A talk with Mike Tyson is . . . an uneasy thing.
Will he go off? Is he still the barely contained human detonation of the 1980s and 1990s?
Tyson, speaking by phone Tuesday from his home in Las Vegas, says he's changed.
"That's what recovery is," he says, "changing your mind and your way of life, getting away from our lower selves. You have to transcend."
He'll have a chance to show Philadelphia the Mike Tyson of 2013 when his Spike Lee-directed one-man stage show, Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth, comes May 2 to the Academy of Music - yes, Mike Tyson at the Academy of Music. Tickets go on sale Friday.
In one way, Tyson is different from the brash bruiser who blunderbussed through the last 15 years of the 20th century in unforgettable images: Tyson, heavyweight boxer, sending giant men to the canvas. Tyson visiting the canvas himself. Tyson into and out of courtrooms in divorce, domestic violence, drug, and rape cases. Tyson into and out of prison. Tyson, in the midst of a losing 1997 title rematch, biting both of opponent Evander Holyfield's ears.
This Mike Tyson is a storyteller. A raconteur. While no wordsmith, he has a shrugging, rueful wit, laced with regret, a knowledge of consequences. Whatever it is, he's been through it. Think of a mistake, he's been there.
This is one American life studded with tales to tell. "That's what I make my show about," he says, "the violence, drugs, rage, rape. S- I know about."
He will talk "a little, but not that much, really," about his still-astounding reign as undisputed heavyweight boxing champ of the world, from 1986-1990. Coming out of Brooklyn - "I didn't have a good childhood; I was an unhappy kid" - he thrashed all other titleholders and, at 20, became the youngest champ ever. But "boxing is only part of it. The rest is the crazy stuff after."
This Tyson is also slimmer. Millions last saw him in The Hangover flicks, in which, he says, "I was fat and coked up." He still has the outrageous face tattoo. This man, who once seemed unlikely to outlast his 20s, is now 46.
How did this show ever happen? The credits say Tyson's wife, Kiki, is the writer and Lee the director. But how?
"I went to see Chazz Palminteri's one-man show, A Bronx Tale, one night in Las Vegas, and it blew me away," Tyson says. Palminteri wrote the script for the film of that title, then created a one-man stage show that got raves. He made Tyson cry: "Every word, every sentence, every inflection. I saw how people felt when he did it. The inspired feeling you get. I felt every single thing go deep inside. I said, 'This is amazing.' "
But it went beyond the magic of performance:
"I turned to Kiki and I said, 'I can do this. I got to be honest and truthful, just like he is.' "
The man, after all, has stories.
He and Kiki worked up the tales - "she's supported me every step of the way" - and she arranged them into a script. He tried out his show in April in Las Vegas, at the MGM Grand, and "was amazed at the response."
Someone from 40 Acres & a Mule, Spike Lee's joint, approached Tyson.
"But Spike told me, 'This isn't going to be no buddy-buddy stuff,' " he says, chuckling. "He put me through some real rigorous [training], including a professional elocution coach, because I got a tendency, when I talk, sometimes I need an interpreter." Lee did direct him, "stuff about how to move, 'emphasize this, slow down,' that stuff. 'You have to do this right,' he told me. 'You're not going to get away with not taking this seriously. You have to show up and do your reps.' "
The show hit Broadway in August. "People's response was awesome, awesome, awesome," Tyson says.
Reviews have been all over the place, although most accounts find Tyson a winning presence. The Hollywood Reporter called Undisputed Truth "self-serving and weirdly fascinating," the (U.K.) Telegraph "an exercise in self-justification bordering on revisionism." The New York Times complained of a show "alluding to rather than detailing the signature events in his life . . . a lazily structured biographical tour. . . ." Newsday, on Long Island, said: "On the stage, he shows that he's still capable of delivering a knockout."
He tells painful stories - his abuse of and divorce from then-wife Robin Givens; his drug and sex issues; how he blew through a reported $300 million and now has to earn money; the 2009 death of 4-year-old daughter Exodus, "in a freak accident I still don't understand." Some of it is so dark, he says, that humor is the only way out.
Onstage, does the pain revisit?
"Sure, it hits me, and I feel it all again for a moment," Tyson says. "When you love someone and you hurt that person you love, like [Givens], I feel it all again. When I think about this stuff, it has had an effect on me, I bring it out, I almost have to make a joke about it. When that feeling hits, you have to reach down inside. You have to remind yourself you're onstage for a reason."
What reason, exactly? The answer involves what Tyson calls a "turning point in my life, a moment when I wanted to change." He says he isn't sure he has let go of his old rage forever, but he wants to, starting from this moment. It led to his current sense that he is a "missionary," a man bringing a message and help to underprivileged kids. That's reflected in the just-established Mike Tyson Cares Foundation.
It was 2009, and Tyson was going to see Exodus in the hospital after she died.
"I went to the hospital angry . . . but when I got there, there was a bunch of people there, they knew who I was, but they were praying, they were crying for me and my daughter. Then I realized many of these people there had lost their child, and here they are, consoling me. They were unselfish people, and I'm a prick, thinking I was the only one who lost something." He went in the old, angry Tyson and came out with "a first-class view of their pain."
And yet, he insists, "my show is a comic perspective, about the crazy situations of life."
A recent tweet, selling Real Deal BBQ Sauce by his old-time foe Holyfield, shows the old Tyson outrageousness, and gives - forgive the choice of words - a taste of what's to come:
"A cookout just isn't a cookout without @holyfield's #realdealBBQ sauce. Get some! It's ear-licking good!"
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