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12 December 2013

Undisputed Truth: Mike Tyson’s autobiography

Tyson's early life was characterised by incarceration and petty crime, but he lucked when he fell under the tutelage of boxing trainer Cus D’Amato.

By Austin Collings

Undisputed Truth: My Autobiography
Mike Tyson with Larry Sloman
HarperSport, 564pp, £20

Few fighters have generated as much cash, controversy and carnage as Mike Tyson. To quote Norman Mailer, he “boiled in cauldrons of bad publicity”. His autobiography, Undisputed Truth, is the American dream writ large in raw detail: think Citizen Kane scripted by the writing team of The Wire.

Bullied as a kid for being fat, having a lisp and dressing scruffily, Tyson and his elder brother and sister were brought up in various “cesspools” in Brooklyn by his mother. He never knew his father. He was a “momma’s boy” who slept in the same bed as her until he was 15. Eventually, they went “from being poor to being serious poor to being fucked up poor”.

Ditching school at the age of seven, he started fleecing people in public – ripping necklaces off strangers on the subway, palming wallets and purses, like the Artful Dodger – all the time running with desperate-for-dollars kids who would grow up to shoot others or be shot dead. Often, he gave most of the stolen money to his mother, to help her scrape by. Sometimes he bought himself weed or clothes or trainers: “I couldn’t even spell fucking Adidas but I knew how they made me feel.” The act of buying has remained important to Tyson throughout his life. He personifies the impatience of capitalism: clothes, trainers, cars, houses, tigers, prostitutes, drink, cocaine – he has to have them.

By the time Tyson was ten, after his family moved to Brownsville, an even tougher part of Brooklyn, his mother had no job and no prospect of having one ever again. Soon, the pressures of survival revealed her to be a depressive alcoholic prone to displays of aggression aimed at her boyfriends. The parallels with her son’s struggles are bleakly obvious.

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Tyson was incarcerated in various juvenile detention centres but lucked out when he fell under the wise tutelage of the boxing trainer Cus D’Amato, who had previously guided Floyd Patterson and José Torres to world championships. Eminently quotable, anti-Republican, anti-money, as hard as nails and bankrupt, Cus is a book in himself.

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Within six minutes of studying the 13-year-old Tyson sparring, he saw the future heavyweight champion. Cus just needed to convince the boy. Over the course of the next eight years, until he died shortly before Tyson achieved their shared dream at the unprecedented age of 20, he supplied him with an identity and vocabulary, having hewed the rough edges into an offensive force that would enthral even non-boxing fans. 

Cus meant everything to him – father, friend and sometimes foe. After the death of Tyson’s mum, Cus and his partner, Camille, took him in. Tyson never forgot how they cared for him as one of their own. Cus’s sad exit from Tyson’s fast-growing empire was a heavy blow. The great “if only” of his life is that if Cus could have been there a little longer, the chaos may not have consumed him so spectacularly.

Expertly ghostwritten by Larry “Ratso” Sloman, whose previous work includes Scar Tissue, the visceral and slick autobiography of the hard-living Red Hot Chili Peppers singer, Anthony Kiedis, the book has a great American novel feel to it – and not just because it clocks in at a generous 564 pages. Tyson could easily be a Tom Wolfe or Norman Mailer creation.

The supporting cast are pure Wolfe: the mercurial Cus; Robin Givens, the beautiful, fame-hungry first wife and her inseparable mum, Ruth (or “Ruthless”, as Tyson renames her); the gangsters and street kids he’d always take money to or snort heaps of cocaine and drink with back in Brownsville; Don King and his grubby mitts, fiendishly screwing Tyson at every turn – Darth Vader to Cus’s Obi-Wan Kenobi – and then Desiree Washington, the beauty queen who accused him of raping her in 1991.

Aided by Sloman’s clever arrangements of facts and testaments, Tyson makes a compelling case that he was innocent of rape and that he should never have served three years in jail. His defence team was oddly inept. Washington, who had also (unsuccessfully) accused another man of raping her in the past, seemed to be playing a role. This is very much Tyson’s side of the story but his argument is convincingly detailed.

Innocent or guilty, by then Tyson’s aura of invincibility had been damaged and it was his own fault. The knockout by Buster Douglas – a 40-1 outsider in some gambling circles – in Tokyo in 1990 remains one of the biggest upsets in sporting history. Since winning the title in 1986, his training schedules had fallen apart. Tyson beat himself that night and went on to beat himself thereafter – and not just in the ring.

Undisputed Truth is far from a patronising celebrity memoir. In typical Tyson style, the original manuscript had to be pulled and the slightly redemptive ending rewritten: he wasn’t as clean as he’d said. Eventually, a “postscript to the epilogue” was added, explaining that he was a “vicious addict” but he hadn’t had a drink or taken cocaine for six days and that this was a “miracle”. Perhaps, in time, all memoirs will be as painfully honest.

Austin Collings is the co-author of “Renegade: the Lives and Tales of Mark E Smith” (Penguin, £10.99)