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Autumn 2014
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Books and Culture

Paul Beston
This American Life
Mike Tyson: delinquent, champion, felon, addict, penitent
22 November 2013

Undisputed Truth, by Mike Tyson with Larry Sloman (Blue Rider Press, 592 pp., $30)

“I am the piece of gum on the bottom of your shoe,” a self-lacerating Mike Tyson said in 2000. But until recently, Tyson seemed more like a mass of unexploded ordnance that could start cooking off at any time. “I wish that you guys had children,” he told reporters a few years later, “so I could kick them in the f---in’ head or stomp on their testicles, so you could feel my pain because that’s the pain I have, waking up every day.” Great as he was as a boxer, he was mastered by life outside the ring, and his rage and self-destructiveness suggested one fate: an early grave. That he is getting to the near side of 50 as a family man and budding entertainer might be the biggest upset since he lost his heavyweight title in 1990 to Buster Douglas. Now, the former Baddest Man on the Planet says he wants to be of service to humanity. “I had to start my life all over,” he writes. But who would have dreamed that he could make a go of it?

He describes the journey in his new memoir, Undisputed Truth, written with Larry Sloman (Howard Stern’s collaborator on Private Parts), who captures Tyson’s voice unerringly. The nearly 600-page book is compulsively readable and sometimes hilarious. (“Back then when I wanted to get my head clear, I went to a strip club. That’s just what people did back in the early 2000s.”) It’s also repetitive, serially profane, moving, and ultimately exhausting, a bit like listening to a troubled friend talk through the night. Nearly a third of it is devoted to Tyson’s post-boxing life and his attempt to remake himself. He chronicles his long career as a hedonist and drug addict, showing an astounding memory for detail. Cocaine- and Viagra-fueled orgies, problems with “delusional hos,” and legal and financial issues take up many pages.

In this testament of the most famous prizefighter since Muhammad Ali, the boxing parts sometimes seem incidental. Tyson is generous toward most of his former foes and regretful about his most infamous moment in the ring: when he bit off a piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear in their 1997 rematch, for which he was disqualified. Yet he still holds Holyfield culpable for provoking him with head butts, and he throws in a reference to Holyfield’s links with an Alabama steroid ring for good measure. Tyson says he barely trained for his fight with Douglas in Tokyo; he was too busy having sex with Japanese maids “like I was eating grapes.” After losing, he lay on his hotel bed and sensed that he had “become so big that God was jealous of me.”

Such megalomania is one of the book’s themes, and it has its roots in Tyson’s traumatic childhood in Brownsville, Brooklyn, which remains one of New York’s most dangerous neighborhoods. Back in the 1970s, it may as well have been a shooting gallery. The book’s opening chapter reads something like a contemporary version of Richard Wright’s Black Boy. Tyson never knew his biological father; his stepfather was a pimp who surfaced occasionally. His mother gave him liquor to help him sleep, and he slept in her bed, even when another man was there, until he was 15. The seven-year-old Tyson is bullied viciously in ways that make the word “bullying,” as we use it today, seem paltry. He is routinely robbed for money and food. Tyson decides not to go to school anymore, except for breakfast and lunch; no one misses him. After nearly being pummeled by a gang of older boys, he finds a way to be useful: helping shoo their pet pigeons from rooftops of adjacent buildings. Thus is born his own love of the birds, so reminiscent of Brando’s Terry Malloy character in On the Waterfront. “It’s unexplainable; it just gets in your blood,” Tyson writes. Tyson the fighter is born when an older tough takes a pigeon from him and rips the bird’s head off. Tyson knocks the boy out cold in the Brownsville streets, and he notices the way people are magnetized toward him. It’s a classic origin myth, the kind found in every great boxer’s story and that of most comic-book characters, too. (Tyson’s famous postfight outbursts were often quotations from his idols, whether old boxers or villains, such as Apocalypse from the X-Men comics, from whom he lifted: “How dare they challenge me with their primitive skills!”).

Now respected on the street, young Tyson embarked on a prolific robbing and mugging career, and he was soon put on Thorazine and moving through the juvenile-court system. After being sent upstate to a series of reform schools, Tyson learned his formal boxing in Catskill, New York, under the direction of Cus D’Amato, a 71-year-old mostly retired trainer. D’Amato was so irascible and peculiar that he had become an outcast in the boxing world, which takes some doing. D’Amato took one look at the 13-year-old Tyson, decided that he was the future of boxing, and became his legal guardian. So began years of Spartan preparation for an agreed-upon destiny: to become the youngest heavyweight champion in history (an earlier D’Amato charge, Floyd Patterson, had won the title at 21). D’Amato believed that boxing was mostly mental, and he schooled Tyson in the psychology of fear, intimidation, and self-discipline. He told Tyson that he would make the world forget his predecessors—Jack Johnson and Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali. “I was this useless Thorazined-out nigga who was diagnosed as retarded,” Tyson writes, “and this old white guy gets ahold of me and gives me an ego.”

