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Mike Tyson: The Bad Boy Image, Book Review

Former Heavy Weight Champion Mike Tyson’s Undisputed Truth confirms that, in his own way, Tyson is an intelligent guy. He didn’t become heavyweight champion just by brute strength–although that helped. He was a student of the sport. He read Cus D’mato’s books of the greats. He didn’t slack, and he didn’t take anything for granted. What’s more, he’s been known to coin some pithy aphorisms, which shows no small amount of wisdom and savviness. Despite the fact that he’s not exactly articulate, Tyson is a deliberate and thoughtful man, and he is very much the architect of his own success. 

The Cus Relationship

The former heavyweight champion’s relationship with his mentor Cus D’amato is both touching and endearing.  Perhaps it’s that they are different races, that this unlikely pair came together, which makes it all the more extraordinary. Tyson, who seemed to bow to no one, was attached to Cus to an extent that he felt rudderless once Cus passed.  

Cus himself was a strange man with strange passions. Yet Tyson continued to hear Cus’s voice long after Cus passed, giving himself pep-talks–and self-criticisms in the voice of Cus: 

“My Cus thinking kicked in. I was nobility. I was this great gladiator, ready to do battle” (75). 

It wasn’t as though Cus wanted Tyson to be an angel. Rather, Cus and Tyson were of one mind on this bad-boy/ villain image which Tyson cultivated. Surely, Cus would not have approved of some of Tyson’s more notorious behavior though. Nonetheless, Cus wanted Tyson to be ruthless, to be unapproachable and untouchable by his combatants.  Tyson’s mentor famously told Tyson to punch with “bad intentions.”  

When Tyson won the heavyweight championship belt at twenty years old, Cus was on his mind: 

“I’d like to dedicate my fight to my great guardian Cus D’Amato. I’m sure he’s up there and he’s looking down and he’s talking to all the great fighters and he’s saying his boy did it.  I thought he was a crazy white dude…he was a genius. Everything he said would happen happened.” (124) 

Cus’s influence on Tyson ranged from the peek-a-boo fighting style to his mystic philosophy of living. By Tyson’s own admission, since he won the belt and Cus’ memory grew further in his rearview mirror, Tyson went more and more off-track in the fame and the spotlight. 

One does not get to be great in the sport of boxing without being a student of the sport, and Tyson was no doubt one of the most diligent student’s of the history of boxing; and specifically, Cus D’mato’s school of boxing. In fact, in Undisupted Truth, Tyson recalls reading Cus’ books about the old boxing greats.

Tyson’s Bad-Boy Image 

In Undisputed Truth, we learn that Tyson’s image was to some extent a role that Tyson and Cus had envisioned for him; which is to say, as a villain. Tyson refers to an “Iron Mike persona” which he cultivated, all the while still feeling like the bullied child that he used to be deep down inside.

One might have inferred that the “thug” and “animal” that Tyson presented was Tyson’s authentic self. To some extent it was. However, Tyson, at least according to his book, deliberately portrayed himself as such to intimidate opponents and create a kind of mythos of himself. If this were as deliberate as he claims, Tyson was certainly successful in cementing this image of himself with the public. Tyson explains: 

“Cus and I always used to talk about the science of hurting people.  I wanted to be a cantankerous, malevolent champion. I used to watch these comic book characters on TV, the X-Men and one of my favorites, and one of my favorites[…] would say, “I’m not malevolent, I just am.” (112) 

Once Cus had passed, Tyson’s handlers, Clayton and Jacobs, wanted him to project a more clean cut image, going so far as to cut anti-drug ads. Tyson himself is first to admit that as a intermittent drug-user, and so this was a little ironic. Furthermore, he did not feel on board with this media whitewashing of his image: 

“Now all of a sudden I was a good guy? No, I was a fake fucking Uncle Tom nigga.” (128) 

By the way, this is the type of vernacular which makes Tyson’s autobiography hit hard and feel visceral to the reader. 

As to Tyson’s over the top and lewd trash talk to his opponents, he himself testifies to feeling “embarrassed” to talk to them like that. It shows some commendable self-reflection that he should be in such a place to have a more proper perspective. Surely he still could have been the champ without telling his opponents, “suck my d*ck,” and other obscenities. “I can’t believe what a disrespectful ignorant monster I was then,” (152) Tyson confesses, reproaching himself. 

