Is Mike Tyson the ear-chomping, woman-hating, sticking-and-moving offense to public decency that some would say? Or is he the family man, Muslim convert, and spiritual seeker that his supporters (and enablers) have described for so many years? Tyson, director James Toback’s point-blank documentary look at the former heavyweight terror, suggests some of each. The movie is part accusation, part denial, part accidental confession, and part yearning plea to just see it his way for one minute.
If the quality of a documentary often sways with the quality of the subject, then Tyson is at least a respectable contender, if not an undisputed champion. In his prime, Iron Mike was not merely a dominant fighter but a dominant personality. That’s why he remained one of the sport’s biggest draws, even as a former champ chasing his youthful shadow. He survived on notoriety as much as talent, as if Michael Jordan and Dennis Rodman were rolled into the same pair of gym shorts.
The intrigue of Tyson stems from his brave-or-foolish willingness to talk about his checkered life. Some athletes get jaded by neverending interviews, exhausted by the years of “ready to help the team” quotes cast into a million random microphones. This isn’t the case here. Listening to Tyson candidly re-trace his past, you realize he doesn’t care what he says or what you think. There is no filter.
Whatever else Tyson has been over the years, he has been, in the terminology of journalism, good copy. Partly this derives from an early press image that so closely hews to the self-improvement myth of sports – that the discipline necessary for athletics matures wayward boys into responsible men. This theory often accompanied Tyson in his youth, as he made his way from young street ruffian to world champion, but left him as he grew older.
Then again, good copy follows a walking tabloid, too. Late night fistfights. Arrests. Shady business managers. Blown fortunes. A destructive celebrity marriage. And the very famous moment when he took a jagged into champion Evander Holyfield’s ear. Among the interesting walks down National Enquirer Memory Lane is Tyson’s take on his trial and conviction for a 1993 sexual assault, an event that would send him to jail for two years. Tyson remains vehement in his denial of wrongdoing. And yet to make his case to the audience, he confesses to “taking advantage” of other women. Jaw meet floor. If Tyson was unpredictable in the ring, wait until you see him on camera.
As such, there are at least 12 rounds worth of secrets revealed. For example, the sexually overactive champion describes his burning motivation in one title fight. Tyson is enflamed by a different burning issue – did boxing save Mike Tyson? Watching it, you are shocked to learn the extent of the things he has done. Yet you also wonder what else he might have done if he had never picked up a boxing glove.
The film is noticeably curt about one relationship you would expect to hear more about – his love-hate relationship with flamboyant promoter Don King. There is a colorful description of a punch-up between the two. But the film offers an unexpectedly small amount about how the partnership went so wrong for Tyson personally and financially. Assuming this dance was as damaging as it has been portrayed, it should have been a more central focus. If the stories were not true, Toback owed it to correct the record. Perhaps there were legal reasons for the sparse treatment. Or perhaps Tyson clammed up. It would be interesting to know.
The film has Tyson telling his story straight to the camera – no talking heads, childhood friends, or indignant prosecutors to add “perspective.” Toback engages in only so much directorial perspective, relying on archival footage and Tyson’s sometimes teary narration. The veteran director lays down his main mark at the several points in which he splits the screen among three or four Tysons, all of them speaking over each other in a mass mumble. The idea is to suggest that Tyson is a man of multiple voices, little angels and devils exchanging right crosses on his shoulder.
Tyson generously argues that the angels ultimately stood at the center of the ring with hand raised. We’re treated to post-boxing images of Tyson clowning with his children and walking in the surf. We even learn the meaning of the tattoos that he wears. No man willing to share his tattoos with you can be all bad. The suggestion is that Tyson has finally found a level of peace with the demons inside. Still, this is hard to square with the man that the champion himself relates. So the question is, do you buy this? Or is this a new myth of Tyson waiting to be broken?