Way back when, before life went splat, we cheered him, feared him, Iron Mike Tyson, heavyweight champion of the world. But then: drugs, prison, bankruptcy, punchline. Our most genial response to the pugilistic powerhouse was pity. More often, we lobbed disgust like a haymaker from a safe distance.
But take a look at this: In a classic case of American reinvention, not only have we forgotten, forgiven Tyson, but we're laughing with him, cheering once more. The 46-year-old iconoclast is now a star not in the ring but on the stage, with his one-man show, the Spike Lee-directed Undisputed Truth, making a Wednesday stop at Ruth Eckerd Hall.
So was it a trainwreck, a ploy for money from the cash-strapped star? Well, top tickets were $500. That said, it was often a fascinating, at times mesmerizing two hours. Sure, it felt sideshow here and there — is Mike Tyson really wearing a bad wig up there? — but the Brooklyn lug has scads of charisma. And he was even charming referencing his lisp.
Plus, if some parts of his sprawling monologue felt rehearsed (acting is definitely not his sweet science), he excelled when losing himself in absurdist tales, such as an epic street fight with old foe Mitch Green, who refuses to stay down, "like Jason, Friday the 13th sh--!"
Dressed all in white, Tyson first appeared motionless, crouched on a tiny stool, not unlike Rodin's Thinker. As the decent-sized crowd of 1,322 roared louder, that wide face with the Maori tattoo broke into a grin. "I should have called this show "Boxing, B------ and Lawsuits,"' he quipped. Then another zinger: "I promise you're all going to leave here with two ears," referencing his famous chomping of Evander Holyfield in 1997.
Backed by a simple video screen, and with the occasional music cues (a shot of ex-wife Robin Givens was synced with Kanye West's Gold Digger), Tyson touched on select, and not always obvious, moments from his epic life, from never knowing who was his real father to having a mother with substance problems to just being a really messed-up kid for great chunks of his youth: "By the time I was 12, I had been arrested over 30 times."
But he found a savior and a mentor in boxing trainer Cus D'Amato.
The show's goosebumpiest moment was when Tyson recalled D'Amato teaching him a lethal punch combo — and then, the shadow-boxing former champ showed he could still pummel 98 percent of the population. Awesome, just awesome.
Oddly enough, Tyson didn't elaborate on many of his boxing exploits. Instead he picked moments that showed how his lapses in judgment were often matched by others'.
The Givens stuff was wickedly funny, especially when he recalled spotting his estranged wife with a terrified Brad Pitt. But Tyson said all is forgiven. "Brad, give me a job!" he bellowed. "Or better yet, adopt me!"
He ripped Givens pretty good, but others get it worse: "I made a deal with the devil and signed my life away to Don King." He said he should have gone to prison for a lot of things, but in addressing his lowest moment — a rape conviction in 1992 — he claimed, looking straight into the audience: "I did not rape Desiree Washington and that's all I'm going to say about that."
Credit Tyson with blending the tragic with the tragicomic.
For instance, about his face tattoo, he said: "I got a tramp stamp on my face because I wanted to." And the show had a sort-of happy ending. He's sober now, proud of his kids, trying to lead a good life. Oh, and he's a vegan, too, which is just as well: "People taste like sh--."
Sean Daly can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.