Mike Tyson documentary packs powerful punch

James Toback film offers new perspective on the controversial boxer

Though he no longer sports the black trunks, sockless black boots, and gut-twisting scowl with which he cut such a menacing figure in the ring, Mike Tyson hasn't lost his knack for making an entrance. When he arrives at the Green Valley Ranch resort in Henderson, Nevada, he does so as inconspicuously as may be possible for one of the most recognized and controversial sports figures of the last quarter-century, loping silently through the lobby in an elegantly tailored gray pinstripe suit decidedly more Hugo Boss than the outré Versace couture he favored at the peak of his flamboyant past. No paparazzi herald his arrival, no entourage follows behind, and the journalists with whom he has come to discuss what might be the comeback of his career number not in the hundreds, but rather a handful. Yet even with this deliberately stealthy arrival on a sleepy weekday afternoon, Tyson's very presence seems to reverberate throughout the hotel as if by sonar. No sooner is he seated just inside the open door of a small conference room on a quiet upper floor than an inordinately large number of guests have an urgent, simultaneous need of the hallway ice machine.

The location has been selected for its proximity to Tyson's home, though its symbolic value does not go unnoticed. We are but a short drive from the glittering lights of the Las Vegas strip, where 22 years ago the not-yet-household-name delivered a devastating uppercut to the skull of Trevor Berbick to become, at age 20, the youngest heavyweight champ on record. Where the following year he defeated Tony Tucker to unify the IBF, WBA, and WBC heavyweight crowns. Where in 1997 he shocked his fans and detractors alike—to say nothing of his opponent, Evander Holyfield—with the ear bite heard round the world. However, in spite of the many multimillion-dollar attempts to lure Tyson back into the ring in the four years since he announced his retirement, the comeback he is here to promote will take place not beneath the lights of a crowded Vegas arena but in a theater near you.

Tyson, a new film directed by James Toback, is not the first movie to address its subject's celebrated rise to the Olympus of modern sports mythology and his subsequent fall—far more crushing than any blow he ever sustained from an opponent—to the bottomless depths of the tabloid inferno. The acclaimed documentarian Barbara Kopple earned an Emmy nomination for her 1993 television film Fallen Champ: The Untold Story of Mike Tyson, which followed the fighter from his childhood on the violent streets of Brownsville, Brooklyn, to his 1992 incarceration in an Indiana prison following his rape conviction. Many subsequent hours produced by the likes of A&E and ESPN have addressed the 15 years since. But Tyson is the first movie to approach Tyson with the careful consideration and lack of preconception found in the best boxing writers and essayists (such as Pete Hamill and Joyce Carol Oates), the first that treats Tyson as a complex and contradictory character who cannot easily be shoehorned into a rags-to-riches-to-rags narrative. It is also the first that allows him to tell his story exclusively in his own words.

Mike Tyson
photo by Larry McConkey, courtesy Sony Pictures Classics
Mike Tyson
Against Holyfield, Tyson bit offmore than he could chew
Larry Ignelzi for AP
Against Holyfield, Tyson bit offmore than he could chew

Details

The Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival begins April 16. This week, City Pages takes an in-depth look at one of the films in the festival, a fascinating documentary on former boxer Mike Tyson. Next week we will present our annual guide to MSPIFF, including profiles of Minnesota filmmakers and reviews of many of the films.

For 90 uninterrupted minutes, there is only one talking head in Tyson, and it is one that speaks with startling alacrity and candor about the humiliating taunts he suffered as a chunky, high-voiced mama's boy; the petty criminality that earned him street respect and, ultimately, time served in a youth correctional facility; the confidence and sense of purpose he gained from boxing; the sharply honed physical and psychological manipulation he deployed in the ring; the qualities he seeks in a woman; his inability to manage money. Above all, Tyson speaks of the consuming desire to truly know himself.

"The first question we ask is, 'Who am I?'" he says in the film's opening scene, just before a close-up of Tyson's tattooed face transforms into a split-screen mosaic of multiple Tysons whose voices collide and overlap on the soundtrack. One, rising above the rest, speaks of "the chaos of the brain."

It's hardly surprising that Tyson should begin by positing himself in terms of multiple personalities, or that Toback, a veteran of mental chaos himself, should choose to embrace it. From his earliest days as an amateur fighter, observers noted the disparity between the savage, fearsome gladiator Tyson appeared to be inside the ring and the soft-spoken teenager he seemed outside it—an intensely disciplined young man who raised pigeons, studied vintage fight films with the dedication of a doctoral candidate, and lived in predominantly white Catskill, New York, where he had become something of a surrogate son to his septuagenarian trainer, Cus D'Amato. Nor have the subsequent two decades made it any easier to herd the many Mike Tysons into a single Freudian bullpen. Indeed, it is as if, with time, Tyson has only further divided and multiplied.

There has been Tyson the hamstrung spouse, sitting silently on Barbara Walters's sofa while Robin Givens described him as a manic-depressive brute during an infamous 20/20 interview; Tyson the volcanic firebrand, threatening to turn his opponents into his girlfriend, to eat their children, or to smash their noses into their brains; Tyson the convict intellectual, who used prison to complete his formal education, immersing himself in Tolstoy, Machiavelli, and Mao Tse-tung with the same intensity he once reserved for those flickering images of Jack Dempsey and Henry Armstrong; and Tyson the slain giant, who refused to come out of his corner after six uninspired rounds against Irish challenger Kevin McBride and subsequently told reporters that he didn't wish to disrespect boxing by continuing to lose to fighters of McBride's caliber.

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