Nearly 16 years after bringing boxing and Evander Holyfield’s right ear into the pay-per-chew era, we have reached yet another unexpected point in sports and entertainment history: Mike Tyson, thespian.
Tyson, boxing’s former undisputed heavyweight champion and polarizing icon, a creature equally vilified and hero-worshipped throughout his life and career, has been starring in his autobiographical one-man play, “Undisputed Truth.” The show is a two-hour monologue during which Tyson takes the audience through the highs and horrors of his life, and he doesn’t skip anything. Not the difficult upbringing, not the prostitute mother, not the drugs, the crime, his meteoric rise and spectacular fall, his marriage to Robin Givens, his dealings with Don King, not even his 1992 rape conviction (which he still denies).
Think Hamlet. Only in this theater, instead of speaking while gazing at the skull of Yorick, the deceased jester, Tyson holds his own cranium and psyche aloft for the entertainment value (and a few bucks).
“This gives me life,” Tyson said by phone from his home in Las Vegas. “Being on a stage, getting instant gratification, evoking feelings, — I like doing this. I’m a good storyteller. This isn’t about therapy for me. This is me entertaining people. This isn’t about me going on a sympathy tour or an apology tour.”
Tyson’s show, written by his wife, Kiki, and directed by Spike Lee, comes to the Fox Theater on April 20. That might seem a little bold. Atlanta, after all, is the hometown of Holyfield, the man whose ear he bit off in their 1997 rematch. But given that this tour opened in the same city (Indianapolis) as Tyson’s rape trial, Atlanta doesn’t seem that big of a deal.
Feel free to rail on society for allowing something like this show to exist if you wish. Tyson has moved on with his life. He even deals with hecklers during shows. “It can’t be a real show if you don’t have hecklers,” he said. “That’s OK. I’ve got thick skin.”
If you scream, don’t do so on Holyfield’s behalf.
He is a fan of the show. He has seen it three times. Perhaps more surprisingly, he and Tyson have become good friends. Their paths frequently cross. They hug. They laugh. Tyson has even dropped in twice when Holyfield has been on the road promoting his line of “Real Deal Barbecue Sauce,” most recently in Chicago.
“Somebody asked Mike, ‘Why did you bite this man’s ear?’” Holyfield said, laughing. “Mike said, ‘He had this barbecue sauce on it.’ It was funny. Everybody loved it. It’s amazing how two people can be like almost arch enemies one day, but not now.”
Asked how quickly he let go of his anger for Tyson, Holyfield said, “Right away. I was mad when he bit me, but once I got to the dressing room that night it was gone. He just wanted the fight to be stopped. God said it’s all about forgiveness, so I’ve forgiven him. Besides, I got paid $35 million for nine minutes. How long am I going to stay mad about a bite after getting paid $35 million?”
Which leads to something else the two have in common: Both lost fortunes and were forced to declare bankruptcy.
“A lot of people have money problems,” Tyson said. “The problem isn’t limited to boxers or blacks from the inner city or stupid people. It happens to Fortune 500 companies. I don’t feel sorry for Evander. I feel sorry for the people who’ve lost everything and then killed themself.
“Evander’s a great guy, no matter what. He’s a good guy, with or without money. He’s a beautiful man. He’s more than a pair of boxing gloves.”
The two have known each other for 30 years, going back to amateur days. They weren’t quite friends, but they shared a similar trait: Neither mixed well with the others during pre-Olympic training camps in Colorado Springs in 1984.
“We were just fighters. That’s all we cared about,” Tyson said.
“Nobody liked me, and I don’t think anybody liked Mike,” Holyfield said. “They said I was a momma’s boy. I didn’t smoke. I didn’t drink. I didn’t do none of that stuff.
“Mike was like a kid then. He had a VHS tape of old fights, and that’s all he wanted to do. Other guys wanted to watch skin flicks. Who wanted to watch skin flicks with a bunch of guys? Mike watched that tape. I just wanted to walk to the mall.”
They’ve long been two of sports’ most fascinating figures. They fought at a time when the heavyweight title still meant something. (For the record, Holyfield, at 50, still hasn’t officially retired.) Both times they fought, it was great theater.
Holyfield knew of Tyson’s background. Everybody did. His bizarre life played out on stage, like some mutant cartoon. So when Holyfield went to see the play, he wasn’t sure what to expect.
“Then I saw him bouncing around on stage, laughing, saying, ‘This is what really happened. I was messed up. My mother did this and that. She was a prostitute. I was in the ghetto.’ I was like, ‘Oh my goodness.’ When you look at all of the things he went through, it was a lot more interesting than I thought it would be.”
Tyson frequently uses profanity in the show, but there’s also self-effacing humor.
“When you can make fun of yourself it means you can actually get over things,” Holyfield said.
At the Chicago show, Tyson spotted Holyfield in the audience, He discussed the ear bite and recalled what was going through his mind.
Holyfield picks up the moment: “Mike said, ‘This man never said nothing bad about me.’ People gave him a standing ovation. I never tried to put him down. How can I judge somebody?”
Tyson said he is “grateful” that he and Holyfield are friends. He also said, “Life can be difficult, but at some point you have to forgive yourself.”
Cheer, boo, doesn’t matter. Tyson understands, either way. He’s still on stage, and he still evokes strong emotions. What nobody figured was that among those cheering is a man missing part of an ear.