Undisputed Truth is an in-depth autobiography that tells the story of Mike “Iron Mike” Tyson. The book begins with Mike’s life as a poor and troubled child growing up in Brooklyn. It charts his rise and training to become the youngest heavyweight champion in the history of boxing. At one point “Iron Mike” was regarded as the baddest man on the planet but addiction and poor business management would lead to his downfall.
As a kid growing up in Brooklyn during the 1990s, Mike Tyson was the man. I saw him a few times during summer vacation when he would ride down Flatbush or park on my block. So there’s a certain nostalgia that I’ll most likely always feel about him. Not so much for him as a person but what he represented to me as a kid growing up in Brooklyn at that time. Brooklyn then was not gentrified like it is now and had a reputation for being gritty and grimy, the home of stickup kids. To see this guy from my borough, from an even rougher neighbor, with a far worse upbringing, become rich and famous meant that anything was possible.
But Mike Tyson is also a deeply flawed individual which is something that I think he would also say about himself. I was in elementary school when Tyson bit Holyfield and by junior high, he was in the news more often for nonsense than he was for his fights. When Tyson quit fighting in 2005, it was barely a blip on my radar as I felt it was probably the best thing for him as he seemed to be spiraling.
Before Undisputed Truth, I knew that Tyson had grown up in Brownsville before he relocated to Catskills but I didn’t know that he’d spent his early years in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Bedstuy was a regular working-class neighborhood during the time that Tyson lived there. I knew a little about his family with regards to his mother (Lorna) and sister (Denise). But I had no idea that he also had an older brother (Rodney) who was drastically different and for lack of a better term, “normal”. It’s unclear what their relationship is like now but his brother was into science experiments and was accepted into the prestigious Brooklyn Tech High School.
Tyson’s troubles seemed to begin with his move to Brownsville but there was already some dysfunction in the home before the relocation. A Jamaican man, Purcell Tyson, whom he and his siblings never met had married his mother and was listed as Tyson’s father on his birth certificate. But he was told that he and his siblings’ biological father was a man named Jimmy Kirkpatrick who hailed from North Carolina. Whatever the relationship had been between his parents, Kirkpatrick would pop up now and then for short visits but wasn’t a real presence in the kids’ lives.
His mother, Lorna Smith Tyson, was from Virginia and raised him and his siblings as a single parent. Earlier in life, she’d been attending college but had to drop out due to family obligations. To support herself and the kids, she worked and earned an honest living. But outside of work, she hung around a rough crowd which included women who Tyson described as being prostitutes in the sense of dating and sleeping with men for money. There were also card and house parties with free-flowing liquor where people would come into the house and carry on. It wasn’t the best environment for young kids because they saw too much at a young age and Tyson was especially sensitive to the activity in the household.
From the start, there seemed to be a degree of distance between Tyson and his mother despite him being her youngest child. So it was interesting to have him speak quite fondly about his older sister. The two sounded as though they were quite close as kids and that intimacy went beyond just being siblings. They were friends who enjoyed each other’s company and spent a lot of time playing together. He didn’t seem to have any major issues with his brother but maybe their gender and five-year age gap prevented them from being as close. It was obvious that Tyson loved and adored his sister.
This made me wonder how Tyson’s life might have been different if his family had continued living in Bed-Stuy and there was less drama in their home. Tyson’s two older siblings grew up in the same household but didn’t get into as much trouble as him. Could it be that those few extra years of their childhood spent growing up in the relative calm and stability of Bed-Stuy gave them a stronger foundation and sense of identity as they entered adolescence? With the same opportunities, Tyson might not have gone on to become a heavyweight champion but taking a different path in life might have allowed him to avoid a lot of trouble and find happiness and contentment within himself at a younger age.
I was in my feelings when I read about Tyson’s mom losing her job and the devastating chain of events it set off for the family. The first major side effect was that they lost their nice apartment and had to move to Brownsville. Then Mrs. Tyson became depressed and started drinking heavily as a result of being unable to find another job. She likely felt isolated from her friends and support group, finding herself in a new and very rough neighborhood. I could only imagine the pressure of trying to figure out how she was going to take care of herself and three kids. Especially because their father hadn’t been meaningfully present thus far and was unlikely to step up to offer assistance.
The family began receiving welfare but it wasn’t enough to replace her lost income and adequately provide shelter and food for the four of them. Not excusing her actions but I think Mrs. Tyson was in a difficult situation and did what she felt she had to to get by. Unfortunately, this seemed to include dating and sleeping with men that she didn’t necessarily like for money. Her distance and coldness towards Tyson seemed to intensify around that time though it’s unclear if she treated the other two kids in the same manner as well.
