Caveman with a van: Tyson's 'Truth'

May, 8, 2013
5/08/13
2:00
PM ET
TysonMichael Loccisano/Getty ImagesMike Tyson on stage during "Undisputed Truth."
Editor’s note: Drummer Stefan Marolachakis is traveling the country in a black van with tinted windows, touring for his band Caveman’s eponymous second album. Every week, Marolachakis will hunt the nation to gather musicians and athletes to discuss the link between the two clans. This week, our caveman talks about the stark contrast between an aging musician and an aging athlete and wraps his mind around "Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth."

There he stood, alone in the middle of the sizable Beacon Theater stage on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, sporting a tired, hard-won smile and a bright, form-fitting suit. The sweat flowed through his dress shirt without pause, and at one point, he even worried aloud that he might bust a seam in his pants. The man who had captured the world heavyweight championship of boxing at the record-breaking young age of 20 may now be 46, but he doesn’t seem to mind showing his age.

Throughout the surreal hodgepodge of anecdotes and jarring tales billed as "Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth," the champ uttered no shortage of variations on I’m too old for this s---. The shadowboxing sessions, vigorous re-enactments of street fights of yesteryear and animated impressions of a rogues' gallery of lunatics all ended with self-effacing bouts of chest-heaving and laughter, but Tyson carried it all with charm because he makes no bones about the stage of life he is in and the fact that his “prime” is far behind him. While he may be a bit too old to even pantomime his fighting days without losing his breath, he certainly has all the enthusiasm and wild, unpredictable energy anyone could hope for out of a rookie stage performer.

For most, the uncharted territory Tyson is navigating would be known as “your 40s”; for him, it’s a phase affectionately referred to on his Wikipedia page as “after professional boxing.” It reminds me of the time my dad asked me, “Can you imagine if you’d invented M&M’s at the age of 13? It would be horrible! Your life would be over before it started!” A strange example, but the point remains the same: What do you do after you reach your mountaintop?

This Friday sees the release of one of the year’s most hotly anticipated films, "The Great Gatsby." The novel's author, F. Scott Fitzgerald, is famously credited with having said “There are no second acts in American lives.” As the lights came up and I left the theater after Tyson’s show, the digital marquee outside lit up with notices for the Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers five-night stand that would be happening in a few weeks. Petty, one of my favorite living musicians, is 16 years Tyson’s senior yet seems to show no signs of slowing. Credit goes to Petty for remaining such a dynamic and vital live performer, but it cannot be overlooked how much more forgiving even the often superficial world of entertainment can be to an aging performer than sports are.

Reunion tours for classic rock bands have always been de rigueur -- as evidenced by the seemingly immortal Rolling Stones, currently in the middle of their 50th anniversary tour. But now younger bands are getting in on the action (see the Pixies, Pavement, My Bloody Valentine, Blur, etc.). These musicians are of the same generation as Tyson and are only beginning to scratch the surface of a second wave of earning potential, should they choose to take that road.

For a fighter, on the other hand, each passing year ushers in an exponential increase in the awareness of your own mortality -- both in the traditional sense and with regard to the finite nature of your professional career. What Tyson is in the middle of attempting is more of a second act than a comeback. This is no Wizards-era Michael Jordan move, and Tyson clearly won’t be entering a ring anytime soon.

All roads lead to the same question: What does an aging former professional athlete do? Yes, there are some opportunities of which I’m aware -- commentator, analyst, front-office position with a franchise -- but I imagine them all not only to be highly coveted but also boxes simply too square to contain a man as erratic and mercurial as Tyson.

I suppose the crux of all of this musing bears a resemblance to my own simplistic and crude notion of one facet of martial arts: use the power of your opponent against him. It seems the older performers who garner the most accolades apply their wisdom to present-day endeavors in an attempt to forge ahead instead of harboring a frantic nostalgia for the past and desperately attempting to recreate it. (Neil Young seems to be a great example.) Sloppy steps forward tend to be more handsomely rewarded than a well-executed retreat.

One particularly poignant pair that often comes to mind when I think of the different ways to approach the advance of old age is the legendarily handsome Paul Newman and Robert Redford. In terms of innate good looks, the two are in a legitimate dogfight. But while Butch Cassidy seemed to welcome his older years and grew into quite the silver fox, I’d have to venture that the Sundance Kid remains perhaps a bit too ardent in his quest not to reveal even the slightest sign of the sun going down on him. I’ve got a hunch he and the Czar of the Telestrator, Mike Fratello, might be taking notes from the same playbook, if you know what I mean.

Indulge me in a poetic aside, for one quick moment. People the world over endlessly reference Dylan Thomas and his historic advisement to us all to “rage against the dying of the light.” But I’m going to take a second to point out that there, in the very same poem, he also says that “wise men at their end know dark is right.” So despite the boldness of his claims, the man to whom many a literary soul turns when their thoughts turn to mortality is also taking great pains to point out the perils of denying the inevitable.

But to get back to boxing, my goal is not to restate the dreadfully obvious and remind you that growing old is, um, hard for a boxer. It’s more simply to say that the phenomenon of seeing a bird as rare as Tyson -- someone who it seemed could exist in the ring only -- find a place for himself in the world now is, well, shocking. We all know that his maneuvering in and out of the limelight as he’s gotten older has been perplexing, to say the least. Some of his post-boxing appearances in the media have been surprisingly savvy and celebrated ("The Hangover" and his recent run on Broadway); some not as much (cocaine possession, DUI). This is, after all, a man who was quoted in 2005 as saying “My whole life has been a waste.”

His tumultuous public persona just serves to make his show all the more compelling to behold because, despite the utter madness that comes from the man’s mouth at various points, the overall feel of the tale is, if not entirely redemptive, certainly revelatory. There’s a moment in the show when Tyson is about to use the word “epiphany,” but before doing so, he makes sure to tell the audience how much time he put in with a vocal coach in order to nail its pronunciation, in light of his speech impediment. The word certainly seems to carry a good deal of weight for the man. Up there on stage he’s engaged, present, even hopeful -- and that’s far more than most forecasted for the man’s future just a few short years ago. Who would have ever thought that Tyson would have an epiphany that would result in a second act as a Broadway star? I can’t wait to see this new "Gatsby" film now.

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