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Q&A: Mike Tyson on 'The Undisputed Truth,' Brad Pitt and veganism

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Mike Tyson made an unexpected splash on Broadway last year with his one-man show, "The Undisputed Truth," directed by Spike Lee, written by Tyson's wife, Kiki, and inspired by Chazz Palminteri's "A Bronx Tale." A film version of the play, taped this summer in New York, premieres Saturday night on HBO.

As Times critic Mary McNamara notes in her review, "The Undisputed Truth" is, despite its title, not really about coming clean -- Tyson, for instance, issues a curt denial of the rape charge that sent him to prison for three years in 1992. (Presumably, he delves into some of his more controversial moments with greater depth in his just-released autobiography of the same name.)

Instead, the film plays like a 90-minute highlight reel of the former champ's most outrageous, tabloid-friendly moments. It focuses almost entirely on the boxer's life outside the ring, including his brief but tumultuous marriage to Robin Givens and a comical encounter with an allegedly stoned Brad Pitt who feared Tyson would beat him up for romancing his ex.

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Over a plate of fruit and some chocolate chip cookies at HBO's headquarters in midtown Manhattan, a slightly weary Tyson talked about his motivation for creating the show (hint: money was a factor) and why he's not looking to change anyone's opinions about him.

What motivated you to do this show? Did you feel as if there was a story about you that hadn't been told?
No. I just thought it was a way to entertain people and make a few bucks while I was doing it. This thing just took on a life of its own. I thought it would be like Mr. Palminteri. He was off-Broadway for a few years before it was on Broadway.  I don't think no one ever did a two-week show and then went straight on Broadway.

Your wife wrote the play. Tell me about that process.
Kiki wrote it. I told her about my life. She had to write it raw for what it really was. She watered it down so I wasn't a bad guy. You're writing about somebody you love so you're not going to write he did this and that. I told her what I did and said this is how it happened. And she wrote it just as I told her to write it.

Was that difficult?
For her it was. She didn't want to write about somebody she loves like that, even if it's true. I said you gotta write what's real, they're gonna know if it's bull… because they know the stories. They just never heard it said before. They know if I'm bull… or not.

Was there anything in particular that was hard?
About my daughter dying. She didn't want to write about Robin to give her more press. Thank god she's part of my life to write about it.

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The show and film focus on your personal life rather than what you were doing in the ring. Why is that?
Absolutely. That made me the fighter that I was so the fighter became obsolete. It was all about making the fighter obsolete and making the person and how the fighter existed because of the person.

Can you talk about the influence of your childhood in Brooklyn and your trainer, Cus D'Amato?
I grew up in Brownsville in a very poverty-stricken area. It was below the starvation level, it was just a dog-eat-dog world. I can't believe I lived in a situation like that. I'm living in a different situation now, it's unbelievable. You were capable of seeing one human being do anything to another human being. And that's how it was. Learning to rob and steal at a young age, learn to fight at a young age. And I was in a lot of trouble, going to juvenile detention centers.

One time Muhammad Ali came to visit the kids and I said wow, holy moly, I want to be like that. So I went to another facility, I learned how to box with these other kids. Bobby Stewart started taking me to Cus D'Amato. Cus D'Amato said I have the potential to be heavyweight champion. I didn't believe him, I just thought he was some old pervert or something trying to do something to me. But he was right. This was a genius and he knew what he was talking about.

He convinced me to join his club and we went on a journey to becoming heavyweight champion. It wasn't like no amateur stuff, we were fighting for trophies. That was our goal, become heavyweight champion of the world, right as soon as I got there. He taught me a lot about life. He died when I was I think 17, 18 years old. My mission was to make his dream come true. No one could inspire me like he could. He knew the words to say. He was just a remarkable man.

Do you think about what would have happened if you hadn't met him?
I don't know where I'd be but I would have been complacent. I never could have dreamed of some black poor kid conquering the world. I couldn't never even imagine thinking that. That concept never would have entered my mind, entered my spirit. He was an arrogant guy so I mimicked his way when I was in the ring. "How dare you even think about challenging me? You're going to suffer for this." That was his ideology and that's how I was as a fighter.