The fact is that Tyson is a fragile guy.  There is footage which Tyson refers to of a teenage Mike Tyson with his early trainer Ted Atlas, preparing for an amateur bout. Tyson is audibly weeping, doubting himself, but then reassuring himself too: “I’m Mike Tyson. Everyone likes me.”  The aggression and lashing out is the other side of that coin, the vulnerability and insecurity is the other. 

Tyson would be the first to admit that his image of invulnerability and ferociousness was a front for a feeling of inadequacy which he harbored since his unstable childhood. As a man reflecting on his career and reflecting on himself, Tyson has been unnervingly introspective about the unsure man that lays beneath this tough exterior. Given his many weepy interviews, it seems he may even be going overboard with this vulnerability.  Get a stiff upper lip, as the Brits say, Mike! 

Not a Machine, Yet a Powerhouse 

Though we might have thought of Tyson as a machine, a ferocious animal or something nonhuman, in Undisputed Truth Tyson provides all-to-human excuses for his boxing performance. He references his chronic bronchitis several times, a pinched nerve on his neck, a fight for which he didn’t train properly, too much partying. In other words, when you might have assumed Tyson was in top form during those fights in the ‘80s, in Tyson’s mind, he often was not. 

If you go back and look at some of those fights in the late ‘80s; for example, James Tillis in 86, you can see that Tyson does indeed seem a little gassed after failing to get an early knockout. Tyson quite frankly admits that this is due to his slacking in training. This laziness in Tyson’s training is not something most people attribute to him until perhaps the Buster Douglas debacle; but in some respects, the Douglas fight was not that anomalous. Tyson just happened to face Douglas on one of his very good nights in the ring.

Like the Douglas fight, with James Tillis fight, Tyson didn’t train hard and Tillis did. In this case, Tyson won the decision clearly; yet if Tillis had been more lethal, it could have been an equally bad night for Tyson as he experienced in that notorious fight against Buster Douglas, in which Tyson lost his title. Even if Tyson had a “bad night” against Tillis, he still looked pretty good, his movement was impressive, bobbing and weaving, dodging Tillis’ punches adroitly, and certainly landing some good shots. Simply, Tillis appeared to be in great shape and great stamina, and he proved to have quite a chin as well. 

In Undisputed Truth, Tyson admits to being sore as hell after the fight, hardly able to move from his hotel bed, despite saying that Tillis’ punches didn’t phase him too much in a post-fight interview. The mystique of the knockout artist might have been lifted by Tyson’s having gone the distance with Tillis, though Tyson’s manager Bill Cayton spun it for the media: Tyson had proved he could go ten rounds. At any rate, it was Tyson’s 20th win, the first not by knockout, and he was still a teenager. 

It wasn’t as though the Tillis fight heralded the end to Tyson’s knockout streak. In his subsequent fights, he had many first and second round knockouts, including a knockout 30 seconds into the first round against Marvis Frazier, son of the former champ. Some opponents just weren’t in the same league in terms of sheer strength and so inevitably hit the canvas quickly against young Tyson. Even former Heavyweight Champion Larry Holmes could not fend Tyson off; Tyson cut through the bigger man like a knife through butter, winning by TKO.

The Non-Knockouts

There’s a certain phenotype that Tyson doesn’t do too well against: Big, jacked guys who can seemingly take any kind of punch on the chin. Early in his career, this takes the form of Mitch Green and Jose Ribalta; Tyson beat Mitch Green by decision and Ribalta via TKO in the 10th–the ref stopped the fight. 

In the case of the Tyson-Ribalta fight in 1986, Tyson beat the stuffing out of him, knocking out his mouthguard in the 8th round before knocking him out with another combination, yet the tough fighter kept getting up, apparently in possession of an iron chin. In both the Ribalta fight and the Mitch Green fight, the question was “How is this guy still standing?” The Ribalta fight was particularly brutal. It wasn’t just a question of how Ribalta avoided losing by knockout, but how he managed to still be alive. Insanely, Ribalta wanted to go on in the 10th round, perhaps for the bragging rights of going the distance against Tyson; but the ref thought better of it. 

Later in his career though, this type of fighter in the form of Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield gave Tyson a lot more trouble.  In these fights, there was no “one big punch” to suddenly end his opponent; rather, it was a brutal war of attrition, akin to chopping down an oak tree with many blows. And unfortunately for Tyson, these guys punched back. 

In general, though, during the late eighties Tyson’s opponents took on a hapless aire. Most his opponents simply had no answer to his speed and power; such was the case when Tyson fought James “Bonecrusher” Smith to unite the championship belts in early 1987. Though Tyson could not find an early round knockout against Bonecrusher, he was in complete control, despite slipping to the canvas during one barrage of his own punches. In response to Smiths’ frustrating performance in the ring, Tyson put it succinctly: “He didn’t want to fight; he didn’t want to win.”

