Mike Tyson's new memoir Undisputed Truth has been steadily climbing its way up the best-seller lists here and abroad the past couple of months. It's full of highs and lows, sex, drugs, celebrities, money, violence, jail, and pathos. But the man who shaped the raw material of Tyson's turbulent life and made it into a page-turner is Larry "Ratso" Sloman. A legend in his own right both from his youthful days at National Lampoon and chronicling Bob Dylan's 1975 Rolling Thunder Tour for On the Road With Bob Dylan to his most recent fame as a collaborator on the best-selling autobiographies of Howard Stern and Anthony Kiedis, Sloman is more than a hired hand brought in to "ghostwrite" a story. His true genius lies in his ability to get along with iconoclasts, listen to their stories and relate to their life in a non-judgmental way that allows them to open up. Having written biographies of Abbie Hoffman and Houdini, Sloman also does extensive research to fill in the blanks and round out the story. This time it's Mike Tyson, the youngest man to ever win the world heavyweight boxing title, now an actor, most famously in the Hangover, a Muslim, a bird lover and a family man touring a one-man show that recently aired on Showtime.
David Hershkovits: Mike Tyson has always claimed that he was innocent of the rape charges that landed him in jail for 3 years. Do you believe him?
Larry "Ratso" Sloman: Tyson is the most brutally honest guy I've ever met, and he's willing to cop to some bad things he's done his whole life. But one of them is not rape.
DH: Yet he says in the introduction to the book that going to jail saved his life.
LS: Well, yeah, he saved his life in that he was out of control. He could have easily been shot to death by some jealous husband in a confrontation. And it really caused him to kind of slow down. Going to jail was a double-edged sword. He came out more bitter and more political than ever. He was reading Marx and Che Guevera.
DH: How did you come to work on this book with Mike Tyson?
LS: I wrote him when he was in jail. I sent him a copy of Nietzsche's autobiography, Ecce Homo, and he read it.
DH: Why that book?
LS: I wrote him a letter [in 2004], and I said listen, you know, this book helped me get through a lot of tough times. I know you're going through a lot of shit. I don't believe you raped that girl, and if you ever want me to write your memoir let me know. Four years later I got on my agent to explore doing Tyson's autobiography because to me he's not only the most interesting sports figure of all time, but one of the most celebrated people of all time. The process of getting the book was hilarious. They interviewed about twenty people and they got it down to two. They flew me to California, and that's where I met Mike the first time, at the Four Seasons hotel. And I said, I don't know if you remember, but I sent you a book when you were in jail, Ecce Homo, Nietzsche's autobiography. He goes "yeah I read that book, Nietzsche was an interesting character. He died in 1900, he was insane at the end of his life." I described my process of working with writers, to get the best out of them, and the interview was over in about twenty five minutes. And his manager said "anything else, Mike, any other questions?" and I'm about to leave and he goes, "Hey Ratso, why did you sent me that Nietzsche book, did you think I was Superman?"
DH: What is that process? How do you capture the essence of a person as well as you do.
LS: Tyson was unlike anybody I've ever worked with. Howard Stern, for example, at that time was a compulsive workaholic, who would leave his radio show, go to his house on Long Island, and we'd go in the basement, lock ourselves in and wouldn't even eat for fucking six or seven hours. I'd say, "Howard, I'm getting hungry, let's order some food," and he'd be talking the whole time. Mike talked for half an hour, and then asked permission if he could go play a video game. We'd talk for half-an-hour, and then he'd say "Come on, Ratso." We'd jump in the Escalade, and one of his aides would drive us down to the barber shop in the ghetto of Vegas, and we'd hang out there for a while. So with Mike it was on-the-fly recordings. We'd be in the Escalade and he'll start telling a story about his childhood that was so compelling and heart-rending. Thank God I was taping it. And once you have all that stuff, you just stay true to the voice.
DH: A big player in Tyson's life was his manager Cus D'Amato, a father figure who dies early in Mike's career.
LS: Everybody thinks of D'Amato as this sweet old guy who took this black kid in. It was not the case. Cus was a curmudgeon, an outcast in the boxing world. All he wanted to do was get revenge at everyone in the boxing world, and Mike was the instrument of his revenge. He died too early, but he basically turned Mike into this killer fighting machine. I think if he would have lived, Mike wouldn't have any of the problems that he had.
DH: Tyson had a massive alcohol and drug problem after getting out of jail. When you were trying to interview him for the book, what was his condition?
LS: When we first started doing the book in 2008, I went out to Las Vegas [where he lives] for two weeks, and interviewed him for about maybe six hours in those two weeks. Every day I'd wait for the call from his agent, "He can't do it today." I didn't know at the time, and he later told me, "I was too embarrassed to tell you but if you had come with me, you would have had some party." He was partying with coke all the time. He's an extremist in everything he does. So I had to wait four years to revisit the book when he was in a better place after he got together with a woman he had known since he was fifteen years old and they had two kids together.
DH: Tyson was in the news for his violent domestic altercations with his wife Robin Givens and his battles with her mother. Tyson's account of those years make them come out looking pretty bad.
LS: Robin wrote her own book, which was full of total fucking lies. I mean, it was infuriating reading her book for research, just to see lie after lie about Mike in that book.
DH: What are they doing now?
