The title Undisputed Truth is a play on the familiar boxing phrase “undisputed champion”—as in “Mike Tyson, undisputed heavyweight champion of the world,” delivered in a ring announcer’s booming voice and much heard during the late 1980s and early 1990s. A more appropriate title for this lively mixture of a memoir would be Disputed Truth. These recollections of Tyson’s tumultuous life began as a one-man Las Vegas act at the MGM casino. It is now shaped into narrative form by a professional writer best known as the collaborator of the “shock comic” Howard Stern and is aimed to shock, titillate, amuse, and entertain, since much in it is wildly surreal and unverifiable. (Like the claim that “I’m such a monster. I turned the Romanian Mafia onto coke” and that Tyson was a guest at the Billionaire Club in Sardinia, “where a bottle of champagne cost something like $100,000.”)
Mostly, Undisputed Truth is a memoir of indefatigable name-dropping and endless accounts of “partying”; there is a photograph of Tyson with Maya Angelou, who came to visit him in Indiana when he was imprisoned for rape; we learn that Tyson converted to Islam in prison (“That was my first encounter with true love and forgiveness”), but as soon as he was freed, he returns to his old, debauched life, plunging immediately into debt:
I had to have an East Coast mansion…so I went out and bought the largest house in the state of Connecticut. It was over fifty thousand square feet and had thirteen kitchens and nineteen bedrooms…. In the six years I owned it, you could count the number of times I was actually there on two hands.
This palatial property is but one of four luxurious mansions Tyson purchases in the same manic season, along with exotic wild animals (lion, white tiger cubs) and expensive automobiles—“Vipers, Spyders, Ferraris, and Lamborghinis.” We hear of Tyson’s thirtieth birthday party at his Connecticut estate with a guest list including Oprah, Donald Trump, Jay Z, and “street pimps and their hos.” In line with Tyson’s newfound Muslim faith, he stations outside the house “forty big Fruit of Islam bodyguards.”
Apart from generating income for Tyson, the principal intention of Undisputed Truth would seem to be settling scores with people whom he dislikes, notably his first wife Robin Givens and her omnipresent mother Ruth (“There was nothing they wouldn’t do for money, nothing. They would fuck a rat”) and the infamous Don King, whom Tyson sued for having defrauded him of many millions of dollars:
This other piece of shit, Don King. Don is a wretched, slimy reptilian motherfucker. He was supposed to be my black brother, but he was just a bad man…. I thought I could handle somebody like King, but he outsmarted me. I was totally out of my league with that guy.
Shown proof that he had been paid $12 million for his fight against Michael Spinks in 1988, Tyson couldn’t recall either that he’d ever been paid or “what I did with the money.” He adds, “I didn’t even have my own accountant at the time; I was just using Don’s. I didn’t have anyone to tell me how to protect myself. All my friends were dependent on me. I had the biggest loser friends in the history of loser friends.”
Nor is Tyson above using Undisputed Truth to revisit his Indiana rape trial of 1992 and to speak scathingly another time of the eighteen-year-old Miss Black America contestant Desiree Washington whom he was convicted of raping: “I told her to wear some loose clothing and I was surprised when she got into the car, she was wearing a loose bustier and her short pajama bottoms. She looked ready for action.”
To the extent that Tyson has a predominant tone in Undisputed Truth it’s that of a Vegas stand-up comic, alternately self-loathing and self-aggrandizing, sometimes funny, sometimes merely crude:
Nobody in the whole history of boxing had ever made as much money in such a short period of time as I did…. I was like some really hot, pretty bitch who everybody wanted to fuck, you know what I mean?
Defending his friend Michael Jackson against charges of pedophilia:
It was weird, everyone was saying that he was molesting kids then, but when I went there he had some little kids there who were like thug kids. These were no little punk kids, these guys would have whooped his ass if he tried any shit.
He is temporarily flush with money that he spends with the giddy abandon of a nouveau riche athlete who becomes near-bankrupt:
I was so poor that a guy who’d stolen my credit card went online to complain that I was so broke he couldn’t even pay for a dinner with my credit card.
Admirers of Tyson’s early boxing career will be surprised if not mystified to learn that even when he was undefeated as a heavyweight champion—even when he was training with Cus D’Amato as a teenager in the 1980s—he often drank heavily, like his mother, and took drugs, favoring cocaine: “I started buying and sniffing coke when I was eleven but I’d been drinking alcohol since I was a baby. I came from a long line of drunks.”