Mitch Green 

Those that were strong enough, such as Mitch Green, managed to stay on their feet most the fight, but were still outclassed just in terms of boxing skill–though Tyson did manage one knockout in the Mitch Green fight, it was more a matter of catching Green off balance. Tyson basically won every round against Green.   

Incidentally, Tyson had an opportunity to knock Green out in real life, after the professional boxing match, under more sordid circumstances.  Undisputed Truth gives the real story of this late-night brawl with the apparently drugged-up Green.  Tyson was picking up some custom made clothes at 4am in Harlem, himself admittedly drunk. This is where he encountered Green, who had been on something of a downward spiral since his loss to Tyson. 

Green, apparently on angel dust, provoked Tyson mightily, hurling invectives at him.  After trying to reason with Green, Tyson decided to fight back: 

“Then I had an epiphany. I was Mike Tyson, the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. I didn’t have to take this shit.” (176). 

Indeed, Mitch Green emerges as a kind of comic figure in Undisputed Truth, and Tyson displays his undeniable sense of humor in describing his ongoing and increasingly bizarre run-ins with Green. Indeed, Tyson has a streetwise wit which makes him a compelling storyteller–even if he likely didn’t write the book with his own hand, it is at least in his own telling. 

But for the time, in 1986, there were really no problems in Tyson’s boxing career. Later in 1986 he would win the WBC belt from Trevor Berbick. It seems as though Berbick had no plan for this fight, no sticking and moving, no keeping his distance. He just stood there and tried to trade blows with Tyson, and was quickly dispatched. Tyson recalls: 

“I couldn’t believe he was standing right there in front of me…He had taken some really, really good shots.”


Thus Tyson became the youngest heavyweight champion in history at 20 years old.

Mike Tyson a Joke?

In the early ‘90s talk-radio legend Rush Limbaugh had a bit with a Mike Tyson impersonator who would introduce Rush and mispronounce and mangle every word in that trademark high-pitched, lisped voice. Tyson was indeed a kind of punchline during his boxing reign, no pun intended. He was both fearsome and ridiculous. But I contend that Tyson is no dummy. 

Tyson recalls another incident in Undisputed Truth which reminds one of how often he was fodder for comedians and their impersonations: Recall Keenan Wayans from In Living Color who was known to do a Tyson impersonation. When Tyson ran into Wayans in the late ’80s, he asked the comedian:

"Did I do something to you or your family?...Because these motherfucking jokes about me have got to stop" (196).  

Tyson reports that the jokes did indeed stop after that. The incident portrays Tyson as intimidating, but also it is humanizing insofar as we see that this ribbing was not appreciated by the sensitive boxer.

Despite Tyson’s umbrage, none of this satire of Tyson’s voice and mannerisms were done with any particular scorn. It just meant that he had arrived as a super-celebrity. Perhaps not until the rape allegation did Tyson become notorious.

Tyson In Prison: Learning And Training

In his time in prison for his rape conviction, at first it seems as though he spent more time reading books than physical training:

"I really enjoyed Will Durant's The Story of Civilization. I read Mao's book, I read Che. I read Machiavelli, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Marx, Shakespeare, you name it."

When Tyson and his fellow inmates didn’t understand a word in their books, they would look it up in the dictionary, and then try to use it in their conversation in order to really learn the word. So you can’t say the man didn’t try to improve himself.

Yet later in the autobiography, Tyson does reference a running and weightlifting routine, quoting one of his fellow inmates as saying that Tyson ran ten miles a day. In describing a sordid scene in which Tyson lifted an obese woman to have sex with her (yes, in jail), he says, “Thank God I had been lifting weights.” So by this account, Tyson did indeed stay in shape in prison, though he didn’t necessarily box or spar in prison.

Even the prison administration, who were not necessarily friendly, seemed to have a stake in Tyson’s continued training. As Tyson writes in Undisputed Truth:

"The administration assigned me to the gym because they wanted me to keep in shape..." (290) 

Just like after his loss to Buster Douglas, Tyson wanted a comeback in prison. He looked at the chaos in the heavyweight division with a melancholy eye towards making things right. Inmates and guards alike looked through the window of his cell to see the incarcerated champ run in place feverishly in his cell; Tyson was unintimidated, unbowed, unbroken, and hungry for revenge.

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