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Powerful is the first adjective that comes to mind when discussing Tyson. Stunningly candid and emotional, the new documentary on the fallen boxing champion hits like a punch to the gut. What did I care about this guy who came from nowhere and through the fluke of a superlative athletic gift, rose to the top, had it all, and pushed away his blessings with both hands through the bad advice of sycophantic parasites or because of his own self-destruction? Director James Toback made me realise I cared a lot more than I thought.

Like many New Yorkers, I had my own interest in the rags-to-riches story of Mike Tyson a young boy who grew up rough in pre-Giuliani no-man’s-land Brooklyn; a thug who preyed on innocent people, who was rescued from the purgatory of the juvenile penal system by an old man with a vision. In young Tyson, Cus D’Amato, who trained champion Floyd Patterson in the 1960’s, saw the potential in this rough clay that he would mould into a champion and one of the greatest boxers of all time. In the first 20 minutes of his documentary, Toback fixes the camera on Tyson, who can barely push the words out, seizing on emotion while reflecting on his mentor, the only father figure he ever had (D’Amato legally adopted Tyson) and the only person who’d ever believed in him. Months after the pair have trained the young fighter to his win first professional bout by a first round knockout, D’Amato dies and Tyson of today weeps uncontrollably recollecting being a pallbearer at D’Amato’s funeral and realising all he’d lost emotionally. Watching Tyson mourning even now, nearly twenty-four years after his mentor’s passing, it’s clear that although he reached incredible success without D’Amato by his side, this is where Tyson lost his way.

At twenty years old, Iron Mike Tyson becomes the youngest heavyweight champion in history, eventually owning the three titles from the WBA, WBC and IBF simultaneously. The champ lives the good life and that mostly means nightclubs and easy women; he candidly gives us play by play into a typical evening out on the town, complete with Tyson’s unique sexual terminology. As boxing’s biggest star since Muhammad Ali, the world was Tyson’s oyster, inside of which was the woman who was once his pearl, Robin Givens, and a grain of sand called Don King; each would make an irreparable mark on Tyson’s life. Toback plays the Barbara Walters interview under Tyson’s voiceover description of the simmering, impotent anger he claims to have felt while Givens vented about being “terrified” of her husband to millions of viewers. Tyson skewers ubiquitous boxing parasite Don King as a man “who would kill his mother for a dollar.” Tyson doesn’t play the victim, acknowledging his youth and bad behaviour in his “disastrous” marriage to Givens and his gullibility in trusting King with his finances. One place where you will hear no mea culpas is on the subject of Tyson’s 1992 rape conviction. Calling his accuser, Desiree Jackson, a “wretched swine of a woman,” Tyson breathes fire when discussing the trial and its outcome, which made him lose all faith in the justice system. The terror Tyson describes while serving three years in prison, is truly chilling. He was the world heavyweight champion and if he was scared for his life, what does that mean for anybody else? After Tyson’s 1995 release, a flurry of matches brings him back into the boxing spotlight as he reclaims two of his three titles. A match with Evander Holyfield ends in controversial defeat as Holyfield repeatedly head butts Tyson, bringing about a rematch and Tyson’s infamous sharp-toothed revenge. Discredited and disgraced, Tyson takes on a number of scrub matches and loses. His final interview is heartbreaking; Tyson has given up and admits he just doesn’t want to box anymore. All the heart and hunger is gone; the inspirational story of the kid from Brooklyn who came from nothing and rose to the top of the world was over, his talent and potential carelessly squandered. All that was left to the public of Mike Tyson was this tattered reputation and sadness of what could’ve been.

Tyson doesn’t ask for pity or even understanding; James Toback told me he approached his sessions with the fighter like he was a psychoanalyst, bringing up subjects and letting Tyson go. It’s the free-form monologue that gives vent to Tyson’s self-described rage and madness and voices inside his head. It’s impossible to not feel for the small, fearful boy who was victimised repeatedly by thugs in his Brooklyn neighbourhood until he became one of them, making his first trip to Spofford Juvenile Center at age 12. An instructor at the facility gave Tyson his first instruction in boxing basics and set his feet on the path that would bring him to the attention of trainer Cus D’Amato and the wild beast becomes tamed and focused under the old man’s tough tutelage. Would that D’Amato had lived a bit longer to see the young boy into maturity; his untimely exit left Tyson rudderless and unguided just as his fame began to attract all sorts of “leeches” into his sphere. There’s no way to tell if his presence would have made a difference in the overnight celebrity’s life, but Toback’s film makes it clear that D’Amato’s absence left a hole in Tyson’s soul that hasn’t filled to this day, despite his quiet life around his adorable brood of children.

The documentary isn’t all Kleenex bait; there are some genuinely funny moments due to Tyson’s own off-hand delivery of very candid recollections and yes, some choice malapropisms. The archival fight footage, including some early home movies, allows us to recall Tyson’s amazing fighting style; it’s too easy to forget what a sensation he was based on pure athleticism alone before all the fame and foolishness got in the way. Along with uncanny natural talent, Tyson’s discipline made him a skyrocket in the world of sports, and losing that discipline, as evidenced by the Holyfield biting incident, gave way to the voices and madness again. Toback uses split screens and overlapping audio to represent what he saw as Tyson’s multiple personalities and the effect is mesmerising. During Tyson’s harrowing remembrances of prison, Toback has Tyson read Oscar Wilde’s poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, written after Wilde himself was incarcerated; a risky and unlikely choice that makes perfect sense when you’re watching it. Perhaps controversially, Toback isn’t interested in getting other points of view on his subject, telling me, “No one’s gonna be as interesting as Mike, anyway.” I wholeheartedly agree: The intense focus on no one’s side but Tyson’s works when so many others in press, television and print have had their say. This is Mike Tyson’s autobiography, there’s nothing else that is going to capture him at his most raw, and ironically, undefended.

Toback has struck a brilliant balance choosing an enigmatic, controversial subject and laying his portrait against a frame both beautiful and brutally unblinking, yet the movie is tremendously entertaining. Whatever your preconceptions might’ve been about Iron Mike before walking into the theatre, prepare to question everything you might have thought, good or ill, after watching Tyson.

Extremely well done.

~ The Lady Miz Diva
April 22nd 2009




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