Mike Tyson converted to Islam in prison after being convicted of rape in 1992. But with Tyson, piety and sin are always entwined. As he was becoming a Muslim and reading the Koran, he was also having illicit sex with a woman who was his prison drug counselor; “so much sex that I was too tired to even go to the gym,” he says in his new memoir, The Undisputed Truth.
Tyson’s book, co-written with Larry Sloman, begins in Brooklyn, and after he becomes the youngest heavyweight champion in history at age 20, accelerates into a long period of Jackie Collins-level excess: drugs, mansions, cars, orgies. In 2000, he earned $65.7 million, but writes, “I was fucked financially,” because he began the year in debt and spent $62 million. It’s impossible to read The Undisputed Truth without feeling shock at the jaw-dropping details of Tyson’s life. “I was a pudgy kid, very shy,” he writes, “and I spoke with a lisp.” Constantly bullied, he found his identity by robbing houses, beating people up, and doing drugs. He first snorted coke when he was 11. By 13, he’d been arrested 38 times. He makes most rock-star “badasses” look like librarians, by comparison.
A lot of stars write memoirs; few of these memoirs have a body count. His mother, who had sex with men while Mike slept in the bed, died when he was 16. In his book and his one-man HBO special, titled Mike Tyson: The Undisputed Truth, he describes the deaths of his mother, father, sister, several friends, and trainer and mentor Cus D’Amato, all before he turns 29. Given the anger Tyson expresses towards his enemies – including his former manager, Don King, and ex-wife, Robin Givens – it almost seems like the dead ones were lucky.
As a boxer, “I immersed myself in the role of the arrogant sociopath,” he writes, but Tyson has gotten into frequent trouble because he lacked an ability to step in and out of the role. In the third act of his life, Tyson, now 47, has remade himself as an actor (most notably in The Hangover and The Hangover Part II, in which he sings “One Night in Bangkok”), a boxing promoter, and a family man. Kiki Tyson, his third wife, is credited as the writer of his one-man show, which he has been performing on a world tour, and he claims to now life quietly, in Las Vegas. Rolling Stone recently spoke with Tyson about his new book, anger and therapy, giving up the club life, and much more.
Your memoir is grueling to read: it’s more than 500 pages of death, violence, betrayal, addiction, and venereal diseases.
Yeah. I lived a grueling life.
Did you re-experience all of it while you read the book?
I never read the book.
Several times, you describe yourself as behaving like “an Uncle Tom.” For you, what constitutes being a “Tom”?
When I say that, I mean a non-threatening black man.
But here’s the problem: if that’s true, then the only way to not be a “Tom” is to be a threatening black man, right?
No. I’m talking about the perception of threatening. Being firm, to some people, is threatening. For instance, did you see Alec Baldwin, how he confronted that woman the other day? If I would’ve did that, or some other threatening black guy, somebody would’ve shot me. Police would have arrested me. The whole town would’ve jumped on me, thinking I was gonna rape this woman.
So because you’re black, you have to constantly curtail your instincts?
A hundred percent. I’m so happy that you understand that. That’s just the way life is. I like living with my family and my wife, and I don’t want to lose it because I’m sensitive, and I felt offended by somebody, in a way that no one else, not one out of a million people, could see. You can’t even see it, but you feel it. That’s pretty crazy.
Don’t you think people feel threatened by you because you used to hit people for a living, and you had fights outside the ring, too?
But Alec Baldwin isn’t viewed as a threatening man. Why? That was very frightening, when he confronted that woman like that. He’s over 200 pounds. He would have been brought up on some kind of charges if he was black. I didn’t know what he was going to do, or what frame of mind he was in. Are white people clairvoyant when they say, “Well, he’s not going to hurt anyone”?
Are you often aware of people being frightened of you?
I conduct myself in a way where they’re not frightened of me. But I’m aware of people being afraid of anyone of color that’s big.
And for years, when you were boxing, you wanted the other guy in the ring to be frightened of you, right?
Well, yeah. Some people want to be the same way in life. Like, you see the way Mr. Baldwin walks around. He conducts himself like he’s the baddest man on the planet.
So if you’re a fighter, or a football player, you have to be able to employ a frightening demeanor, then turn it off after the match.
I guess so. But I guess I don’t turn it off too well, huh? At least, back then I didn’t. I’ve come a long way in controlling my anger and my outbursts. No one’s been angry at me in a long time, and I haven’t been angry at anyone in a long time.
In the book, a lot of the trouble you get into happens in nightclubs. Do you still go out?
