by Cliff Rold
The final scene of Raging Bull could be seen as a parallel. Robert DeNiro, in his role as former Middleweight Champion Jake LaMotta, prepares for a night on stage. He practices the part of his show where he will recite Marlon Brando’s famous monologue from On The Waterfront while he sucks on his cigar. Quietly, he ties his bow tie and heads for the stage.
It’s not meant as an uplifting end.
For Mike Tyson, Undisputed Truth has proven to be just that.
Last Saturday night, viewers were treated to a reunion between Spike Lee and Tyson on HBO. Their last pairing of note, the pre-fight piece prior to Tyson’s fight with Alex Stewart, remains some two decades later one of the most provocative and fascinating pieces of its kind ever made. Their new collaboration was equally fascinating.
It’s one cog of a trifecta of Tyson projects in 2013 that have put the once baddest man in the planet firmly back in the public light. The one-man show, and prior to that Fox Sports 1’s outstanding Being: Mike Tyson, gave us a snapshot of a champion at rest without resting.
Those were just snapshots.
The more complete picture is captured in Tyson’s remarkable memoir, also titled “Undisputed Truth” (By Mike Tyson, with Larry Sloman. Illustrated. 580 pages. Blue Rider Press. $30).
It is the best boxing book since Geoffrey C. Ward’s remarkable “Unforgivable Blackness” gave us the definitive portrait of former Heavyweight Champion Jack Johnson in 2010. In terms of boxing autobiographies or memoirs, it might be the finest ever written.
Some of the headlines since the book’s release on November 12 have unfortunately given into the lure of the salacious. The book creates ample opportunities to do so. Its language, violence, and willingness to linger on some of the worst days of Tyson’s life feed easily into captions about Tyson being high during fights.
There is much more going on between the books nearly 600 pages.
It begins via prologue in Indianapolis and Tyson’s conviction for rape in 1991 as he recounts, “…they shipped me off to the Indiana Youth Center in Plainfield, a facility for level-two and –three offenders. By the time I got to my final destination, I was consumed with rage. I was going to show these motherfuckers how to do time. My way. It’s funny, but it took me a long time to realize that that little white woman judge who sent me to prison just might have saved my life.”
From the fall, Tyson’s tale turns to the beginning and the foundation for his story. Accounts of street life in Brooklyn, his complicated relationship with his mother, and crimes both petty and violent, are rough. The motion of the story from those roots to his arrival in the home of trainer Cus D’Amato allows for one to see how the redemption of something as brutal as boxing can be so attractive.
His relationship with D’Amato frames so much of the book. The sometimes philosophical, often paranoid father figure carries throughout the text as does his education in the fighters of lore. Tyson expresses sadness that D’Amato wasn’t there when Tyson needed him later while also telling stories of talking to him years later in his own head, long after the trainer was gone. Tyson’s desire to play ring villain is credited in part to images imparted by D’Amato about what a great champion should be.
The voice of a father never really leaves us after all.
Tyson’s rise to becoming the youngest Heavyweight titlist in history with a 1986 knockout of Trevor Berbick fulfills the dream the two men shared.
What stands out, beginning in the stories of his amateur career, is what makes this account of Tyson’s life different from others previously written. For the first time, many will get the other side of the story. For years, boxing fans have heard about the gun incident with trainer Teddy Atlas, about Jose Torres attributing quotes to Tyson about violence, domestic and sexual, towards women. Many of those stories have become ingrained.
Here, Tyson gets to tell his side of the story. He frames the Atlas incident in a way that, if true, could be more sympathetic. In the case of Torres, who wrote an unflattering biography of Tyson in the 1980s, he vehemently denies the comments, offers an alternate context (he claims he was talking about hurting other fighters in the ring and not women in bed), and lays a profit motive at the feet of a Torres who he claims was a jaded response to his not being taken on as Tyson’s manager following the death of Jimmy Jacobs.
The Jacobs relationship, often mythologized, also gets some revision. Tyson’s feeling of betrayal when Jacobs died (without telling Tyson he was dying), and his never having liked Bill Cayton, illustrate how easy it was to be drawn in to a marriage with Robin Givens (and her mother) he wasn’t ready for.
The relationship with Givens is bitterly, if sometimes humorously, described amidst vivid accounts of the fights and opponents that defined the peak of the Tyson phenomenon and crashed so spectacularly at the hands of Buster Douglas in 1990.
