Saturday, September 1, 2012

Boxing: Two icons of the ring take the New York stage

 Text and photos by George Molé

Two former boxing champions, Mike Tyson and Jake LaMotta, known as much for their over-the-top personalities and tempestuous personal stories as their exploits in the ring, chose an unusual way to present themselves to New Yorkers this summer--stage shows in which they recounted key episodes of their lives, cracked jokes and, in LaMotta's case, did a little song-and-dance.

And, yes, the
Finto File made the scene at both of them.

Tyson's show, called
Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth -- held in a real Broadway theater, the Longacre, and directed by well-known film director Spike Lee--was more slickly produced and high-profile.   But LaMotta's Lady and the Champ--held in a shoebox-sized off-Broadway house, and co-starring his fiancee and a few others--was far more engaging.

Truth, written by Tyson's wife, Kiki, had a run of only 12 nights, closing on August 12.

I attended the penultimate performance--Saturday, August 11...

...and sat in what appeared to be a full house, festively decorated with Brooklyn-themed signs and banners--no doubt a Spike Lee touch.

The lights came up to reveal a seated, nattily-attired Tyson in silhouette, as Nat King Cole's "Nature Boy" played in the background--"There was a boy, a very strange enchanted boy..."  There followed about two hours of mumbled (I caught about 85% of what he said), profanity-laced monologue, aided by large photographs projected on the back of the stage.

Many of Tyson's comments were humorously self-deprecating, referring wryly to his many well-publicized misadventures, including his biting of opponent Evander Holyfield's ears during a 1997 boxing match.  "Everyone will leave here with two ears tonight," he promised the audience.

And he didn't fail to mention his life as a young street thug.  "This is not my first time on Broadway," he said.  "I got arrested on this very same block."

But much of Tyson's monologue was on the sentimental side.  He discussed his deceased mother, whom he described as a substance abuser ("I was born with the addictive gene," he said), and his late sister, who helped raise him.  Photos of their graves accompanied these stories, a touch that seemed a bit maudlin, although the audience applauded on cue.

The most interesting part of Tyson's show concerned his accounts of his problematic interactions with women, including his 1992 conviction for raping 18-year-old beauty pageant contestant Desiree Washington--a crime he strongly denies.

"There were a lot of things I should have gone to prison for, but this wasn't one of them," Tyson said.  "I wasn't a nice guy back then and I deserved to be punished for the pain and humiliation I caused many women, but this wasn't one of them."

The champ looked straight at the audience, mustering all the sincerity at his disposal.

"I did not rape Desiree Washington," he concluded, "and that's the final thing I'm gonna say about that."

It's difficult to know what to believe when a person like Tyson is accused of an anti-social act.  There's no question that for much of his life he was--and perhaps still is--a troubled, unstable and violence-prone man.  And for that reason alone, one might easily believe that any allegation against him is probably true.  But it's also not difficult to imagine that at least some of the women who have accused him of harassing or assaulting them may have done so in search of sympathy, money, career advancement or a bit of media attention.

I don't know if that's the case, but that's the point--where a guy like Tyson is concerned, how can you know?  Perhaps as good a reason as any not to live one's life as Tyson has lived his.

LaMotta's Lady and the Champ, whose week-and-a-half run ended on July 29, only a few days before Tyson's show opened, took place in the 80-seat Richmond Shepard Theatre on East 29th Street, a facility I hadn't known existed.  When I called for ticket information, a rather grouchy-sounding Richmond Shepard himself answered the phone.  (A little Googling revealed that Shepard, an actor and painter, is the father of Vonda Shepard, the fine singer and musician best known for her appearances on the old Ally McBeal series).  When I arrived for the Friday, July 27 performance, the theater turned out to be a cramped but homey space whose narrow vestibule overflows with chairs, equipment and Shepard's paintings, and in which the audience has to walk across the edge of the stage to reach their seats.

LaMotta took the stage, to huge applause, following a short film of his career highlights.  If it wasn't clear how far back that career goes, the fact that much of the film consisted of black-and-white newsreel footage brought it home.

A major part of the evening involved LaMotta, seated at a table with an actor playing the role of a journalist, being interviewed about his life--a useful technique, perhaps, for helping guide the 90-year-old champion through his script. But despite (or maybe because of) the unpolished feel of the production, there was no escaping the power of the experience--watching and listening as this legendary athlete, sitting a few feet away, recounted his long life and iconic career. In that sense, the show was riveting.

As Tyson would do the following week, LaMotta interspersed his monologue with wisecracks.  About his six famous bouts with Sugar Ray Robinson: "I fought Sugar Ray so many times, it's a wonder I don't have diabetes."  About Robert DiNiro's Oscar-winning portrayal of him in the 1980 film Raging Bull: "I told the producers I want to play myself in the movie.  They said I'm not the type."  About his many marriages: "My first wife divorced me because I clashed with the drapes."

And LaMotta described his friendship with fellow boxer Rocky Graziano: "We went to the same reform school.  We were friends from the same neighborhood.  We were doing all the things we shouldn't.  We were stealing all the things that began with 'a'--a bike, a car..."  What would have happened if they had fought?  "No contest," LaMotta said.  "I would have beat him easy."

LaMotta also expressed the view that his six fights with Robinson, of which the latter won five, should really have been "three and three."  And he discussed having fought many of the African-American boxers of his day.  What made some of the black fighters so good?  "They were hungry," he said.

LaMotta also delivered up a good dose of inspirational speaking: "Anything can happen--all you gotta do is believe.  I don't mean believe.  I mean believe, believe, believe."

In addition to LaMotta's tales, we were treated to some Vegas-style singing from Denise Baker, the champ's fiancee and longtime companion.  A good, though perhaps not remarkable, singer, she delivered kitschy, entertaining renditions of "Can't Help Falling in Love ," "New York, New York" and "The Boxer."

At another point, LaMotta got up to cut a rug with Baker.  "I can take it or leave it," LaMotta said about hitting the dance floor
, "but sometimes I take it."

LaMotta's performance was rounded off with a spoken rendition of the song My Way, the "I coulda been a contender" speech from On the Waterfront, and a bit of shadowboxing.  He then retired to his dressing room for a short rest, after which he reemerged to greet audience members and sign autographs in the theater's vestibule.
LaMotta poses with your correspondent.

As amateurish as LaMotta's revue may have been, it was more enjoyable than Tyson's show.  This may have been due to the variety provided by the interview format and the musical interludes; the immediacy of seeing LaMotta up close in the small theater; the historical interest resulting from LaMotta's career being beyond most people's memories; the fact that LaMotta, a rough character in his day, now looks grandfatherly, while Tyson still might be mistaken for a thug; or the fact that LaMotta's show took itself a lot less seriously.

In any case, the Raging Bull's extravaganza never stopped being fun and fascinating, while the Biting Bull's shtick got old about halfway through.

LaMotta and Baker leave the theater.

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At October 19, 2012 at 11:58 PM , Anonymous Barbara Lee said...

Interesting dichotomy between the two boxers. Never was a Tyson fan. Love LaMotta's statement- "all you gotta do is believe. I don't mean believe, I mean believe, believe, believe." Like the pictures of him. Sounds like an enjoyable evening. Thanks for sharing George.

At October 25, 2012 at 8:53 PM , Anonymous Sharon - Boxing 101 said...

I absolutely love this compare and contrast article! You are an eloquent writer. They might have been different fighters, but there is no denying that Iron Mike and The Raging Bull make for some good theater. Thanks for sharing your impressions....



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