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Tyson is as merciless with himself as he was with opponents

By HECTOR TOBAR Los Angeles Times

Publication: The Day

Published December 01. 2013 4:00AM

Back in Mike Tyson's heyday, it was a badge of honor for many boxers to survive past the first round in the same ring as Tyson.

But now I've got those palookas beat. I went the distance - all 580 pages - with Tyson's violence-, drug- and sex-filled memoir, a masterpiece of depravity and confessional honesty titled "Undisputed Truth."

In 1986, at age 20, the New York City-born, onetime petty criminal became the youngest-ever heavyweight champion of the world. In the years that followed he proceeded to publicly disgrace himself with a series of outrageous acts that landed him in tabloids, jail cells and courtrooms again and again.

As a boy Tyson was routinely pummeled by his mother. Even as he became a multimillionaire and one of the most famous people on Earth, the self-hate and rage that he learned growing up in the dire poverty of Brooklyn's Brownsville neighborhood never left him, as told to the writer Larry Sloman.

Sloman allows Tyson's id free reign. He has a great ear for the telling detail and is aided by Tyson's copious memory. Together they create a book that is grimly tragic on one page, laugh-out-loud funny on the next.

Tyson's account of his childhood is impossibly sad. His mother drifted from man to man, and on the streets of Brownsville he found "a very horrific, gruesome kind of place," that was also a "hotbed of lust." "That is the kind of life I grew up in," Tyson says. "People in love cracking their heads and bleeding like dogs. They love each other, but they're stabbing each other."

A speech impediment and his perpetually soiled clothes and unwashed body made Tyson the boy a "little sewer rat" and a pariah - until he beat up a bully. Then he joined some older boys in a series of robberies, made a ton of money and started dressing well. Finally, his mother accepted a psychiatrist's diagnosis and placed him on Thorazine.

"I just know that one of those medical people, some racist (expletive), some guy who said I was (expletive) and developmentally retarded, stole my mother's hope for me right then and there," Tyson says. "And they stole any love or security I might have had."

Eventually, Tyson ended up in the New York state juvenile detention system. At a youth prison camp upstate, he found a boxing program. His talent was immediately apparent to one trainer, who alerted the boxing legend Cus D'Amato.

After watching a 13-year-old Tyson box for a mere six minutes, D'Amato told Tyson: "If you listen to me, I can make you the youngest heavyweight champion of all time."

In "Undisputed Truth," D'Amato is portrayed as a demanding, ambitious father figure. He fills Tyson with a sense of power. "You'll reign with the gods," D'Amato tells him.

D'Amato and Tyson agree that he will be a boxing "villain" who embraces his "ghetto" past. Tyson assaults this goal with single-minded purpose, winning one quick knockout after another.

After D'Amato dies of natural causes and Tyson wins the heavyweight championship, his life begins a rapid, drug- and money-fueled downward spiral. He's suddenly so rich he can afford to buy an entire dealership's supply of Rolls-Royces. Agents, pimps, wild animals and cocaine dealers pop in and out of the story. Tyson indulges his every whim but realizes again and again what a scumbag he's become.

There's also a lot of misogyny in this book - Tyson was, by his own account, angry at women for most of his life. The best thing that can be said about the passages in which he recounts his marriage to Robin Givens and his conviction in Indianapolis on rape charges is that there's little doubt he's being honest about how he feels about the women involved. Only some 200 pages later, when he's finally seeing a sex-addiction counselor, he confesses: "I changed my whole outlook on the way I relate to women." He's come to realize that "I was so insecure, so afraid of loss, so afraid to be alone."

Ultimately, "Undisputed Truth" is about redemption, though it takes many years and Tyson's own physical and financial collapse before he makes his first attempts at recovery.

One of the biggest surprises in "Undisputed Truth" is its ending, a "Postscript to the Epilogue" that suggests just how hard Tyson has had to work at healing himself. His final confession is a deeply moving, human moment.

"I desperately want to get well," Tyson says. And after 580 pages in which he's pummeled his reader with accounts of his self-destruction, you can't help but believe him.

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