Some of these early experiences between Tyson and his mom as well as the interactions he witnessed between the men and women around him played a role in his later dysfunctional relationships with women. He describes himself as being a mama’s boy when he was very young and seemed quite close to his mother. The family lived in close quarters with his siblings sharing one room while he shared a room and bed with his mom until he was 15-years-old. To be clear, there was nothing sexually inappropriate going on but it was jarring to live and sleep in proximity to someone who became both distant and abusive towards him as he got older.
There were also violent fights between Mrs. Tyson and her boyfriend where they would curse at and physically attack each other. What kind of example are you setting for a child if you and your partner are calling each other out of your names, throwing boiling water, or pulling out knives? All of these factors combined with the aggression, hostility, and vulgarity that he was now witnessing in his neighborhood were frightening for the seven-year-old. Not to mention that it was also around this time that a man snatched Tyson off the street with the intent of molesting him. In a short space of time, his life was turned upside down.
His family’s change in fortunes also meant moving from private to public school. He was big as a child but chubby rather than muscular with his distinctive high-pitched voice and lisp as well as glasses due to a vision problem. A walking target for bullies. To make matters worse, his family couldn’t afford regular apartments so they lived as squatters in abandoned buildings which meant they didn’t always have access to heat, hot water, or food. Some children lack maturity and can be jerks so when they saw this kid who was lacking in hygiene they made fun of him instead of realizing that it’s hard to consistently take showers when you don’t have hot water or water in general at home.
Tyson’s early life is like a domino effect of things just getting progressively worse. One day of his mom passed out drunk and unable to walk him to school led to several run-ins with bullies. The events of that one day led to him meeting some unsavory characters, deciding to permanently ditch school, becoming involved with pigeons, and beginning a life of crime. I understood but still couldn’t wrap my mind around dropping out of school at the age of seven or eight. At that age you’ve had maybe two or three years of real school and what have you learned in that short space of time.
His introduction to crime and street life should be required reading for parents and anyone working with kids, especially children who are at risk. I’ve seen it time and time again where a kid who is being bullied or starving for love joins a gang or crew for protection and to feel accepted. Their intention, at least initially, isn’t to become involved with criminal activity but just to hang out and be one of the guys. But peer pressure from guys who might be a few years older in age though not that far ahead with regards to maturity can lead to kids doing things they might not on their own.
Tyson was eight years old when he started rolling around with this crew of older kids and playing with pigeons. Here are these kids who are poor but desire nice clothes, jewelry, and other material possessions. Many of the adults in the neighborhood who are working honest jobs also have a side hustle some of which were illegal. And even for the older kids who might be teens, there aren’t many options for making money beyond maybe a part-time job that likely will pay just enough for pocket change. It’s certainly not right but craving fast money they get into picking pockets, snatching chains, and breaking into people’s homes. Lacking financial stability and having low self-esteem, they try to build themselves up with material possessions.
Tyson was a kid with raggedy clothes and a limited understanding of personal hygiene. An older kid who was more knowledgeable about street life rescued him after he committed an especially embarrassing faux pas. This kid took him under his wing and in addition to pointers on hygiene also introduced him to buying clothes and burglaries. The opportunity to make money, although illegally, allowed him to buy clothes, food, and other things that boosted his ego and gave him some sense of self-esteem.
This is part of why kids in so many poor areas became heavily involved with selling drugs during the 1980s. People get tired of struggling, having no food in the house, and wearing old off-brand clothing. Being young and unable to delay gratification as well as not considering the possible long-term consequences of death or imprisonment, they take chances.
Some older people in street life recruit younger kids because they’re less likely to receive serious jail time. The kids begin with petty crime and have spent time in juvenile detention centers by the time they’re in their late teens. People adapt to circumstances and as these kids get older, their crimes become more serious as do the penalties. Some are fortunate to turn their lives around but for others, they begin the cycle of going in and out of prison as adults.
In previous years, adult Tyson had a reputation for being quite vulgar and incredibly disrespectful with his language. But he’s fairly articulate and clearly expresses his ideas and feelings here. It’s obvious that while he didn’t receive a formal education he’s not stupid.
I understood his mom’s frustration in having to deal with the difficulties of her life as well as this one kid out of the three who was constantly in trouble. He had some trouble learning and functioning in class and was placed in special education classes as a result. We’re only just beginning to scratch the surface of mental health, developmental, and neurological issues. They probably just didn’t have enough knowledge or access to resources at the time to handle this kid who might have been dealing with any one of those issues as well as his emotional problems that weren’t being addressed.
