Has "Iron" Mike Tyson become the kind of celebrity America can love?
The first thought which comes, when you see how easily he handles the public and media these days, is: Mike Tyson should not be behaving like this.
This is the Mike Tyson who once bit off the ear of opponent Evander Holyfield when he seemed to be losing a boxing match in 1997. This is the Tyson who was convicted of raping a former beauty pageant contestant in an Indianapolis hotel room in 1991, serving three years in prison.
This Tyson once cheerfully admitted enjoying the thrill of mugging people as a kid growing up in Brooklyn, arrested more than 30 times by age 13. As the self-proclaimed “baddest man on the planet,” he racked up knockouts in the ring, a brief, tabloid-worthy marriage to actress Robin Givens and raging drug habits.
But on a conference call with reporters last year to tout the start of his one-man, autobiographical stage show Undisputed Truth, Tyson worked the electronic room like the sports world’s version of Ryan Seacrest, calling out reporters by name and sharing inside jokes with a charismatic, upbeat charm.
This was not the guy who once glumly told a TV reporter: “People basically suck; they're always trying to screw you.” This was a guy working hard to charm reporters who once spent much of their time digging up embarrassing stories on his life.
So when the time came for a one-on-one interview earlier this year, the first question was simple: How did you do it?
How did you change?
“Back when I was fighting, I was the baddest man on the planet, self-proclaimed, right?” said Tyson, his high-pitched lisp familiar as any voice in media. “So in order to be that guy, I had to act that guy…So in order to be the entertainer I wanna be, I have to be this guy. I’m very good at…being adaptable. I’m almost perfect at it.”
So how much of this new Mike Tyson comes from real, personal change and how much of it is, well, acting?
“I changed my lifestyle, so my life changed,” said Tyson, insisting life with third wife Lakiha "Kiki" Spicer keeps him from the kind of club crawling which led to arrests for DUI and drug possession years ago.
But there is also a tension in his voice. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder a few years ago, Tyson quickly warns “don’t ever think my demons are not haunting me.”
He gives the sense that, even now, his life as a family man and a performer -- playing off his tough guy image in The Hangover films and on Law & Order: SVU -- could change.
All it might take is a decision to become a different guy. Again.
Ask how he handles dredging up all these awful moments from his past in the show, and Tyson drops another secret.
It’s easy, he insists, because he’s not himself during the show: He’s playing a character.
“I’m an actor portraying Mike Tyson,” he said. “I don’t look at myself as being Mike up here. I’m not involved emotionally with my past, my feelings, my insecurities. I’m just making fun of this schmuck over here, so it’s not bothering me. It’s all on him. That’s how I separate myself.”
Tyson said he got the idea for his one-man show after attending a Las Vegas production of Chazz Palminteri’s A Bronx Tale. A one-man, semi-autobiographical show in which the Oscar-nominated actor plays multiple roles (film legend Robert DeNiro directed the movie version), A Bronx Tale transfixed the couple, leaving Tyson convinced he could do something similar about his own life.
“(Before) I saw Chazz Palminteri, I didn’t know what I was doing…I was just doing meet-and-greets, going all over the world, signing autographs, shaking hands, taking pictures,” he said. “I wanted to entertain people. I wanted them to hear every word I say, like Mr. Palminteri had me and my wife and the rest of the audience feeling. I wanted to do that to people.”
That’s why Tyson said he doesn’t take questions from the audience for his show. “I wanted people to see me from an artistic point of view,” he added. “That’s why they say this is Mike doing something I never thought he could do.”
An early version of the show had musicians and a vocalist onstage with him. But renowned film director Spike Lee heard about the production and reached out to Tyson, convincing him to work up a version for Broadway which would ditch the band and focus on the ex-boxer himself, alone onstage.
And what may have been the biggest surprise, once the show got going, is that the crowd often loves what bothers him the most.
“The stuff that hurts the most, the crowd laughs at and that takes me back,” he said during the conference call last year. “I don’t know how to deal with that. I go through the show, but I say ‘Wow, do they think that’s funny?’ It’s weird. Part of my life that destroyed me. That’s funny to you? I don’t know.”
Later, in talking about the book he’s now writing about his life – also to be called Undisputed Truth -- Tyson admitted learning something important about himself.
“I’m very insecure; that I’m really ashamed still,” he added. “I can’t believe that I’m still worried about what people think about me. I just don’t wanna bring it up and hear it again, because it always comes up.”
Spend some time on Amazon, and you’ll find nearly two dozen books written about Mike Tyson. What can he bring that others haven’t already said?
Could he be more specific?
“They don’t know me, so they captured zilch,” he said of other biographers and writers. “They only captured what they’ve seen in the newspaper or what they seen in the ring..My friends don’t even know me. I don’t even know who I am. I can just give you what I am at this particular stage in my life…I might change next year and be a different person.”
Mention that his recent journey from menace to entertainer mirrors the path of another boxer-turned-good guy celebrity, George Foreman, and Tyson suggests their motivtions differ a bit.
“He felt his way after losing a fight, and I felt this way after losing the fights of life…I just gave up on life,” he said, citing his cameo appearance in the first Hangover movie as a major turning point for his career and life. “(I realized) I don’t have to be one of those boxers who had a great time and you read about him dying in the gutter somewhere. I didn’t want to bring that legacy on my family and children.”
He mentions the death of his 4-year-old daughter Exodus, who died when her neck was tangled in the power cord of a treadmill at her mother's home in 2009, as a major influence. He married Spicer less than two weeks later. Now, he's a convert to Islam and a vegan with a boxing clothing collection, a self-named charity and a budding acting career.
In a country which seems founded on the second chance, Tyson seems on the verge of pulling off the biggest redemption story yet.
And the greatest surprise may be that, somehow, "Iron" Mike Tyson became a celebrity America could love.
“My success is not about no money, he said, somberly. “My success is about not going to prison, not killing or hurting nobody, or getting killed or hurt, respecting my wife; not giving her venereal diseases from me fooling around and being disrespectful. Those are my victories. That’s my success.”
Mike Tyson performs his one-man, autobiographical stage show at 8 tonight in Ruth Eckerd Hall, 1111 McMullen-Booth Road, Clearwater. Tickets are $500, $300, $100, $75 and $50. www.rutheckerdhall.com; box office (727) 791-7400.