Undisputed Truth: My Autobiography by Mike Tyson – review
Mike Tyson's account of his gargantuan struggles inside and outside the ring makes thrilling reading
The Observer, Sunday 15 December 2013
Mike Tyson, November 2013: 'I hated my face and I literally wanted to deface myself.'
Photograph: Action Press/Rex
Nothing in his subsequent exchanges with Paul Holdengräber could quite live up to the moment when Mike Tyson took to the stage last month at Madison Square Garden – sorry, I mean the New York Public Library.
His mentor, Cus D'Amato, had assured the 15-year-old Tyson that one day, when he entered a room, "people will stand up and give you an ovation". That's how it was here. A collective gasp and we were on our feet – not as an expression of admiration, more a recoil from sheer physical and psychic proximity. This would never happen with the writers and intellectuals who usually grace this august stage. They are interesting, admired or even loved on the basis of stuff they have created, that is external to them. But everything that had made Tyson famous and infamous – the fact of his body and its capacity for violence – was there in the room.
Undisputed Truth: My Autobiography
by Mike Tyson
Among the living only Diego Maradona (whom I also saw once, in an equally improbable setting, as he emerged from the Oxford Union) has risen to comparable heights from such depths – and then plummeted back down again. Paul Gascoigne was an amazing footballer and Ben Johnson ran extremely fast but Maradona's and Tyson's life stories place them in a different realm. In Naples there are still shrines to Diego. When Tyson, at the library, said that he had been a god this seemed a self-definition that even Richard Dawkins might allow. Tyson has ended up like thousands of other literary contenders: on the promo circuit with product to hustle.
Undisputed Truth is the latest and biggest bounce in a bills-to-pay comeback that began with James Toback's intimate documentary, Tyson, and continued with an acting role in The Hangover. Tyson played himself, naturally, a role he reprised for a one-man Broadway show that was then filmed by Spike Lee. The autobiography grew directly out of that show and even if it is not, as Holdengräber claimed, up there with St Augustine's Confessions, it's got a lot more fighting.
That it's also addictive is down in part to Tyson's co-author, Larry Sloman. Tyson claims he "inherited Cus's ability to tell stories" but as he regaled the audience with lispy anecdotes – growing up in Brooklyn, breaking into houses and being on the roof with his pigeons – it rapidly became as interesting as hearing a celebrity recount a dream....
Having encouraged Tyson to ramble through his past, Sloman shaped the mass of material into a narrative that opens with the most vehemently disputed part of the story: the conviction for raping Desiree Washington in 1991.
The conviction might have been shaky but so is the defence that it's impossible to "rape someone when they come to your hotel at two in the morning. There's nothing open that late but legs." Bear in mind also that any charm Tyson possessed was inseparable from the "bad intentions" manifest in the ring: "My social skills consisted of putting a guy in a coma." But remember, also, that his capacity for brute intimidation did nothing to staunch the flow of women eager to have sex with him, not just after the conviction but while he was in prison.
Out of jail after three years, he became an easy mark for claims of assault and sexual harassment even when he was trying to keep some of these women at bay – not because, as a convert to the Nation of Islam, he was newly abstemious, but because they were skanky hos.
It got to the point where he "was hardly seen out in public. One reason for that was that I spent a lot of time indoors at strip clubs." More time, certainly, then he spent at his mansion in Connecticut with its 5,000 sq ft master bedroom and the 19 other bedrooms he aimed to fill with different girls at the same time. He had a palace in Vegas, too, but his true home was what Conrad called "the destructive element".
Throw in an annual income that was often in excess of $50m (enough to ensure that, like the former champions he idolised, he'd wind up flat broke), a titanic coke habit (he'd wander round with his stash in a big bag, "a straw coming out of it like it was a milkshake") and you have a young man in the unusual position of being both gladiator and emperor, "a sewage rat with delusions of grandeur", a ghetto kid with zero self-esteem and an ego borne of the knowledge that, in a fair fight, he could beat everyone on the planet to a pulp.
Unconvinced that he had been fairly beaten, one of those opponents, Mitch Green, high on angel dust, starts taunting Tyson who beats him up again in the street. Bloodied – "I had crushed his eye socket, broken his nose, cracked some ribs" – but unbowed, Mitch comes back for another helping a few pages later when Mike is "on a date with some exotic hot Afrocentric chick named Egypt or Somalia or some other country like that". She stops him carving Mitch up with a steak knife ("I wasn't a vegan then") but being with Tyson or working for him could turn bad almost as quickly as fighting against him. One feels zero sympathy for Don King ("a wretched, slimy reptilian motherfucker") or Frank Warren, both of whom get richly stomped...
As will be clear by now, Sloman brings Tyson's voice springing off the page with its often hilarious combo of street and shrink, pimp profanity and the "prisony pseudo-intellectual modern mack rap" of the autodidact. Training for the Lewis fight in Hawaii – "epicentre of some of the baddest weed in the world" – was not a great idea, boxing-wise, but just as all that "Maui Wowie made for some interesting press conferences" so his "stupid un-fucking-legible English" makes for some surprising prose. There's a moment of flat-out brilliance when he gets the Maori tattoo on his face: "I hated my face and I literally wanted to deface myself."
The later journey to sobriety sees him leaning harder on cliche – he's particularly fond of the idea that relapse is part of recovery – but the sense of threat, to himself and others, is constant. Which makes you wonder if one of the regrettable things about the years of substance abuse involved a drug he didn't take. A dealer (called Chance, appropriately enough) is ordered to get Tyson a Scarface quantity of coke even though "all he did was sissy drugs like ecstasy"....
The commonly understood narrative – one with an undeniable chronological truth – is that Tyson only began to go off the rails after the death of goodly Cus D'Amato. Cus had taken this kid from the ghetto under his wing and trained him to be a champion, dying before the ambition was realised. After that, Mike had no one to guide him. ...
... Tyson was a great fighter who never fought any great fights. Either because he beat his opponents too easily – he was too good – or, with the possible exception of the first, toothless encounter with Evander Holyfield, because he was beaten too easily (as a result of failing to prepare properly, of losing his earlier hunger). He never went toe-to-toe with greatness, as Ali and Frazier did repeatedly, was never fully tested while fully committed to passing that test.
As Cus intended, many of Tyson's opponents were out on their feet before a punch was thrown. The fights rarely lasted long and, in keeping with this, the era of Tyson's indomitability – brought to an end when journeyman Buster Douglas floored him in Tokyo in 1990 – flashes quickly past in the book.
After that, victories and defeats in the ring become almost irrelevant in the chaos and swirling mania that surround and consume him. He burns his way through an unbelievable fortune and never, not once in almost 600 pages, expresses any regret on that score.
Apparently Sloman's opening move in tempting Tyson into this collaboration was to send a copy of Nietzsche's Ecce Homo to him while he was in prison.
Nietzsche's notion of greatness was the capacity to embrace your fate wholesale: if you enjoy one divine moment then you say yes to all others, however hellish.
Tyson, with his jailed grasp of momentary immortality, got this right away, probably knew it already: "Just to have one year of living Mike Tyson, the champ's life..."