Tyson also gets to air fully his side of the Desiree Washington story. Tyson strongly professes his innocence and makes a solid case for anyone who has been skeptical of his conviction over the years. There have always been plenty in that camp, and reasons of defense ineptitude are often cited. Tyson digs deeply into those matters in such a way that those on the fence may have their mind swayed. Its impact on future dealings with women, and later accusations that proved unfounded, is dramatic.
The debate about what really happened in Indianapolis will continue on.
Tyson’s relationship with manager John Horne, friend/manager Rory Holloway, and promoter Don King all get ample air. The abuse of Tyson’s finances is hard to ignore, but so too are Tyson’s descriptions of his own behavior. He was a man out of control, before and after prison, given to excesses of vice that had to affect his ability in the ring.
The rematch with Evander Holyfield, the famous “bite fight,” is seen from Tyson’s point of view, as are the years afterwards as he drifted away from his talents and into deeper cycles of drug and alcohol abuse.
For anyone who has been or known addicts, it is harrowing stuff. The last 100 pages becomes hard to read in spots as Tyson tells harrowing tales of cocaine, wild sex (a present factor throughout the book), violent outbursts (including a road rage incident that saw him incarcerated again), and revolving steps through treatment doors. At times, it reads like some of the closing scenes of “Scarface,” without the shootout.
There are hints of redemption, and then the book goes down the darkest of rabbit holes again. The death of his daughter, coming while he was in the midst of his fights with his demons, plays as both tragedy and catalyst for more abuse. Slowly, Tyson lost his fortune, a second marriage, and could well have lost his life.
That he is here to tell his story, to find a better familial bond in his third marriage, to appear in Hangover movies and take a one-man show on the road, would be hopeful in any story. For Tyson, it plays as one more round in a turbulent life. Appropriately, the book ends three different times.
The end of the book comes with Tyson relating himself to one of his pet pigeons and the statement, “I’m truly grateful that I found my wings before I hit the ground.” Two epilogues follow revealing it can’t that simple for Tyson. His feelings of self-loathing and confusion continue in a lengthy diatribe in the first. A relapse after years of sobriety colors the second, the final words ringing true.
“I have a lot of pain and I just want to heal. And I’m going to do my best to do just that. One day at a time.”
This year has marked a renaissance for Tyson. “Undisputed Truth” is a story about how much it took to get to here and how hard it might be to build on this new success.
The book is not perfect. There are some minor errors in terms of naming various sanctioning bodies and Tyson’s impressions about his Hall of Fame induction in 2011 are misguided. Tyson states surprise he’d been inducted after being passed over previously. In fact, he was voted in on his first year of eligibility in 2010, five years after his final fight.
These are minor quibbles.
For some, the book may offend or simply be too harsh. For those who can see past those elements, there is a hell of story told here. Some of it will be familiar, some of it will be new.
All of it is genuinely Tyson.
It is a must have for any boxing fan’s bookshelf.
The Weekly Ledger
But wait, there’s more…
Ward Report Card: http://www.boxingscene.com/andre-ward-cruises-post-fight-report-card--71854
Ponce Moves Along: http://www.boxingscene.com/ponce-de-leon-begins-super-featherweight-hunt--71778
Glazkov, Dargan Win in NY: http://www.boxingscene.com/glazkov-outworks-wilson-dargan-chilemba-win--71756
TBRB Weekly Update: http://www.tbrb.info/
No matter how one spins it, there’s no excuse for someone in 2013 expressing anger using race or ethnicity as a negative adjective. Freddie Roach deserves some heat for the words he chose in Macau in a situation he helped to escalate…That said, people say stupid things when they’re heated, and often after things get physical. Men should be judged by their lives, not by errant words in the heat of a moment. ‘Gotcha’ culture sucks…On actual boxing, there will be thoughts on Pacquiao-Rios later in the week. There won’t be many for its fairly atrocious undercard. The overall show could be an indictment of how top heavy the Top Rank cupboard is right now, but it’s probably more just Arum being Arum. At least there’s no Butterbean…Carl Froch-George Groves is the sort of clash of young and old boxing can never do without. Froch should be favored but Groves is a solid guy. No, he doesn’t have a big resume, but neither did Froch before he did…Vitali Klitschko needs to go or get off the pot. There’s no reason for careers to be held in stasis while he decides if he’ll follow up that epic with Manuel Charr…Tyson Fury is about as retired as Floyd Mayweather was in 2008…Frustration about the David Haye fight following through is understandable. For a guy with less than 30 fights, Haye has accomplished plenty but what might have been if he’d had the desire to fight that others with less talent have.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]