That D’Amato did, but the old sage’s counsel lacked moral content. He told Tyson that he would never hear “no,” that the word would be like a foreign language to him. Character mattered only insofar as it concerned reaching the goal and smashing obstacles in the way, including people. “Cus wanted the meanest fighter that God ever created, someone who scared the life out of people before they even entered the ring,” Tyson writes. “He trained me to be totally ferocious, in the ring and out.” Borrowing imagery from old-time fighters, Tyson wore black, with no socks or robe, and cut his hair in the “hobo” style of Dempsey 70 years earlier. When the bell rang, he tried to knock opponents out with every punch he threw. He became the greatest draw in boxing history.

Only in time would Tyson see the limitations of D’Amato’s teachings. “My social skills,” he writes, “consisted of putting a guy in a coma.” His confusion deepened when D’Amato died before the dream could be fulfilled. Tyson won the title at 20 in 1986, but by then D’Amato had been gone a year. “I don’t think I ever did get over his death,” Tyson writes. “After Cus died, I just didn’t care about anything anymore. I was basically fighting for the money.” His decline got underway almost immediately, even as boxing scribes matched him up against Ali, Louis, and Dempsey in the time-honored fashion. When he lost to Douglas, Tyson was all of 23. He would never regain his early form.

At least two people will dispute this book’s self-defeating title: Robin Givens and Desiree Washington. Givens, a sitcom actress, became Tyson’s first wife in 1988. Along with her controlling mother, Ruth Roper, whom Tyson calls Ruthless, Givens attempted to take charge of Tyson’s contractual and financial affairs. The marriage degenerated quickly, and Givens alleged physical violence—most famously in a 1988 Barbara Walters interview, with Tyson sitting beside her. Tyson paints her as “a manipulative shrew who could bring me to my knees” and was interested mostly in his money.

Desiree Washington was the young beauty pageant contestant who claimed that Tyson raped her in an Indianapolis hotel room in July 1991. Tyson denied it then and denies it now. Undisputed Truth tries to punch holes in Washington’s credibility and excoriates Tyson’s defense team, led by tax attorney Vince Fuller, whose bizarre strategy was to portray their client as an uncontrollable sexual brute. But Tyson was convicted in 1992, and even Alan Dershowitz couldn’t win him a new trial. He served three years in prison.

Like Malcom X before him, Tyson took advantage of the prison’s extensive library, even wielding a dictionary and thesaurus, as Malcolm had, to look up unfamiliar words. He read Machiavelli, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Che, and Mao, but he found Hemingway “too much of a downer.” He also maintained a supply of visiting women for sex, mastered schemes for making money behind bars, garnered favored treatment that mirrored his star status in the real world—and emerged more unstable than ever.

Tyson made $80 million in his first four fights after getting out, winning back pieces of his old title. But he couldn’t get past Holyfield, an old rival who had never feared him. Holyfield beat Tyson, now 30, in a stirring battle in 1996, but their rematch the next year has become known as the Bite Fight. Tyson crossed a Rubicon from notorious to absurd, becoming a pop cultural joke. The Holyfield bouts marked the end of his serious boxing career, though he kept at it for years more. He plunged full-time into decadence, his life a constant parade of women, casual assaults, squandered cash, and rampant drug use. “I was getting so high, my brain was getting fried,” he writes.

Tyson turned himself around with the help of 70-year-old Marilyn Murray, a pioneering psychologist in treating trauma victims and sex abusers. Murray was like a second D’Amato without the demagoguery: she visualized Tyson as “a respectable man with my family, staying in the house,” and Tyson began to reorder his life toward that end. With his third wife, Kiki, he has two young children (he has fathered eight children in all). His personal transformation has inspired many, even as his demons remain with him; he made headlines last summer when he announced that he had fallen off the wagon after three years of sobriety. But he got back on, and his future seems promising: acting, boxing promotion and commentary, personal appearances. He won’t earn $300 million, as he did in the ring, but he figures to do well. As the American public embraces Tyson again, though, the question of how much adulation a convicted rapist merits should not be Desiree Washington’s to ask alone.

Before the heavyweight title fell into Russian hands, the greatest American champions transcended the ring and were known to all. Muhammad Ali set a new standard, becoming a global figure. Tyson may not reach that status, but he has become a powerful symbol of three prominent American realities: the urban black underclass experience, the nexus between sports and violence, and the recovery movement, whose language shapes so much of our understanding of personal struggle, for good and ill. When Tyson appeared on Oprah in 2009, it was as if the movement’s high priestess had found her exemplar—a damaged human being but a formidable self-creator. The new Tyson shares at least one trait with the old: he commands our attention but warrants our caution.

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