Tyson's biography is a knockout!
Undisputed Truth: My Autobiography Mike Tyson Harper Collins, £20, 564 pages
In his first professional fight in 1985, it took the 18-year-old Mike Tyson just two minutes to pummel his opponent, Hector Mercedes, to a kneeling position in the ring, obliging the referee to stop the fight. Tyson was always good at delivering the early killer blow; and so it is with this indecently enthralling autobiography.
"I spent most of the six weeks between my conviction for rape and sentencing travelling around the country romancing all my various girlfriends," he writes in the book's very first sentence. "It was my way of saying goodbye to them."
The arrogance, the tawdriness, the stink of moral decay -- it's all there.
Anyone with the slightest acquaintance with Tyson's life will know the arc of its story even before picking up Undisputed Truth; the rise from a ghetto childhood to become the youngest heavyweight champion of the world; the reputation for animal savagery that accompanied him into the ring -- and followed him out of it -- the fall into drug-addiction, alcoholism and bankruptcy; and the inevitable storybook ending of recovery and redemption.
Reading this is like watching a car wreck in high-definition slow motion -- the car in question being a Rolls-Royce with Gucci fabrics, driven by a man in a white mink coat, on his way home from a $100,000 spending spree at Versace, out of his mind on cocaine and Dom Pérignon. As Tyson writes: "It's amazing how a low self-esteem and a huge ego can give you delusions of grandeur."
Tyson's father, whom he barely knew, was a church deacon and a procurer: "All I know is the Bible and pimping," he told Tyson. His mother was a drunk. Tyson grew up living in a series of rat-infested tenements, amid drunkenness, feral sex and violence.
A podgy, shy child who spoke with a lisp, and whom other kids called "little fairy boy", by the age of seven "Iron Mike" was running with drug dealers and thieves -- "A little kid," as he puts it, "looking for love and acceptance and the streets were where I found it". By 11 he was a violent bully and street fighter, winning money for other people betting on his ability to destroy all-comers.
At the age of 13 he was plucked from reform school and taken under the wing of the trainer Cus D'Amato, a man who nursed an even bigger grudge against the world than Tyson. D'Amato told his young protégé that he was "a colossus among men". Tyson "ate that s*** up". Never much of a believer in boxing as a noble art, his ambition was always more to humiliate and obliterate. "Being called an animal was the highest praise I could receive from someone."
D'Amato would reward him with nice shoes and clothes and, when Tyson won a junior championship, his set of gold teeth. He was in a bank depositing a cheque for $120,000 when he was told D'Amato, who was dying of pneumonia, wouldn't last the night. He burst into tears. When, a year later, at the age of 20, he won his first heavyweight title, he celebrated by pouring a bottle of Dom Pérignon on D'Amato's grave.
There were always signs that there was more to Tyson than sheer brute force. He bred racing pigeons and read the books by Machiavelli, Tolstoy and Oscar Wilde that he found on D'Amato's bookshelves (or at least claims he did). But there was also something disquieting in the relish with which he immersed himself in the role of the arrogant sociopath.
Even the most hardened boxing commentators winced when after one knockout he declared that what he'd really wanted to do was punch his opponent one more time "so that the bone of his nose would go up into his brain".
With his ludicrous cars, his diamonds and pet tigers and his mansion in Connecticut with 13 bedrooms -- "my goal was to fill each bedroom with a different girl at the same time" -- Tyson's life was a caricature of the king pimp who coolly controls everyone and everything around him.
But as he ruefully acknowledges, he was actually less the pimp than the sucker, "a cash register in short pants", as one commentator put it, a magnet for unsavoury characters such as Donald Trump and the flamboyant promoter Don King -- described by Tyson as "a wretched, slimy, reptilian mother******".
King took Tyson to the cleaners (Tyson ended up suing him for the $100m the promoter had allegedly cheated him out of, eventually settling out of court for $14m), but not before he had orchestrated one of the more darkly comic moments in the boxer's career, arranging for him to be baptised by Jesse Jackson as "born again" at a time when Tyson's image as a deranged thug was threatening to curb his earning power.
"That was all bull****," Tyson writes. "After the baptism I took one of the choirgirls back to the hotel . . ."
Not even his conviction for raping a Miss Black America contestant (a verdict that by Tyson's account looks highly suspect) and his suspension for biting off a chunk of Evander Holyfield's ear ("Pay For Chew") could put the brakes on Tyson's appetites or aggression. When, in 2000, he came to Britain to fight Julius Francis, the Daily Mirror was so confident of the outcome it paid Francis to put an ad on the bottom of his boxing boots.
And so it goes . . . the catalogue of violence, stupidity, extravagance and sexual braggadocio -- interleaved with encomiums of crocodile tear-stained repentance -- becomes relentless. Your pity, like Tyson's capabilities and his bank balance, begins to run dry.
But it's curiously affecting, none the less, to read how the tokens he would be given in AA for staying sober came to mean as much to him as his championship belts and to read of his admiration for the therapists and sponsors who taught him some respect for himself and others.