Mike Tyson’s ‘Undisputed Truth’ tracks appetite for self-destruction

Mike Tyson in February 2013.
(Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)

Back in Mike Tyson’s heyday, it was a badge of honor for many boxers to simply survive past the first round in the same ring as Tyson, the self-described “animal” and “monster” of American sports.

But now I’ve got those palookas beat. I went the distance — all 580 pages — with Tyson’s violence-, drug- and sex-filled memoir, a masterpiece of depravity and confessional honesty titled “Undisputed Truth.”

In 1986, at age 20, the New York City-born, onetime petty criminal became the youngest-ever heavyweight champion of the world. In the years that followed he proceeded to publicly disgrace himself with a series of outrageous acts that landed him in tabloids, jail cells and courtrooms again and again.

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“Nobody can make a better fool out of me than myself,” Tyson writes after describing a nightclub confrontation in which he lowered his pants and performed an unclean act upon a mink coat. (It belonged to another boxer who’d disrespected him). “I’m so much like my mother in that respect.”

As a boy Tyson was routinely pummeled by his mother. Even as he became a multimillionaire and one of the most famous people on Earth, the self-hate and rage that he learned growing up in the dire poverty of Brooklyn’s Brownsville neighborhood never left him. “Undisputed Truth” is the record of this tormented journey, as told to the writer Larry Sloman, the co-author of Howard Stern’s bestselling books.

Sloman allows Tyson’s id free reign. He has a great ear for the telling detail and is aided by Tyson’s copious memory. Together they create a book that is grimly tragic on one page, laugh-out-loud funny on the next, and unrelentingly vulgar and foul-mouthed.

Reading Tyson’s memoir is like watching a Charles Dickens street urchin grow up to join Hunter S. Thompson on a narcotics-filled road trip — with the ensuing antics captured on video by assorted paparazzi.

“You could put me in any city in any country and I’d gravitate to the darkest cesspool,” Tyson insists.

Tyson’s account of his childhood is impossibly sad. His mother drifted from man to man, and on the streets of Brownsville he found “a very horrific, gruesome kind of place,” that was also a “hotbed of lust.” “That is the kind of life I grew up in,” Tyson says. “People in love cracking their heads and bleeding like dogs. They love each other, but they’re stabbing each other.”

A speech impediment and his perpetually soiled clothes and unwashed body made Tyson the boy a “little sewer rat” and a pariah — until he beat up a bully (with the neighborhood watching, of course). Then he joined some older boys in a series of robberies, made a ton of money and started dressing well. Finally, his mother accepted a psychiatrist’s diagnosis and had him placed on Thorazine.

“I just know that one of those medical people, some racist [expletive], some guy who said I was [expletive] and developmentally retarded, stole my mother’s hope for me right then and there,” he says. “And they stole any love or security I might have had.”

Eventually, Tyson ended up in the New York state juvenile detention system. At a youth prison camp upstate, he found a boxing program. His talent was immediately apparent to one trainer, who alerted the boxing legend Cus D’Amato.

After watching a 13-year-old Tyson box for a mere six minutes, D’Amato told Tyson: “If you listen to me, I can make you the youngest heavyweight champion of all time.”

“I thought he was a pervert,” Tyson says. “In the world where I come from, people do [expletive] like that when they want to perv out on you.” No one had ever told young Mike he could accomplish anything. Before that moment, a sense of worthlessness had defined his existence.

In “Undisputed Truth,” D’Amato is portrayed as a demanding, ambitious father figure. He fills the teenage Tyson with a sense of power. “You’ll reign with the gods,” D’Amato tells him.

D’Amato and Tyson agree that he will be a boxing “villain” who embraces his “ghetto” past. Tyson assaults this goal with single-minded purpose, winning one quick knockout after another.

“As my career progressed and people started praising me for being a savage, I knew that being called an animal was the highest praise I could receive from someone,” he notes of his first years as a professional.

After D’Amato dies of natural causes and Tyson wins the heavyweight championship, his life begins a rapid, drug- and money-fueled downward spiral. He’s suddenly so rich he can afford to buy an entire dealership’s supply of Rolls-Royces. Agents, pimps, wild animals and cocaine dealers pop in and out of the story. So does Brad Pitt (in one of many weird celebrity cameos), rich “Jewish guys” and Balkan gangsters. Tyson indulges his every whim but realizes again and again what a scumbag he’s become.

“I can’t believe what a disrespectful ignorant monster I was then,” Tyson says. Eventually his escapades begin to degrade his performance in the ring. “There was no way that someone could be a sexual Tyrannosaurus and the world’s champion.”

There’s a lot of misogyny in this book — Tyson was, by his own account, angry at women for most of his life. The best thing that can be said about the passages in which he recounts his marriage to Robin Givens and his conviction in Indianapolis on rape charges is that there’s little doubt he’s being honest about how he feels about the women involved. Only some 200 pages later, when he’s finally seeing a sex-addiction counselor, he confesses: “I changed my whole outlook on the way I relate to women.” He’s come to realize that “I was so insecure, so afraid of loss, so afraid to be alone.”

Ultimately, “Undisputed Truth” is about redemption, though it takes many years and Tyson’s own physical and financial collapse before he makes his first attempts at recovery.

One of the biggest surprises in “Undisputed Truth” is its ending, a “Postscript to the Epilogue” that suggests just how hard Tyson has had to work at healing himself. His final confession is a deeply moving, human moment.

“I desperately want to get well,” Tyson says. And after 580 pages in which he’s pummeled his reader with accounts of his self-destruction, you can’t help but believe him.

Undisputed Truth

Mike Tyson with Larry Sloman
Blue Rider Press: 592 pp., $30