HBO’s ‘Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth’ packs a punch

Heavyweight Boxer Mike Tyson
Mike Tyson in HBO's Undisputed Truth. Photo: Courtesy HBO.

SAN DIEGO, November 15, 2013 – You may think you know Mike Tyson’s life story. Youngest ever heavyweight boxing champion in the history of the sport. Larger than life bad boy outside the ring. Run-ins with haters, players, promoters, women, and ultimately, himself.

Age has provided Tyson some badly needed perspective. Sobriety and clean living have helped, though he still fights to stay on the wagon as he’s recently admitted. He shares his life with his fans in the one-man show, “Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth,” which premieres on Saturday, November 16, at 8 p.m. ET on HBO.

Tyson said in an interview with HBO’s Bernard Goldberg he was inspired to create his autobiographical stage show after seeing Chazz Palminteri perform “A Bronx Tale” at The Venetian in 2009. Spike Lee directed both the stage version and later the filmed version of the show.

Based on a script written by his wife, Kiki, “Undisputed Truth” offers Tyson’s reflections on the forces that shaped his career and his choices, from his upbringing by an alcoholic single mother to the guidance of his first coach and mentor, Cus D’Amato, to the extravagant, reckless lifestyle fueled by money and fame that led him down a destructive path.

Mike Tyson tells the story of his life on stage in his one-man show, airing as an HBO special on Saturday, November 16, at 8 p.m. Photo courtesy HBO.
Mike Tyson tells the story of his life on stage in his one-man show, airing as an HBO special on Saturday, November 16, at 8 p.m. Photo courtesy HBO.

Tyson leaves out nothing, although he addresses his demons at different levels of detail. When he does confront his most painful episodes, it borders on being uncomfortable. We aren’t used to seeing this powerful heavyweight struggling to keep his emotions in check at the deaths of people close to him.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this show is Tyson’s performance itself. The man won’t win a Tony. But he employs a lot of self-deprecating humor that is laugh out loud funny, and Tyson’s laughing at himself right along with the audience. Despite his famous speech impediment (which he also lampoons), he’s a surprisingly good mimic, particularly of D’Amato and his one-time nemesis Mitch Green, aided by a beyond bad Jheri curl wig. The staging is effective and keeps Tyson moving, allowing him to easily keep the audience’s attention for the 90 minutes he is on stage, all by himself.

There are also moments of sobering (pun intended) intensity, particularly when Tyson discusses the dark episodes of his life, the women he mistreated, and the pain of the angry child who became an angry young man that was celebrated for letting that anger loose in the boxing ring.

What the film version lacks is the energy the audience generates during the show, which fuels Tyson during his performance. When I attended Tyson’s performance during a road trip to San Diego last March, the audience filled with fans feels the presence of this larger than life figure. Its reaction becomes another character in the story providing cues to Tyson as a performer. There is an organic give and take creating a personal conversation which no doubt differs from night to night, city to city.

Detractors will dismiss Mike Tyson as an addict with a serious rap sheet, a thug who got lucky enough to be paid for it and become famous. Tyson’s fans will admire the champion’s candor and insights, applauding what the boxing champion has overcome in his life. Both viewpoints have merit.

Whatever you think of Tyson the man, Tyson as a performer is well worth watching. He is at times raw and profane during the show, showing flashes of rage that seem a little too real and familiar. At other times he is charming, wiling to poke fun at himself, and surprisingly tender and emotional, especially when talking about departed family members.

Mike Tyson’s one-man stage show brings him face to face with his demons in full view of the audience. Photo: Courtesy HBO.
Mike Tyson’s one-man stage show brings him face to face with his demons in full view of the audience. Photo: Courtesy HBO.

Whether all this adds up to the truth could be disputed, certainly. Nevertheless it’s the closest version of the truth about Mike Tyson as we’ve ever gotten, and it makes for a compelling story about human nature and the forces that shape each of us. It is also about how we come to process, understand and make peace with those forces, and whether we have the internal strength to alter their course and our fate. To his enormous credit, Mike Tyson is trying to alter his fate, if not always succeeding.

As Tyson says about the controversial tattoo on his face during the show more colorfully than I can here, if you don’t like it, don’t look at it. It’s his face. It’s his life.

“Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth,” premieres Saturday, November 16, at 8 p.m. ET/PT on HBO, with repeated airings throughout the month. Also available via and on demand for subscribers.

Gayle Lynn Falkenthal, APR, is President/Owner of the Falcon Valley Group in San Diego, California. She is also a serious boxing fan covering the Sweet Science for Communities. Read more Media Migraine in Communities Digital News. Follow Gayle on Facebook and on Twitter @PRProSanDiego. Gayle can be reached via Google +

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