“I’m really an animal, guys, I’m just dressed up nice.” In a white cocktail jacke and black slacks, Mike Tyson, the former heavyweight boxing champion, recounts punching people in the face outside of nightclubs and having sex with prostitutes. It is all part of one of the more bizarre one-man shows ever staged on the Las Vegas strip, a production that also has the retired boxer gyrating and singing along to jazz tunes. But then for one moment, the narrative of the show takes on the promise of the American dream.
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That’s when Tyson talks of his trainer and surrogate father, Cus D’Amato and how he motivated a young hoodlum out of a rough section of Brooklyn (“the Devil’s bedroom” Tyson describes it). An insecure boy anxious about the alcoholic mother he loved, Tyson recalls how D’Amato promised that if the neophyte boxer followed everything he preached, he’d grow rich beyond his imaginings, become a world champion and a legend in the sport. “Your neighbors will treat your mother with respect.” Tyson recalls how D’Amato had the ability to “massage my mind,” encouraging the virtually uneducated young man to read The Art of War, The Count of Monte Cristo and Zen in the Art of Archery. Tyson said that D’Amato was able to turn his inner cowardice into something both beautiful and terrifying in the boxing ring.
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The theme of self-doubt arises several times in the 75 minutes of Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth. But its questions about manhood, race and fear are never satisfyingly answered and the show detours instead into tangential anecdotes, dead ends and moments when the audience simply cringes in embarrassment. The show runs through April 18 at the MGM Grand and the boxer has said that he would like to bring the show to Broadway and London’s West End. Best not in its current form.
The show begins with the jazz standard “Nature Boy,” a Nat King Cole classic. Tyson clearly intends it to be a parallel to his own life: “an enchanted boy… who wandered very far” only to learn that loving and being loved in return was the “greatest thing.” Just in case members of the audience don’t get the metaphor, an announcer in a white suit, stands on stage and says that Tyson has had “more ups and downs than a roller coaster.”
The audience is mostly fight fans who want a chance to see one of the most furious forces ever unleashed by the sport — and a few curious Vegas tourists. The aficionado part of the audience is fired up when Tyson blurts, “I used to knock motherf—–s out in 30 seconds!” But then he lowers his voice and describes the show as “my journey… my mistakes… my heartaches…” He launches into his insecurities and constant search for affirmation, something he only received in its pure form from D’Amato who bragged about Tyson incessantly. When the trainer died in 1985, Tyson’s life, fueled by drugs and millions of dollars, truly spun out of control.
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While much of this material can be touching, the show fails to come together around the themes. The only character in the drama too is a drag on the narrative. As a performer, Tyson forces many of his lines and has a nervous habit of saying “and shit” at the end of practically every sentence. He paces the stage drinking water, often breathing hard into his microphone, and robotically moves his body across the stage.
The production becomes a strange recitation of gossip. Tyson talks about ending up in a psychiatric clinic as a result of his addiction to cocaine. “I became a certified coke head, a fat cokehead,” showing himself in a mug shot. He brings up his ill-fated marriage to the actress Robin Givens as a way to ridicule her (Undisputed Truth is co-written with Tyson’s current wife.) He addresses the rape case that sent him to prison. “I didn’t do it and I will never admit to doing it.” The crowed cheered when he said that, one man yelling, “We love you Mike!” But Tyson glosses over any details of that sordid episode, preferring to tell a pointless story about the various celebrities, including actress Florence Henderson, visiting him in prison, a place he claims to have enjoyed because “I could catch my breath.” He tells of his hatred for the flamboyant promoter Don King (“When I first met Don, I didn’t know I was meeting the devil”) then he implores the audience to forgive King for any wrongdoing in his career. “Let it go, like I did,” he says.
He tries to wrap up his saga (the difficult childhood, run-ins with the law, biting off Evander Holyfield’s ear) as a tale of redemption, ending the show by talking about finding love, with his wife Kiki and his eight children. It is poignant as he touches upon his daughter’s tragic death in 2009 after being injured in a bizarre choking accident on a home treadmill, and after a series of photographs of his kids, he says he is “trying to be a better father and husband.” With all his troubles, the show becomes a bit of a cliffhanger: will he be able to keep it together for the rest of his life?
Before the show ends, Tyson tells his audience: “I hope you leave having known something more about me, Mike Tyson. I hope you take something for yourself. This is my undisputed truth, and that’s all I really have.” And then many of the crowd head for an After Party in a nearby club where go-go dancers in boxing gear and fake facial tattoos danced the Vegas night away.