Love him or loathe him, Mike Tyson’s Undisputed Truth is not just one of the best sports-themed books I’ve ever read. It’s not even just one of the best autobiographies I’ve ever read. It’s one of the best books I’ve read, period.
That’s a big call for a book written by a convicted rapist, notorious ear-biter and school drop-out with arguably the most renowned lisp in the world, but I’m sticking with it. Undisputed Truth is fascinating, it’s explosive, it’s horrifying and it’s downright hilarious. In fact, I’m fairly certain I have laughed out loud from reading this book more times than any other book I’ve ever read.
I don’t know if this is a comparison anyone has made, but Undisputed Truth reminds me of another one of my favourite books, Jim Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries. Both are about the real-life wild and wacky adventures of athletes who love girls and drugs, told with an unflinching honesty and often veering into extremely dark territory.
However, while The Basketball Diaries is a short book traverses only a portion of Carroll’s adolescence, Undisputed Truth is a monster (but swift) 592 pages covering Tyson’s entire life up to last year. And while Carroll was a pretty good basketball player and womanizer, he was never the “baddest man alive” or a world class sex machine like Tyson (who would have given Wilt Chamberlain a run for his money as he was notoriously undiscriminating when it came to his partners).
So what makes Undisputed Truth an all-time read? Well for starters, Tyson does not hold back at all. He absolutely pours his heart out, infusing every page with his damaged soul. The unique voice is pure raw emotion and distinctively Tyson, and you can almost picture Tyson spewing the words out as they are recorded by his co-writer Larry Sloman (best known for Howard Stern’s Private Parts). The narrative is fluid, albeit occasionally rambling and often contradictory (for instance, Tyson goes on about turning into a devout Muslim, only to say on the next page that he doesn’t believe in an afterlife), but at the same time it is always coherent and sharp. Besides, Tyson is so messed up, even right now, that a little craziness is expected.
I don’t want to give away too many golden nuggets from the book, so I’ll just give a very brief overview to provide an idea of what’s in store. The autobiography begins with an introduction that describes one of the most pivotal moments in Tyson’s life — the sentencing for his rape charge — before taking readers right back to the beginning of his troubled and dysfunctional childhood in Brownsville, one of the toughest neighbourhoods in the Bronx. And it’s an unimaginable childhood for most of us, one completely devoid of love and hope. Those early portions of the book are difficult to swallow, but they are also essential to understanding the man Tyson would become.
Tyson’s life makes a dramatic turn when he meets Cus D’Amato, the hard-nosed trainer who would transform Tyson from a scared little punk kid into the heavyweight champion of the world. Cus was far from perfect, but Tyson loved him unlike anyone else he has loved in his entire life, and you can truly feel that love flow through the pages as Tyson describes their relationship and what the old man means to him. One can only imagine how Mike Tyson’s legacy would have turned out — both in and out of the ring — had D’Amato not died as Tyson zoned in on the heavyweight title.
Tyson’s rise through the ranks, from amateur to professional, is one of the most exciting aspects of the book. People tend to take his success for granted and attribute it to his natural gifts, but Tyson was one of the hardest, most obsessive workers I have ever seen in any sport, shadowboxing literally for hours, devouring classic fight tapes and reading everything he could get his hands on about the all-time greats.
I had not expected this, but Tyson literally describes every single one of his professional bouts (and many of his key amateur bouts too), including the lead-up, the fight itself and how it ended — and what was going through his mind the whole time. I loved this about the book and the insights it provided into the psyche of a Hall-of-Fame boxer, and it also shed light on a lot of Tyson’s performances because he admittedly wasn’t in shape or motivated for many of them, especially later in his career when all he wanted was another paycheck. For me, the best part about his detailed analysis of the bouts is being able to go straight to YouTube to watch the spectacular fights right after reading his take on them.
Tyson’s later decline and bad losses may tarnish his legacy, but there’s no doubt in my mind that he was unbeatable in his prime if he was motivated and had his head on straight (two very big IFs). He was just so ferocious, so quick and so powerful that he often beat opponents psychologically even before stepping into the ring. But the loss of Cus to keep him in line and the introduction of Don King to his life, not to mention all the money and the women and the drugs, eventually took their toll on his mind and body, and he was simply never the same again.
It would be wrong, however, to be under the impression that Undisputed Truth is only about boxing. Many of my favourite parts of the book are about Tyson’s life outside of the ring. He was just an insane spender who had no idea what to do with the millions and millions of dollars he was raking in (and this excludes the millions and millions others ripped off him without his knowledge). The fleets of luxury cars, sports cars, the custom-made bling and outfits, the entire house adorned with Versace, and even keeping real tigers as pets. He was literally giving away money to poor people left and right, and that’s not even taking into account all the real and bogus legal claims he has had to settle (often just random strangers coming up to his house with fake injuries or people off the street trying to bait him into a fight) and the millions he has spent on lawyer fees. It’s no surprise that despite all the money he has made in his career, Tyson still ended up being dead broke.
Tyson’s brushes with celebrities are also a highlight of the book. There are so many priceless celebrity anecdotes littered throughout the book, including classic stories about Naomi Campbell, Prince and Eddie Murphy as well as crazy brushes with guys like Rick James, Wesley Snipes, and of course, the infamous encounter with Brad Pitt. They tend to be short, but they are always pure gold, and reminds us just how famous Tyson was back in his heyday, and that shockingly, it wasn’t until his cameo in The Hangover that completely turned his life around. Funnily enough, despite working with a convicted rapist like Tyson, the cast and crew of the sequel collectively vetoed the decision to do the same with anti-Semite Mel Gibson.
