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Theatre on Video: Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth on HBO

It honestly was my intention to utilize this category much more frequently when I first announced it over a year ago. Unfortunately, this is only the second time a filmed theatre piece is getting a review here on the blog, so far(so much to see, so little time). A coincidence that both are one-man shows? Yeah, kind of. But HBO made this one easy on me when they decided to film last year’s “Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth” on Broadway, where it had a limited run at the Longacre Theater. Regular readers realize I’m a boxing fan, right? You may also have gleaned that I did some amateur fighting in my teenage years. And, as an avid reader, I’ve digested dozens of books on the sport through the years. At least three of those were almost exclusively about Mike Tyson. So, you’ll forgive me if I’m not buying all of the former heavyweight champion’s bullshit, right? Because there’s an awful lot of revisionist history here. I’m certain that director Spike Lee knows it, and probably even encouraged it. But it is his job to present a slick and polished product for viewers, and he’s succeeded in doing that. However, it’s only the periods where the undisputed truth actually does manage to slip out, that this presentation really bolsters to life. There should be more of those. Mostly, the show plays like “Mike Tyson: Disputed Half-truths”. It is compelling to watch, though.

“Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth” effectively chronicles many of the big moments in Iron Mike’s life(meeting Cus D’Amato, becoming the youngest heavyweight titlist, the shocking upset loss to James “Buster” Douglas, chomping off part of Evander Holyfield’s ear), but it spends way too much time on some of the smaller ones too(a groping of trainer Teddy Atlas’ sister, and the infamous 1988 street fight with Mitch “Blood” Green). Many of the stories, big or small, are tainted by selective memory. For instance, according to Tyson, he didn’t really lose to “Buster” Douglas in Japan in 1990—Douglas was the recipient of a “long count” after being dropped by a Tyson blow in an earlier round. This, ironically, was a press conference plot devised by the notorious Don King over 23 years ago, that was eventually dismissed by the WBC boxing organization. Also, the groping of a trainer’s sister is played off as just some immature playfulness, while the record shows that Tyson had a long history of not keeping his hands to himself(inappropriately grabbing females got Mike thrown out of school more than once). Of course, Tyson again espouses that he was innocent of raping beauty contestant Desiree Washington(the conviction that landed him in prison for 3 years). And the mutilation of Evander Holyfield’s ear with his teeth in 1997 is treated as a momentary lapse of sanity, that’s made okay by the fact that the two are now friendly. Of course, no mention of his attempting to break his opponent’s arm in his 1999 comeback bout after that, or his biting of Lennox Lewis’ leg at a 2002 press conference skirmish. Undisputed truth? Yeah, sure it is. But the unversed are going to buy it, and the appreciative audience at this performance seems to swallow it all too. Tyson’s most poisonous venom is saved for his corrupt promoter, Don King(more than deserving), and his gold-digging ex-wife, Robin Givens(only somewhat deserving, being that there were vast media reports in the 1980’s of Tyson’s physical abuse of Givens). The man is only partially being candid throughout, and he plays the victim on frequent occasions.

Listen, I have little doubt that Mike Tyson, a poor, disadvantaged African-American kid from Brooklyn had so many odds against him that it’s a near miracle that he became a universally recognizable figure. I’m certain that his youthful crimes, involving muggings and stealing were almost certainly unavoidable, and that the mean streets he was raised on were uncompromising and unforgiving. But there comes a point where the once multi-millionaire former champion should take more responsibility for his actions, and they shouldn’t all be conveniently glossed over by the gifted Spike Lee. Tyson’s continued bashing of his controversial ex-wife turns ugly during the monologue, and he admits to zero blame when chronicling their union(Tyson was once credited with saying “the best punch I ever landed in my career” was on Ms. Givens. If true: nice, sensitive, misunderstood, giant Teddy Bear, huh?). There’s really nothing new here. Tyson’s original management team attempted to mold a marketable image for him in the 1980’s, and it all eventually burst at the seams. And Mike, Spike, and current wife and co-writer Kiki Tyson, are trying to resurrect him again. And you won’t be able to take your eyes off of Tyson. He clumsily, but commandingly holds you at rapt attention—no easy feat for a barely professional performer. But take the time to see through the deception of this convincing, but bogus, reborn upstanding citizen. He’s a convicted felon with a long history of violence. They may spoof his peccadilloes at the Tony Awards(the 2013 show made light of his gnawing Holyfield’s ear. As one who watched it live and horrified: that criminal act is now funny?!). At one point during the show, Tyson claims that he’s been sober for 4 years after a lifetime of drug and alcohol abuse. Before this special was broadcast, Tyson admitted to the press that that was a lie. Yes, I realize that addiction is an ongoing struggle, but Mike Tyson still appears to me to be an unrepentant con-man, and that the undisputed truth is still a long way off.     This Theatre on Video performance rates a 6.

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