Over the years, Mike Tyson has made the world cheer for his boxing prowess and cringe at his addiction- and rage-fueled misadventures.
With his one-man show “Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth,” which comes to Reno’s Silver Legacy Resort Casino on Feb. 6, Tyson accomplishes something entirely new. He makes audiences understand.
Based on Tyson’s best-selling memoir of the same name, the critically acclaimed production was co-written by Tyson and his wife, Kiki, and directed by Spike Lee. “Undisputed Truth” takes the crowd from the boxer’s bleak Brooklyn beginnings to triumphant status as the heavyweight champion of the world, and from self-destruction to redemption.
“It’s a rollercoaster of emotions. That’s the best way I can describe it,” he said.
The trademark lisp is there, but as Tyson narrates “my mistakes, my heartaches, my joy, my sorrow, my gift, my life, my undisputed truth,” he’s transformed into a compelling raconteur.
Nowadays, Tyson has a philosophy that helps him stay grounded. “You need to try your best to be humble because, if you don’t, life will bring humbleness upon you,” he said.
When his story began, however, he was light years away from this hard-won realization.
Tyson grew up in Brownsville, a neighborhood of Brooklyn where nearly 40 percent of residents live below the poverty line and violent crime is endemic
Young Mike roamed the street with a bunch of rudderless kids, drinking, gambling and thieving. “We were like a pack of wild wolves,” he relates in his show. But he had one quality that made him stand out from the pack. By age 12, he had established himself as a fierce street fighter. By 13, he had been arrested more than 38 times.
Ironically, it was another arrest that laid the path to Tyson’s success. After a 1978 stint at Spofford Juvenile Detention Center, he was transferred to Tryon School for Boys in New York. The physical education instructor at the reform school, Bobby Stewart, was an amateur boxer who trained a select group of students in the sweet science.
At first, Stewart was reluctant to take on Tyson, given his reputation as a troublemaker. The would-be boxer was persistent, however, and, in 1981, Stewart introduced him to legendary boxing trainer Cus D’Amato.
D’Amato saw potential in the 14-year-old. He took him under his wing, teaching him to fight in the peek-a-boo style and helping him visualize a path that led from life in the streets to acclaim as the youngest heavyweight champ in history. In 1984, a year before he died of pneumonia, D’Amato adopted Tyson.
If D’Amato made any mistake, it was the way he pumped Tyson up, telling Tyson he was on his way to become “a warrior god.” This kind of talk, combined with a mounting number of single-round KO’s, made “Iron Mike” think he was invincible.
This belief was cemented on Nov. 22, 1986. After five minutes and 35 seconds, he knocked out defending heavyweight champion Trevor Berbick to take the World Boxing Council heavyweight championship.
At 20, he was the youngest fighter to wear the belt. In March 1987, he defended his title against James Smith, winning the World Boxing Association championship. Five months later, he took the International Boxing Federation title from Tony Tucker, becoming the first heavyweight to boast simultaneous ownership of the three major boxing belts.
Next came Tyson’s much-documented decline.
The fighter began partying more than training and his game, in and out of the ring, began to slip.
In 1988, he broke his hand during a street brawl with professional fighter Mitch Green. His marriage to TV actress Robin Givens ended after a year in 1989 amid allegations of spousal abuse. And in 1992, Tyson was convicted or raping Miss Black American contestant Desiree Washington.
The silver lining of his subsequent three-year imprisonment was his conversion to Islam, which he says has brought him a modicum of peace. “I’m very grateful to be a Muslim. Allah doesn’t need me, I need Allah,” he told Fox News in 2013.
Tyson, who attempted to regain his dominance after his release, was matched against heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield in 1996. Tyson was knocked out in the 11th round. Down but not out, Tyson reportedly looked forward to vengeance via a June 1997 rematch.
The record number of TV viewers got more than they bargained for when Tyson bit his opponent in the third round, completely severing much of Holyfield’s right ear. He was fined $3 million and his boxing license was revoked. His license was reinstated in 1998, but Tyson’s gloves were shelved for another nine months when he was sentenced to prison for an attack on a Maryland motorist.
His next highly publicized fight, against heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis was the beginning of the end. It had been preceded by hyperbolic threats on the part of Tyson, including a challenge to Lewis that he would “eat his children.” Instead, Lewis knocked Tyson out. Tyson, who said he lost his will to channel “Iron Mike” after the Lewis fight, retired in 2006.
Looking back at that unmoored time, he has sage advice for young people hoping to make it in boxing or any field.
“You need to listen, get some dedication and focus, and have a plan B,” he said.
A plan B was well overdue but, first, he had one more rock-bottom to reach. In 2006, he was arrested for a DUI and possession of cocaine after he nearly crashed into a police vehicle.
Today, Tyson, 49, seeks to keep his life balanced via 12-step programs aimed at battling addiction. He also keeps busy, thanks to a career renaissance triggered by a blockbuster comedy.
Tyson is eccentric. He once kept a menagerie of big cats in his palatial Las Vegas digs and, in 2003, he got his face tattooed with a tribal insignia. “The Hangover” (2009) played with such quirks when the bachelor party-gone-wild encounters Tyson. The cameo was a watershed moment.
“It was a big movement. It helped me take things to the next step,” Tyson said.
Having established he was willing to have fun with himself, Tyson was hired to voice the title character in the Adult Swim cartoon “Mike Tyson Mysteries.” The show follows Tyson, his adopted daughter, a friendly ghost and a booze-loving pigeon as they solve mysteries.
“The show has a lot of fans,” Tyson said. “It’s a wonderful thing, I assure you.”
As evident in “Undisputed,” he hasn’t forgiven Givens, who received a $10 million divorce settlement. Nor has he forgiven his onetime manager, boxing impresario Don King, who he says fleeced him out of millions.
Still, most of Tyson’s travails are now water under the bridge. And all of it, the highs and the lows, are fodder for his “Undisputed.” It’s an intense show, but Tyson says he never gets stage fright.
“I get nervous when I’m not on stage. I love being on stage,” he said. “I have to perform. If I had to perform on a street corner or a subway, I’d do it.”