Former undisputed heavyweight champion of the world Mike Tyson scored one of the more impressive comebacks of his colorful career last night. That he did so in his one-man autobiographical show, Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth, on the stage of Hollywood's Pantages Theater rather than inside a boxing ring makes this disarming theatrical knockout all the more remarkable.
Tyson on a stage turns out to be a disciplined, compelling and surprisingly composed and charismatic presence. (Anybody expecting a bloated, Jake Lamotta grotesque will be sadly disappointed.) From his first appearance under a stark, overhead spot in a thrilling slow fade-up — wittily set to Nat King Cole's “Nature Boy” — to the show's pathos-packed finale, Tyson proves himself in complete command of both the evening and the Pantages' 2,700-strong audience.
Which is not to say his performance in any way can be mistaken for that of a trained actor; the boxer's biggest battle continues to be with sibilants and the trademark lisp that he takes on with frequent and good-natured jabs of self-mockery. Much to the credit of show creator Adam Steck, writer Kiki Tyson, director Spike Lee and the star himself, that winning, self-deprecatory sense of humor turns out to be one of the show's most appealing features.
The main event, of course, is the life being recounted. And as told by Tyson, it's a harrowing and achingly archetypal, rags-to-riches-and-back-again American Life. The first half follows him from his ghetto origins as a near-sociopathic juvenile tough in Brownsville, Brooklyn, through his incarceration at Spofford Juvenile Center in the Bronx, where he has a life-changing encounter with Muhammad Ali, to his being taken under the wing of the legendary manager-trainer (and surrogate father) Cus D'Amato and becoming the youngest heavyweight champion in boxing history.
Part two presents his personal blow-by-blow of his tabloid-documented fall. It's a painfully familiar tale of a deeply flawed hero who achieves too much at far too early an age only to be destroyed by the unrestrained license of wealth and celebrity and his own un-exorcised emotional demons.
In this Tyson is unsparing if not impartial. Included are sympathetic spins on his disastrous and costly marriage to actress-model Robin Givens; his notorious 1988 street fight with boxer Mitch Green in a Harlem haberdashery (that effectively turned him into a media pariah); his 1992 conviction for raping Indiana beauty pageant contestant Desiree Washington (“Not guilty,” maintains the champ) and the controversial 1997 fight in which Tyson bit off a piece of Evander Holyfield's right ear (“I snapped,” he admits) that effectively defined his career nadir.
Beyond the sensational anecdotes of recklessly self-destructive blunders (and their accompanying mea culpa), addiction and difficult recovery, however, a far more poignant narrative emerges; namely, that of a disgraced, often buffoonish and once-proud man humbled by life but fighting to recover the dignity due his considerable athletic achievements. In that regard, the evening ably demonstrates that Tyson is still every inch the champion.
Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth plays tonight, 8 p.m. & Sunday 7 p.m. at Pantages Theater.