Mike Tyson doesn’t want to be famous.
That much is clear from his new memoir, Undisputed Truth, co-written with Larry Sloman. The former champion boxer has carved out a second career as a public figure and media personality, performing in “The Hangover” movie franchise and in a one-man show on Broadway — one that’s been adapted by Spike Lee into an HBO special that will air this weekend. Also this year, Tyson has appeared at the Tony Awards, on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” and in a “Scary Movie” sequel; it’s all just meant to pay the bills. “I had been broke for ten years,” Tyson (or Sloman as Tyson) writes. “I had a family to feed and support. I’m not going to get rich from doing special-guest appearances on TV shows.”
His appearances tend to play off his pugilism and personal drama (Tyson is not in danger of winning an Oscar for inhabiting a role different from himself) and Tyson’s audience inhabits an uneasy gulf between laughing with or at him. It’s not clear whether Tyson is in on the joke — he just wants to keep working and to hear the laughter. “I hate what acting makes me do,” Tyson writes, “but I love how it makes me feel.”
His memoir frames working in the media as a gig for Tyson; it’s not exactly an animated passion or something he thinks he’s great at, but he knows people are entertained by him, he has people to support and appetites to feed, and so it goes. The book delves into greater detail about how, if it hasn’t exactly destroyed him, fame certainly hasn’t been a net good for Tyson, a person whose upbringing in poverty and around gangs (as detailed in an excerpt in New York magazine) set the template for a chaotic, substance-abusing life. With admirable openness and specificity, the novel moves point-to-point through a life in the public eye; every problem is exacerbated by the public’s attention. He’s able to make people laugh by sending up his image in “The Hangover” precisely because that image is of someone so unacquainted with social norms as to bite off his opponent’s ear in a boxing match.
The memoir’s title, Undisputed Truth, is deeply troubling in at least two particulars: Tyson’s depiction of himself as innocent of the rape for which he served three years in prison, and his portrayal of ex-wife Robin Givens (who has alleged spousal abuse) as a fame-hungry liar whose attempts to convey her story in the media are entirely self-serving. Many people would dispute Tyson’s framing of the truth. In any event, it’s clear that Tyson’s relationship to his own fame is complicated in a manner that he’s eager to hash out in writing, even as his fans only hope to laugh at him.
This gets to the paradox of Tyson: His continued travails in the public eye have only fueled the peculiar voltage that makes him among America’s most enduring celebrities. Unlike, say, Charlie Sheen, who’s largely faded from view after a turbulent period, Tyson remains current, somehow. He exists at the intersection of two leitmotifs in American life. One is the love for a Horatio Alger up-from-poverty story, particularly one focused on a Black person’s elevation through exceptional athletic ability and especially one whose telling elides anything that’s less-than-rosy. The other is the desire for a clown to laugh at in a way that’s racialized when it’s not outright racist. It was fulfillingly scandalous to gawk at the Holyfield incident or the Givens case then; now it’s as though White people have forgiven Tyson so they can have fun with him.