I don’t go outside. I’m with my family. I don’t go to clubs. I’ve had all my girlfriends that I’m going to have. I’ve had all my drinks that I’m going to have. I’ve had all my strip clubs. All that stuff, I’ve had enough. I want to do something else I’ve never done before and that’s being present for my children, for my family, and yes, for life in general.
I don’t understand why celebrities even go to the club. It only ends up in fights or lawsuits, or both.
Listen, it’s like being in the Sahara desert. There’s a certain time of year where all the animals in the desert go to the lake or the river to drink water. Just like drinking liquor. There’s no problem with no one. When they’re thirsty, the tigers are not chasing the gazelles, the elephants are not fighting with the rhinoceruses. But once we’re full of drinking water, we start looking for shit to happen. It’s a wrap.
Let’s talk about your one-man show. Is the performance different every night?
Yes, pretty much. We ad-lib a lot too and sometimes the ad-libs are so much better than the script.
Do you get rowdy audiences?
Oh, man. Sometimes it gets so rowdy, they never hear what the hell I’m saying. It’s just constant, perpetual screaming.
Why are they screaming?
“WE LOVE YOU!” “KICK HIS ASS!” “HE’S AN ASSHOLE!” “FUCKING KILL HIM!” And I’m like, Holy shit, if ya’ll not gonna listen to what I’m saying, why’d I even come here? The whole show, the whole 90 minutes — I mean, what the fuck? I just keep talking and they’re not listening. They’re screaming: “FUCK DON KING, I’M GONNA KICK HIS ASS FOR YA!” “ROBIN AIN’T SHIT!” And I’m like, We weren’t even talking about Robin at that time. Whoa.
This probably doesn’t happen to Sir Ian McKellen he comes on stage.
You know, my people are crazy, like me. [Laughs.]
Has anybody tried to come onstage.
Hell, yeah. Listen, I was in Australia, when an Indian guy tried to jump off the bleacher onto the stage. He fell down, BOOM. I thought he was dead. Then he got back up and said, “You like my clothes, Mike? You like what I got on?” [Laughs.] Another guy in Australia came with a big sword. I took pictures with him.
When you’re doing the show, do you ever lose your place or forget where you were in the script?
If I do, I just start heckling the crowd. I regroup myself. “Hey, you dumb son of a bitch, why you looking at me like that?”
Do you still use an earpiece during the show?
Yeah, because if I’m getting too carried away, my wife will say, “Bring it in, bring it in. Don’t talk about that no more. Get back on script.” Sometimes I’m talking about stuff, and she says, “Hey, cut that out, you sound like a perv.” Or she’ll say, “You sound stupid now, Mike.”
Do you ever say to her, “Stop telling me I sound stupid”?
Oh, absolutely. I yell, “Stop! Leave me alone” And the crowd thinks it’s part of the show. [Laughs.]
And between this and the Hangover movies, are you getting offered a lot of acting roles now?
Yeah, I’m very grateful. I’m going to do a martial-arts movie in Algeria. And then Werner Herzog will have me in one of his movies (Vernon God Little) as well, playing a convict. I’m gonna be in orgasmicland; that’s really big for me.
That means I’m going to be very goddamn happy. Werner wants me to be a serious actor. He don’t like this comedy stuff.
Do you think you can be a serious actor?
Yes. I did a role in Law and Order where I was in jail for killing a guy that sexually abused me when I was a kid. Everyone said I did well.
Did you watch it?
Not really. I don’t like watching myself on television – all I see is my flaws.
If we could go back in time, and tell the 10-year old Mike Tyson that in the future, he’d be a heavyweight boxing champ, an actor, and an author, which element of that would be most surprising?
None of them. I would have never believed that stuff. I thought I’d be dead, like the rest of the people in my neighborhood. If not dead, I would have ended up in jail most of my life, shot, or else I would have gotten a job packing bags at Key Food.
Reading the book made me wonder this: Who do you hate more, Robin Givens or Don King?
I don’t hate anybody. At least, not now. I’m enjoying life.
You say about Don King, “Sometimes I still feel like killing him.”
That’s just me just talking. I’m not going to do anything.
What about Robin? In the book, you call her a “dirty, filthy scoundrel,” a “delusional ho,” a “manipulative shrew,” a “borderline prostitute,” and the “lowest serpent-y bitch in the galaxy.”
Back then, I hated her. Probably because I loved her. Love and hate is pretty much the same stuff. That’s the dark side of love: betrayal.
Have you heard from her or anyone that represents her?