It is generally believed that Tyson’s downward spiral began at the time of the Buster Douglas debacle, but this memoir makes clear, as he admits countless times, that he’d been a “cokehead” more or less continuously. At one point his cocaine addiction is so extreme that he seems to have infected his wife Kiki, whose probation officer detects cocaine in her system, a consequence of Tyson having kissed her before she went for her drug test. “I’m talking about a jar of coke,” he writes. “I stuck my tongue down that jar and I hit pure cocaine. So much that you don’t even feel your tongue anymore.” There’s a comical account of Tyson in a fit of road rage violently attacking a driver whose car has accidentally rear-ended his own:
Someone had called the police and they pulled us over a few miles from the scene. I was as high as a kite and I started complaining about chest pains and then I told them that I was a victim of racial profiling.
After Tyson’s conviction on charges of assault he is sentenced to two years in prison in Maryland (“with one year suspended”); his most attention-getting visitor is John F. Kennedy Jr., who bizarrely assures Tyson that “the only reason you’re in here is you’re black.” Tyson encourages John Jr. to “run for political office,” an idea that, in Tyson’s account, is evidently new and startling to him. Tyson elaborates to the Kennedy heir:
No, nigga, you’ve got to do this shit…. That’s what you were born to do. People’s dreams are riding on you, man. That’s a heavy burden but you shouldn’t have had that mother and father you did.
With admirable prescience Tyson tells John Jr. that he’s “fucking crazy” to be flying his private plane. Though Tyson has been stressing his humility in prison he can’t help but brag that “shortly after John-John was there, boom, I got out of jail.”
As if in rebuke of such self- aggrandizement, every few pages there is a perfunctory sort of self-chastisement, like a tic: “I might not have been a scumbag, but I was an arrogant prick.” On the occasion of acquiring the Maori tribal tattoo that now covers nearly half his face: “I hated my face and I literally wanted to deface myself.”
The funniest jokes in Undisputed Truth trade upon racial stereotypes. Tyson speaks of being taken up by a Jewish billionaire named Jeff Greene who’d made a “billion dollars playing the real estate market” while “I was a Muslim boxer who spent almost a billion dollars on bitches and cars and legal fees.” Greene invites Tyson to dinner during Rosh Hashanah—“Shit I even got to read from the book during the Passover seder.” This is Tyson’s introduction to what he calls “Jewish jubilance.” Another joke would have drawn appreciative laughter in Vegas:
I was on another rich Jewish guy’s yacht and I watched him checking out this other Jewish guy whose boat was moored nearby. They were looking at each other, just like black people do, you know how we look at each other? And then one guy said, “Harvard seventy-nine?”
“Yes, didn’t you study macroeconomics?”
…So I’m on this boat and I see a big black guy. He’s the bodyguard for a very well-known international arms dealer. And I’m looking at him and looking at him and I just can’t place him. He came over to me.
“Spofford seventy-eight?” he asked.
“Shit, nigga, we met in lockdown,” I remembered.
One of the more lurid incidents in the afterlife of Tyson’s career is the ear-biting fracas of his fight against Evander Holyfield in 1997. Provoked by his opponent’s head-butting, which opened gashes in his forehead (and which referee Mills Lane unaccountably ruled “an accident”), Tyson lost control and bit one of Holyfield’s ears—and then, when the fight resumed, after Holyfield butted Tyson’s forehead again, Tyson bit Holyfield’s other ear. “I just wanted to kill him. Anybody watching could see that the head butts were so overt. I was furious, I was an undisciplined soldier and I lost my composure.” The referee stopped the fight, with Holyfield declared the winner. Though Tyson’s behavior was roundly condemned as poor sportsmanship, an examination of the video shows clearly that the referee behaved with unwarranted leniency toward Holyfield, and prejudice against Tyson. (Ironically, in a Golden Gloves tournament, Holyfield himself had once bitten an opponent.) About Holyfield and himself, Tyson had this to say in a recent interview at the New York Public Library:
Evander’s still fighting, he’s still trying to even the score. I’m not trying to even the score. I’m moving on to other places, which are probably dark, and places I’ve never been before, but I’m not afraid to go there, I’m not afraid to lose in life. I’m not afraid to do anything…. There’s nothing I would do unless I have a possibility of being humiliated. If I can’t be humiliated if I fail, I don’t want to do it, because only by doing that will I rise to my highest potential.
Undisputed Truth ends with Tyson in a somber, even elegiac mood, reflecting upon his Muslim faith and the “old-time fighters” like Harry Greb, Mickey Walker, Benny Leonard, John L. Sullivan. His mood here is nostalgic, remorseful—“Now I’m totally compassionate…. I’ve really come to a place of forgiveness.” But “sometimes I just fantasize about blowing somebody’s brains out so I can go to prison for the rest of my life.” Tyson writes that he has returned to A.A. and that his sobriety is a precarious matter, like his marriage. After the jocular excesses of Undisputed Truth it is hardly convincing to end on so subdued and tentative a note: “One day at a time.”