Sporting autobiographies are rarely entertaining. If you want to know why, go ahead and read David Foster Wallace’s How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart, a scathing critique of the eponymous American tennis starlet’s Beyond Center Court: My Story. Rife with banal platitudes and lazy assertions the late Wallace trounced as “breathtakingly insipid”, the book is not so much torn apart as reduced to a cinder. Caustic as it is, there’s perhaps one line from the essay that illuminates why the sporting memoir is invariably a tawdry affair: “Great athletes turn out to be stunningly inarticulate about just those qualities and experiences that constitute their fascination.”
Mike Tyson, of course, is not Tracy Austin; and his tome Undisputed Truth is far from trite. In fact, reading it I was reminded constantly of The Dirt, Mötley Crüe’s rip-roaring tell-all about the excesses – the soaring highs and crippling lows – of life as the world’s most notorious rock band. Tyson is familiar with those bottomless gullies; has stood triumphantly atop the same acclivitous plateaus of accomplishment, alternately snarling, grabbing his crotch or ﬂashing a gold-toothed grin.
Exploding onto the scene in the mid 80s, the young Tyson powered through a heavyweight boxing landscape still struggling to recapture the halcyon days of the 70s, when titans like Ali, Foreman and Frazier waged immortal wars fans still discuss to this day. Tyson was a prodigy, a superstar, an icon – the youngest ever heavyweight champion of the world by the age of 20.
Refreshingly, the book does not open in the traditional manner of myriad sports memoirs – with the star’s birth, more often than not to humble origins – but rather with dash and poise, like an Elmore Leonard novel: “I spent most of the six weeks between my conviction for rape and sentencing traveling around the country romancing all of my various girlfriends.”
From there, the world – Iron Mike’s world – expands before our eyes, and we are treated to a widescreen spectrum of idiosyncratic emotions and reﬂections imploding between the young Tyson’s ears.
Born to an alcoholic mother and big pimping church deacon father (no, really) who was absent for much of Tyson’s youth, the future kingpin grew up in Brooklyn, and then in Brownsville, a neighbourhood he describes as “a very horriﬁc, tough and gruesome kind of place…cops always driving by with their sirens on; ambulances always coming to pick up somebody; guns always going off, people getting stabbed, windows being broken…it was like something out of an old Edward G. Robinson movie…”
Indeed, the ﬁrst quarter of the book features some of its most gripping, visceral passages; vivid descriptions of the initially shy, frightened Tyson’s home life (“I was a momma’s boy. I slept with my mother until I was ﬁfteen…”), charting his evolution into adolescence, when he falls in with a street gang and carves out a menacing reputation, robbing and cracking heads. (“I just couldn’t stop. I knew there was a chance I would get killed… but I didn’t think I would live to see sixteen anyway, so why not go hard?”)
Fists of fury
He recounts his ﬁrst street ﬁght, when a rival incurs his fury by decapitating one of Mike’s beloved pigeons: “I didn’t know what I was doing, but I threw some wild punches and Gary went down…after I dropped him, my stupid ass started skipping. It just seemed like the ﬂy thing to do.”
We see the teenage Tyson’s idols, the players on the block who rocked “trench coats, alligator shoes, rabbit furs, Stetsons with the big brims” and we watch the hyperactive tearaway doped up on Thorazine, “zonked out, a zombie…” There are moments of prescience, too. Sent to a juvenile detention centre in the Bronx, Tyson and his fellow junior criminals are one day watching The Greatest, a movie about Muhammad Ali, when the man himself strolls into the assembly room. “He looked larger than life. He didn’t even have to open his mouth – as soon as I saw him walk out, I thought, I want to be that guy.”
Given the hopelessness of his origins, the fascinating thing is how deep-sewn this ambition becomes. Painfully aware of a lack of propulsion powering him towards glory (“my mother had no hope for me at all going back to my infancy…I just know that one of those medical people, some racist asshole, some guy who said I was fucked up and developmentally retarded, stole my mother’s hope for me… and any love or security I might have had”), Tyson somehow maintains his ego, a sense of reckless adventure, an idea of coming immortality that presses the shortcomings of his early years so far into the recesses of his mind he can almost forget they happened at all.
Into Tyson’s world appears Cus D’Amato, an ageing boxing trainer who had guided Floyd Patterson to the heavyweight crown three decades before. Told expressly that he was a great ﬁghter – and the future heavyweight champion of the world – after his ﬁrst sparring session, a puzzled Tyson (“How could he know that shit? I thought he was a pervert.”) soon becomes the hard-bitten trainer’s pet project, at the mercy of Cus, whose shadow looms large over the story, and his interdisciplinary teachings. Possessed of frightening power and blazing hand speed – not to mention a Herculean physique at the tender age of sixteen – Tyson’s apprenticeship under Cus is no simple teacher-and-pupil relationship.