Over three or four years, he got into all kinds of criminal mischief and ended up with a lengthy rap sheet. But he was still being bullied due to his fear and unwillingness to fight. That all changed when he stood up to a bully who ripped the head off of one of his pigeons and a crowd formed around them. Whether positive or negative, the people that gathered gave him the attention and acceptance that he’d been craving.
In other environments, he would have been ostracized for his antisocial behavior and would have likely made adjustments. But instead, he gained a rep and respect among his peers in the neighborhood who were living equally violent and criminal lives. Their reaction helped to normalize his behavior and things only got worse when he started being sent to juvenile correction facilities.
Yet, it was during a stint at Spofford that he saw a film about and met Muhammad Ali which sparked his aspirations to be like Ali. And it was during a stint at another facility that he met a counselor, Bobby Stewart, who would formally introduce him to boxing and Cus D’Amato. You might say it was destiny and his time in juvenile halls rescued him from Brownsville. But why weren’t there programs like this in Brownsville that could appeal to kids’ interests and help them imagine a different life without them having to go to juvenile hall?
He was put on medication and deemed developmentally delayed and with all of that going on his mother didn’t know what to do with him once he started getting into trouble on the street. At a time when Tyson wanted unconditional love, he felt like his mother gave up on him. Up to this point he’d had fairly negative examples of manhood in his life and combined with his strained relationship with his mom added up to him needing some positivity in his life. Someone to provide a positive example of possibilities for what he could be. He was still quite young so it wasn’t too late for him as he eventually turned his life around or rather found direction and a sense of purpose.
I wasn’t there so it’s not my place to say how Tyson should feel about his mother. But it is worth noting that his mother was present and actively involved in his day-to-day life until he went to live with D’Amato. Meanwhile, his father was barely present and played no meaningful role in his upbringing. Yet, Tyson carries a lot of hurt and resentment with regards to his mother while not having nearly the same level of expectations or culpability for his father. It’s patriarchy at work in the sense that he mostly overlooks his father shirking his responsibilities but then blames his mother for many of his shortcomings. Unfortunately, quite often, the parent who is present and/or the disciplinarian later receives more criticism than the absentee parent.
That being said, Tyson needed discipline at that point in his life but not in the form that his mom was administering. It might have been the norm then but I’m against using physical means to punish children as it teaches them to resolve issues with violence and becomes less effective as kids get older. As a large person beating a small child, you teach them intimidation and domination rather than discipline.
In the case of Mrs. Tyson, she began physically disciplining him as a small child and it continued as he got older. Those beatings escalated over time and became just as much about his mom venting her frustration as it was about her trying to correct him. It became clear that despite his misbehaving and aggression on the street, it was more effective to sit him down and talk with him. A lot of Tyson’s delinquent behavior was a cry for help and attention. By this point, he was a fairly large teen but Stewart and D’Amato were still able to keep him under control by talking to him and setting expectations instead of hitting him.
We get some insight into the fights leading up to his run at the championship but I far more enjoyed learning about the things that were going on behind the scenes. Reading about the public relations campaign that was put together to raise his profile in the industry was interesting. I was very aware of the role that D’Amato played in physically preparing him for a career in professional boxing. But reading his account also opened my eyes to the mental process of creating Mike “Iron Mike” Tyson.
D’Amato had a one-track mind due to his idiosyncrasies and insecurities about his experiences in the boxing industry. There was a lot of effort put into shaping Tyson into a great boxer but not nearly enough attention was paid to his development as a person. We see this in instances where D’Amato is focused on training and the future and responds to Tyson’s adolescent insecurities and concerns with outright disdain or inappropriate comments. He built up an idea within Tyson that training, performing well in the ring, and becoming heavyweight champion would solve all of his problems. But there was no plan for Tyson as a boxer or person after he won the title or as an adult outside of the ring.
By the time Tyson achieved his goal of becoming a heavyweight champion, both his mother and D’Amato had passed away. This removed the only two people who tried to hold him accountable or instill any kind of discipline in his life. Without being prepared for fame and success, all hell broke loose when this young man who had low self-esteem and little interest in business suddenly found himself rich, famous, and surrounded by sycophants.
I will say that my favorite part of Undisputed Truth was everything from his childhood leading up to him becoming a heavyweight champion as everything after that point was a bit of a tiresome mess.
