In and out of the ring, Mike Tyson has always been fast on his feet. Now the legendary heavyweight has bobbed and weaved his way from badass to thespian.
The former fighter faces off against himself in his new one-man show, "Undisputed Truth," which comes to San Francisco's Orpheum Theatre from Feb. 28 to March 2 after a short Broadway run directed by Spike Lee.
"This is like a dream for me," says Tyson, 46, during a pithy 15-minute phone interview. "I saw Chazz Palminteri's show 'Bronx Tale,' and I was blown away by it. It was better than the movie. And I knew I wanted to do something like it. I like to interact with the audience and be off-the-cuff like that."
Tyson is a study in contrasts. Once dubbed the baddest man on the planet, he speaks in a high squeak that smacks of Minnie Mouse. But he still exudes the intimidating personality that made him arguably the most feared fighter since Muhammad Ali.
Born in Brooklyn in 1966, the champ stands as the youngest boxer to win the WBC, WBA and IBF world heavyweight titles. His braggadocio knew no bounds. He was the sort of boxer who threatened to eat his opponent's children. But in recent years, he has busted out of the world of boxing to cross over into the pop culture realm.
The one-time champ has been spoofing himself hard lately, particularly in the "Hangover" movie franchise. He has also stirred up controversy over a guest shot playing a rape victim on "Law & Order: SVU," which has drawn the ire of victims' rights group who denounce the casting of a convicted rapist. Tyson spent three years in prison for the rape of 18-year-old Miss Black America pageant competitor Desiree Washington.
The swaggering gladiator once prone to fits of rage would make no comment on the topic, but he did confess to being anxious about making his theatrical debut, saying he was "100 percent" nervous about baring his soul onstage.
When the show first started in Las Vegas, it was a glitzy affair.
But when it moved to New York and the Oscar-nominated Lee ("Malcolm X," "Do the Right Thing") became involved, he suggested they cut the band, the dancers and the splashy production values and focus on just the man. Tyson was uncertain. With his bragging and blustering days behind him, he says he worried about holding the spotlight all by himself.
"He told me that I couldn't hide by any of that stuff," recalls Tyson ruefully. "There are no buffers. It's just me up there."
Written by Tyson's third wife, Lakiha "Kiki" Spicer, the 90-minute tell-all riffs on a notorious series of events, including battles with drug abuse, a rape conviction and biting off a piece of Evander Holyfield's ear (ouch!). Some critics had the show on the ropes during its New York engagement. The New York Times called it "ham-handed and manipulative." But others hailed the work as "emotionally revealing" and "clever."
Reviews don't matter
It hardly matters to Tyson. The former fighter does not believe in reading reviews.
"I'm not interested in other people's opinions. I'm interested in how the show went that night. Did the audience enjoy it?" says the champ, showing a flash of his famed quick temper. "If I read someone else's opinion, I might get angry. I want to do my own thing. I've got to do it my way."
No arguments, here. Certainly, Tyson has been reinventing himself by shedding his belligerent persona for the past few years. After grossing an estimated $400 million in his career, Tyson declared bankruptcy in 2003 and retired two years later after losing three of his last four fights. He has since given up boozing, drugs and womanizing, a transformation he credits to his wife and family. He no longer thinks of himself as Iron Mike.
"I'm just Mike now. I have better life skills than I did before," says Tyson, who lives in Las Vegas. "I have my wife and my family. I put a lot of wreckage into their lives but now they respect me. I have a lot of gratitude."
The famous gold caps on his teeth are also gone, although the Maori-style facial tattoos remain. The tension between past and present is the heart of this rough-and-tumble one-man memoir. Onstage, Tyson traces the arc of his career while making time to take shots at rivals, promoters and ex-wives such as Robin Givens. The barnburner narrative switches from the silly to the poignant, such as the accidental death of his daughter Exodus at the age of 4. Her neck got tangled in the power cord of a treadmill at her mother's house.
It's one of the hardest things Tyson has ever had to face. The horror of that loss haunts him still.
"Burying a 4-year-old, that's gut-wrenching," he admits. Less than two weeks after her death, Tyson married his current wife, Kiki, with whom he began to turn his life around.
Fisticuffs fans are eager to hear his uncensored impressions as he looks back on his life and times. The rawer the better, they say.
"As a sports fan, how can you not be curious?" says Aldo Billingslea, a lover of boxing and professor of drama at Santa Clara University. "To hear his story told by him, Tyson being honest about what it's like to be Tyson, that's fascinating. He has nothing to hide behind up there. What if he gets heckled? What will he do?"
Indeed, pugilist enthusiasts see Tyson as a tragic figure of epic proportions, a man who got "old too soon, smart too late."
'Iron Mike' dichotomy
"I have always been intrigued by the dichotomy of Iron Mike," says boxing writer Kim Francesca, "the brutality and bombast both in the ring and out belies an inherent sensitivity to the world around him. All the follies, the loss and the victories, his whole journey compels me; I think it compels most. He seems a changed man from the 'monster' we saw at the height of his career. I'd love to live in his mind for a day and get to know the man behind the myth."
But some theater insiders are less impressed. They chalk the show's success up to tawdry TMZ-style celebrity gossip.
"It probably all comes down to schadenfreude," notes Tom Ross, artistic director of Berkeley's Aurora Theatre Company. "Even the most wealthy, famous, powerful people are more screwed up than me."
For his part, Tyson is big enough to take a few punches. He knows he's an easy target for potshots, and he knows that many people will never forget his past thuggery. But he also knows how to soldier on. Asked if he has any regrets looking back on his life in the ring: "My whole life is a regret. I regret my whole life."
After a beat he adds: "I don't look at it that way anymore. Nothing is coincidence. Everything is ordained to be the way it is."
Starring Mike Tyson, directed by Spike Lee
When: Feb. 28-March 2
Where: Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco
Tickets: $50-$110, 888-746-1799, www.shnsf.com