Mike Tyson's life has been messy and complicated, so it's hard to ask him to be slick and concise in the telling of it.
And doing that on a stage, in a live show called "Undisputed Truth," has to be one of the biggest challenges of the tarnished legend's career. Fortunately, he was up to the greatest task: getting us in his corner.
The "Truth" part was no Don King hype. It made us hang in there with Tyson through every round of this fascinating, sometimes cringe-worthy affair, no matter how many times the whole thing seemed ready to hit the canvas like so many of the tomato-can opponents seen in a video montage.
Watching Tyson on Friday, in the first of six shows of this new biographical endeavor running at the MGM Grand through Wednesday, you could only root for him. Even if it wasn't always clear what to root for.
Often, the most compelling parts of the show that ran on and on for a full two hours and 10 minutes -- the outer limits of accepted running times for casino entertainment -- were the moments when it seemed closest to going off the rails.
The ever-fascinating legend breaking out in a tuneless sing-along to "Another One Bites the Dust." Or places where he improvised on the script that was written for him; hilarious ad libs feeding off eye contact with the front row: "You know I'll bite a (expletive). You know I'll bite the dog (excrement) out of a (expletive)."
Or, "Some of my cocaine buddies are in this audience. ... I still love you!"
So there's the challenge for producer Adam Steck, director Randy Johnson and Tyson's wife Kiki as co-writer: How do you keep this raw honesty, so rare and refreshing in a city of superficial entertainment often rooted in illusion, and still compress it to an acceptable length that gets to the good stuff everyone wants to hear?
(Friday's show was in front of paying customers and thus fair game for review, given the limited run. But producer Steck says it was the first time Tyson had done the whole thing in front of an audience; plans for a Thursday test run for casino employees were sabotaged by technical delays. The creators were spending Saturday afternoon trying to trim a half hour of running time before Saturday's red carpet, celebrity-filled performance.)
But these are the fixable problems. Tyson answered the basic question of whether he was capable of doing this, and whether an audience would turn on him.
Think of the challenge. The long-form narrative is usually the province of skilled actors such as Hal Holbrook ("Mark Twain Tonight") or Chazz Palminteri, whose "A Bronx Tale" inspired the boxer. Tyson's acting school was "The Hangover."
And then there's the elephant in the room. Tyson's voice. A cheap laugh for any comedy impression, it sometimes gets in the way of a strong moment here, when the champ bites into poetic phrases such as "my dark dreams and shadows," or calling his beloved trainer Cus D'Amato "a master of psychological warfare, a grand manipulator."
He's more comfortable saying "I wouldn't wash my ass for days" when talking about his amateur years: "I would hunger for glory like a mad dog."
Those are the kind of mood swings that made the evening so compelling, and there was plenty of ground to cover. The mother he barely knew, and the father figure that D'Amato became, absorbed such a lopsided proportion of this first show, it was a full hour before Tyson got to the beginning of his pro career.
That put a bit of a rush on the celebrity years that pack the most curiosity value for lesser fight fans. Tyson takes some shots at ex-wife Robin Givens ("I deserve one good dig after being quiet for 20 years"), even as he mangled a funny story about rushing to defend her from a stalker he heard her talk about, only to find out the stalker was him.
He still maintains his innocence on the rape conviction that sent him to prison and "chang(ed) the course of my sorry-ass life." He deserved to go to jail for many of the things he did in life, he explains, "but not this."
He rushed through his feud with Don King ("He's so evil and cunning, this (expletive) ... But it's all about love and forgiveness these days." And by the time he got to the famous ear-biting episode with Evander Holyfield, the payoff was mostly limited to watching Tyson watch and react to the footage on an overhead screen.
And that tattoo on his face? "I got it because I wanted to guys, OK?" By 10 p.m., that explanation would have to suffice.
Some of the time can be made up by less singing from Sabrina Carten and a five-piece band, though the basic idea of having them onstage is a good one, to give Tyson breathers and add some emotional punctuation with songs such as "Bridge Over Troubled Water."
The bigger problem is tone. Tyson gets a good run of emotion going, only to have the spell broken by a song, or worse: Him joining in on it.
But that's part of the undisputed truth too: He wants to be funny now, almost as much as he wants us to like him. "I'm doing this show so you guys better understand me," he says at the beginning.
"I hope you leave here with a better understanding of me," he said again in the clumsy finale, adding "Before you get yourself into a mess, think twice and think about what happened to me."
Consider that battle for understanding a tongue-twisted TKO. It might not have been pretty, but a win is a win.
Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0288.