- Donald Chauncey: In conversation with Barron Sherer
- Alex Gartenfeld: In Conversation With Heather Flow
Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth
-RICHARD PRICE, THE WIRE
“The people of this society that believe I’m trash and scum, I’ll be trash, and I’ll be scum. But I’ll be angelic trash and scum.”
In the 1980s, Tyson was seen as both an animal and as a machine—the tenaciousness with which he trained, combined with the savage clockwork of his fights, produced a truly liminal man. Yet it was in the 1990s when a series of controversies calcified to create a type of death mask of noble public figure. In other words—a celebrity. The extent of this evolution shown in the light of the screen, which featured his trademarked (this isn’t a figure of speech, ask the producers of The Hangover II) facial tattoo, looking like a decorative ninja knife mounted above some drug dealer’s flat screen.
As the crowd filled up the Adrienne Arsht Center, it was a clear reminder that more than any other sporting event, boxing still could suspend differences of race and class and gender, leaving us what we are, Americans, those in search of something to look at. In the crowd were those who had seen Tyson fight 25 years ago, or 15 years ago (what a long decade that was); and then there were the younger generation, fans like me, infatuated or dispassionately interested by this specimen, both the casualty and a triggerman, of American sports celebrity. But he wouldn’t be fighting, just proffering a behind-the- scenes, no-holds-barred version of his story— the truth, undisputed.
The lights dim. And if anything could wash away the years, bite the ir- off of irrelevance, it would be the opening deern deern, deern deern, deern deern, deern deern of “Niggaz in Paris.” The track soon looped in on a comparative verse from Jay-Z. “Psycho/ I’m liable/ to go Michael, take your pick/ Jackson, Tyson, Jordon, Game six.” became “Tyson, Tyson, Tyson,” became “Tys, Tys, Tys.” And then he was on stage, sitting on a solitary stool, illuminated from above by a single thread of light casting him as the sole protagonist in the war between hope and despair.
He began to talk, that voice, already moving between two poles—calm, introspective: “I want you all to know who I am;” and manic: “I’m the guy who used to knock motherfuckers out!” While the verbs and nouns are in order, this is a pseudo-direct quote, and I’m fine with that, because how can anyone be sure of what he’s saying when it is clear that he isn’t. In an interview published the day before (April 15th) on ABCnews.com in which he describes his veganism, Tyson is quoted as being real carnivolous and obeast. But at the Arsht center, there were no flagrant lexicographical hooters, except for the slight over- and misuse of “proverbial.” Not that that even matters. I can’t think of another athlete, save for Yogi Berra, who has been more often quoted. As to what he was talking about…
The first thing Tyson talked about was Tyson, the extraordinary 2008 James Toback documentary. It won an award at Cannes, Tyson said (I remember being surprised by how well he pronounced the city’s name, as this is the same man who once claimed to have met the president of Istanbul) but it had been filmed right after he left rehab. Because of this, it was “dark,” and not an accurate portrait of who he is. With Undisputed Truth, he hoped to set the record straight.
The stage show has been on a national tour since its Broadway debut last fall, recasting Tyson in his most honorable appearance in decades, and providing cash for his well-publicized problems with the IRS. Although directed by Spike Lee and written by his wife Kiki Tyson, Undisputed Truth is almost solely propelled by the former heavyweight champ, who narrates his life with the help of a slideshow projected behind him.
As the opening images flicker by—diegetic street signs bringing us to Brooklyn—it becomes clear that Spike’s cultural relevance bottomed out with the 2010 Absolut Brooklyn campaign, and now he has rounded the horn from chronicler to peddler of chronicles. (With this in mind, think of Tyson’s attraction to an earlier mythmaker, Don King of “only in America” fame). An early image of his mother, a faded photograph, looks like it was enlarged from a book on the Harlem Renaissance, so timeless and dignified it is. It’s the only photograph Tyson has of Lorna Smith Tyson, who moved north from Charlottesville, Virginia with hopes of becoming a schoolteacher. It would have been a very different show had it kept up the elegiac tone of those early images. But the jokes, and by that I mean the nervously-strung white-people jokes, began early with a photograph of Tyson as a white baby—“How’d that get in there?”—and reached a climax somewhat later, when describing an interchange with boxer Irish Bob Stewart. Tyson, speaking of some or another aggression, shouts “Fuck you motherfucker!” before backtracking, “oh, that’s white people…” He pauses, gathers himself, and lowers his voice an octave. “Fuck you nigga!”
