Where does one begin trying to explain the experience of having a conversation with Mike Tyson? It’s like trying to explain an alien abduction. You come out the other side a changed person. I recently called Tyson to talk about his one-man show, Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth, directed by Spike Lee, which begins a 10-week, 31-city tour this Wednesday, February 13, in Indianapolis (the same city where he was convicted of rape in 1991) before moving on to Chicago, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Portland, Detroit, Atlanta, Miami, Washington, D.C., Boston, and dozens of cities in between. But we ended up talking about so much more than just his show. Like boxer mustaches, Japanese prostitutes, narcissistic agnostics, pet tigers, Brad Pitt’s Matrix moves, Evander Holyfield’s ear, and why you should always date somebody who doesn’t want to throw boiling water and lye in your face.
If I didn’t believe it already, I believe it now. Mike Tyson is an American treasure.
Eric Spitznagel: First of all, congratulations on getting inducted into the Nevada Boxing Hall of Fame.
Mike Tyson: That’s awesome! I’m getting in all these hall of fames over here. I’m very grateful, that’s so awesome.
Is there some kind of induction ceremony? And are you planning to attend?
I have no idea. This is the first time I’ve heard of it.
Really? I’m breaking the news to you?
As far as you know, are you the only boxing legend who’s had to deny rumors of a sex-change operation?
Who, me? That’s awesome! [Laughs.] That’s awesome! Oh no!
Is that the weirdest rumor you’ve ever heard about yourself?
I don’t know. There are so many Mike Tyson rumors out there. Listen man, as long as they’re still talking about me, that means they still care. I love it!
Why do a one-man show? Why not just write a memoir? Wouldn’t it be easier?
I’m doing a memoir, too! But I’m doing the one-man show as well because I like entertaining people. I like being on stage. I like being in the life. This is what I do. This is the only thing I know how to do besides rob people and fight. Even when I was robbing people, I was entertaining them. But that’s just what I love doing.
Before you go on stage, how do you psych yourself up? Is it similar to how you got ready for a boxing match?
I just think about guys before me that went on stage. Like John L. Sullivan. They did this stuff. And I want to do this stuff, too.
You mean the mustache?
The handlebar mustache? Are you saying you might grow a John L. Sullivan mustache?
No, no, no. I can’t do that. That’d be crazy. I don’t want that on my face!
And you don’t want anything… crazy on your face?
I mean in terms of show business. I want to be in show business like Sullivan. He was an entertainer!
Now that you’ve gotten comfortable acting, would you ever want to play somebody that isn’t you? Somebody who’s not Mike Tyson?
I do that anyway. When I’m on stage, I’m not me playing me. I’m somebody else doing me.
You’re… wait, what?
I could never go on stage and be like, “Hey, I’m Mike Tyson. My mother and father was in the sex industry.” That’s the politically correct way to say it, but I would really say, “My mother and father were pimps and whores. This is my life.” I could never do that as Mike Tyson.
Because I’d feel sorry for myself. I might cry and the show wouldn’t go any further. But if I could be objective about it and be somebody else, portraying Mike Tyson, saying this story, then it’s easy sailing.
That sounds really complicated. You’re not Mike Tyson, you’re a guy playing a character named Mike Tyson?
That’s right. And that’s how I became Mike Tyson the fighter. I became a character.
You were somebody else when you were boxing?
A hundred percent, yes.
Did you like Mike Tyson the character? Did he seem like a decent guy?
Not at all. I wouldn’t want to be around him. Because you can never reach that metaphor, you can never transcend to that level, if you get too close to him. You have to be totally objective about that guy. If you’re personally involved with him, you can’t accomplish your objective.
Mike Tyson, the fictional character or metaphor or whatever he was — is he gone? Did you get rid of him?
No, that guy could never go. There are always glimpses of him, because he catapulted me to the person I am today. And by understanding him, getting to know him, I think that’s where we are as people. We’re a learning process. We’re processes in learning. We get to learn more and more about ourselves as we continue to live.
Undisputed Truth had short runs in Vegas and New York. How were the audiences?
Smashing! Dynamic! Mesmerizing! Captivating!
So… they liked you?
Oh, yeah. It’s pretty much a roller-coaster of emotions. They sigh, they laugh.
Always hecklers. There are always hecklers. You can’t be on stage without a heckler.
You can’t? I don’t know about that.
What’s the purpose of you being a stage actor if there’s no hecklers?
Um…. not performing for assholes?
But how can you tell what you’re made of? Of course you can act and do all this stuff. But somebody throws a rock up there or a pie, what’s going to happen?
Have you been hit with a rock or a pie?
Not yet. But there’s been guys in the audience who were like, “I’m going to kill you, motherfucker!”
Really? Jesus, where are you performing, hobo jungles?
Theater can get rough, Eric. We got bomb threats when we did the show in New York. And then somebody tweeted and said they were gonna do to us like they did in Colorado. Just come in during my show and kill everyone.
You know what I was taught as a young kid? In order to succeed greatly, you have to be prepared to fail greatly. If you can’t do both of them, you’ve got a problem.
Yeah, but there’s a difference between failing greatly and having a guy come into a theater with a semi-automatic rifle.
