By Thomas Gerbasi
NEW YORK – Sorry Las Vegas, but the truth of the matter is that the only real place for former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson to deliver his one man show “Undisputed Truth” is in his hometown of New York City.
And that’s where “Iron Mike” was on Tuesday night, as he began the second installment of the show, which initially ran in Vegas for a week in April. This time, Tyson’s retrospective of his life – as directed by Spike Lee - will run for 12 performances through August 12th, and if the first night was any indication, the often troubled and polarizing, but always compelling Brooklynite may have found a new life on the stage.
Simply put, the 46-year old Tyson is a natural performer and storyteller, one who has embraced the opportunity to tell his story in two hours that don’t seem to be enough to fit in all the twists and turns of his life. And to the credit of Tyson, his wife Kiki (who wrote the show), and Lee, this isn’t a chronological trip down memory lane complete with glossed over downs, elevated ups, and a blow by blow retelling of his greatest fights.
In fact, truth be told, boxing appears to be a very small part of “Undisputed Truth.” Sure, it is always present, but with the exception of a segment focusing on his early days in the sport and his relationship with his original trainer and mentor Cus D’Amato, it’s not the main storyline, or at least not the main storyline Tyson wants to address. If you want to look a little deeper, maybe that’s the last time the most feared heavyweight of his era saw the sport as pure and competed for the love of the game, and that everything after the death of D’Amato was tainted in some form by money, hanger ons, and a life that was rapidly spiraling out of control.
It’s in the middle of this tornado that Tyson’s move from sports star to equally revered and reviled icon began, and it’s something he looks at with a candid frankness and self-effacing humor. Ex-wife Robin Givens is skewered with little mercy, and after a particularly crushing barrage directed at Givens and her mother, Tyson stops and says “But I’m not bitter…I’m just telling my story.”
Tyson’s bitterness does come through in one of the more somber parts of the show though, as he addresses Desiree Washington, his rape conviction, and subsequent imprisonment. Still protesting his innocence, it’s a segment that isn’t lightened by a joke or a segue into something light-hearted, and the packed theatre responded in kind.
It’s not all downers though, as Tyson’s recounting of his infamous Harlem brawl with Mitch “Blood” Green is a true highlight, and his recollection of growing up in Brownsville and getting into trouble with the law had the feel of a standup comedy routine and not a serious one man show.
When it comes to Tyson’s life in boxing, he does address the oft-retold story of the incident between himself and Teddy Atlas, and of course his losses to Buster Douglas and Evander Holyfield. But when it comes to his big wins, there is a cursory mention of beating Trevor Berbick for the heavyweight title, but not one word about his career-defining win over Michael Spinks. That may disappoint diehard fight fans, but Tyson’s true appeal was never strictly about boxing. It was about this kid from Brownsville who was on the wrong path before boxing and D’Amato saved him. Then he became a beacon for those wanting to see the ferocious knockout artist would implode. And once that happened, he amazingly found ways to bury himself further.
But today, Tyson has reinvented himself as a family man who has taken responsibility for his past and is now taking the steps to reveal himself and that past, warts and all. This is never more evident than when he talks about the death of his four-year old daughter Exodus in 2009. Speaking to the crowd as a picture of his child is displayed on a video screen, he admits to not being the best parent, but that Exodus’ death has helped make him into one that, while still a work in progress, is better than the one before. As he spoke of the tragic incident, you could hear a pin drop, and the man formerly known as “The Baddest Man on the Planet” was suddenly just a distraught father talking about the worst moment a parent could experience.
And Tyson’s ability to take you into his life - his good times, bad times, and his pain - is the true appeal of “Undisputed Truth.” It’s raw, sometimes too raw, but it’s also real. While there is certainly a scripted element to the show, it doesn’t feel like it, and Tyson doesn’t appear to be running through a by the numbers talk about his life. The show feels like what it would be like to be hanging out with the Hall of Famer and just hearing him tell stories, and as he addressed rap star (and new boxing promoter) 50 Cent in the audience, “Iron Mike” appeared to feel the same way. It wasn’t a big Broadway production, it wasn’t a Pay-Per-View event telecast to the world. It was Mike Tyson talking smack with his buddies. And trust me, there’s no better way to spend two hours, whether you’re a boxing fan or a fan of getting a look inside one of the most interesting figures of this era.