Commentary

Mike Tyson's Ongong Fight For A New Image

In a new commercial, former heavyweight champ Mike Tyson rings the doorbell at an oversized suburban portal and presents a tidy little box — the kind that might contain diamond-studded earrings — to the oversized man who answers.

“I’m sorry, Evander,” he says with the voice of a repentant boy caught with his dukes in the cookie jar. “It’s your ear.” As in the body part Tyson partially bit off in his rematch with Evander Holyfield for the heavyweight title in 1997. 

“I kept that in formaldehyde,” he says, and the two behemoths embrace. 

It is the latest, and the most blatantly commercial, installment in the ongoing public rehabilitation of a man who one seemed to embody badness. Indeed, he was the self-proclaimed “Baddest Man on the Planet.”

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The “hilarious” spot, Michael McCarthy informs us in Advertising Age, is part of Foot Locker's "Week of Greatness" promotion and includes Brett Favre “knowing when to walk away” from a meal at a diner and Dennis Rodman buying a “one way” ticket to North Korea to the applause of the agent and onlookers.

Tyson has been surprising us for years, whether its in “Funny or Die” shorts such this 2011 pre-Oscars interview with film critic Leonard Maltin or his own second-fiddle turns in TV shows and movies such as “The Hangover.”  Yesterday, Michiko Kakutani reviewed Undisputed Truth, Tyson’s new book written with Larry Sloman, in the New York Times. It’s a split-decision victory for the author.

“There is a lot of self-mythologizing (and de-self-mythologizing) at work in these pages,” Kakutani writes. “But if Mr. Tyson sometimes seems to be spinning or rationalizing episodes in his life, the reader gets the sense that his book as a whole is less a calculated attempt to rebrand himself than a genuine effort by a troubled soul to gain some understanding of the long, strange journey that has been his life.”

This follows a one-man show that was generally well received in Las Vegas and on Broadway and has recently been adapted by Spike Lee for HBO.

Tyson was, he tells us in the doc, arrested 38 times by the time he was 12 years old. He had been a fat boy, taunted by older bullies, one of whom twisted off the head of one of his beloved pigeons — did you see that story about his love for the birds in the New York Times a couple of years ago? — and smeared the blood over his face and shirt.

But Tyson was “saved” by legendary boxing trainer Cus D’Amato, who told him the “the way you fight your fights is the way you live your life,” and he was savage in the ring. Then came the “deal with the devil,” Don King. Or, as he refers to the boxing promoter in the book, “a wretched, slimy reptilian.”

In 1992, when he was 25, Tyson was convicted of the date-rape of a young woman the previous year in Indianapolis and sentenced to 10 years in prison, with four suspended. “In the place of what has been me for 18 years is now a cold and empty feeling," the young college student and Miss Black Rhode Island wrote in a letter read at the sentencing. “I can only say that each day after being raped has been a struggle to learn to trust again, to smile the way I did …”

Tyson has always maintained that did not rape the young woman. But in the book, he writes, “It’s funny, but it took me a long time to realize that that little white woman judge who sent me to prison just might have saved my life.”

Anyone who believes in the reality of personal redemption has to be rooting for Tyson, as we root for the repentant murderers who see themselves as they are in the doc “The Dhamma Brothers” after a 10-day Vipassana meditation program is brought into a hardcore Alabama prison.

“I am just very grateful that life has come full circle for me,” Tyson says in the HBO show. 

You can’t help but think, “what circle?” It seems more like a straight path downward from his birth to his earning and burning through “hundreds of millions of dollars” en route to his boxing championship — inflicting brutality on others inside and outside the ring — along the way. But it has been an inspiring progression upwards since his “sobriety” — all the more so because it has been, and continues to be, a realistically less-than-straight path.

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