The wizened old guru adopts the role of father ﬁgure – Tyson even moves into his house – and schools the rookie pugilist on not just the technical aspects of his craft, but on the psychology of ﬁghting itself. The teachings, as we now know, had the desired effect.
Singlehandedly, Cus built Tyson’s conﬁdence to mythical proportions, instilling in him the attitude of a Roman gladiator striding off to battle: “Cus was a general and I was his soldier.” To be sure, the descriptions of D’Amato’s tutelage of young Mike are nothing short of brilliant, and told in Tyson’s signature bare bones, off-the-cuff style, one can’t help but be drawn in. “I was this useless Thorazined-out nigga who was diagnosed as retarded and this old white guy gets ahold of me and gives me an ego.”
The world knows the story of Tyson, though, and the part where he is guided towards the championship by an avuncular coach is but a small component of it. To its credit, Undisputed Truth never shies away from the reality that Tyson, as well as being a fearsome ﬁgure in and out of the ring, was a monumental fuck-up. Largely a study in forbearance throughout his period under Cus, he goes off the rails when his mentor dies before he realises his grand ambitions. On the aftermath: “Once a ﬁght was over, it was self-destruction time… I was a full-blown alcoholic.”
Not that you’d have been able to tell. Tyson cuts down WBC heavyweight champion Trevor Berbick – the man who had ended Muhammad Ali’s career ﬁve years earlier – in 1986, and soon snatches the other two major belts in the division. He is undisputed heavyweight champion of the world aged 21, a wrecking ball hurtling towards self-implosion.
If you’re leaning towards picking up Tyson’s book, it will likely be to ﬁnd out what went wrong. How did this guy go from rags to riches and back to rags; what motivated him to tear a wedge off Evander Holyﬁeld’s ear in their 1996 showdown; just what does he have to say about Don King? In Undisputed Truth, we get answers and occasional justiﬁcations; we get self-abasement, realities of grandeur, confessions; we get, in short, a front row seat to a mad pantomime, as the American dream gradually morphs into the American nightmare. Having earned millions from his title win, Tyson makes his money work for him; while recording public service announcements advising kids to “say no to drugs”, he admits “I was ﬁnancing my friend Albert in his crack enterprise back in Brooklyn.”
Women throw themselves at his feet, and Tyson fucks each and every one of them. (“I was an extremist at everything I did, including sex.”) Transformed into a celebrity overnight, we hear stories of him kicking it with Rick James, Eddie Murphy and Iceberg Slim, romancing Naomi Campbell (“she was just a little girl trying to ﬁnd her way back then, and the world was devouring us”) and his ﬁrst wife, the actress Robin Givens. The passages detailing his tempestuous union with Givens are especially interesting: “Her mom was acting like I was some freeloader trying to get my hands on some of that Head of the Class money, which couldn’t pay a month’s worth of my rent. They had nothing until I came on the scene; they were ﬂat broke.”
We read, helpless, as the Tyson bandwagon careens violently out of control and his attitudes changes thereafter: “I wanted to live without restrictions. I wanted to be a villain. The villain is always remembered…” Arrests, marriage/divorce, orgies, twisted philosophy, high-octane descriptions of memorable ﬁghts, such as his one-round razing of Michael Spinks in 1988, and his tussle, a year later, with Frank Bruno: it’s all here. On that note, the best recollection of a donnybrook Tyson has is a vicious street brawl with former opponent Mitch Green, who confronts the champ at four in the morning in a sports shop: Tyson predictably wins via “a Bruce Lee Enter the Dragon roundhouse kick on his ass.”
Tyson is honest and unapologetic about his vices during this period, and indeed throughout the book; it’s only in the ﬁnal third, during his Rehab phase, that we hear any remorse. Back in the late 80s, hurtling towards an ignominious defeat to Buster Douglas in Tokyo, the champ would “wake up, open a bottle of champagne, order up some caviar, some lox, some egg whites. I’d have one or two beautiful women in the bed and I’d put some Billie Holiday on the stereo. I was living in a fantasy world…”
The duality of life as the champ, and as the street kid trailing some serious psychological baggage, is memorably encapsulated in a single sentence: “One day I’d be in the sewage with some street hooker trying to get her to have sex without a condom, and the next night I’d be in Bel-Air with my rich friends with a happy face on, celebrating Rosh Hashanah.”
