It is curious to imagine Mike Tyson ever being a fan of Édith Piaf, yet when he first watched Marion Cotillard’s tender depiction of the troubled chanteuse in La Vie en Rose, he sobbed uncontrollably.
Piaf, like him, had grown up in a household frequented by prostitutes and pimps, and he instinctively empathised. “Je né regrette risen,” she sang. And yet Tyson, if this week’s first savagely compelling excerpts from his memoir Undisputed Truth are any gauge, regrets a great deal indeed.
The overarching message is that Tyson knows he was a bad person – a cocaine fiend, a vicious alcoholic, a convicted rapist – but that he craves forgiveness. He is traumatised by a former sex addiction so acute that he found himself sleeping in strip clubs, and by a spell in an Indiana prison where he would watch a man trying to burn a cellmate alive by soaking him in gasoline.
He rues the day, likewise, that he crossed paths with promoter Don King, who fleeced him of his fortune to such an extent that he would have to count up his groceries at K-Mart.
Tyson’s autobiography appears to point, perhaps perversely, at yet another rehabilitation of his image. As Will Smith shrewdly observed: “We talk about America being the land of second chances. Mike’s on his, what, 17th?”
Tasters published in the US for his book read like a voyage through the great American underbelly, from crack dens in Brooklyn to orgies in Las Vegas, his darker episodes recorded with an unblinking starkness to make Hunter S Thompson sound like Huckleberry Finn.
The insatiable appetite for Tyson’s reminiscences is also highly revealing of his countrymen’s psyche. While he is, by his own admission, a “bad man”, jailed for three years for the rape of Desiree Washington and with views on women that have often been deeply disturbing, he is repeatedly absolved in his adopted celebrity arena. His one-man stage show, directed by Spike Lee, has had a sell-out run on Broadway, with more promised when it reaches British theatres next spring.
In his homeland Tyson embodies several qualities perceived as heroic – the lisping pariah who fashioned his escape from poverty with his fists, the brutal heavyweight who harboured an incongruous preoccupation with pigeons, the recidivist criminal who discovered something akin to redemption through the wonders of psychotherapy. For every lapse, there is a rationalisation. Take the reasons he gives for his rampant promiscuity.
“It sounds trite,” he writes, “but I was probably looking for someone to mother me. My mother never gave love to a man. She gave them headaches, she scalded them, she stabbed them.”
The brothel that Lorna Smith Tyson ran out of the family apartment in Brownsville, the toughest of the Brooklyn projects, hints at the extremes of urban squalor her youngest son endured.
He recalls how it was a “horrific, gruesome kind of place, guys shooting it out with one another like in an Edward G Robinson movie”. It was no environment for a shy child, with a voice high to the point of effeminate, to try to survive. With grisly inevitability he sought acceptance in the gangs, as the ringleaders’ “schmuck-slave”.
This, bizarrely, is when he developed his fetish for the world of the pigeon, as documented recently on Discovery Channel. The sport of pigeon-flying was, for reasons even Tyson does not attempt to illuminate, popular in his neighbourhood with everybody from Mafia dons to street urchins. Certain habits, as always with this incorrigible figure, die hard.
Where the lines of his book are blurred, based on the initial extracts, is around the question of how Tyson wants to be perceived. The sporting credentials are unquestionable enough, with the 16 first-round knockouts in 28 fights by the age of 22 all faithfully recorded, but the sordid phantasmagoria of his life beyond the ring – all washed down with a cocktail of whiskey and novocaine – leaves an acrid taste when spelt out in this degree of detail.
Lee, who also turned his stage production into a hit on cable television, regards such candour an admirable quality. And yet Tyson’s account of his escapades – “I’m thinking that when I hit a man in the stomach like that, he’s going to go down and I’m going to go in his pockets” – suggests a kind of glamorised thuggery.
Is Tyson looking to be revered or reviled, exonerated or excoriated? His enduring relish for stardom, as illustrated by that dreadful cameo in The Hangover, implies an uncomfortable delusion in playing the lovable rogue.
We wait to see what the rest of his book will bring, but perhaps he delivered the definitive statement upon his character in his Vegas vaudeville act. “I’m really an animal, guys,” he told his audience. “I’m just dressed up nice.”