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August 21, 2014

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Onstage, Mike Tyson pulls no punches, but show often fails to connect

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Steve Marcus

Former undisputed heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson performs in Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth - Live on Stage” at the MGM Grand Friday, April 13, 2012.

Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth - Live on Stage

Former undisputed heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson performs in Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth - Live on Stage Launch slideshow »

VIP Grand Opening of Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth

The VIP grand opening of Launch slideshow »

Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth VIP Grand Opening

The VIP grand opening of Launch slideshow »

The expectations for Mike Tyson’s one-man show at MGM Grand’s Hollywood Theatre have been about evenly spliced: Tyson’s “Undisputed Truth” would either be an indisputably entertaining exercise in multimedia storytelling or a train wreck of mythic proportions.

“Muted” or “measured” never entered the conversation.

But that’s what the gala premiere of Tyson’s show produced Saturday night. A highly interesting, if long-running, monologue narrated by Tyson himself. For a man whose explosive, quick-strike knockouts were the hallmark of his career, there was not a true haymaker to be found.

It is impossible to resist the temptation to liken the experience to a fight, and there were very few power punches landed as Tyson squared off with his past.

Tyson did all he could, too, to knock us dizzy. He continually set the audience up for the knockout by swearing and attempting to shock with repeated use of the “N” word. Instead, he won the night with a frequently methodical decision. It was jab, jab, jab, for about 2 hours.

Tyson was alternately playful and somber in reciting his remarks from the text written by his wife, Kiki, and screenwriter Randy Johnson. That approach kept Tyson on task and allowed him to convey his thoughts in an organized, chronological manner. But disappointingly, there was not sufficient video or photo footage of Tyson’s life and career to sustain the narrative. One telling example was when Tyson enthusiastically recalled the roiling series of knockouts he recorded early in his career. As he talked of “knocking those (expletives) OUT,” he sang Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” while his five-piece backing band (which stayed onstage throughout the show) cranked out the song.

Instinctively, heads jerked toward the two giant video panels flanking Tyson above the stage. What we saw was Tyson dancing in circles, a hand in his pocket and a smile on his face. How about the 20 seconds of Tyson pulverizing luckless heavyweight Marvis Frazier? Or the 91-second destruction of Michael Spinks?

Likely, producer Adam Steck did not have the licensing rights to produce such footage. Whatever the case, too bad, because Tyson knocking out mo-fos is really what made him famous, initially and for all time. The most pertinent boxing footage revisited is Tyson himself being KO’d, by Buster Douglas. Most of the video of Tyson in action are early clips of him shadowboxing, or doing sit-ups. I expect a lot of audience members were compelled to hit YouTube after the show to find their favorite Tyson knockout moments.

There was talk that Tyson would take questions from the audience, but that idea was shelved in favor of a more structured approach. Getting the audience involved and allowing Tyson to speak off the cuff -- that would have been terrific theater.

Lacking the full Tyson video library, the production relied on music interludes to complement what Tyson was saying, typically with the “thump-thump” of the bass drum, sounding like a heartbeat, and sometimes with lengthy samplings of such classics as “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Still Waters Run Deep” as Tyson talked of the death of his mother, and his mentor, Cus D’Amato, both of whom take up the balance of the first hour of the show.

Tyson shined when he was able to uncork his sense of humor, which he displayed remarkably in interviews in the lead-up to the show. He’s a funny guy. In his colorful description of finding Brad Pitt with his then-wife, Robin Givens, in Tyson’s car, Tyson says Pitt was stoned because his eyes were glazed over. “It’s funny how things come around,” he said. “Back then, he wasn’t (expletive), but she was (expletive). Now, she’s kind of isn’t (expletive) and he is (expletive).”

Yet the most important tent posts in Tyson's life and career are often happened upon anticlimactically. Tyson runs through his rape conviction by repeating what he’s always said, that he did not rape beauty contestant Desiree Washington and was unjustly imprisoned for the act. He complains about his defense team, blaming Don King for hiring a tax attorney to defend him in a criminal trial. But hey, as Tyson says, he did commit so many heinous acts for which he’d not been arrested, he should have been locked up anyway.

The night he bit Evander Holyfield — who will be at the show tonight, according to a Holyfield spokesman — was simply a matter of Tyson being “fed up” with being head-butted by Holyfield, and also said that the ref in the fight, Mills Lane, hated him. Comically, Tyson said a counselor who “looked like Trudy from ‘Scooby-Doo’ ” helped him resolve the act by reminding Tyson, “Well, you were in a fight.”

“I hadn’t thought of it that way, that I was in a fight,” he said. “I was wrong, of course, but it was a fight.”

The show, which closes Wednesday, does afford Tyson the opportunity to tell his story, in the now, and that is refreshing to experience. He’s been though all variety of drama, including the death of his 4-year-old daughter, Exodus, two years ago. That moment is revisited through still photos of the beautiful little girl, and as Tyson watches the panels, we watch him and are invariably moved.

Tyson mentions in the show that he has been clean and sober for more than three years, and that is no small statement or achievement. Mike Tyson has lived a lot of life, and at age 45 has a lot left.

As he has said himself, he’s a master of relapse, but if he doesn’t introduce drugs or alcohol into his system, he can tweak this version of his story until it really is a knockout.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWithTheDish.

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