No it’s not. No it’s not. Not in the world of art it’s not.
I’m pretty sure you’re wrong.
You stand your ground and you perform your art. That’s what the artist does. The artist is about perfection. You’re going to let this break your concentration?
Gunfire? Yes, actually, I am.
Well that’s when we see what kind of a professional you truly are.
Most performers, if they feel physically threatened, will say, “Screw this, I’m getting the hell out of here.”
Not a performer that’s glory hungry.
A lot of audiences will come to your show wanting to hear the dirt. They don’t necessarily want the triumphant life lessons. They want to hear about the drugs and the rape charges and the bad times. Does that bother you?
As human beings, nobody gets out of this world free. We all have to do some suffering before we leave. Okay? Unless it’s a miscarriage or something, we’ve all got to do some suffering.
Miscarriages aren’t about suffering? Wait, do you mean the fetuses being miscarried?
Yeah. They get a free pass. But the rest of us, nobody is getting off this planet free. And in doing that, we all learn about ourselves. We learn that we’re alike even though we’re different. We’re alike in our feelings and our pains and our happiness. We learn how to be humble. At one point there was a religion called agnostic, where we were all narcissistic and we all believed we were gods and were special and all that stuff.
I don’t think that’s the technical definition of agnosticism.
That’s what I think is going on here. Everybody wants to be somebody. Everybody wants to be noticed. Everybody wants to be somebody important. Importance is just treating people good. That’s important. I’m not talking about from a socialist perspective. Treat the world the way you want to be treated. That’s the problem now. We don’t care enough about each other anymore.
I agree that there’s a lot of narcissism in our culture.
Oh, no doubt about it. This is all a big rat race. And even though you win, you’re still a rat.
A lot of the stories in your show are horrifying and hard to believe. Like when you talk about your mother throwing coffee and cups of lye and boiling water on her boyfriend’s face. That really happened?
Oh, yeah, absolutely.
It sounds like a Monty Python sketch. Just the hot coffee would be enough, right? Why add the lye?
That was just our household. We had a real violent household.
Did this guy’s face look like one of the Nazis at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark?
It got real close. He didn’t have the best face and body in the world, anyway. But nothing gets improved when hot boiling water hits you. My mother was real tough.
Seeing that, did it make you less trusting of women? Were you scared of dating a woman like your mom?
No, no, the opposite. I always tried to find women like my mother.
You wanted boiling water and lye thrown at you?
Well no, but my mother would protect me. But a woman that’s not my mother that’s like my mother won’t protect me. She’s going to boil me with water like my mother did her boyfriend.
That… almost makes sense.
Think about it, Eric. It does.
You originally wanted to call your show Boxing, Bitches, and Lawsuits. What happened?
I got carried away. I told my wife about the title, and she freaked out.
Yeah. She wrote it for me. She wrote the whole show.
Was that awkward? You talk about things in Undisputed Truth that most guys probably wouldn’t want to share with their wives.
Definitely in the beginning it was awkward. The first day we started working on it, my wife really sugarcoated who I was. I had to tell her, “I want to talk about the guy you don’t know. The guy I was before I became the guy you fell in love with.” I had to introduce her to that guy. She handled it good. She didn’t get personal or catch any bad feelings about any of the women I talked about. It was totally professional. Subconsciously, you never know what’s going on there. But if she was jealous or mad, she never showed it.
Even with the stories about Japanese prostitutes?
I haven’t seen the show yet, but I’ve heard that you talk about indulging in “too many of them Japanese prostitutes.” That’s not something a wife wants to learn about their husband.
But Eric, how can you and your wife be one if you don’t share that? I don’t care how much you love each other, if you have secrets, it’ll never work. That’s why she’s your loved one, because it’s the love of one. Togetherness, you are one.
So she understood that Japanese prostitutes were just a phase you had to go through to become the man you are today?
I don’t know whether they were a phase or not. It’s just what I did. Matter of fact, it was a lifestyle. It wasn’t a phase, it was a lifestyle.
Are Japanese prostitutes better than other countries’ prostitutes?
I don’t know, which country are we talking about? Come on, Eric, let’s get a comparison going.
How about the U.S.? How do our hookers compare with the Japanese?
Oh man, the Japanese are so much better. At least you don’t have to worry about them fighting afterwards. The U.S. prostitutes are fighting with everybody, shooting at everybody. It’s like dating a gangbanger.
It’s amazing that nobody thought to give you a one-man show earlier. You’re a natural storyteller. Just put some lights on you and let you talk.
I learned that from Cus D’Amato. He was a magnificent storyteller.
Even back in your boxing days, I remember you saying things in interviews that were like Shakespeare sonnets. Like that time you said, “I want to eat your children.”
[Laughs.] Oh, yeah.
Where does that come from? Did you script it in advance, or were you as surprised as the rest of us at what came out of your mouth?
I’m just riffing. I’m just letting it go, spontaneously. Right off the tenth of a second of a cuff. My nature is to get instant gratification. I need it right now. On stage, I can feel everybody’s anticipation. I know what they want, I know what I’m going to give them, I know when I’m going to give it to them, I know when they want it.
