"My style is impetuous, my defense is impregnable and I'm just ferocious. I want your heart. I want to eat your children. Praise be to Allah."
- Mike Tyson, prior
to being defeated by Lennox Lewis, 2002
There's something admirable
about Mike Tyson, and something deplorable. His rapid rise and
quick accumulation of boxing titles are unrivaled in the sport.
His achievements in the ring speak to a strong determination, unprecedented
athletic ability, and incredible focus. As a man, Tyson always
seemed deadly dangerous. Some would say that Tyson projected this
self-described "ferocity" for the benefit of fans and to provoke
fear in his opponents. However, that viewpoint now seems doubtful.
Even if it were once true, somewhere along the way that notion was lost,
as Tyson's violent behavior and criminal record suggest.
James Toback's documentary
film, Tyson, strips back the carapace of sensational media coverage
and ostentatious self-invention that has defined the boxer for twenty
years. By allowing its subject to speak for himself, the film
tries to locate the real man.
Tyson's upbringing in a crime-ridden,
poverty-stricken section of Brooklyn would have doomed him to a miserable
existence - he says he never expected to make it to 40 - if he hadn't
been rescued by legendary boxing trainer Cus D'Amato. Following
his release from a juvenile detention center, Tyson was virtually adopted
by D'Amato, who taught Tyson the value of discipline and the finer
points of the sweet science from ages 13 to 19.
In vintage interview footage,
and in Tyson's own anecdotes, D'Amato is concerned, parental, and
giving. Tyson may have emerged from D'Amato's tutelage as
one of the greatest boxers in the sport's history, but his presence
in the ring doesn't reflect D'Amato's spirit. Tyson's
speed, strength, and ruthlessness suggest nothing less than some frightening
and lethal combination of pit bull, tiger, and great white shark.
The fear in the eyes of his opponents - on plain view here in archival
ringside footage - is the fear of rational beings confronted with
overwhelming amoral force.
Ironically - or, maybe, naturally
- Tyson is driven by fear in life and in the ring, as he admits several
times in the film. The fear stems from the constant threat of
physical danger - and death - in the old neighborhood. The
fear was turned into an unemotional capability for violence, honed by
years of training and nurtured by people who sought to profit from it.
Filmmaker James Toback has
a reputation for dealing with topics and themes surrounding notions
of masculinity and the consequences of picking at chinks in male armor.
Placing Tyson's supernatural abilities and achievements side-by-side
with his fear-riddled sex-obsessed psyche seems like an almost comically
ideal subject for Toback. But the director, in his first documentary,
does not romanticize Mike Tyson, even though the repeated shots of the
boxer strolling along a deserted twilit beach are a bit much.
By the same token, Toback avoids demonizing Tyson.
Toback's film is a forthright
examination of Tyson's baffling, coiled personality and his limited
development as a human being - which goes hand-in-hand with his palpable
self-hatred. (There's a lot of DeNiro's fictionalized Jake
LaMotta in the real Tyson, which is a testament to the misery of professional
boxers, the verisimilitude of Scorsese's film, or both.) The
"limited development" I mention is as much a question of Tyson's
character as it is a question of the degree to which his trainers, managers,
and "business partners" prevented him from experiencing adolescence
and young adulthood in anything like a normal way.
In Tyson, the boxer
speaks for himself, directly to the camera, in a relaxed milieu.
As interviewer, Toback is absent. Other voices pipe up via carefully
selected archival news and interview footage, most notably Cus D'Amato
and Robin Givens. But Tyson's often delusional and contradictory
voice is compelling enough to sustain the film's ninety-minute length.
He dwells upon his misdeeds, but without seeming to understand then.
He attributes many of his transgressions to youth - even though those
transgressions are spread throughout his life, right up to the present.
(It hasn't been two years since he pled guilty to cocaine possession
and driving under the influence.) Tyson does discuss the divorce,
the rape conviction, the jail time, the attack on Don King, but does
so without ever identifying particular fault on his part. Yet,
in general terms, he despises himself and does not feel like a success.
As the film ended, I wondered if there is anyone who'd want to break
bread with Mike Tyson? He comes across as an unlikable guy, full
of himself while hating himself - and much of the rest of the world.
Mike Tyson's inability to explicate his own life story is what makes James Toback's film so compelling. A man of limited intellectual means, Tyson is nonetheless a fascinating subject, and his story says a lot about professional sports and the environments in which great athletes are shaped. Highly recommended.