LS: You know, Robin always surfaces whenever Mike gets some big deal, like The Hangover. He goes on Oprah, and she then she comes out the next day and says, "Oh, he's lying." She's always piggybacking off of what he does.
DH: Don King, the famous boxing promoter who managed Tyson, is also singled out for some verbal abuse.
LS: At one point Mike finds out that he doesn't own his own likeness, that Don King was getting a lot of money to use Mike's likeness. Then Mike gets his financial statements, which he never looked at, he never had time for any of that shit, and he finds out that King's charging him $7000 a month for towels? And that was just the beginning, tip of the iceberg.
DH: Another aspect to the book which tells the story of what it was like to be poor and black in New York City in the '70s.
LS: He got out of Brownsville, Brooklyn right before the drug war started. There's a line in the book that's so poignant, where he talks about whenever he'd go back to Brownsville, he'd find out that another one of his childhood friends were dead because of shoot outs and the drug wars. And he said to me, "Yeah, I paid for a lot of funerals back home."
DH: From the book, it seems like Tyson gave away money without abandon.
LS: That was Cus again. You see, Cus was a socialist. He detested Reagan. Cus also had the same problem with money. But Cus saw money as a vehicle of social change. His idea of how to do that was the black churches. He said, "Just think, Mike, when you make all this money as a heavyweight champ, you can give the money to black churches, they're gonna help the people." Well, Mike went right to the source, after he was champion he'd go back to his neighborhood. He's the most beloved--you go to any ghetto in America, Mike Tyson is god. Because he'd go hang out -- every day he'd go with $200,000 in cash, and by the end of the day, he had given it all out to people on the street, or to a homeless guy he'd see. He goes back to his old neighborhood and looks for his mother's friends and would just "break off" money. He called it "breaking off."
DH: Can you estimate how much he gave away over the years?
LS: I would say tens of millions.
LS: Well, he had that fatalism. People would say, "Mike, you've got to think of your future, why are you giving away all of this money?" And he would say, "What future?" All his friends were dying. He really didn't think he was going to live that long. He really thought that he was gonna wind up getting shot by some jealous lover because he was fucking the guy's wife. He was a late bloomer when it came to sex, but once he got into it, you know...
DH: Including Donatella Versace according to your book. How about today? Is he wealthy?
LS: He still owes money to the IRS. He's paying it off. He owed a fortune.
DH: Because he never paid taxes? Or what happened?
LS: Because the money that should have been allotted to taxes wasn't paid. He's the last guy who's ever going to look at an accounting piece of paper.
DH: I know he's basically sober, but once in a while he falls off the wagon.
LS: A lot of times when he would revert to that kind of behavior when things were going incredibly well, not incredibly bad. One of the things about Mike is that he had such a negative self-image. That goes back to his days as a kid, and one of the things as a writer and as a friend, he would freely talk about what a piece of shit he is, and all of the bad things he's done. And I'd say "Mike, look how you turned things around, look at your beautiful family now. You're a great father to your two little kids--look how you're reconnecting with your first child, she's living with you now. There's so much positive in life, why dwell on the negative?" He says, "Because I'm a dark person."
DH: He's gotta deal with his demons, they're not going away.
LS: The demons don't go away. It's a guy that you just want to befriend, because he's so charming. Deep down, he's such a decent guy. Nobody knows. We didn't even put it in the book. But so many people told me how Mike donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to this thing, to that thing. There was a women's shelter in Vegas that was going out of business, fuckin' Mike sent a friend of his over with a paper bag with $200,000 in cash and left it on their doorstep. Nobody knew he gave it to them.
DH: The face tattoo -- that was more recent, right?
LS: That was right after the Lenox Lewis fight. I asked him why he did the tattoo. He said first he wanted to just put a bunch of hearts on his face, he thought that would help him get women. The tattoo artist wouldn't do the hearts. Then he came back to Mike with this tribal tattoo, and told him it was a warrior's symbol. And of course Mike loved that. I said, "But why did you want a tattoo there?" And he said, "Because I hate my face."
DH: Given everything he's been through, what would you say was his lowest point?
LS: I think his low had to be after prison, after he stopped fighting and all of a sudden he's hanging out with people who are enabling him, giving him cocaine, and all that. Some celebrities, and kids that he knew coming up were now big drug dealers. And he would hang with these people to get free drugs. He couldn't afford them -- he had no money. After he finished fighting he was broke. When he quit fighting he had to file for Chapter 13 Bankruptcy. The guy made more money than anybody in a short period of time. He was the first person to trick out his entire house in Versace. The first one to buy Bentleys. And to put fax machines in the car. He had stretch limos with hot tubs.
DH: He was 28 when he came out of jail. How has he changed?
LS: He comes out, regains the title, but is disinterested in boxing. By then he had been going to therapy. In therapy, he really realized he wasn't Iron Mike -- he's not that vicious animal. That was something that Cus had programmed in him. The ironic thing is that he didn't even want to be a boxer. He saw Muhammad Ali when he was young in jail and Ali came and gave a very inspirational speech to the juvenile delinquents. But Mike said to me, "I didn't want to be a boxer, I wanted to be that celebrity. I wanted to be the guy on stage." So in a weird way, the fact now that he's in movies, he's doing his one-man-show, he's always been a ham, an entertainer. One of the things that Cus told him that set him apart from other boxers was that "You wanna be the greatest boxer, you have to be a vicious animal, for entertainment."