Another inescapable part of Tyson’s life was the women. My god, the women. After not knowing how to even approach a girl as a teen, Tyson was propositioned by thousands and thousands of women after becoming rich and famous, and he never quite figured out how to say no. A lot of this stuff is extremely crude, but it’s also extremely funny because of how low Tyson would stoop. Oldies, fatties, uglies — it didn’t matter to him. He speaks of those days of debauchery with shame — including all the STDs he picked up along the way – but the way he describes his way of thinking and his actions at the time is gut-bustingly funny stuff. At one stage he even apologizes to his readers for having to put up with his antics.
When it comes to women and Tyson, however, it’s impossible not to mention two names — his first wife Robin Givens, who accused him of domestic violence, and beauty pageant contestant Desiree Washington, whose allegations of rape sent Tyson to prison for three years. Tyson is a little coy when it comes to Givens, the actress he says he fell head over heels for but believed she was a manipulative gold digger along with her mother Ruth, whom he affectionately calls “Ruthless”. He never directly denies the domestic violence allegations but says multiple times that her claims are all BS.
As for Washington, Tyson says he is prohibited from discussing his case in detail due to British laws, though he strongly insinuates that he is innocent and insists that he will maintain his innocence to his grave. Everyone will have their own views on this case, but based on my readings of Undisputed Truth and other sources I followed up on, I think there is no doubt Tyson got screwed in court.
Now, I’m not saying for one second that I believe Tyson is innocent — only he and Washington know what happened — but I do find it shocking that he was convicted based on the lacklustre evidence that was available and adduced at court. The truth is, if the accused was not someone as universally loathed as Mike Tyson, he probably would have walked away. But all the stars aligned at the wrong time for him: (1) Don King used his prudish tax lawyer to represent Tyson in a rape case, and the dimwit probably did the worst job imaginable, including not using the lack of physical evidence to their advantage; (2) an admitted Tyson-hater somehow slipped through the cracks to not only get on the jury, but become the jury foreman; (3) rape shield laws prevented evidence of Washington’s earlier false rape allegation made against a former boyfriend and witnesses who could have shattered the innocent and naive image she created by detailing her sordid sexual past; and (4) the fact that she signed secret book and movie deals around the same time she made her accusations public was not enough to earn Tyson an appeal.
Having said all that, my personal guess is that Tyson probably was guilty under the legal definition of rape, because no matter how much Washington pursued Tyson and bragged about spending his money as “Mrs Tyson”, all she had to do was say “No” at any time during the ordeal for consent to be taken away. It didn’t matter that she obviously lied about having no idea that Tyson wanted sex when he invited her up to his room in the middle of the night, or that she curiously went into the bathroom to remove a liner from her underwear before the incident took place. She may have initially wanted to go through with it and changed her mind at the last moment, but Tyson was too much of a reckless animal to hear or sense her terrified opposition.
If she did falsely accuse him, I believe the intent came not before but after, when she furiously realized that she was just another piece of meat that Tyson was tossing away after he was done with it. That’s why I also don’t doubt at all that Tyson honestly believes he is innocent, which is why he turned down an opportunity at an early release because he simply refused to apologize to her — just an apology, not even an admission of guilt. In any case, the rape case is a fascinating part of the book, and I would recommend everyone to read up about it as much as they can before making their own judgment.
That was heavy.
The book slows down towards the end and becomes more contemplative, as Tyson’s drug and alcohol abuse, sex addiction, accumulated boxing injuries and uncontrollable fury prevent him from having any semblance of a real life. In the end, it’s his love for his current wife and the loss of one of his children in a tragic accident that keep him from completely falling off the wagon, though as he concedes in the book’s postscript it’s still an ongoing battle he’s taking one day at a time. Just as I was finishing the book I read elsewhere about Tyson’s latest implosion on Canadian television during an interview, confirming that no matter how much therapy he receives his demons will likely follow him until the day he dies.
It’s strange, because despite wasting all his talent and hard work and throwing away all the fruits of his success, I can’t help but feel sorry for the guy. On the other hand, even Tyson’s staunchest defenders would concede that he is a destructive individual with loathsome qualities — and that’s even if you believe he is innocent of rape. You can defend his actions to some extent because of his horrific upbringing, the toxic environment and people he grew up with, and the constant bullying and abuse he suffered as a child, but apologizing for Mike Tyson can only go so far because there are some things he has done — things he readily admits to in the book — that are simply inexcusable at any level of human decency.
Tyson understands this himself and appears genuinely remorseful at times (though at other times he remains defensive), attributing his insanity to the combustible combination of a massive ego and extremely low self-esteem. He was born in the gutter, and no matter how much success and money he achieved throughout his career, he still believed that he belonged in the gutter, which is why he could never put an end to his self-destructive tendencies.
That’s why I say you cannot treat Tyson like a real person if you want to truly enjoy this book. It’s a strange comparison, but I like to think of him as Homer Simpson — a character you find endearing in spite of, and maybe even because of, his anti-social qualities, but would hate if you knew such a person in real life. Everyone probably has an opinion on Tyson, both as a boxer and as a man, and neither might be flattering. But don’t let your prejudices get in the way of one of the best books you might ever read.