In the spirit of every gracious piece of score-settling ever published, he is as sure to give those people sincere appreciation here as he is to call out all the users.


If there’s anything close to a true turning point, that “rock bottom” all addicts are said to have to hit before they begin recovery, it might be the accidental death of his daughter, Exodus. It’s the penultimate scene in his show and the film, but the gravity of that moment isn’t conveyed there as strongly it is in the book. If you believe in the power of redemption (and many who still choose to see Tyson as an incorrigible rapist will not apply it to him, ever), this could likely be the first moment ever when you see him as a person – flawed as all get-out for sure, innocent of little of much short of murder – and not some scowling beast or drug-addled monster.


But that’s OK by him. That’s what makes this book such a fascinating experience, much more so than the live show. He knows many think of him as less than human. The appeal of his show and this book, just like his appeal in the ring, trades on that notion. In reality, he is a survivor. That what he’s had to survive is himself makes the fact that he’s done so no less admirable.


You’ll finish Undisputed Truth and have no idea what’s next for Mike Tyson, after this effort to un-cast himself as an animal. He’s not the first to try to rehabilitate his or her public image, and he won’t be the last. But he pulled no punches in the ring, and he pulls none here. Do not be surprised if you find yourself rooting for Tyson to finally overcome his demons, one page at a time.

Rating:

Mark Reynolds has written extensively about African-American culture and celebrity since the late '80s. He began his print journalism career with the weekly Cleveland Edition, and was a longtime contributor to its successor, Cleveland Free Times. He has also written for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and various publications in Cleveland and Philadelphia. His national credits include reviews and features for the college-distributed entertainment magazine Hear/Say, and reporting on the travel industry for the trade magazine Black Meetings & Tourism. His media criticism was honored in 2004 by the Society of Professional Journalists, Ohio chapter.


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