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.

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
Two extremists: Tyson and director James Toback
Kevin Scanlon
Two extremists: Tyson and director James Toback

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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.

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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.

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.

All of those Tysons appear in Toback's film, as do quite a few others, including the doting father of four (two from his second marriage to Monica Steele, sister of Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele). Aside from the valedictory montage of Tyson vanquishing one challenger after another for his heavyweight crown, rarely in Tyson does he seem as happy and at peace as he does in some fleeting home video footage of him playing the paterfamilias he never had. It is one of the few moments when Tyson seems to find calm within his ever-present chaos.

The Tyson who shows up at Green Valley Ranch seems yet another apparition. There is an existential sadness about him now that is partly the inevitability of a fighter who no longer fights, but also the Dostoyevskian disappointment of a man consumed by the thought that all of his achievements may have been for naught. "My whole life has been a waste—I've been a failure," he told a reporter in 2005, eight days before the McBride fight. Not for nothing did Toback name the Tyson production outfit "Fyodor Productions."

Toback has flown in from New York for the day, and when Tyson greets him with a warm embrace, it's obvious that the 64-year-old filmmaker is one of the many surrogate fathers to whom Tyson has attached himself through the years, including D'Amato, manager Jim Jacobs, and later Don King. Their friendship apparently runs deep, which is understandable: Like his latest subject, Toback is a self-professed extremist—a former compulsive gambler, drinker, and womanizer for whom life at or anywhere near the middle has rarely held much attraction. Both men are a long way from fighting shape—Tyson still fit but not boxing fit, Toback an image of almost Wellesian girth and grandeur. Both say they never expected they'd live to see 40. Toback, whose credits include Two Girls and a Guy and the Oscar-nominated screenplay for Bugsy, first encountered Tyson in 1986, while directing the Robert Downey Jr.-Molly Ringwald romantic comedy The Pick-Up Artist. In a meeting of the minds only a Hollywood film shoot could accommodate, Tyson was invited to the set by photographer and boxing enthusiast Brian Hamill on a day that also found executive producer Warren Beatty and Democratic presidential hopeful Gary Hart milling about.

In some respects, the seeds for Tyson were sown later that night, when shooting wrapped and Tyson joined Toback for a predawn stroll through Central Park. "We talked about boxing and sex and madness," says the famously uncensored director, who regaled the eager young fighter with stories of his own youthful boxing exploits and of chance meetings with Dempsey, Marciano, and Sugar Ray Robinson. Specifically, they talked about the time that Toback, then a 19-year-old Harvard undergrad, consumed a single, high-test dose of LSD and tripped for eight straight days—events that would later inspire his 2001 film, Harvard Man.

"I told him about my LSD experience, and I remember feeling this tremendous sense of connection—a very smart, curious, interesting guy," says Toback. "He had the seeds of...well, let's say he was so curious about what it meant to go crazy, what did the word mean. Not many people had asked that. My LSD experience at that point was 21 years earlier. Over the years, I referred to it to a fairly large number of people. I don't think anybody had ever asked me, 'What do you mean when you say you experienced madness?' And as I tried to answer the question, I realized how unusual it was and how significant it was that he seemed so eager for me to explain it to him. I ultimately ended by saying that the only way to know it is to experience it—everything else is just going to sound like words."

Of that initial conversation, Tyson says, "I've been interviewed by people, I've met people willing to be my friend, I've met people who found me intriguing, but nobody has ever opened up that Pandora's box. Anybody else would think: If you ask Mike this, Mike is going to be upset, or Mike is going to approach this situation in a way that we don't want to particularly deal with right now. I mean, he just came out and asked these questions and unlocked a bunch of things that were always in my mind, but I would never approach people with them or comment on them. When he came to me on that level, I elaborated with him, and said I understand that way of thinking."

After going their separate ways, the two men stayed in contact, though they wouldn't talk again at length until more than a decade later, in a chance encounter at the City Grill restaurant in New York. The year was 1998 and Tyson, then still on probation from his rape conviction, told the director that it was while doing time, particularly in solitary confinement, that he, too, had come to know madness firsthand.

"Once you've experienced madness, it separates you in some fundamental way from everybody else who hasn't," says Toback. "By definition, it is almost another form of humanity, or of inhumanity. The only analogy I can make is the way some of the astronauts who have gone to the moon talk about the seismic change that took place in their perspective as a result of looking at the earth from the moon—and I think it might be even more extreme than that."

Toback offered Tyson a role in his next film, Black and White (1999), a New York drama about white infatuation with black hip-hop culture. Tyson would play himself, improvising most of his dialogue and actions, including a memorable scene in which Downey, cast as the effete husband of a documentary filmmaker (Brooke Shields), comes on to Tyson at a party and ends up in a violent chokehold. It was a later scene, however, in which a hip-hop producer (played by Wu-Tang Clan's Power) asks Tyson for advice on his planned retaliation against a duplicitous friend, that made Toback realize the boxer deserved an entire film to himself. Tyson's double-sided, in-the-moment reply, first advising the younger man to murder his adversary, then immediately denying those words and cautioning against the potential legal repercussions, sealed the deal.