Tyson spent several years where he refrained from seriously dating or having intercourse to maintain his focus on training and fighting. He became a household name and was fully welcomed into the celebrity life and with that came a lot of women. And I do mean a lot of women. This included several models, celebrities, regular women, and prostitutes.
Even dating back to the time when he was a boy and began having crushes on girls, he didn’t know and never learned how to approach females. In personal interactions, he was shy, awkward, lacked confidence, and didn’t know what to say. A lot of the new attention that he got from women was mostly because he was now the heavyweight champion. At first, he couldn’t read the subtle cues of women being interested in him but then came to assume that any woman that approached him was interested.
I was very young when Mike Tyson and Robin Givens were together so I never really understood the drama in their relationship or the hate towards her. Generally speaking, I don’t take much interest in other people’s romantic relationships so this part of Undisputed Truth was just ok to me. The two sound like they were immature, mismatched, and had no business being together. It also didn’t help that they were both inviting other people into their relationship in the form of Givens’ mother and Tyson cheating with several other women (which would continue to be an issue in his relationships).
Around the time that Tyson was going through his drama with Givens, the business wolves were also jockeying for position to stake claims to his earnings. The whole situation sounded like a messy “Game of Thrones” with backstabbing, gold-digging, alliances, betrayals, and all other manners of nonsense. Tyson was the iron throne with Don King, the other promoters, trainers, accountants, lawyers, etc. fighting to gain control of his business dealings. It was business so most of these people didn’t care about Tyson but rather how they could make money off of him. Unfortunately, because D’Amato didn’t place much importance on money or business he didn’t stress the importance of staying on top of those things to Tyson.
As has been the case with other athletes and entertainers who weren’t on top of their business and finances, Tyson eventually went broke. You leave yourself open to being taken advantage of when you’re not paying attention to the money coming in and going out. I think business professionals sometimes imply to athletes and entertainers, especially those from humble beginnings, that they don’t need to concern themselves with the business side of things. And as long as there is cash on hand to buy whatever trinkets and toys they want, they don’t ask questions until it’s too late. Despite Tyson’s limited interest in the details of his contracts and business dealings, Undisputed Truth still offers an opportunity to learn a bit about the various facets of the business side of boxing.
In addition to his sanctioned boxing matches, Tyson details various altercations, fights, run-ins, and shenanigans with various people. But one of the funniest situations in Undisputed Truth is a street fight and series of other incidents between Tyson and the boxer Mitch Green who is noted for going 10 rounds with Tyson in 1986. The two were involved in a street brawl about two years later in Harlem right outside of Dapper Dan’s.
The first indication that this guy wasn’t wrapped too tight is that he approached 1980s Tyson egging him on to fight and I believe ripped his shirt pocket. Tyson didn’t say it but I felt this guy had to be smoking crack or something to get knocked out, jump back up like a zombie, and grab onto Tyson’s car as he’s preparing to leave in hopes of continuing the fight. Then days later Green was riding a 10-speed bike for whatever reason, saw Tyson, and wanted to fight all over again. I dare you to read that part of Undisputed Truth and not laugh.
Initially, he played the part of the non-threatening athlete outside the ring but over time decided that he wanted to become a villain in the industry like his childhood heroes in wrestling. That’s where the “Iron Mike” persona really took root but unfortunately, instead of leaving it in the ring, Tyson adopted it as his everyday public personality. There’s a long history before and since Tyson of boxers trash talking leading up to a fight with Muhammad Ali probably being the greatest at this.
Yet, it felt a bit different with Tyson and I think people took him seriously because he was intimidating and vulgar in the promo leading up to fights and was so aggressive in the ring. Some of the things he would say in press conferences, for the time, felt over the top and unnecessary. There was a different vibe early in his career when he was the humble and hungry underdog but he became a spoiled brat after winning the championship. The public and media tend to root for the underdog but you can quickly go from being a media darling to despised.
Undisputed Truth fell into a lull for me at this point as it detailed his superstar lifestyle. It just went on and on about buying clothes, exotic and luxury cars, and having sex with random women. Now and then there would be a boxing match to break things up. But you must read this part of Undisputed Truth to understand Tyson’s frame of mind at the time. It gives context to a lot of the things that come later with regards to Desiree Washington, losing his money, and the gradual breakdown of Iron Mike in the ring.
In a life that would come to be filled with controversial moments, it gave me pause when I began reading Undisputed Truth and the prologue discussed the time around his sentencing following his rape conviction. I get that Tyson wanted to explain his side of the story and repeat his steadfast denial of having assaulted Washington. But I felt that his reasoning in the prologue hurt his case more than it helped. I felt that Tyson was a terrible advocate for himself at this point in the book but continued reading to get the full story of his life.