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How do you think he'd feel about you if he were still around?
Well he would have been really proud of me because I'm really present for my family. He really respected family. He tried to get me married when I was 16. He thought that a guy was married he could be a better fighter, he wouldn't' fool around and stuff. He didn't care if you loved the girl or not, he just thought it would make you a better fighter.

You spend a lot of time talking about your relationship with Robin Givens. Why give her so much air time?
I don't know, I just thought it was entertaining for the people.

The Brad Pitt story especially.
I knew Brad had a big fan base and the concept of me and Brad almost getting into a conflict is pretty awesome, you know what I mean? Me beating his pretty … face, people would be like, "Oh that's great, Mike!" I thought that would be a great concept.

Have you seen him since you ran into him?
No. I hope he's not scared because I do not want to fight nobody.

I think when you were on Broadway last year people were surprised, but on stage isn't actually so different from in the ring. 
It's pretty much the same thing. You're battling the elements, you're battling yourself. You don't want to fail.

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Were you more nervous going on stage?
The first time on Broadway I was. In Vegas I had a singer, a rock band, people to buffer off of. The show that I have now has no buffer. I'm up there by myself.

So you made some changes when you moved the show to New York. What was the idea behind those changes?
Spike just thought that was better. He just brought out the best in me.

How'd he do that?
He was just always on my ass. A pain in the ass. Wanted perfection, got me a vocal coach. He didn't like the way I speak so I realized all these years I was talking to him he didn't understand what the hell I was saying. He said I understand what you're saying, but they don't know what the … you're saying.

What did the coach have you do?
You know, "Mi mi mi, aye aye aye," all that stuff. "Red yellow leather yellow, red leather yellow…" All that back and forth stuff.

Is it frustrating when people can't understand you?
I don't know. People just want to see me on the stage sometimes.  They don't care what I'm saying, they're making too much noise to hear me.

Tell me about your relationship with Spike. You're both Brooklyn boys.
Spike worked on one of my fights. He did the pre-fight promotion and filming. I've known him since '86 and he was looking for a project and he just wanted to do it. I think he picked a good project because look what we're doing now.

Are you hoping that viewers get anything out of it, other than being entertained?
I'm not sending any messages. I just want them to enjoy the show. It's none of my business what people think or say about me. I have no power over it.

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So tell me about the book, "The Undisputed Truth," written with Larry Sloman.
Now that's something. That's a whole different animal right there. Kind of intrusive. It's gut-wrenching, talking about my life, all the stupid things I did in my youth.  [Larry] came I think two years before to do it and he asked me questions about Robin and my marriage and it evoked so much pain, I just left and ain't see him no more.

Why'd you decide to go back to it?
My wife.

It seems like Kiki wants you to be out there with a new image.
She just wants something for my kids to understand, for my kids that are older and can't understand my life.

Do you think it's helped in that regard?
I have no idea.

At the end of the show, you say something like, "By God, I've got this…" It seems like you're trying to say that you've got your life together.
I don't know about all that, I just know what not to do. I'm not sleeping with nobody else but my wife. I'm not using drugs, I'm not getting into street fights. I'm just trying to do the right thing as far as being present for my family.

Are you still vegan?
No. I was vegan for four and a half years. I saw this documentary, "Forks Over Knives," and it really said being a vegan's too extreme, and being a red-meat eater's too extreme every day. You have to find balance. Balance is what I never had but I needed. Either I'm on top of the world, spending a lot of money, or else I'm in the sewage. I'm not on top of the world, and I'm not in the sewage. This is really new for me.

This is a different version of you than we saw in James Toback's documentary, "Tyson."
I'm a lot lighter. That was a pretty dark documentary.

What's next?
Do more Broadway. I'm going to do some more productions as well, maybe behind the camera. I've got a bunch of young boxers and we're working with Showtime Boxing. I'm looking forward to doing it again.

Any more movies?
I'm doing one with Werner Herzog, I forget the name.

Oh, he's interesting.
He's very interesting.

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