By Mike Tyson and Larry Sloman
Blue Rider Press
580 pages, $30
By Tim Graham
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
Mike Tyson’s reputation as The Baddest Man on the Planet was cemented with fists that waylaid each of the first 37 boxers who dared to climb inside the ropes with him.
Tyson was merely 20 years old when he became the youngest heavyweight champion. He was ruthless even by boxing’s standards. He seemed invincible.
In time, however, we were reminded of his vulnerability over and over again. His life was too tempestuous. He made reckless decisions. He was careless with his body, cavalier with his conditioning. That foreboding presence, the specter that overwhelmed Tyson’s challengers before the opening bell, wasn’t nearly as immense as his ego.
Without the intimidation, Tyson was just another man. His unblemished record became pockmarked by defeats, six of them in his final 19 fights. Many outcomes, especially at the end of his career, humiliated him and tainted his legacy.
Tyson never rallied to win a match he was losing. He never defeated anyone who’d beaten him before. He never won as an underdog.
He’s 47 now and apparently has one last opponent he plans to pummel into submission.
Over the past five years, Tyson has let his life turn into a psychosocial industry. He’ll give you tortured-soul searching, suggest that he has experienced personal enlightenment and serve up self-abuse disguised as public penance.
Tyson’s latest attempt to rectify and explain his life is “Undisputed Truth,” a 580-page mammoth of a memoir that if dropped on Michael Spinks’ head would floor him quicker than the 91 seconds it took Tyson’s nighty-night uppercuts to do the job.
Tyson’s autobiography is the latest in a multimedia flood of introspection. The documentary “Tyson” opened at the Cannes Film Festival in 2008 and ushered him to Oprah’s couch and beyond for one reflective interview after another. Spike Lee directed him in “Mike Tyson: The Undisputed Truth,” a one-man Broadway show that eventually toured the country and this month became an HBO special. Fox Sports produced the six-part miniseries “Being Mike Tyson” this year. The process has become repetitive, although Tyson’s memoir delivers several sensational passages. “Sometimes,” Tyson writes, “I just fantasize about blowing somebody’s brains out so I can go to prison for the rest of my life. Working on this book makes me think that my whole life has been a joke.”
“Undisputed Truth” was written with Larry Sloman, who also helped Howard Stern with best-sellers “Private Parts” and “Miss America.” Sloman deftly captures Tyson’s voice.
Tyson grew up a street thug in the bleak and sleazy Brownsville section of Brooklyn, “a very horrific, tough and gruesome kind of place,” he writes. Throughout the book, he alternately blames and excuses his mother for their environment, how she moved them into abandoned buildings or slept with men she didn’t like just for shelter.
Tyson fans and boxing aficionados will have heard many of these stories before, but not in such riveting detail. They will find a few revelations as well.
He admits to using a prosthetic penis filled with clean urine to pass drug tests and let him fight while on cocaine and marijuana. He describes how, while imprisoned for rape, he had myriad sexual relationships. One of the women was his drug counselor. He writes about losing $1 million in a briefcase while on a Las Vegas bender.
There’s humor, contrition and deep sadness. He wallows in his shame but doesn’t limit punishment to himself. Tyson unleashes haymakers at first wife Robin Givens, boxing promoter Don King and many others who orbited his system.
Tyson’s friendship with Buffalo native Rick James provides rollicking material. Darker insights such as Tyson’s homicidal thoughts of King snap the reader back to attention.
He recalls the time, cranked on cocaine and testosterone, that he worked himself into a rage over all the money King made off him. As King drove his Rolls-Royce down I-95 toward Miami, Tyson kicked him in the head. “Boom! You don’t turn your back on a jealous cokehead,” Tyson writes. “Don swerved off onto the side median, and I started choking him from the backseat.”
Self-loathing is found in virtually every chapter. He regrets the way he let other kids dominate him physically and emotionally. The bullying forced him to quit school when he was 7 but ignited the fuse to an eventual champion known as Kid Dynamite. “I still feel like a coward to this day because of that bullying,” Tyson writes. “That’s a wild feeling, being that helpless. You never ever forget that feeling.”
Dozens of arrests by the time he was 13 sent Tyson to the Tryon School for Boys, where he caught the eye of a boxing instructor who then sent him to work with noted trainer Cus D’Amato in tony Catskill, N.Y. D’Amato had worked with former stars Floyd Patterson and Jose Torres. In Tyson, the aging D’Amato saw one last chance to mold a champion. Tyson wrote that he was “Thorazined out,” diagnosed as retarded, “and this old white guy gets a hold of me and gives me an ego.”
In the book, Tyson sometimes seems to be exposing himself more than examining himself. There’s a sense of class-voyeurism at play, and Tyson is more than willing to oblige.
For decades he has fascinated people as the disarming savage. He has images of Chairman Mao, Che Guevara and Arthur Ashe tattooed on his body and has been known to slacken jaws with a quote from Voltaire or Nietzsche.
Too often, though, Tyson has personified the scorpion-and-frog parable. This is the man who was convicted of rape, bit off a chunk of Evander Holyfield’s ear, went to prison a second time for a road-rage incident and managed to waste about a half-billion dollars. He reveals he made $65.7 million in 2001, yet filed for bankruptcy two years later.
The mission of Tyson’s memoir – as with the other incarnations of his bared-soul ventures – seems to be recovering dignity by debasing himself for our consideration. What he will not cop to is raping Desiree Washington. He steadfastly maintains he was railroaded by a scorned lover and suffered from an overmatched attorney in the 1992 trial that found him guilty.
Two decades later, he insists his everlasting wish is to become a family man. The most poignant portion of his book, as with his Lee-conducted theatrical monologue, is when Tyson delves into the emotions surrounding the death of his 4-year-old daughter, Exodus, in a freak household accident two years ago.
The passage underscores the premise that Tyson is a miscast monster. He’s a three-time husband and father of eight just trying to get by. He’s a vegan, an actor who has enjoyed notable roles in the “Hangover” movies, a recovering alcoholic, a Muslim.
Tyson claims he is holding himself and his demons accountable, but is he really trying to improve? “I’m going to show people I am a good man,” Tyson told The Buffalo News before his debut as a boxing promoter at the Turning Stone Casino in Verona. “I’m going to make good things happen. I’m going to help people. I’m going to have a positive frame of mind. I’m not going back into the dark world again.”
Two days after that story ran, Tyson beat himself up in the post-fight news conference. Through tears, he admitted, “I’m on the verge of dying because I’m a vicious alcoholic. ... I haven’t drank or took drugs in six days, and for me that’s a miracle. I’ve been lying to everybody else that think I was sober, but I’m not.”
Tyson’s revelation affected the autobiography. He intended to conclude “Undisputed Truth” by honoring his wife, Kiki, in the epilogue. He proclaims that he doesn’t deserve her, that she’s his motivation to be a better person.
But a postscript was added. Tyson explains that after the book was supposedly finished, he had a relapse in April. He started drinking again. He smoked dope again. He stumbled again in June, in July, in August.
Again, again, again.
Tim Graham is a Buffalo News sports reporter and has frequently covered Mike Tyson.