Mike Tyson documentary packs powerful punch

James Toback film offers new perspective on the controversial boxer

When I suggest that some would place Tyson on par with just such fighters, his multiple voices respond that part of him denies ever having been heavyweight champion at all. "You know, I don't know who the fuck I am," he says with cool sobriety. "I have people call on me, ask me for autographs, ask me for pictures. I feel like a freak show. Who the hell am I that, when I arrive in certain countries, they have to block off the streets? I try to put it in perspective, to tell myself that this is how I looked at other fighters when I was young. I think it's a form of self-hatred that makes me deny all that. I can never feel it. It must be something deep down inside me that makes me believe that I'm not this person. I have no connection with the guy. It's just a thing that I can't hardly describe sometimes."

If it is, today, impossible to talk about Mike Tyson without also talking about the strange cult of celebrity or, Barack Obama notwithstanding, the still-limited expectations for a black man in mainstream American society, it is, above all, impossible not to talk about the state of boxing as a popular American sport, the fluctuating fortunes of which have largely paralleled Tyson's own. During the height of his stardom—four of his fights remain in the top five all-time pay-per-view attractions—Tyson was credited with rescuing the sport from the doldrums of the post-Ali '80s. By the time of his final fight in 2005, it seemed as if it wasn't just a fighter who was exiting the stage in defeat, but maybe the entire fight game itself.

"You start with [John L.] Sullivan, then you go to [James J.] Corbett, to Jack Johnson, then Dempsey, Louis, Ali, and Tyson—that's it," says Toback. "Those are the great heavyweight champions, and Tyson's the end of the line." Toback lays much of the blame for boxing's bad fortunes on the exponential proliferation of titles and championships throughout the '80s and '90s. Others have pinpointed the antics of ignominious promoters like Don King, the decline of the talent pool, and the competition from the mixed martial arts of Ultimate Fighting Championship.

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


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.

The boxing ring, far more than the football field or the baseball diamond, has always stood as the ultimate metaphor for that unbridled rage that beats at the heart of seemingly peaceable men—a canvas square capable, as Joyce Carol Oates wrote, of revealing "how thin and fragile the veneer of civilization is." And few in our lifetimes have punctured that illusory membrane so devastatingly as Tyson. This is why Tyson makes people uneasy. It is why, even in retreat, he remains monolithic.

To consider Tyson in 2009 is finally to consider all of this, and Tyson leaves it up to the audience to referee. "It's not Mike Tyson up there," says Tyson of the film. "It's just a person who states his story, states his fact, the way he sees it. You may not even see it the way I see it, you know?"

"The thing that makes it fascinating to me is to present him as he is, and then people can respond in any way they like, in the same way that I would say to someone about to meet Mike Tyson, 'Here he is,'" says Toback. "I wouldn't say, 'You're going to love him.' I like to let people discover for themselves." At private screenings and festival appearances, many of those people have even emerged from the theater visibly moved by a man whom they might have dismissed as an unfeeling beast 90 minutes earlier. For whatever else one wishes to say about Tyson the person, Tyson the movie makes it clear that he is nothing if not all too human.

While Toback was still in the editing room, he showed a rough cut to a test audience of a few dozen women who told the filmmaker they had no desire to see a film about Mike Tyson or about boxing, and whom Toback promised a $100 cash reward if they wanted to leave after five minutes. None, he claims, took him up on his offer. Still, such guarantees are hard to proffer in the commercial movie marketplace. "That's going to be the great marketing task for the movie," he says. "I don't know how I would get people who end up loving the movie to want to see it when they start out the way they do. Certainly, the answer is not simply to say, 'You're not going to believe how much you're going to love this movie despite the fact that you don't think you are.'"

For Tyson, who also has a cameo in the Warner Brothers comedy The Hangover (scheduled for release June 5), the film seems to be serving as a much-needed lifeline, helping him to focus, keeping him on the relatively straight and narrow. But "I have to watch out, because whenever anything great happens, that's when I really have to be careful," he says, less to me than to himself. "My trouble always starts when things are going well."

« Previous Page
Next Page »