Despite all the terrible publicity Mike Tyson has gotten over the years, I’ve never forgotten seeing him nearly two decades ago on “The Arsenio Hall Show,” walking out to surprise Muhammad Ali. When Hall asked who’d win if they got into the ring, Ali pointed to Tyson. Tyson, shaking his head said, “I know I’m great. But here all heads must bow and all tongues must confess that this is the greatest of all time.” Every bit of scandal since has made me wonder what happened to the generosity and lyricism I saw that night.
James Toback’s documentary “Tyson” gives voice to a man who’s been regarded as an animal, a thug, a dimwitted brute. Often by his own actions. Talking to Toback’s camera in that curiously soft lisping voice, his head shaved and a Maori tattoo encircling his left eye, Tyson, 40 when the film was made, comes off as serious and thoughtful, a tormented man trying to find some peace, both sympathetic and, at times, frightening.
There was reason to fear that Tyson would serve the same function for Toback that Jim Brown did: a repository for the director’s fantasies about black masculinity. Toback had already lived with Jim Brown and written a book about the football great before casting the him in “Fingers.” For Toback, Brown was the superspade stud unapologetically in touch with his dominant sexuality in a way that mocked the timidity and aroused the envy of white men.
Toback’s fascination with Tyson here feels unencumbered by the baggage of racial fantasy. And though it’s not made explicit, it also feel informed by a realization of how Tyson has been used to feed racial fears. Tyson can be very scary, as in footage of a news conference when he reels off vicious homophobic threats against someone who has angered him. But it’s one thing to be scary and another to presented as the Scary Black Man.
Tyson talks about growing up rough in Brooklyn, changing from a bullied kid to one sticking up drug dealers. He got so good that when the police picked him up at 12, he had $1500 in his pocket. A succession of stints in juvie lead to a longer stretch where the prison’s boxing instructor brought the young Tyson to the attention of the great trainer Cus D’Amato, who became Tyson’s legal guardian. D’Amato lived to see Tyson make his professional debut but not to become the champion D’Amato believed he could be.
Your heart goes out to Tyson as you watch and listen to him talk about D’Amato. Speaking in a seized whisper, he clears his throat harshly, trying to get the tears out of his voice. The depth of that attachment makes it clear how lost he must have felt after D’Amato’s death. When, as Tyson admits, you don’t trust anyone and find yourself trusting the last person you expected, an old white man who takes you into his home and devotes himself to your training, that loss must make all the old suspicion and fear return with a vengeance.
Tyson’s life and career have been so mired in scandal that it’s easy to forget what an amazing fighter he was. Not only was he, at 20, the youngest heavyweight champ, he was the only one to unify the title, being recognized as such by all three major boxing organizations (the WBA, WBC and IBF). Toback sections off footage of the young Tyson in training so we can concentrate on the lightness and fluidity of his footwork. At around 215, often shorter than his opponents, Tyson was small for a heavyweight. Part of his deadly effectiveness was that he had the speed and agility of a boxer in a lower weight class. Watching him winning his first title fight against Trevor Berbick in 1986, you’re amazed not just by the unhesitating ferocity with which Tyson comes out of the corner, but the flawless timing that allows him to duck Berbick’s roundhouse punches, and the devastating grace of Tyson’s uppercuts which (the use of freeze frame allows us to see) often end with his gloved fist in a perfect sky-reaching vertical.
I wish Toback focused the same attention on the fights that followed Tyson’s 1995 release from prison after serving three years of a rape conviction. We register that Tyson, who admits he was not training seriously, has grown thicker, and that his power is no longer accompanied by speed. But there’s a frustrating sense of apprehending this in flashes.
This slapdash approach really plays against the movie when it gets to the 1997 rematch between Tyson and Evander Holyfield, in which Tyson bit his opponent on both ears. (Tyson was disqualified, fined $3 million, and lost his license to fight for a year.) Tyson claims that he was being headbutted by Holyfield, and in fact this rematch came about because Holyfield had been accused of the same thing in the match he had won against Tyson the previous year. In their rematch, we do see Tyson repeatedly trying to get the referee to intercede, and something that, when we notice it, seems very odd: Holyfield, who’s much taller than Tyson, keeps his head at the level of Tyson’s shoulder. But what we can see isn’t complete enough to allow us to draw any conclusions.
Despite Tyson’s candor, you’d have to be naïve to believe we’re getting the full story here. The fighter was the only one Toback interviewed for the film. And Tyson is listed among the executive producers, as are documentary filmmakers Nicholas and Henry Jarecki, the former of whom directed the 2006 portrait of Toback, “The Outsider.” That’s a cozy tangle of interests.
You’re very conscious of what you’re not hearing in the sections on Tyson’s dealings with women. Tyson refers to Desiree Washington, the Miss Black America contestant he raped, as “that wretched swine of a woman.” But we hear nothing of her side. At one point, he tells the story of following a woman he met at a fancy New York party into a bathroom and, he says confusingly, beginning “fellatio” on her. This sounds like an incident reported in Ben Rogers’ biography of the British philosopher A.J. Ayer, who interceded at a New York party in 1987 when Tyson was attempting to rape Naomi Campbell.