Love him or hate him, Mike Tyson is a magnet for publicity and controversy.
In his prime, Tyson captured the imagination of boxing fans all around the world with his ferocious, brutal knockouts. To this day, many still believe that at his best, Tyson would have beaten anyone in the history of the sport. Watching some of the highlight footage in the opening of the new documentary Tyson, it’s hard to disagree.
In his early 20s, Tyson was an absolute beast of a man, built like a brick and possessing a perfect combination of power, speed and explosiveness beyond belief. Today, apart from the tribal facial tattoo on the left side of his face, you would have never have thought that this high-pitched, softly spoken, mellow man with a noticeable lisp was once considered the ‘baddest man on the planet’. An unbeatable force of nature. The contrast is both shocking and saddening.
I suppose that is what director James Toback wanted to achieve with this film, to show a side of Mike Tyson that the public never saw. To tell the tragic story of a deeply flawed man who had the potential to be the greatest heavyweight of all time but was consumed by his fear of the world and his hatred of himself, leading to one of the most publicised and devastating downfalls in sports. In my opinion, Toback only half-succeeded with Tyson.
Tyson is a relatively straightforward sports documentary that chronicles Mike Tyson’s life from birth to present day. The film comprises a series of interviews with the man himself, some old archive footage of Tyson out of the ring, news footage and clips of Tyson’s most famous fights. As a compilation of Tyson highlights inside the ring, there’s no complaints – it’s pretty darn exciting. However, as a documentary, it suffers from one fatal problem – we only get to hear Tyson’s side of the story. His voice is the only voice.
Yes, Tyson appears to be honest in the interviews, and he seems genuine. He even chokes up and sheds a few tears over the life he managed to mangle up, the relationships he destroyed and the hundreds of millions he wasted away or allowed to be stolen from him. There’s a fair bit of insight into his psyche, and in particular, what went through his mind at the times that everyone thought he had lost it. But honestly, it all feels incredibly sanitised.
Part of that stems from the fact that Tyson narrates the entire film. You don’t know whether some of the things he said are scripted, or if he had many takes to ‘get it right’. Was the film made independently or did Tyson have the last say into what went in and what was kept out? Was he only saying what he wanted us to hear so we would feel sorry for him?
Moreover, while the film doesn’t ignore them completely, it does feel like it glossed over some of the toughest topics in Tyson’s life, such as his documented tendency to resort to domestic violence, his rape conviction, his drug addiction, his time in prison and his infamous ear-biting fight against Evander Holyfield. Although Tyson ultimately claims responsibility for everything that has happened in his life, when it came to these issues, he showed plenty of regret, but little remorse. You want to believe him, but it was hard to because all you could see was a unrepentant man coming up with excuses and throwing around blame at those that he thought wronged him (in particular Don King, but every fighter thinks Don King wronged them!). These were times when another perspective would have been perfect. An interview with someone else that told a different side of the story. But we didn’t get any of that in Tyson. Consequently, even though it was easy to pity Tyson, it was difficult to feel any compassion towards him.
That said, there were some good moments littered throughout, and the film itself (at around 85 minutes) was never boring. In particular, Tyson’s relationship with his mentor Cus D’Amato (who passed away in 1985) and his love for his children were the most touching aspects of the film. At the same time, however, it hard to forget all the terrible things he had done and the multiple chances in life that he managed to screw up time and time again.
In some ways, Tyson was the ultimate bully inside the ring, and the ultimate coward outside of it. His life is a true tragedy – a man who overcame impossible odds and disadvantages to stand on top of the world, only to self-destruct and fall into the lowest depths because of his cowardice and refusal to learn from his mistakes. The recent death of Tyson’s youngest daughter Exodus in a freak treadmill accident (which happened after the release of the film) is just another sad chapter in his life. While Tyson will never be the great boxer he once was inside the ring, one can only hope that he can continue to be a better person outside of it.
3 stars out of 5.
[PS: Here’s an interesting article I found on Tyson that paints a particularly unflattering view of the boxer. I was a little too young when Tyson ruled the world, but I did know of him through Mike Tyson’s ‘Punch Out!’, which has been rereleased on the Nintendo Wii but without Iron Mike. I am, however, very much looking forward to Fight Night Round 4 which will finally have Tyson as one of the licensed boxers.]
[PPS: I just found out that Tyson recently got married for the third time, 2 weeks after his daughter’s death. Not judging, just a piece of fact.]