"I knew Mike was incapable of any guile, and that the revelatory aspects of his personality would be uninhibitedly truthful, because Mike is not capable of sticking to a script, no matter what it is," says Toback. "He has the complexities and incompatibilities of thought and feeling that really fascinating fictional characters have. You can tell him exactly what to say, he'll nod, and then 22 seconds later you'll hear something that doesn't resemble it, because it's what he's hearing in his head at that moment."

At this particular moment, Tyson holds forth with a fittingly enigmatic rejoinder. "I would love to be able to lie, man, but the truth is more simple," he says. "I've lied a great deal of my life. I used to always believe in telling the truth. I've lied on quite a few occasions, but I realize the truth will always set me free."

Tyson went on to make a cameo appearance in Toback's 2004 film When Will I Be Loved, but it would be almost another decade before they embarked on their mano a mano collaboration—a delay the director chalks up to his commitments to other projects as well as Tyson's own pressing demands, including his 2006 arrest on DUI and narcotics possession charges outside a Scottsdale, Arizona, nightclub. Ironically, it was both men's desire to escape from self-destructive behavior that finally brought them together.

"After boxing, I became very bored and lethargic," says Tyson. "I had nothing to do, and I found myself in a lot of trouble. I never planned on any other life. I always wanted to be a fighter and entertain people. When you can't entertain people no more, it's almost like you're dead."

Toback, meanwhile, was reeling from a literal death—that of his mother, Selma, which he describes as having had its own LSD-like effect. Overcome with a heightened sense of his own mortality, Toback felt "that if I didn't make a movie quickly, I would probably get into a good deal of trouble." He thought the time ideal to revisit the Tyson project, at which point, as if by divine intervention, Tyson's Scottsdale arrest landed him in a Los Angeles rehab center. Says Toback: "There probably is no other place than a rehab facility which would have allowed him both mentally and physically to devote himself in this necessarily single-minded way to the movie."

Though Mike Tyson is the product of an allegedly "post-racial" society, he has been politicized and demonized, at least in part, because of the color of his skin. "If he had had a persona similar to his and he'd been white, he simply wouldn't have had the kind of demonic weight that he has had in the public imagination," suggests Toback.

That is not to say that Tyson is innocent of his alleged crimes. Even while continuing to protest the rape allegations of an 18-year-old Miss Black America contestant (whom he refers to, in Tyson, as "that wretched swine of a woman"), he cops to having committed other unspecified trespasses in his life for which he was never prosecuted and says that prison is a place he entirely deserved to go. Still, as the novelist Pete Dexter (among others) argued in an editorial from the period, the equally (if not more) damning evidence in the previous year's William Kennedy Smith rape case had resulted in an acquittal, in part because Smith had played the role of upstanding society member before the jury, whereas Tyson seemed congenitally incapable of playing anything other than himself. (But could William Kennedy Smith, one wonders, quote Chairman Mao and Nelson Mandela at the drop of a hat?) Tyson's guilty verdict, all but a foregone conclusion, was subsequently championed as a triumph for justice, women's rights, and the feminist agenda.

Today, Tyson carries a lifetime's worth of regret on his still-massive shoulders, though neither in person nor in Tyson does he ask for absolution. The regret is more of a mark that will be with him always, like the elaborate Maori tattoo that splays across his face.

Tyson doesn't talk much of his "Iron Mike" glory days, preferring—if boxing must be discussed at all—to enthuse about brilliant fighters all but forgotten by boxing history, like the 1916-1920 world light-heavyweight champ Battling Levinsky. "It's just emotionally impossible for us to be as tough as those guys were at the turn of the century," he says with a kind of awed reverence. "The lifestyle they lived.... Today, a guy who's just a junior fighter can get lucky and knock out a guy, get a headlining fight, and become a millionaire in one night. These guys didn't become millionaires after 25 years of boxing, and some of them were on top of their game for 15 or 20 years. It's wholly a dedication, commitment, desire, will to win...it just supersedes anything that this era of fighting or this lifetime has ever seen."

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.

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."

He too has his own chorus of disapproval to win over. Standing on the stage at the Cannes Film Festival last May, where the world premiere of Tyson received a 10-minute standing ovation, Tyson, though in tears, was once again firmly entrenched in the chaos of the brain. "At first I thought, maybe these white people are all making fun of me," he says. "Then I said to myself, 'No, it's wrong to think that.' But I still hear these voices, and I have to fight them."

Tyson will screen at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival on April 28. Director James Toback will be at the screening to discuss his film. Visit the MSPIFF website, for show times and more information on the festival.

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