I’ll admit, growing up an athlete and major sports fan, boxer Mike Tyson was a near idol to me at one point in my life. It’s hard to imagine now, looking back on the man who became almost a beast of sorts, inside and outside of the ring, but at the height of Tyson’s fame, he was as popular as Michael Jordan, known the world-over for his devastating knockout power and prowess in the ring. James Toback’s documentary Tyson is an insightful and unmasked portrayal of the fallen boxer as delivered by Iron Mike himself. The documentary it most resembles in style is our recent film-u-missed, Tupac: Resurrection, as it is told in Mike’s words, and the only voice you hear throughout the entire film is his, with the exception of some clips from his earlier boxing life. Tyson might alternatively be called “Tyson on Tyson” or any other derivative thereof.
Tyson opens with flashback footage of a 20 year-old man-child who has just earned his first Heavyweight Championship belt. As the noise from the mania in the ring fades out, the screen reveals a subdued individual, 20 years removed from that crowning moment, tribal tattoo on his face, sitting on his couch while talking frankly and openly about his life. A shell of his former self, this man is a confused individual and he spends the next 90 minutes or so taking you deep into his world, reflecting on what he has done, and in the process revealing his psyche.
Mike discusses his childhood; his relationship with father figure and manager/trainer, Cus D’Amato (which is the most moving portion of the film early on), as well as his relationship with first wife Robin Givens. He discusses the Desiree Washington rape charge, revealing it as a sham, something I have long agreed with in concept (which ruined what might have been the most anticipated boxing match in modern history at the time, between he and Evander Holyfield in 1991). He discusses promoter Don King, creatively labeling him “a wretched, slimy, reptallion muthafucker.” None of this is earth-shattering, but while Tyson offers little regret or remorse that doesn’t mean there isn’t strong sadness and softness within him.
Visually there is not too much going on so Toback plays with the camera, often utilizing split screen during Tyson’s multiple monologues. Tyson, as those that know anything about him would expect, often contradicts himself. He is a man clearly grappling with inner demons. He talks about his passion for sexual conquest, his love of money and also of family. He waxes lyrically to the camera, often to comic effect, yet never recognizing it as such himself. A man’s soul is bared for all to hear, at least as much of his soul as Tyson is capable of delivering.
While it’s well done and interesting, real fans of Tyson won’t uncover an abundance of new information here. For you, it is more a trip down memory lane, as told by the former heavyweight champion of the world. In contrast, for those curious for a portrait of a human being who defied the odds and has turned out to be an intriguing and perplexing subject, this comes highly recommended.
Postscript: In a post-screening interview, director Toback, who likely “knows” Tyson as well as anyone at this point, revealed a few things from his perspective, I was hoping to find out from the film itself. I’ll note that this is mainly for fight/Tyson fans. First off, he is no longer in touch with Kevin Rooney, the trainer in D’Amato’s camp who helped make Tyson so successful as a kid. Tyson rarely discusses his boxing days or boxing in general, unless it is to talk of some of the famous fighters of years past, like Jack Johnson or Joe Louis.
Additionally, Toback, with his Harvard background, believes there to be no reason why Tyson would have turned out any different as either a fighter or in life, were Cus to have lived another 5 years say, versus when he died and Tyson was still only 19. Toback interestingly argues that he would have merely been a sheltered 24 year-old, versus the naive 19, and therefore he would have likely succumbed to the same pitfalls that his career ultimately took. This is one point of contention that fight fans worldwide like to make in favor of Tyson; speculating that he could/would have been different if Cus or Rooney were never out of the mix. I would have liked to hear from Tyson directly on this, but he seems to no longer be interested in such matters. But Tyson himself regularly talks of dogging it in preparation for certain opponents, one can only wonder as to whether or not D’Amato’s or Rooney’s influence would have changed that down the road.Tyson doesn’t seem to care or think about it, for whatever that’s worth.