Mike Tyson is a striking figure even at age 46.
He no longer looks like the baddest man on the planet. Or the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. And while he still has a squat, heavy build, aside from his auspicious facial tattoo, he doesn’t even look particularly menacing.
But looking beyond the physical man, the one who fought 58 times over a 20 year professional career, and punched his way through an untold cadre of brawls in the streets and back alleys of Brooklyn, you find a quietly simmering figure who has an energy that swirls around him; that he exudes even when he is standing motionless.
It’s a sort of pent up ardor… an angst that begs for expression. In his youth he foisted it upon his hapless opponents in and out of the ring.
Having ridden the undulating waves of recovery and relapse for large chunks of his life, now middle-aged, “Iron” Mike is enjoying the crest of a recovery period. His one-man show “Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth” now provides the venue for that smoldering vigor that propelled him to cultural icon status en route to becoming the most dynamic fighter in the history of the sport.
The champ’s performance in this show is impressive. Impressive in a way that “legend of the ring” Mike Tyson never was in his bouts.
Impressive in its patience.
This isn’t the Tyson that knocked Michael Spinks out with just 30 punches thrown in a swarming minute and a half of boxing. This is a measured Tyson, setting up his punchlines with consistent jabs to soften up his adversary, whether it be Don King, ex-wife Robin Givens or his greatest foe… himself.
Indeed the list of notable names that weave through Tyson’s tale is impressive, from Tupac Shakur to Florence Henderson to pre-fame Brad Pitt… like a fabric of the era, Tyson weaves his story across decades, debacles, deep depths and deranged heights.
Some of the stories are familiar, tabloid lore. Many of these come with startling new details. For instance, how many among us knew that during Tyson’s infamous late night Harlem brawl with one time opponent Mitch Green –poor old “Blood,” as was his nickname — experienced that hoary old chestnut of involuntarily shitting himself as his head bounced off the concrete following a particularly destructive uppercut from our ringmaster for the evening?
But it’s not just that Green shit himself that suddenly bites at your ear and doesn’t let go. It’s how Tyson explains why he knew that was a very bad sign and how words from his deceased mother leaped to his mind as he saw some other ephemeral element spray from Mitch’s mouth like a portent of doom.
And while Tyson’s patience in relaying his story seems to bely the kinetic dynamo we recall from his prize fighting days, that crackling energy finds its way throughout the evening in its own way.
Like a live wire suddenly surging with electricity, Tyson demonstrates the leaping roundhouse kick he felled Green with, conjuring a portly, breath sucking, Bruce Lee and laughing at himself for it.
There in lies the charm of Mike Tyson’s personality transformation of recent years. There is a self awareness at the inherent silliness of his behavior, past and present. And the intelligence there in him, that has examined his past and understood why he is who he is, and why he chose the paths he did, makes the evening’s anecdotes all the more endearing.
As he runs across the stage in mock chase, or chortles away in a surprisingly effective caricature of nemesis Don King, his energy, while not boundless (by the midpoint of the show he is mopping his brow with a kerchief), is enough to carry the weight of a one man show and then some… dare I say, perhaps a four or five man show.
But for all the wild gesticulation, colorful language and vividly painted atmosphere that Tyson manages to convey in his words and actions, even these demonstrative victories are not what is most revelatory about the man on stage.
It is the fact that he is such an innate storyteller. He rattles off these stories with a practiced patter that hides its absolute artistry. Nothing Tyson says comes off as scripted save for a few groaner jokes that typically come in reference to his one prop, the giant projection screen, pasting images behind him.
Only then are we broken from the spellbinding narrative that seems to simply flow out of this world weary, but unbowed, man — one who is at once ineloquence personified, manhandling words into sentences; and eloquence itself, with his simple, stripped down understanding of his own nature.
The ease of his delivery hides the hours it must have taken to hone this performance — a hidden dedication, not unlike the seemingly natural boxer he was, endlessly practicing his peekaboo defense or perfecting his signature right hook, right uppercut combo, #6 to #4 on the mitts, again and again.
If Tyson was a born fighter, who was honed into a legendary boxer, this show seems to suggest that he is also a born storyteller, who has honed the delivery of his tale into a hard-hitting knockout performance that hides all the stitching on the gloves.
One might worry with the edges ground down that these gritty tales would lose their effect, but rest assured they still shimmer with palpable grime and that caged heat of emotion that seems to smolder in Tyson to this day.
That emotion is never more lyrical than when the man in the spotlight quiets down and speaks of his mother who died when he was 16 years old, and who he had exhumed much later to rid her of the cardboard and pine box that had been her tomb.
Or the 25-year-old sister who suddenly passed away without warning.
Or most of all, when talking of his children, and his four-year-old daughter who died tragically in an unfathomable accident several years ago.
The pathos of these passages in “Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth” illustrate the dichotomy that has made Tyson the enduring figure that he remains in our minds and that will resonate in sporting and cultural history long into the future.
Tyson is just a more purely realized version of each of us. His rage is more unbridled, unleashed in ways we only fantasize about. His passion is more demonstrative, simple and unfettered by complication.
There are those who long ago made up their minds about Tyson, what kind of person he is, or how much sympathy and derision he deserves.
Spending a few hours listening to his story, whatever notion you came in with will be altered. Tyson manages to hit you with blows you didn’t see coming, weren’t quite prepared for.
If you thought the evening was going to be just a light sparring session to laugh and mug through, you might be in for a surprise.
As the champ himself once said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”