Heavyweight Champ Mike Tyson Finds New Career Path in Theater

Categories: Theater

It's probably not an overreach to say James Toback's 2008 documentary Tyson was one of the most profound tragedies to come out in recent memory. Tyson, former world heavyweight champ, now a hulking, deflated, recovering drug addict with a tattooed face and a pigeon farm.

He was, in many senses, the archetypal fallen man -- a feral street fighter plucked from Brownsville, Brooklyn, groomed to be a world-class boxer, thrown into the world of mega-celebrity, exploited by a series of unctuous handlers, and turned into the stuff of allegory. After a disappointing exhibition tour in 2006 to help pay off debts, Tyson declared his whole life a waste. He turned to cocaine, went back to jail, and sunk deeper into bankruptcy.

At that point, it seemed he had only one alternative: theater.

Or perhaps that's not true. Maybe a Broadway show is the only logical conclusion to a life that's been all about spectacle, and a character who seems at once painfully earnest and overly conscious or being in the spotlight.

Mike Tyson: The Undisputed Truth, a collaboration with filmmaker Spike Lee featuring historical montages and rambling, wry commentary from the boxer-turned-pigeon caretaker, premiered with a 36-city tour last year. Last night it came to the Fox Theatre in Oakland, where a near-packed house of older, mostly male Tyson fans heckled and adulated Tyson throughout his two hour performance.

The show is stoutly optimistic in comparison to the movie, with Tyson appearing in a baggy sweat suit that could almost be pajamas, dishing cavalierly on former lovers and fellow stars ("Puffy -- he used to DJ my after-parties"), bragging about erstwhile riches (canary-yellow Rolls Royce convertible, white leather jackets custom-made by Harlem designer Dapper Dan), occasionally veering off-script and apologizing for his foul mouth. It's the type of entrancing soliloquy you'd expect from an old man who'd at one point been a Casanova, but who'd come to accept his lot in life.

Tyson beams over vintage advertisements featuring his once-trapezoidal chest. And yet he recognizes those days are gone, and so is the body that moored them. He gazes on as gravelly-voiced Nina Simone accompanies video footage of the younger Tyson swatting a punching bag. In no other show would boxing look this much like ballet.

It's unclear what's in the cards for Mike Tyson as he faces the autumn of middle age. His theater career has limitations; in movies, he can only play himself. The final segment of Undisputed Truth attempts to recast the boxer as a family man, posing with his eight children, then retreating to a Paradise Valley enclave to care for his pigeons.

That's not the Mike Tyson that pop culture has given us, but it's the image that Tyson has tried to cultivate in recent years. After his last stint in prison, the retired boxer disavowed cocaine, hewed to a vegan diet for long enough to shed 180 pounds, and attempted to reconnect with his now-sprawling family. With the truth undeniably painful, it's perhaps the only way for him to survive.

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