Listen, she had a chance to write her book. She did her book and she did symposiums about me. She shot her load.
There have been a lot of stories recently about football players with brain damage from being hit in the head so often. And you got hit more than any football player. Have you escaped brain damage?
I don’t know! Who knows? I don’t know what’s going to happen next week. I can remember things from a long time ago but I have problems remembering things that happened last week.
Well, I have that problem, too.
So, maybe I’m good. Maybe I did escape it. Cus D’Amato taught me to be a defensive fighter. I didn’t get hit half as much as most of those guys been hit, like Holyfield.
That’s interesting because when most people talk about you as a fighter. . .
They talk about me offensively. But the reason I was so successful offensively is because they couldn’t hit me, because of my defense. If you move your head and counter after you make them miss, you can hit them and they can’t hit you.
You’re working now as a boxing promoter. Can you do anything to make the sport less boring, and draw the big audiences that followed the sport in your day?
It’ll get better, trust me. When I get established and I have my fighters, there won’t be no dull fights. They’ll all be exciting fights.
What can you do to make them exciting fights?
Make sure these guys fight! And attack each other like they don’t like each other. See, guys now, they fight like they want to dance more than anything. Very few fighters go out there with intentions to hurt the other guy and that’s what makes exciting fighting.
When you were fighting, how much of what you did in public — like yelling at your opponent during a weigh-in — was genuine and how much of it was creating promotion for a fight?
Most of it was for promotion, but when we were inside the ring, it was all real.
Were there guys you didn’t like?
I didn’t like anyone I was fighting.
What about now? Are there still guys you don’t like?
Listen, everybody’s cool. I don’t have no beef with no one.
You’re friends with Evander Holyfield, right?
Yes. There’s no hard feelings. We did a commercial together even, for Foot Locker.
Does he ever say, “Hey Mike, you didn’t need to bite my ear off“?
No. He never said that.
Because I feel like I’d still be mad about that.
Well, you’re not a world-class fighter.
When you looked back at video of that fight with Holyfield, what did you see?
I remember I was frustrated about him head-butting me a lot.
So he had it coming?
That’s not true, but I like to believe it happened that way.
But he was fighting a dirty fight.
Hey, but I didn’t have to go that far.
What do you think was your best fight?
Trevor Berbick. I beat him and became champion. And the outcome was really spectacular. He fell three times with one punch.
You knocked him down, then he got up and fell down again. Then he got up again and fell a third time. That must have been a hell of a punch.
I was very grateful.
In the book, you refer to an interview you did before the Frank Bruno fight in 1989. You said, “I’m not a happy type of guy.” Has that changed?
No, that’s just how I am. I laugh and have fun, but I’m not perpetually happy every moment of the day. I don’t know what they mean by happy. It’s all hypothetical. I’m happy now, then five seconds later something very bad can happen, and I’m not happy.
Do you think that’s true for most people?
Perhaps, if they’re living in this world. How do we define our happiness? How do we gauge it? I don’t think about it, but when it comes, I enjoy it.
In the book, you’re very upfront about having been in therapy for years and about being on medication. Is that still true?
I’m not on no medications, thank god, but I go to therapy every now and then. That’s the best thing that has ever happened to me in my life, the therapy. People don’t know that having a mental illness is like having a broken arm – you need to get it fixed.
You didn’t grow up in an environment that ever thought about therapy.
There ain’t nobody going to therapy in the hood. Ain’t nobody going to rehab in the hood. The only rehab is when they get locked up. That’s the only way they’re going to stop – dying.
Are you at the stage now where you can be someone’s sponsor?
I’ve been people’s sponsors before. It was pretty awesome, but it was inconvenient sometimes. It’s almost like being a babysitter, because you have to be aware of somebody’s unpredictability. You have to be very selfless.
Did you enjoy that? It sounds like you didn’t.
Sometimes I did, sometimes I didn’t.
In the book you’re also very frank about your sobriety. You were sober from January 2010 until spring of this year. How much sobriety do you have right now?
Thank you very much. My goals are just living a healthy life and being of service and being present. I’ve got to continue to fight. Just because the monkey is off your back, don’t mean the circus left the town.
Are people usually polite when they see you?
Yes, because I’m usually polite to them. But sometimes people are un-polite to me. I know how to do that un-polite stuff real well. I do that too good, so I’m always conscious to be really polite.
You could almost say that nobody does impolite better than you do.
Listen, I didn’t invent it, but I added a lot of stuff to it. [Laughs.] Oh God, that’s funny.