If you had to affix a precise date to the beginning of Mike Tyson’s professional decline, you could do worse than December 9, 1988. On that day, Tyson fired Kevin Rooney, the masterful boxing trainer who had guided him to the world heavyweight championship, and moved firmly into the camp of Don King, a man whose name is interchangeable with corruption and degradation. Once an invincible fighter with precise punches and defensive skills, Tyson got sloppy, trading his scientific pugilism for flat-footed brawling. Seduced by a world of women and money, he abandoned all discipline. His laziness caught up with him in February 1990, when a journeyman named Buster Douglas outclassed him in a championship fight and knocked him out.
This was still merely the beginning of the end. In 1992, Tyson was convicted of raping a young beauty queen named Desiree Washington, and spent the next several years in an Indiana prison. Emerging in 1995, he knocked out a few tomato cans before fighting the bigger names, biting ears and going on ridiculous rants about eating people’s children and stomping on their testicles. He nurtured an obsession with pigeons and exotic tigers, living as an eccentric in his own Xanadu. More arrests ensued, more assaults, more crude outbursts.
What’s the point of rehashing this ugly tabloid history? The point is that the name “Mike Tyson” comes with a lot of unwanted baggage, which I simply couldn’t set down while watching the premier of Tyson’s new “show,” a 15-minute animated sketch called Mike Tyson Mysteries. It airs on Adult Swim, which is a grown-up portion of the Cartoon Network featuring peculiar and often graphic shows that blend violence and dark humor. The show has Tyson voicing an animated version of himself. A retired boxer, he is inexplicably portrayed as a freelance mystery solver. His team, a cross between Animal House and the Scooby Doo gang, consists of Norm Macdonald as an alcoholic talking pigeon, the ghost of the Marquess of Queensberry, and Tyson’s brainy adopted daughter.
The show contains some unexpected intelligent humor, all of it at Tyson’s expense. You get the sense that the show’s writers are making fun of Tyson without his knowledge or permission. Iron Mike’s first “assignment,” brought to him by one of his many pet pigeons, is to help the novelist Cormac McCarthy find an ending to his new book. Tyson can’t pronounce McCarthy’s name, calling him “Cormac McConaughey” and other variations. As the other characters make literate references to McCarthy’s idiosyncratic writing style, including his distaste for quotation marks, Tyson talks about “beating the sh*t” out of people and launches into lispy renditions of made-up songs.
So don’t expect actual mysteries, with actual clues and the flourish of a grand ending, with Kid Dynamite unmasking the criminal mastermind. There’s really no plot to report. The characters stumble into random, unconnected scenes in search of two-bit gags. (At one point, Norm Macdonald’s pigeon knocks McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize medal into a fireplace.) Tyson, clad in a blue sweatsuit, is always confused and on the verge of hitting someone. There’s profanity, mostly from Tyson and Macdonald. The whole thing’s a cut-and-paste job—amusing but ultimately pointless.
Mike Tyson Mysteries is Tyson’s latest post-boxing venture, coming after his stint as a stage performer. His one-man show, Undisputed Truth, ran on Broadway; a filmed documentary version was directed by Spike Lee. Though it had its charming moments—Tyson’s memories of his relationship with Cus d’Amato, the renowned trainer, make for excellent storytelling—the ever-bizarre side of Mike Tyson lurked beneath every anecdote. He recalls, for example, meeting a young Brad Pitt back in the 1980s. After Tyson had divorced Robin Givens, he would still show up at her house uninvited; one day, during an impromptu visit, he spotted her with Pitt. Telling this story onstage, Tyson jokes that because of Pitt’s pretty-boy looks he didn’t know whether he “wanted to f*ck him up or f*ck him.” This bit of poetry is followed by some simulated humping. The audience howls with laughter and glee.
I remember watching this in extreme discomfort—and I viewed the show on television in my own living room. I recoiled at the thought of being there live in the theater, hearing those around me roar as a convicted rapist, who spent time in institutions known for sexual assault, joked about the forced penetration of another man. I don’t mean to sound sentimental, but at that moment I knew I could never see Tyson as a “normal” human being.
In a recent radio interview, Tyson said that he himself was sexually abused as a seven-year-old child, when an “old man” grabbed him off the street. This is the essential problem with Tyson: no one in the general public knows whether to like him, hate him, feel sorry for him… or a subtle combination of all three. Tyson grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn, an extremely dangerous and impoverished neighborhood, where the murder rate consistently ranks among the highest in New York City. Such childhood circumstances usually elicit some pity from others. When he was discovered to be a skilled boxer by d’Amato, he got the chance to get off the streets and train in the Catskills. According to Tyson, however, he returned to the city periodically to rob people, then used his upstate training facility as a place to hide. This is after having been saved from his wretched existence. It is much harder to feel that same pity when learning these details.
Seeing Tyson these days, even an unsympathetic onlooker can’t deny that he has mellowed. He claims his wild days are behind him—the days of entering the news cycle periodically for drug- and violence-related arrests. He hasn’t boxed since 2005, when he lost his final match to a palooka named Kevin McBride. The interviews he grants nowadays reveal an aging Tyson coming to terms with decades’ worth of shameful behavior. His tone is pensive and pleasant: none of the classic threats or vulgarities. It is like a newly sober man watching a video of his embarrassing life played back to him. But is anyone else watching? Does anyone care anymore?
Editor’s Note: see the previous 3 installments in Robert Wargas’ ongoing series of articles about criminals and dictators:
Part 2: “Does Everybody Want Freedom?”