The accents continue throughout, as Tyson moved from Jewish attorney to stoned ghetto kid to the anonymous Staten Islander like Paul Lawrence Dunbar, if Dunbar ever did Vegas. The poet himself was a master of parody, but Tyson is not. And that’s the problem with doing impressions: the target is difficult to hit, and you leave yourself wide open. Still, they were revealing. Cus D’Amato, the man who rescued Tyson from an anonymous and early grave, taught him to box, and whom Tyson treats with respect unparalleled, comes off as Alvin the Chip- munk with emphysema. (Imagine the courthouse scene in Casino with all of the oxygen tanks replaced with helium.) But what does it mean when Tyson, the nasally dude, does the voice of his hero and father figure in a similar yet (if possible) more exaggerated fashion. Does that betray anything as to how he feels about his own speech, his oft- parodied Achilles heel?
Early in the show it became clear that this wasn’t behind the scenes, if only because there haven’t been scenes in Tyson’s life. Of course, there have been scenes as in “for the love of God, stop causing a —.” But for a scene to exist in a theatrical sense, there must be another space hidden behind, in which the contemplative planning takes place. But since the 1984 Junior Olympics, Tyson has never been the pugilist at rest; his life has been so entwined with his fights in the ring, or his fights at press conferences, as to become inseparable. He’s not unique in this regard, because if a boxer, isn’t fighting, then he’s not himself. In her 1988 essay On Mike Tyson, Joyce Carol Oates speaks to this collision of action and identity. “The existential experience of the fight itself—spectacular, amplified, recorded in its very minute detail—is not only the culmination of the formidable training period but in its very flowering, or fruition, it presents the boxer-as-per- former to the world.” Later in the essay, she argues “that a man as a boxer is an action, and no longer a man…” What sets him apart from other boxers, many of whom have been arrested or become household names or invented low-fat grilling machines, is the brutality and pervasiveness of his image. Had Ali been born a few decades later, in the MTV era, things might have been similar. Tyson is boxing’s image, and Undisputed Truth was about Tyson coming to terms with that image, trying it to wrest it from his detractors (and from his fans, as if those two need separation), trying to make it his own.
This strangely scripted explosiveness was most evident in the jokes of the show, which were stupid enough to be well received. Juvie—the terminus of 38 arrests by the age of 12, was like Cheers, “a place where everybody knows your name.” “Boxing was love at first fight.” Similarly, when Tyson switches up and engages tragedy, the results were just as canned. His mother “died of a broken heart.” Yet the next line, which I’m fairly sure wasn’t scripted, held all of the pathos and sympathy than the rest of the show. “She used to talk about her death all the time, was worried about being put in Potter’s field.” Tyson knows how to work an audience, but he’s uncomfortable with the level of artifice required for bourgeois theater. (One wonders if he read Artaud while in prison.) At moments like that, which too transparently evoke the normal plot arc of a tragic hero, Undisputed Truth felt cortazoned up, brain dead, a tomato can set up so that Spike could get paid, Tyson could get paid, the IRS could get paid. But between the long stretches of the planned, the good old Mike Tyson that we lovvve to hate popped up. Late in the show, while he was discussing his addictions or recovery or some other Oprahism, he slipped and made a joke about the Boston bombings. They had happened the day before. A collective gasp went out, but Tyson himself was the most shocked. He retreated to the back of the stage and then moved on, acknowledging nothing. But that backstep was all anyone needed. We don’t know this man; he doesn’t know himself.
And we didn’t learn much. Rather than spending time behind the scenes of the big episodes, Tyson dwelled on smaller set pieces that added up to a lot, but not enough to recast this man before our eyes. He spoke about Teddy Atlas holding a gun to his head. He talked about beating Mitch Green on the concrete outside of Dapper Dan’s in Harlem until Green shit himself. He recounted how Florence Henderson from The Brady Bunch came to visit him at what is now the Plainfield Correctional Facility. But as to why he was in prison, we only got a few lines, capstoned by “I did not rape Desiree Washington.” Whether he did or didn’t was moot right then. The applause that spewed from the audience, the cheers, as if the operative verb was too lost in lisp to be even heard, was decidedly not moot. It was a strange moment, one that showed how schadenfreude can turn to devotion.
* * *
“I’m booty shaking for the IRS,” he warned, before shaking his ass. This Olympiad, pinnacle of perfection, the only everyman to trickle up, convicted rapist, keyholder of Rolls Royces and Ferraris and a Bentley with a sticker that read “I Heart Allah,” this American nightmare, shaking his ass. That was something. But it was nothing compared to a fleeting grin that showed how he, again, managed to twist just slightly in the jaws of fate, managed to escape, if not the mucus-y humiliation, at least the tears of incisors. That same look emerged in 2005, when he quit before the seventh round with Kevin McBride. The fight had been close, closer than any fight with a journeyman should be, but Tyson stepped down. He claimed that his heart wasn’t in it anymore, that he had only done it because he needed the money. And like that, his expected defeat became a victory. He achieved autonomy, escaped romance. He didn’t really lose, because he didn’t really try. Don King owns the rights to his likeness.