Of all the things Mike Tyson said in his poignant one man show “Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth,” one line very early in the play summed up the essence of the show – “Welcome to my living room.”
Tyson’s show, directed by Spike Lee which just closed Saturday at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco, was one of the strangest I’ve attended in some time, but in a very good way. As an attendee of my share of big fights in Las Vegas and elsewhere, the crowd was quite similar to a fight night crowd, making plenty of noise throughout the performance. Beer flowed in the lobby, a much different scene than your usual mixed drink and oversized candy fare at most Orpheum shows. And the pre-show music hit list featuring Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson, finally giving way to the opening number Ni**as in Paris by Jay-Z and Kanye West, really set the tone for the evening.
Boxing has a long and glorious history in my family. It started off when I was very young, with my paternal grandfather a huge fan of the late Salvador Sanchez. It worked its way to my father and his collection of eight millimeter reels featuring fighters like Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson. As for me, my first real taste of a huge fight took place in my parent’s living room when I was nine, where we watched Sugar Ray Leonard prevail over Thomas “The Hitman” Hearns in a 14-round bombfest on something called Star TV. That fight was pure theatre spectacle – vicious knockdowns, scorecard controversy, Leonard’s detached retina, and Leonard’s corner man Angelo Dundee famously telling him, “You’re blowing it son.”
Over the years, my brother, who is easily the biggest boxing fan I know, and I have spent countless hours in heated debates over fighters, great and terrible fights and anything relating to the fight game. Boxing, while losing plenty of fans over the years because of their gross negligence to anything resembling logic, is definitely a sport that easily fuels those debates. While professional sport has a corporate drive that takes away certain access to the everyday sports fan, boxing is a sport that’s a throwback to the smoky arenas which Tyson said made it hard to see the opponent. Boxing is a sport which Larry Merchant correctly dubbed “the theatre of the absurd.”
One of the most brilliant things about “Undisputed Truth” is that it’s a show which certainly feels raw. And in his prime, that was Tyson’s essence. There was no pretense, nothing fancy to his presentation. Tyson walked to the ring with a simple white towel over his chest, black trunks and black socks, while opponents experienced a fear which ended the bout well before it started.
The show did a phenomenal job connecting the multimedia to the storytelling. And tell stories he did, often with a serious edge, pathos and flat out hilarity. Tyson did not hold back his contempt for ex-wife Robin Givens and her mother Ruth Roper. He beamed with pride when discussing his lifelong love affair with pigeons, and had the audience in stitches when talking about his awkward and violent meetings with fellow heavyweight contemporary “Mitch ‘Blood’ Green.”
Tyson has always been a most fascinating figure which transcended the ring. His trials and tribulations have been well-documented, and what was so brilliant about the show is Lee’s ability to draw such compelling stories out of the champ. To his credit, Tyson talked about everything – his failed marriage, his shocking loss to James “Buster” Douglas, the loss of both his mother and sister and his rape conviction. His love for his first trainer and surrogate father Cus D’Amato and his hatred for “Only in America” Don King (“His ass probably has a tattoo that says, ‘Made in China’”) showed the spectrum of his relationships over the years. And Tyson had them all – true friendships and plenty of leeches looking to make a buck without taking a punch.
“Undisputed Truth” certainly has its flaws. The show is certainly not for everyone, with Tyson using his share of colorful language, and a few moments which were not always easy to understand as far as diction goes. And once in a while, Lee’s direction got a bit heavy-handed. But a huge fight fan like me went into this show with a pretty sizeable bias, and it wasn’t too hard to look past those flaws.
What makes the living room line so brilliant is that the entire show feels this way, a very famous and controversial man sharing his life story with some friends while we look at his picture collection. Tyson comes across as convivial and warm, extremely self-deprecating, and someone who has taken so many years to feel like a person. While I certainly have mixed feelings on the man I have been watching for his entire career, I cannot deny his accomplishments with his family and personal demons after his retirement have been inspiring. While fighters, who are some of the nicest athletes you’ll ever meet, often battle extreme struggles after their fighting days are done, Tyson has overcome what should have been a horrible end. But Tyson has avoided those trappings and has flourished in the process. After all, how many can say they got arrested on Broadway, and then starred in a one-man show there?