A CBC reporter goes toe-to-toe with Mike Tyson

A summer vacation in Manhattan landed me a surprise VIP ticket to the controversial boxer's one-man Broadway show, David Zelcer writes.
CBC reporter David Zelcer got a chance, as brief as it was, to meet boxer Mike Tyson after a performance of his one-man Broadway show. (David Zelcer )

I was on vacation with my family in New York City this summer when a buddy asked me if I'd like to interview Mike Tyson. The boxer was doing 12 days of a one-man show on Broadway about his tumultuous life.

Apparently, there'd been a Twitter scare where someone had threatened to shoot up the place, so there were lots of tickets available.

"Don't worry," my buddy said. "It will be the safest place in New York City." That didn't make me feel better.

David Zelcer reports on central Newfoundland for CBC News. (CBC)

We were lurching around Times Square in an SUV. I was jammed in the back with my wife and three kids, and it was hotter than Hades. I honestly really wasn't that excited about the idea of interviewing anyone.

I'm not a huge boxing fan, although my wife notes that I will stop for 10 seconds or so every time I channel-surf to a pair of pugilists.

I remember being intrigued while my father and I watched the former Cassius Clay fight on a black and white TV in the early Sixties. His saga, on and off the screen, reminds me a lot of the infamy that Tyson could not have enjoyed.

Those are the bookends of my boxing interest. The attraction was more spectacle than sport, I think.

Behind the wheel in Manhattan my buddy continued his pitch. "Spike Lee produced the show," he told us. Now I was a little more interested.

"If I had the choice, I'd actually prefer interviewing Spike Lee," I said. I like the style of some of Lee's earlier movies. At this point, Lee and Tyson both look like they need to get their careers off life-support.

My buddy said, "I'll get you backstage — the rest is up to you."

Boxers ... or briefs?

I still wasn't convinced. I didn't mention it again. But two days later, he asked again, and this time I agreed. Now everyone I know has a suggestion. I get more possible questions to ask than Tyson has wins.

Through the generosity of a friend, David Zelcer scored a $300 VIP ticket to Mike Tyson's Broadway show. (CBC)

"Ask him what he thinks of enforcers in hockey," one buddy says. My favourite was my own. I wanted to see his face when I said, "Mr. Tyson what's your choice, boxers ... or briefs?"

I also wanted to ask him about that tattoo he now sports on his face. (What were you thinking?) I was worried irreverence might get me a punch in the head. (Although that would have been a better story!)

People who aren't reporters think you can just walk up to anyone and have at it. That's not how it works with people like Tyson. I can't get an impromptu one-on-one with the premier of Newfoundland and Labrador. Tyson is in another league altogether.

I get to the theatre to discover my buddy and his two friends are in the second balcony nosebleed section, in $75 dollar seats. I'm being treated to the $300 dollar premium/VIP meet & greet package, which includes a $200 seat in the sixth row, just right of centre.

Security is tight. I walk in with my ticket and find myself flanked by two of the largest men I've ever seen. I walk up to a huge man in a dark blue suit and a ball cap, and reach up to hand him my ticket.

"Make sure you stay in your seat after the show," he says. "Come back to me if there's a problem."

Premium tickets

Now I'm feeling a little more confident. Down front, the usher directs me to a man who's handing out VIP passes to people with the premium tickets. Most of the men in line look like they've been on steroids. They're accompanied by rather bemused-looking wives, girlfriends and dates.

I'm seated next to one of these Michelin men. Unfortunately he's taking up his seat... and a good chunk of mine.

Thankfully, the Twitter scare has left vacant seats. About two thirds of the way through the show, I've had enough of the close encounter and move slightly right to more elbow room.  

The show itself has Lee's classic imprint all over it: the lighting, and a slide-and-video backdrop. Tyson is better than I expect. When he's funny he's really entertaining, at one point bobbing around the stage telling a long story about an impromptu rematch on a NYC sidewalk. (Tyson won both bouts.) The serious moments are not as riveting.

But this is billed as the "Undisputed Truth." And there are a few cringe-worthy moments. I squirm in my seat when he starts to imitate the way Jewish people in Brooklyn talk. I fidget again when he repeated his claim of innocence in his 1992 rape conviction.

While his ticket got him 'VIP access' backstage, David Zelcer found the amenities a little on the skimpy side. He did, however, get to meet Tyson himself. (CBC)

The whole audience groaned en masse when he started graphically describing the day his then-wife, actress Robin Givens, convinced him that "that time of the month" was actually a miscarriage.

The show has been getting some rave reviews, as well as some that weren't so great. It's topped more than $1 million at the box office. Now there's talk of touring it abroad.

After the show I was in a group of about 60 people who remained in their seat with their VIP passes. Off to the right, the real VIPs were being hustled backstage. Actress Susan Sarandon with a man who was either her son or her rather youngish date. A very svelte Al Sharpton. An actor I recognized as Liz Lemon's crappy ex-boyfriend Dennis from 30 Rock (I had to Google that to discover his name is Dean Winters) with a toothpick wrapped in a blue dress.

So, some of us cooled our heels for the better part of an hour. A handler announced from the stage we'd be called backstage in groups. "No personal photos," he said. "And no autographs. If you want an autograph, you can buy some of the pre-signed merchandise out front."

I had no idea how much the swag was going for. I had no interest as I came in. I thought I'd getting Tyson to sign my program "to Brian" so my buddy would get a little more than just my thanks.

But obviously it wasn't going to happen. "This won't take long," he said. He wasn't kidding. Our line-up snaked its way through the backstage labyrinth of the old theatre to a warehouse-like area disguised with a Tyson backdrop for photos.

No nibbles. No refreshments. The real celebrities (except Iron Mike) are long gone. The meet-and-greet consisted of a quick picture. People stepped up and tried to engage him and squeeze a few precious seconds out of their hero.

One man had a gigantic boxing championship belt that he wanted in the photo. "You're my hero, man, I love you." He was quickly ushered out.

The next fan was so excited he nearly put Tyson in a headlock. "I can't believe it, you're the best, this is great." He also got the hook.

Now, with the back of the line in sight, the security is lax. Cameras are out and no one is being stopped.

So out comes my video camera. I capture a couple of these fleeting moments and then it's my turn.

'I'm from Canada'

I ask the photographer if I can do a proper fighting stance with the champ. "You can do whatever you want," he says. I place my video camera, still rolling on a table, and manage to cut off most of our heads. [You can see some of the video above.]

I step up and say, "I'm from Canada." (It's one of my proudest moments as a seasoned journalist, right up there with the time I went mute when I was blindsided with a chance to fire a question at Fidel Castro.)

There's no eye contact. Tyson is distracted by someone or something over his other shoulder. He mumbles, "Thanks, thanks a lot."

He obviously hasn't heard a word I said. (Not that he missed anything.)

I almost get the shot I want ... but instead of being nose-to-nose with the former pugilist, we both end up fists raised with huge grins into the camera. Oh well. Close enough.         

I'm hustled quickly down a narrow corridor under the stage and out into the alley, greeted by the bright lights of the big city.

I'm now on the sidewalk flanked by barricades holding back hordes of fans with cameras, all looking rather disappointed to see the little guy from Canada instead of the big guy from Brooklyn.

David Zelcer reports for CBC News in central Newfoundland. He is based in Gander.