Not the actual tattoo on Mike Tyson’s face, but the giant logo of that tattoo on the stage curtain that greets you as you enter the theater. This is Tyson’s unmistakable trademark now, a reminder of the various missteps and misadventures that marked his evolution from fearsome heavyweight to comic fodder. As boxing fades further into oblivion, it’s easy to forget that Tyson could have gone down as a sports legend, one of the greatest boxers of all time in an era lacking all-time greats. Strangely, with a coveted Broadway stage as his pulpit, he’s not helping that cause.
On Tuesday, in the first of 12 straight nights of “Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth” at the Longacre Theater — the show’s official opening night is Thursday — Tyson paced the stage and delivered what was promised: an off-the-cuff, funny and emotional recollection of his life, through his unique point of view. Under the guidance of director Spike Lee, Tyson delivered a long, vulgar monologue, briefly pausing to acknowledge accompanying photos projected behind him, but mostly talking straight through, alone, the chronology of his career, his pink button-down shirt turning purple with sweat as the years passed.
Longtime boxing fans remember the in-the-ring greatness, the unmatched punching power and the 44 career knockouts, and many of them packed the theater on Tuesday. This was a pro-Tyson crowd, delivering a pep rally atmosphere, even when Tyson delved into darker subjects. This was a boxing crowd too, responding with a thunderous ovation at first mention of Tyson’s late trainer and mentor, Cus D’Amato, and jeers when a video showed what Tyson believes was a questionable long count by referee Octavio Meyran in his infamous loss to Buster Douglas.
But in the culture at large, a culture in which boxing, a former pillar of the sports world, has been cast to the fringe, Tyson is seen as a washed-up former champ who devolved into a pop-culture sideshow. He tattooed his face, he appeared in “The Hangover,” he was parodied on “The Simpsons,” he was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame and he had a show about pigeons on Animal Planet. The list goes on.
By way of context, it’s important to note that I celebrated my second birthday the day Douglas knocked out Tyson in Tokyo: Feb. 11, 1990. Most of my generation never saw Tyson fight in his prime. We saw him bite off half of Evander Holyfield’s ear, and at that point Tyson ceased to be one of the most intimidating forces in boxing history. He became a punch line. Events of the last 15 years have mostly reinforced that notion.
Which makes parts of “Undisputed Truth” disappointing. Tyson mostly glossed over his boxing success. While the point of the show was for Tyson to stand in front of an audience with the walls down, allowing him to speak frankly for a couple hours about all aspects of his complicated life, it’s the boxing that made Tyson such a prominent figure in the first place. He has enough stories to deliver a different show for all 12 of his nights on Broadway, but he does a disservice to his legacy by not spending more time talking about his world-class ability in a sport filled with corruption and cruelty but also some of the most legendary sports figures in American history.
The most sincere moments came early, when Tyson spoke about his relationship with D’Amato. He spoke without regret. He spoke about how D’Amato changed his life, how the trainer believed in him with limitless ambitions, how he believed Tyson would become the youngest heavyweight champion in history. D’Amato was right, though, sadly, he never saw it: He died just before Tyson claimed the title at age 20.
But instead of exploring that relationship, Tyson spent disproportionate amounts of time on diatribes about his first wife, Robin Givens, and Mitch Green, a boxer and Tyson antagonist who provoked the champ into giving him a massive beatdown late one night in Harlem. Tyson’s comedic timing and natural ability to play off the audience resulted in plenty of laughs, but while these may have been prominent stories in his life, a few minutes would have been better spent actually describing how he won the title or even the lead-up to and aftermath of the Douglas fight, a tipping point for Tyson and the sport of boxing as a whole.
Maybe Tyson wants to be sure that he’s known as more than just a boxer, wants to shed the jock stereotypes. We have enough professional athletes who do everything in their power to conceal their personalities and be seen as robotic athletic machines. Tyson is the most recognizable figure in boxing since Muhammad Ali; he transcended the sport as both an athlete and a personality.
For Tyson, who was never Ali but at his best was worthy of a spot among the greats, “Undisputed Truth” serves as a summation of the grandest reality show of them all, an entertaining but surreal performance that reinforces the notion that his ability as a boxer, like the sport itself, has become a footnote.