Mike Tyson on Broadway
Iron Mike Spins Tales from the Hood
Mike Tyson’s one man Broadway show, The Undisputed Truth, which was is now being broadcast as an HBO special, came as quite a surprise to many who witnessed it – the present writer included. Speaking in what appeared to be an extemporaneous style, Mike was by turns serious, ironic, and comedic. He slipped seamlessly from donning the masks of tragedy and comedy in a way that would be impressive for a trained actor who had logged many hours on the stage.
But to carry a one man show and keep the audience entertained for over an hour, conjuring moods of pathos and bathos at will, was far beyond anything the audience could reasonably expect from a man who had spent his life in the boxing ring and had a public image as a barely articulate brute who didn’t merely want to subdue his opponents but maim or even kill them. After watching one of Tyson’s fights Larry Holmes, one of the all-time great Heavy-Weight Champions, remarked: “Most boxers just want to win the fight, but this kid acts like he wants to kill somebody!”
When Tyson burst upon the boxing scene I had been involved in the game as a publicist for Butch Louis Productions – in fact, I created the publicity department in 1981 – where I represented the Olympic Gold Medalist and World Light-Heavy Weight Champion Michael Spinks, one of the all-time greats. I also represented Greg Page and Tony Tubbs, all of whom became World Heavy-Weight Champions.
After leaving Butch Louis I became involved with the promotion of fighters in the lower weight classes, the highlight of which was negotiating a match between the Undisputed Welter-Weight Champion Sugar Ray Leonard vs. the Undisputed Middle Weight Champion Marvelous Marvin Hagler for the undisputed Middle-Weight title. When Leonard got a detached retina in a tune-up fight with Bruce Finch at the MGM Grand Casino in Reno, Leonard retired and I quit the boxing game.
Negotiating with the Great Sugar Ray Leonard
Trying to make the match with Marvelous Marvin
When Mike Spinks and Mike Tyson met in a match to unify the Heavy-Weight title on June 27, 1988 I attended the prefight party hosted by Donald Trump in Manhattan. It was a posh affair and everybody was dressed to the height of fashion. Perfumed and pomaded, dressed in a black tux, white silk bow tie and cummerbund, Spinks looked like a parlor pimp. Actress Robin Givens Tyson, Mike’s wife, was dressed in a chic upper-class style that reflected her Sarah Lawrence education and reminded one of Jackie Kennedy. She was running around like a chicken with a freshly wrung neck, anxiously awaiting the arrival of her husband.
Although I was there as a journalist I was hanging out with the Spinks camp. And as is characteristic of prize fights, the Spinks and Tyson camps were selling woff tickets trash talkin each other. The boxing game has its of style of trash talkin. For instance, despite the fact that the fighters will enter the ring alone and suffer the battering and bruising, everybody in their respective camps are yelling “We want Spinks!” or “We Want Tyson!” I was prepared to talk a lot of smack until Tyson actually showed up.
Dressed in a pair of wrinkled pants, with half of his shirt hanging out of his pants B-Boy style, he wore a scowl on his face accompanied by a definite IDGAF attitude that seemed to say “Speak outta yo mouth wrong and I wll bust yo ass!” He was a menacing figure; the only professional prize fighter I have ever been around who gave off that kind of vibe. So as he walked by me, I remained as quiet as a church mouse. The guy really looked like he would smack a spectator who mouthed off to him. He was a dangerous guy, like a ticking time bomb. And when he and the great Michael Spinks met in the ring, the fight lasted all of ninety seconds: the shortest Heavy-Weight Championship fight in history!
At the height of his career Tyson was viewed as pretty near invincible. The youngest fighter to wear the Heavy-Weight crown, he was a whirlwind of rage and fury, as one opponent after another crumbled under his non-stop blows. Given the ring sobriquet “Iron Mike,” because of the way he simply crushed the best boxers in the Heavy-Weight division, Tyson was not the kind of artless brawler with a granite jaw that could simply punch hard and was always trying to get the knockout while absorbing a lot of punishment from more skilled opponents.
On the contrary he was a gifted pugilist who had mastered all the elements of the game. He was a superb boxer/puncher who was so skilled at slipping punches it was hard to hit him with a hand full of rice, and a devastating puncher who could dispatch an opponent to dream land with a variety of punches from either hand. Mike was indeed a great master of his trade. And he was well beloved by boxing fans, most of whom are as bloodthirsty as the mobs in the ancient Roman arenas. And Mike loved it!
Iron Mike Demolishes Michael Spinks
Perhaps it is because he had found a métier where he was able to acquire fame and fortune in vast quantities, and had developed and affection for the roar of the crowd, which led Mike into show business. And the decision to reminisce about his life story on stage has proven to be a bold and brilliant decision, because Mike’s life is a virtual treasure trove of material from which an able actor/playwright could fashion a moving theatrical experience. Shakespeare gave us the key when he declared “the play is the thing,” and Mike Tyson’s life story is one hellava play.
Spawned in the bowels of Brooklyn and growing up on the mean streets of Brownsville, his story has the elements common to most who choose the blood sport of boxing as a vocation. But not all boxers experience the level of family disorganization as Mike. And while he suffered the deficit of guidance experienced by most fatherless boys growing up in big cities, he also came of age in the final decades of the twentieth century when many young black boys began to get their moral education from rappers rather than reverends. And since human beings are creatures formed by narratives through which the values of society and the purpose of existence are imparted; whoever tells the stories shapes the moral compass of the youths.
It is clear that the moral universe in which Mike Tyson’s consciousness was formed is chaotic and nihilistic. He was one of the lost boys personified by the “Thug Life” values of Tupac Shakur, one of Mike’s favorite rappers. It is such a tangle of pathology and confusion that even fame and great wealth couldn’t save them from their self-destructive tendencies. Hence Tupac wrecked his life acting out his “gangsta” fantasies,and Mike Tyson squandered several hundred million dollars as he went from rags to riches and ended up struggling to avoid ending up in rags again.
This is the marrow of the saga he spins onstage; it is by turns tragic and comic, and his telling of these tales is riveting. A talented raconteur, he laughs and frowns, acts out fight scenes, impersonates the characters in his marvelous tales, and takes us with him all the way as he establishes an intimacy with the audience reminiscent of a great stand-up comic who tells stories rather than jokes ala Richard Pryor. If you liked Mike as a boxer you will love him as a thespian, for it is obvious that he approaches this performance with the same dedication that characterized his performances in the ring as he takes us on an intimate journey into one of the epic lives of our times.
Through word and movement Mike paints poignant word portraits of human folly and foible that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats in anticipation of what he will say next. His monologue is brutally honest and raw like Sushi, as he names names, airs dirty laundry, and puts some well-known people’s business in the street! I found it one of the most entertaining one man shows that I have witnessed –and I have seen some great ones. In the end we see a courageous human being who bares his tortured soul to the audience and exorcises his demons in public with extraordinary candor and amazing grace. I say more power to the Brownsville bully…Bravo Iron Mike!