“He was a big spoiled kid whose idea of solving a problem was to throw money at it and hop on a flight,” Kiki said. “He had gone from a neglected, insecure child to a celebrity constantly told of his magnificence. That’s a dangerous combination — an addict personality. It took me awhile to understand the triggers that set him off. I’d ask him to take out the trash, and he thought he was worthless again.”
Kiki served sixth months in prison in 2008 and her mother also was convicted for being on the payroll at her stepfather’s Muslim school, which obtained scam loans and city contracts in Philadelphia. Shamsud-din Ali, aka Clarence “Cutty” Fowler when he was in jail in the 1970s for a murder conviction that was overturned, is serving a seven-year sentence on the racketeering charges.
“Mike and I hit bottom and stood by each other,” Kiki said.
In the show, Tyson apologizes to Holyfield — despite the head butts that prompted the biting in their 1997 bout, he says — but is adamant that Miss Black America contestant Washington consented to sex.
“Mike beats himself up more than anyone else,” Kiki said. “The real Mike — not the tabloid Mike — is sincere, witty, intelligent, giving, intense. He’s never had a platform to showcase those layers.”
No excuses, Tyson told Kiki as they reworked the script last autumn to add more grit and humor. The prosecutor in the 1992 rape case approached Tyson after the San Francisco show to say how much he respected Tyson’s performance.
“I carried a lot of shame for being poor,” Tyson said. “I blamed my father and mother so I could feel sorry for myself. I blamed being underprivileged so I could be an underachiever.”
Retired from the fight game, he has no need to marshal violent impulses. But he always has had a flair for introspective drama. He likes acting. He was in Cannes, France, for the showing of James Toback’s dark 2008 documentary Tyson. He had cameos in The Hangover and The Hangover: Part II and played a death row inmate on Law & and Order: SVU. His creation of Undisputed Truth was inspired by A Bronx Tale, in which Chazz Palminteri recounted how he got involved with the Mafia as a kid.
Tyson is judged now by theater critics, who have given mostly positive reviews. Although ticket sales lagged in a couple of cities, people are still fascinated to see Tyson under the lights, baring his soul, delivering hooks — only without the blood.
He’s not unlike Jake LaMotta played by Robert De Niro impersonating Marlon Brando in Raging Bull: “I coulda been a contenda instead of a bum, which is what I am.”
Of the numerous boxers turned bums, Tyson was a prime candidate. He could have wound up like Sonny Liston, found dead in his bedroom with a heroin syringe nearby. Or Trevor Berbick, beaten to death with a steel pipe. Or his sport, reeling like a tomato can socked in the jaw.
The self-described “piece of garbage from the Brooklyn sewer system, an animal, a pig, a pathetic case” who so often predicted a bad end for himself is still standing, still punching.
He’s the ghetto kid grown up to perform his version of Laurence Olivier’s Macbeth, tortured by his own barbarism. Well, not quite. Olivier didn’t have a Maori warrior tattoo on his face.
“I think it’s sexy,” Kiki said. “An ingenious trademark!”
Tyson downplays any art, any message in his tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, but when pressed he admits he does want it to signify something.
“Never lay down without a fight,” he said. “Cancer, AIDS, tuberculosis, depression, bankruptcy, incarceration. Never give up.”
Iron Mike may not be dead, but he’s found love and a home. He’s using his fists to play peekaboo with the little boy he never got to be.