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It’s an irresistible title for a boxer’s one-man show (and new autobiography), but it’s hard to think of a less accurate description of Mike Tyson’s life story than Undisputed Truth. In fact, dispute forms the basis of the major points in his life, particularly his rape conviction and the biting of an opponent’s ear. That doesn’t mean Mike Tyson’s life hasn’t been interesting—the opposite is true—just that what Undisputed Truth offers is a partially sanitized version of an alternately troubled and triumphant life. Highly Disputed Truth doesn’t have the same ring to it. (Tyson actually jokes at the start of the show that he wanted to call it Boxing, Bitches, And Lawsuits, which gives some insight into what’s to come.)
A long monologue directed by Spike Lee, the film started as a stage show, and this HBO version is exactly that. Filmed in front of a live audience in New York, Undisputed Truth finds Tyson cheerfully telling his very scripted story, with some photos and sound effects (lots of punching, naturally) to help him along. Once he gets chugging, Tyson is convincing and natural—you can see him physically react to a well-received punchline, and the more comfortable he gets, the better he sounds. (Things start out rocky and stilted as he’s getting warmed up.)
A good chunk of Undisputed Truth is given over to Tyson’s rise—the “Cinderella story” that so many professional athletes, especially boxers, seem to have. Tyson was dirt poor as a kid, and always in trouble. He claims to have been arrested 38 times by the age of 12. One of those arrests would lead him circuitously to the world of boxing, or specifically to trainer Cus D’Amato, who would become his mentor and father figure.
Tyson is funny when describing his early interactions with D’Amato’s family in upstate New York. His desire to become what D’Amato expected him to be—heavyweight champion, predicted at age 14—led him to dual personalities, one for his white trainer’s world and one for the tough streets where his friends lived (and robbed). Of his early encounters with D’Amato, Tyson was suspicious: “I thought he was a pervert at first! I thought he was trying to fuck me!”
Tyson’s early professional career is well documented, and he doesn’t spend a lot of time on it, unfortunately: A whirlwind of knockouts led him to the heavyweight championship—he was the youngest ever at 20—along with massive fame and fortune. But along with his professional rise came personal trouble: Tyson reeled from D’Amato’s death, and entangled himself with partners both personal (Robin Givens, Desiree Washington) and professional (Don King) that he would later regret.
And that’s where Undisputed Truth starts to feel a little icky: Tyson’s ex-wife Givens never seemed particularly innocent in their relationship. The duo’s interview with Barbara Walters felt contrived and dishonest on all fronts. But taking the opportunity onstage to trash her—and in a way that clearly indicates he’s not over it, decades later—just seems ludicrous. His story about confronting her alongside Brad Pitt—after bragging that even though a divorce was underway, they were still having sex—is just juvenile and dumb. (Though his line regarding Pitt—”I didn’t know if I wanted to fuck him up or fuck him!”—is a bit telling about Tyson’s mingling of rage and sex.)
That’s less true of his stories about Mitch Green, the boxer that Tyson defeated in the ring—and later at a clothing store in Harlem. In his lengthy tale of the latter fight—it was impromptu, of course, and left Tyson with a broken hand and Green with a closed-up eye—Tyson paints a funny picture of his own struggles with acting appropriately. He had endorsements to protect at the time, not to mention a personal fortune that could be chipped at via litigation. It’s funny and lively, but not, again, without its troubling moments: He refers to Green as a gorilla, then backpedals and apologizes for calling another black man a gorilla. Then he does it again. And throughout the story, he refers to his calmer side as being influenced by all the Jewish businessmen he worked with.
Then there’s the rape case, which Tyson says very little about, other than to flatly state that he “did not rape Desiree Washington, and that’s all I have to say about this.” It’s not, of course: He also says that Washington had brought similar charges against someone else, and he implies that the “hanging judge” gave him a light sentence—he served three years—because she doubted his guilt. It’s not like he’s going to avoid the subject altogether, and if he’s telling the truth, it’s hard to blame him for wanting to state his case. But still—it feels more strange than cathartic.
Tyson has kinder things to say about Evander Holyfield, whose ear Tyson partially bit off during a 1997 bout. In interviews between then and now, Tyson claimed—and boxing fans seem to agree—that his ear-biting was retaliation for Holyfield’s repeatedly headbutting him. In this version, that crime goes unreported, because the two have since become friends.
It lends an air of disingenuousness to the whole endeavor, which shouldn’t be surprising. Tyson has always lived in his own mental world, which is a huge part of what made him appealing as a boxing personality. (What made him appealing as an actual boxer goes without saying.) He was unchecked aggression, in and out of the ring, so the persona that he presents here—a changed man, a family man, a vegan, sober—seems a little bit tough to swallow. (In fact, in a press conference in August of this year, Tyson basically admitted to lying about his sobriety for the past few years.) The truths that he presents here—he admits to being an egomaniac, a drug addict, and a bad person in a lot of ways—don’t seem to be whole truths. That makes sense for a one-man show, of course: It’s his life and his version. But the very nature of Mike Tyson’s personality will always, inevitably lead to some dispute. Here, he proves himself a solid entertainer with a fascinating story, but never comes across as fully believable, as if he’s actually sharing the whole story.
Directed by: Spike Lee
Debuts: November 16, 8 p.m. Eastern on HBO