The “fantasy world” he spoke of did not represent what was to come, as the onset of the 90s brought bad rap after bad rap; the boxer didn’t so much stand in the pillory of public opinion as leap head-ﬁrst into a tide of moral outrage and tabloid indignation. In 1992, he is sentenced to six years in prison for the rape of a beauty queen. Laid out in Tyson’s words, the trial is a sham and he is as innocent as a bright daisy springing ﬁtfully from the grass; as ever, there’s a pithy soundbite: “If it had been a white girl, I would have been in for three hundred years.” His tenure in the clink features some of the book’s genuine high points: “The ﬁrst few weeks I was in jail, I was just waiting for someone to try me, to mistake me for weak. I couldn’t wait to prove to these psychopaths that I was just as homicidal as they were, if not more so. I had to let all of them animals know not to ever go near my cell or touch my shit.”
Scary, stony-eyed motherfucker? Undoubtedly. But it’s never that simple with Tyson, who in prison hits the books hard (“I really enjoyed Will Durant’s The Story of Civilisation; Mao, Che, Machiavelli, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Marx, Shakespeare, Dumas…”), converts to Islam and entertains visitors as diverse as Maya Angelou, Malcolm X’s widow Betty Shabazz, James Brown (who proposed to manage Tyson’s career when he got out of prison: “He’d take 70% and I’d get 30%. And I thought Don King was bad…”) and Tupac Shakur. Tyson holds the slain rapper in the same esteem as his boxing heroes Duran and Dempsey: “Tupac was Huey Newton, he was Mao Zedong, he was Karl Marx, he was just everything. He had a fascinating mind.”
Tyson’s time in Indiana’s Plainﬁeld Correctional Facility is broken down into a series of vignettes about stints in the hole, sneaky sex with drugs counsellors and illegitimate enterprises: “We were living like kings. Wayno had all these connections to the Aryan guys who worked in the kitchen and to some of the corrupt guards who’d smuggle shit in for the inmates, so you’d never ﬁnd me in the chow hall unless they were serving ice cream. Sometimes we even ate lobster and barbeque.”
The book is not without its faults, of course. Tyson is prone to reiterating his most distinctive traits (“My social skills consisted of putting a guy in a coma”), and he can at times be insufferably boastful, whether name-dropping famous people or recounting the lavishness of yachts and exclusivity of parties he attended. Moreover, he can be needlessly profane; in mitigation, it’s par for the course when dealing with Iron Mike. You want eloquence? Go read Lord Byron. Sections that could have been expanded – his mega-bucks clash with Holyﬁeld when he came out of jail, for instance – pass all too quickly, and descriptions of secondary characters, Tyson’s hangers on, never allow you a sense of who they are or where the hell they came from. One such passage goes: “In April, I had Jackie talk Don into buying me three Mercedes-Benzes. I had him put one of them in Jackie’s name, one in Luz’s name, and the other in my friend Zip’s name…” These bit-part players are little more than shadows.
The second half of the book, meanwhile, charts Tyson’s descent into hard drugs and alcoholism, the humiliating end to his boxing career and his outlandish global peregrinations living off an aura he’d created in his pomp. It makes for a thrilling, almost hallucinatory read, as Tyson, invariably coked out of his gourd, takes the shambling show on the road – to London, to Moscow, to Jamaica, Cuba and Chechnya; and while he ﬂunks rehab more often than Nikki Sixx towards the conclusion, all the while spouting a crapload of AA mantras, his quest for redemption seems a victory in itself after decades of see-it-want-it-take-it proﬂigacy.
Listening to Tyson, 47 at the time of publication, look back over his career and speak broadly about the highs and lows, lends the book a certain panoramic quality. Having settled down with wife Kiki, survived prison, bankruptcy and a life of chronic drug dependency, it’s difﬁcult to not sit back and appreciate just what a crazy life this man has led, or the fact that it mightn’t have happened at all. In Tyson’s words, “By the time I was the champ at twenty, so many of my friends were dead or decimated. Some of them were sent away to prison for so long that when they came back out they were like zombies, they didn’t know what planet they were on.”
There’s no heart-warming ending here. In the closing pages, Tyson admits to relapsing after completing the book, but looks to the future with recovery ﬁrmly in his mind: “I just want to heal. One day at a time.” After reading, you’re none the wiser whether he’ll succeed – the undisputed truth is that we just don’t know. What can’t be denied is that Undisputed Truth is an unforgettable memoir.