Do you improvise in your show?
Oh, yeah, yeah. There’s a lot of improvising. Like when I’m talking about, for instance… when I met Brad Pitt.
When you caught him in bed with your then-wife Robin Givens?
I know he knew who I was, and he kinda hollered, “Yo, dude.” He jumped out of bed and he looked like he was doing a move from The Matrix. You know what I mean? Like one of those fancy moves when you’re kicking and floating in the air.
I know exactly what you mean.
He was moving all over the place. I thought he was doing that Brazilian dance, the Capoeira or whatever. That’s why I didn’t attack him, ’cause I thought he was doing some new exotic karate stuff. This was pre-Matrix, so I was like, “What’s this shit?” If I knew about The Matrix, I would’ve whipped his ass. ‘Cause I knew that wasn’t going to hurt me or anything.
Finding out your wife is sleeping with Brad Pitt is kind of a mixed blessing. It sucks that she’s cheating on you, but at least it’s with Brad Pitt. It’s not like you caught her with the cable guy.
But he wasn’t Brad Pitt then. He was just some cast-couching actor. He wasn’t no Brad Pitt. He was a nobody. It still hurt.
You’re a vegan, right? A strict vegan?
Yes, yes, I’m a vegan. I lost 150 pounds because of being a vegan.
Maybe this is just me, but it’s so hard to think about you being a vegan without remembering, wait a minute, didn’t he bite off Evander Holyfield’s ear? Which is technically carnivore behavior.
Well, I wasn’t conscious of veganism back then.
Well, sure, obviously.
That’s not something a vegan would do.
I know you’ve been asked about the Holyfield incident thousands of times, but here’s something I’ve never heard asked of you: Did you spit or swallow?
Yeah. When you bit off that hunk of Holyfield’s ear, did you spit it out or, you know…?
I think I did a little of both. Some of the ear goes down because you can’t stop it. But then you spit some of it out. So you know, you get the best of both worlds.
You have eight kids. Does your personal history make it harder to discipline them?
No, no, not at all!
But you’ve done everything. Drugs, sex with Japanese prostitutes, ear-biting, face tattoos. How can you possibly have any authority?
My kids have a different lifestyle than I did. They go to private schools. Back when I was a kid, I never liked the kind of kids that my kids have become. They’re privileged and have things very easy. But I’m proud of them. None of my kids are getting high, they love school, they’re very popular. But things could change. Life is all a learning process. When they go through that adversary — and everybody goes through adversary at some point, it doesn’t matter how good you got it — I’ll be there to help. I’ve got their backs ’til the end.
What’s the weirdest job you’ve ever been offered?
Like in boxing?
Or anything. Rich people pay celebrities to be their personal entertainment. Has some hedge-fund manager ever paid you a small fortune to come to his home and fight him in his basement?
It happens. They’ll be like, “Come to this Arab oil tycoon’s son’s birthday party and get into the ring with him.” All that stuff. But I’m just not that guy. I work hard not to be a trained monkey. So I try not to go for those kind of offers. I need them to respect me. You can’t buy me with money. I would do it for free if you had some decency or respect in the way you talk to me. But instead it’s “Hey, take $20,000 to be my son’s toy for two days.” Fuck you! You know?
Yeah. You’re not Richard Pryor.
I’m not! Right, Eric, right. You get me.
You have more control with your show and the memoir. You’re doing it on your own terms.
Yeah, but lately, I’ve been thinking, am I stupid for doing this shit? Why would I want somebody to know all this shit about me? You know what I mean? Is this about desperation? Am I desperate? Why the hell am I telling people this crap?
I’m sure that’s a question anybody who writes about their own life asks. Why share so many personal details with strangers?
I don’t even know. I’m considering stopping. But I got paid already. I don’t know what the hell to do. I don’t know. Shit.
Isn’t there something cathartic about it? When you try to explain your life, maybe you begin to understand why you did what you did.
No, I think that’s bull. You know why you did everything that you did.
Not all of us do. Self-reflection isn’t a bad thing.
No, no, I disagree. When you talk about this stuff, you try and clean it up so people won’t think you did it for the wrong reasons.
Let’s talk about something less heavy. Like The Hangover. Obviously that was a fictionalized version of your life. But was there some truth mixed up in there?
Like how many tigers do you have as pets?
Oh, I used to have lots of tigers. I had all sorts of exotic pets when I had some money. Before I was broke, I had everything. Pigeons and vultures, you name it. Lions, tigers, and bears, oh no! Lions, tigers, and bears, oh no! Lions and tigers and bears, oh no!! I had it all.
What’s the first animal to go when you’re out of money? The lion, the tiger, or the bear?
Shit. The bear, I guess.
How do you avoid a Siegfried and Roy type of situation?
It has a lot to do with luck. I was just lucky. I was lucky I had the right cat. You could sleep with my cat. You could swim in the pool with him. You could ride him. I didn’t have no megalomania cat.
He wasn’t a narcissist agnostic cat?
[Laughs.] Right, right. My cat wasn’t agnostic. He was good. He was a good cat.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on Esquire.com.)