Depending on who is telling the story and their opinion the presentation of the incident with Washington and the resulting court case will be skewed. Only the two of them were there on the night in question so it will forever be his word versus hers. Granted he was convicted of rape, but wrongful convictions do happen. On the flipside, false rape accusations do occur but are not widespread as in actuality, most rapes go unreported. Honestly, I can’t call it.
There was some insight into the legal proceedings with regards to his defense attorneys and their perceived shortcomings in court. But again, this points to Tyson’s willingness to allow professionals acting in his name to exert full control with limited participation on his part. If he took issue with his defense strategy or his lawyers, why didn’t he speak up then and make changes as he was paying for them and would be the one doing time if they lost the case? He doesn’t provide a real explanation as to why he’s either uninterested or passive when it comes to business, legal, or financial matters.
During the prologue, Tyson explained that the judge mentioned date rape during the sentencing but he and Washington were not on a “date” but rather the situation was a “booty call”. It sounds ridiculous because “date rape” does not mean you specifically raped someone on a date. Instead, it refers to a type of acquaintance rape where the two people know each other and have or there is the potential for a romantic and/or sexual relationship.
I’m certain that Tyson believes that he didn’t rape Desiree Washington. But I also think Tyson is operating under a flawed and very narrow concept of what constitutes rape. This might have very well started as a booty call but if she changed her mind at any time during the encounter and Tyson continued, it then became rape.
Putting aside his rape conviction, there were several incredibly misogynistic moments and behaviors that Tyson seemed to regard as acceptable at the time they occurred and possibly even now. In one incident he became paranoid and physically violent with prostitutes while high on cocaine. He describes friends who are pimps offering up prostitutes to him while other men try to befriend him by showing themselves as being willing to accost random women passing by on the street to sleep with him.
Tyson surrounds himself with women who want him for his fame and/or money but then complains about women wanting him for those reasons. Maybe he was drawn to these women as a way of trying to save and give them the life he couldn’t give his mother? Maybe it was further exacerbated by him holding a grudge about his failed relationship with Robin Givens?
There’s some background on how Don King and some of Tyson’s other managers robbed him blind by taking outsized percentages of his purses and charging him for questionable expenses. He also had to pay out two divorce settlements as well as child support for the children he had with his second wife and other women. Boxing fines and suspensions reduced his earnings right around the time he began falling behind on his taxes. He had multiple run-ins with other people (whether his fault or not) that also resulted in settlements. Yet with all of this financial mess going on he continued living a superstar lifestyle of women, cars, and clothes until the very moment at which he couldn’t. And to make matters worse, he was dealing with all of this in addition to a serious drinking and cocaine problem.
I don’t understand buying a luxury car when you’re millions of dollars in the hole with the IRS. Being in that much debt, especially to the IRS would keep me up at night. Before reading Undisputed Truth I had some sympathy for his life seemingly falling apart. But I came to realize that a lot of things that went wrong with his money and career were a result of his poor decisions. By the time he started making an effort to clean his life up and went to rehab we were both tired of his life. It just sounded so draining.
It’s telling that this man who felt so devoid of love and acceptance as a child was largely absent from the lives of his children. Sure he provided for them when he had money which was better than what his father had done. But like his father, he left the day-to-day raising of his children to their mothers. It was unfortunate that he lost a child but it sounds like that served as the motivation to get himself together and be a better father to his other children.
I’m glad that despite some setbacks, he was able to address his issues and developed a framework for living a happier and healthier life. No one is going to convince me that a person who is happy and content with themselves is living a life where they’re controlled by alcohol, drugs, money, and sex. There was a void from Tyson’s childhood that he was trying to fill with all of those things. And his self-destructive habits indicated that his low self-esteem and feelings of low self-worth still existed beneath the facade that he’d created.
In some ways Undisputed Truth explores how becoming a boxer rescued Mike Tyson from Brownsville but destroyed him as a person. Tyson also details how losing his money and career destroyed his flamboyant lifestyle but gave him the freedom to work on finding himself. This is a book about a deeply flawed but very human individual who suffered a great deal of trauma and made a lot of mistakes in his life. It’s an incredible story from which most people would be able to take something away. But I think it’s an especially good book for older teens and young adults, especially those who are trying to get back on track or aspire to a career in sports or entertainment. Though it might be a good idea to read and discuss with a parent or mentor so they don’t get wrapped up in the superstar lifestyle and miss out on the message.
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