Let’s get this out first: on February 10, 1992, the supremely successful athlete Michael Gerard Tyson was convicted of rape. He denies to this day having committed the crime, but he admits freely to many other criminal acts; had he not become a world-class boxer, it is likely he would have been a career criminal.
He also bit off part of the ear of another boxer, Evander Holyfield, while they were in the ring, and after serving a suspension from boxing, was involved in a ruckus with another driver on the Beltway, which Montgomery District Attorney Douglas Gansler parlayed into another conviction for Tyson and a trip to the Maryland Attorney General’s office for the ambitious attorney.
All this combined to make Tyson, in his own words, “the baddest man on the planet” and certainly one of the scariest. I tell no secrets when I say that men typically, instinctively, when they meet another man, think about whether they could beat him in a fight. “I bet I could take him,” a man will think upon being introduced to 88-year-old former President Jimmy Carter, whether the man being introduced is thirty-five or ninety.
There was no such reckoning with Mike Tyson in his heyday; no one could take him, or even hardly touch him. He won his first nineteen fights by knockout – twelve in the first round – and was world champion by the age of twenty. He sawed through men who had boxed for nearly as many years as he had been alive, dispatching, for example, former world heavyweight champion Larry Holmes in five rounds. He was so intimidating that some fighters, it was said, came prepared to knock themselves out, to save Tyson the trouble.
He was also rude, outspoken and bumptious – the opposite, say, of Joe Louis, whose natural humility helped white America in the thirties accept a black champion. He also lacked the impish charm that helped Mohammed Ali make his break with convention palatable, even attractive. After the death of his mentor, Cus D’Amato, he fell in with bad company – Don King and his entourage – and allowed himself to become a stereotype: the Dangerous Black Man, made more outrageous because he had a lisp.
So when he fell – first, in his personal life as a consequence of a disastrous marriage to actress Robin Givens, and then professionally, with an astonishing defeat at the hands of journeyman Buster Douglas, and finally legally, with his rape conviction – many people were cheered. The coda – two brutal losses to Holyfield, including the one in which he bit the other boxer; a decisive loss at the hands of world champion Lennox Lewis; losses to journeymen boxers in his two final fights; and the death of his child – was immeasurably sad.
So why see this man, giving out his life in a Spike-Lee-directed concert version, dominating the Warner Theatre’s stage as pictures from his past (real and imagined) paint the wall behind him? Because the theater which reaches us in our hearts is not abuot virtue and triumph, but pain, failure, and bad choices: we identify with heroes, but we go to see Medea, Iago and J.R. Ewing. The Klitschko brothers, who between them hold all the important heavyweight titles today, are tremendous athletes and highly intelligent, public-spirited men (both are multi-lingual and hold PhDs, and the older, Vitali, is a political leader in his native Ukraine) but no one would go to hear either of them tell his life story. Virtue is edifying but it is not educational; we know how to be good (though we may not want to do it). It is the bad and the ugly which grips our souls, and our attention.
Tyson is not sparing as he talks about the bad and the ugly. Born in the worst section of Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, his family soon moved to another Brooklyn slum, Brownsville (“Like moving from Hell to the devil’s toilet,” Tyson observes.) His father disappeared and his mother struggled with alcohol addiction. Pudgy, lisping and illiterate, young Mike Tyson hung out with street gangs, where the older boys sometimes made fun of him. He developed a love for pigeons, and soon cultivated a small flock of them. When an older boy Tyson calls “Gary the Bully” stole one of his favorite pigeons, young Mike begged him to return it. Garry the Bully responded by tearing the bird’s head off and flinging it in Tyson’s face. Mike Tyson, age eight, let his fists fly for the first time. “I whipped his motherfucking ass,” he says, grinning at the memory nearly forty years later. “It was love at first fight.”
His gang arranged for him to fight the toughest guys from other gangs, although those fights had to be somewhere on Tyson’s block because, being less than ten, his mother would not let him go elsewhere. He invariably clobbered his opponent, but he did not think of a career in boxing until a stint at the Spofford Correctional Institute, (“It was like ‘Cheers’,” he remembered, because everyone knew your name when you were admitted) and later at the Tyron School for Boys, where he came to the attention of the legendary trainer Cus D’Amato.
D’Amato, who had piloted the much-less-skilled Floyd Patterson to a world championship, saw in Tyson an opportunity for a dramatic cap to his career. He brought Tyson into his family, taught him to read and write, helped him wrestle with his demons, and, above all, taught him to jab and use the peek-a-boo defense. It is this portion of Tyson’s monologue, in which he shows his obvious affection for D’Amato while describing his life in Brooklyn (where he would occasionally go to visit his mother), in which he continued to commit theft.
Tyson, in fact, wears his heart on his sleeve throughout the monologue. He is exceptionally animated, and a decent mimic in spite of his minor speech defect. He works hard: the t-shirt he wears underneath his white suit is soon stained with sweat, and he breathes heavily throughout the show. Although he is well past his prime physically, he prances vigorously and gracefully across the stage, at one point portraying a Thompson’s Gazelle being chased by a pack of wild dogs (he plays both parts). He reviews his life unstintingly and in detail up to and including his rape conviction; his view of his younger self is almost that of a parent looking at a son’s bad acts: understanding, but also acknowledging and condemning.
The one part of his life to which he gives short shrift is, perhaps surprisingly, his boxing career. Most of it is recited cursorily, with one exception – his matchup with journeyman Mitch Green, who he hammered in a unanimous ten-round decision on May 20, 1986 at Madison Square Garden. Perhaps emboldened by his survival, Green two years later challenged Tyson to continue the matter in a street fight. Tyson gives a hilarious account of the encounter, playing both parts (wearing a fright wig when playing Green, who was famous for his wild hair). Tyson broke his hand in the fight; Green required five stitches.
Not everything Tyson does works; an extended rehash of his broken marriage to Givens (which had already been the locus of a Barbara Walters special) seems painful, although it includes an interesting story involving Brad Pitt. His post-prison experience is given somewhat summary treatment, lingering only over the Holyfield incident, which he seems to discuss principally because he is pleased that Holyfield has forgiven him and they are now friends. (He recommends that the audience buy Holyfield’s barbeque sauce.) He speaks forthrightly about his daughter’s death, which came about because she had become tangled in a cord hanging from an exercise treadmill. At the end, he speaks like a man who has learned, late but not too late, about what in life is important.
Mike Tyson – Undisputed Truth
Closes April 27. 2013
The Warner Theatre
513 13th Street NW
2 hours without intermission
Details and Tickets
At another juncture, after reciting his own criminal past, he pointed to a miscreant (one of many) who had just snapped his picture. “You know you’re breaking the law when you take my picture, right?,” he said. He was laughing, but the point was well taken; many of us draw the behavioral line somewhere south of where the law draws it.
I only saw Tyson fight live once, in Manchester, England, against an overmatched Julius Francis (who had the foresight to sell advertising on the bottom of his shoes.) It was an odd experience; crowds chased him like acolytes seeking to meet a holy man. I met a young man, fresh from a prison stint, who showed me the Mike Tyson tattoo he had gotten for his right bicep. (It was a passable likeness). I also ate with the head of a London department store, who told me that he had missed seeing Sinatra, and he wasn’t going to miss seeing Tyson.
I saw the same phenomenon in the Warner audience, which included a gaudily-tattooed young man a few seats from me and well-dressed businessmen a few rows in front. Mike Tyson draws us in, not because of his athletic excellence – Lewis and both Klitchkos have better records – but because he is like us, only more so.
Mike Tyson – Undisputed Truth . Directed by Spike Lee . Reviewed by Tim Treanor