Tyson delivers in role of a lifetime

On the morning of Aug. 23, 1988, I woke to a call from the city desk of the New York Daily News. An editor instructed me to proceed with haste to Dapper Dan’s in Harlem. An all-night custom clothier, the establishment catered to the cognoscenti of America’s first hip-hop generation, among them a 22-year-old known as the Baddest Man on the Planet.

A few hours earlier, a fighter named Mitch “Blood” Green – an infinitely better provocateur than he was a pugilist – had gone to Dapper Dan’s seeking a confrontation with Mike Tyson, whom he habitually called “Cicely.” Green got what he asked for. He would appear on the evening news with a row of stitches on the bridge of his nose and his left eye clenched shut.

In the meantime, I set about my business, frenetically searching for witnesses, anyone who could help me construct an unambiguous narrative, something for big, bold type on the front page. Everybody wanted to know what really happened at Dapper Dan’s. But there was a larger story, too. It was just becoming clear that Tyson’s life was coming apart.

Now, almost 24 years later, the planet’s erstwhile Baddest Man asks, “What was that like?”

His question caught me off guard.

“How did that make you feel?” he asked.

I had to think for a moment. “It was like getting high,” I said.

Tyson nods at me, if not knowingly, then sympathetically. In his present incarnation, as a sober vegan coping with the onslaught of middle age, his aura seems to have shrunk. He is unlike the character I recall, the test case in my tabloid education.

“Welcome to the Terrordome.” It was, for a time, the Iron Mike theme song. The buzz, the insanity, the possibility of violence, those things traveled with him. What’s more, he left an electricity in his wake. Like that morning at Dapper Dan’s. The Baddest Man inevitably provided the biggest, baddest story. It left you adrenalized, thrilled and, finally, disgusted.

Now Tyson speaks of his former self in the third person. “Did you think he would ever get old?”

He’s 45. I considered him a prohibitive long shot to reach this age. Turns out he did, too.

“Did you think you’d get to be 45?” I ask

“I couldn’t have believed that,” he said.

We are huddled around a small cocktail table in front of the stage at the MGM’s Hollywood Theater. Soon, he will perform his masterfully accompanied one-man show, “Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth.” There’s a history of once-great fighters who became lounge acts. They include Jack Dempsey and Sugar Ray Robinson. And as anyone who recalls “Raging Bull” could tell you, these performances are typically failures. They are usually signs that the aging fighter is now out of options, that he has nothing left to sell but his remembrances.

But in Tyson’s case — where the distinction between real life and performance art was always obscure — it’s a sign of hope. Maybe even triumph.

I don’t know how much Tyson has changed. He doesn’t claim to be healed. But he’s trying, and he’s worthy of admiration because of it.

Mike Tyson is not a polished performer. He swallows some of his best lines. He can get distracted. But the lack of polish adds to his authenticity. “Undisputed Truth” offers occasional humor. The bit with Mitch Green is hilarious, as is Tyson’s story of Florence Henderson (yes, that Florence Henderson, of “Brady Bunch” fame) visiting him in prison.

There is also, as you’d expect, undeniable pathos. There are no baby pictures of Mike Tyson. He was disappointed to be told that his father was a Jamaican cab driver, as he was desperately hoping it was a local pimp named Curley. “Undisputed” has some self-serving moments, to be sure, with Tyson dwelling too long on ex-wife Robin Givens. But most of the act — and I hesitate to use that word because, stripped of his Baddest Man role, Tyson’s become believable — is a brutal confessional.

For instance, he admits that, on the cusp of adolescence, he was so infected with ambition, “I didn’t even wash my ass. . . . My head was so big it couldn’t fit into my mother’s roach-infested apartment.”

His mother, Lorna May, was ravaged by cancer. She died before he could tell her that he loved her.

But the most difficult admission is Tyson calling himself a coward. “Deep down I felt like one,” he says onstage. “Even now.”

I covered his rape trial in Indianapolis. I covered his fights. I can’t imagine anyone has written more terrible stuff about Tyson, and with so much conviction. I meant it all, and a lot of it was true. But he had me on the verge of tears for two hours on Saturday night. He has survived jail, fame, Don King, cocaine, booze, even the death of a child, Exodus, who was 4 when she died in a freak accident on a treadmill several years ago.

I ask him about Teddy Atlas, one of his early trainers. As a kid, Tyson behaved inappropriately with Atlas’ wife’s sister. Teddy threatened him with a gun.

“That all true?” I ask.

“Yes,” he says, before telling me a story about his first loss in the amateurs. It was in Rhode Island. Teddy comforted him as he cried all the way home.

Then, about the gun incident, he thinks to add: “It wasn’t like he was pulling a gun on a 20-year-old man. I was 15.”

I ask whether he harbors any ill feeling toward Atlas.

“No, not at all.”

Maybe the only person for whom he has no apology is Desiree Washington, the beauty queen he was convicted of raping. He swears it’s a crime he didn’t commit.

I wonder what he would tell her. Would he forgive her?

“I would want to forgive her.”

Maybe that’s not the issue anymore. “What about you?” I ask. “Do you forgive you?”

“Nah,” he says. “I’ll never do that.”

“How you ever going to be at peace?”

“I’m the kind of guy, maybe I’m not born to be peaceful.”

I hope he’s wrong. And I hope he keeps trying.

“I want to,” says Mike Tyson. “I want to forgive myself.”