This morning, Mike Tyson arose at 8 a.m. and had his customary breakfast: oatmeal, Cheerios, almond milk. Last night, he had his usual dinner: spinach, broccoli, rice. “Before I was a vegan, I ate garbage,” he says, sitting in a hotel room in downtown Manhattan, shaking his head. “After a fight, I’d eat like a pig: splits, donuts, steak, toxins, poison, anything – grab it.” Tyson is in New York for his one-man Broadway show, The Undisputed Truth: a captivating, off-kilter chronicle of a life spent trying – and, more often than not, spectacularly failing – to keep his outsize appetites in check. “I’m a gorger,” he says.
Tyson’s wearing jeans and a light blue T-shirt, rubbing his biceps softly, looking as beatific as a man with a tribal-warrior tramp-stamp covering half his face can look. But even discussing something as benign as his recent adoption of veganism, Tyson can show glints of the famous volatility that made this former Brownsville, Brooklyn, stick-up kid such a ferocious fighter.
“You hear from some people—what do they call it? Rabbit food? Fag food?” he says. For a moment, his eyes go blank and his gaze falls to the carpet. “I will kick somebody’s ass if they keep talking some ‘fag food’ shit.”
Many somebodies get their asses kicked during The Undisputed Truth, which began life last spring as a glitzy Vegas production before Spike Lee signed on to direct a stripped-down New York installment. “He’s a great storyteller, and his story’s the prototype American story: the rise, the fall, the rise again,” Lee says. “When it comes to talking about himself, Mike’s the most honest person I’ve ever met in my life. Highs, lows, he doesn’t care.”
Over two hours, Tyson works a black, bare stage in a dark suit, reminiscing about his youth, his acrimonious divorce from Robin Givens, his 1992 rape conviction, his cocaine addiction and the countless beatdowns he administered, inside the ring and out, in between. He was inspired by Chazz Palminteri’s one-man show, A Bronx Tale, thinking, “I could do that.” Tyson characterizes himself as a natural raconteur with eons of crazy tales to share: “People come over, I tell stories about what I know, what I’ve learned.”
On stage, life lessons take a backseat to bawdy yarns and painful, cathartic patches. Tyson tears into Givens, for instance, in graphic and ungallant detail: there’s an extended riff about her duplicity and his inability to distinguish “miscarriage blood” from “beat-the-pussy-up blood.” Tyson says such stories unfurl as much at his expense as anyone else’s.
“I thought I was so cool back then,” he tells me. “I thought I was a hell of a motherfucker. But I look back, and I was a shmuck.” Elsewhere, he touches on his drug problem, bellowing, “I love me some cocaine!” I ask if he’s afraid of backsliding. “Any moment. It’s always a struggle,” he replies. “I am that guy that could fuck around and do something over a bitch or some drugs or some money. That’s who I am. When I fuck up, I really fuck up. Anything could trigger it: the sound of a Marlboro Red lighting up, because I’d smoke cocaine in Marlboros. The audience says, ‘He was going through a period.’ They don’t know if I hear a Marlboro today and get the wrong signal I can fuck it all up.”
While in New York, Tyson has been traveling to Brooklyn, where he still houses trained pigeons in Bushwick. “I go a couple times a week,” he says tenderly. The whiplash extremes of Tyson’s gentleness and viciousness animate the show, which swerves from gross-out comedy to somber tearjerker mode without warning. Nowhere is Tyson more pained on stage then when discussing his children, whom he feels he once neglected. “I wasn’t the greatest father,” he tells me, noting with simultaneous humor and sorrow that he’s been known to text his kids and make surprising, hurtful errors: “They go, ‘Dad, that’s not how you spell my name!’ I’m like, fuck, these are college-educated kids, and I’m a dumb fucking nigger.”
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Tyson approached Broadway like a prizefight, throwing himself into long rehearsal days for the better part of a month. He attended Porgy and Bess and Memphis. “I wanna be in that league,” he says. He likens the stage to the ring: “You can feel the crowd, the energy can change and you go, boom, let’s get rid of that, let’s play over here. Quick, tenth-of-a-second thinking. A fight has the same dynamics.” After New York, the show will travel the world, Tyson says – “Singapore, England, Australia, New Zealand, I think South Africa.”
He’s already plotting ways to up his showmanship. “It may seem weird or wimpy,” he says, “but I want to have some quick dance acts in there. I’d love to sing, but I can’t. Maybe I’ll get the guts one day.”