“it’s like a Greek tragedy, only I’m the subject”
The moment that sold me on James Toback’s excellent documentary, Tyson, was when the former heavyweight champion of the world was holding back tears, murmuring about when he became a fighter, after trainer Cus D’Amato took him under his wing: “He spoke with me every night about discipline and character, and I knew, I knew nobody, noboby physically, um was gonna fuck with me again.”
I don’t have sympathy for a rapist, but you get a good idea of Tyson the man after watching this film, and he has only just begun to stop being the 12-year old boy who got into his first fight after bullies broke the necks of his homing pigeons. His father abandoned the family when Mike was 2; his mother died when he was 16, when he was still a street tough. Sent to reform school, he thought he was a fighter until a boxer knocked the wind out of him with one shot. When he proved himself through good behavior and discipline, the man taught him to fight, and hooked him up with trainer Cus D’Amato on the outside.
But Mike was a fat little boy who was teased mercilessly in a tough neighborhood, and childhood tears still spring to his face when he talks about it. Much has been said about bullying in schools, and many people still think “it prepares you for life,” but unfortunately it also helps make more bullies. When the heavyweight champion of the world has crushingly low self-esteem, it tells you that this isn’t something that “prepares you for the unfairness of adulthood.” You know what prepares you for that? Good role models, not bullies. Adults who make the difficult choices, who stick their neck out. If Cus D’Amato hadn’t died in 1985- the year Mike exploded into stardom- he might have had a moral center to continue his education from boxer into a man.
But instead, fame, fortune, entourages of sycophants, and predatory “wretched, slimy reptilian motherfuckers” like promoter Don King were there as influences. I believe we all know right from wrong by a certain age, and know that we don’t like being bullied, and should be able to extrapolate that we shouldn’t bully others; but I also know that the wounds of childhood left by emotional abuse and abandonment run deeper than logic, and often leave us broken and hurtful beasts that lash out at those most able to help us. So while I can never forgive Iron Mike for being a rapist and a wifebeater, I can see the desire for redemption in his eyes, now deep set in a puffy face that displays the decades of abuse from opponent’s fists and drugs he took on his own.
Toback’s documentary is a no-holds-barred look at the man. It was decided that Mike would have no say on the final cut, and filming began as he got out of rehab, in a fragile emotional state but a clear-headed one. It’s telling that his tattoos are of Ché Guevara and Mao, revolutionaries who became monsters. Mike revolutionized boxing in his own way, with a lethal combination of power and speed, but in the end he made a mockery of himself. I had no idea that Evander Holyfield was head-butting him- a fact I’m sure he disputes- but can completely understand how a wounded child like Tyson would take that disrespect with such fury that he’d ruin his career by biting the guy’s ear. Was it smart? No. But it was an emotionally stunted man lashing out, as he spiraled into self-destruction.
Does this absolve him? Hell no. But it helps give us a view of the man. It was something that should have been so clear, this huge pit bull of a fighter, with the lispy, high pitched voice, that he was fighting every bully who’d ever made fun of him. And like a pit bull, he was probably a friendly guy before they got hold of him, and beat him into something that could only react by lashing out. The film doesn’t just dwell on the bad, or his origins; we get to re-live his fantastic rise to stardom as one of the world’s premier athletes. 8 second knockouts. The Holmes fight. The Spinks fight. Getting all 3 heavyweight titles and becoming undisputed champion of the world. Mike was a perfect ’80s icon- he was tough, and he didn’t have the personality of a Muhammad Ali. His opponents could run, but they could not hide.
But this is mostly a picture of a man, like Mike himself said- a Greek tragedy, except he’s the subject. Director James Toback- famously independent- decided to show the movie to the opposite of its demographic, older white women who didn’t like boxing. According to the IMDb, he offered them $100 if they left in the first 5 minutes; if they stayed longer, they had to watch it all, and discuss it. Not one left, and many were in tears by the finale. I was never much of a fan; the media lingered too much on his “brutality,” and ignored the fact that under manager Kevin Rooney, he was actually a skilled fighter who took his opponents down with speed and power. But our casually racist attitude toward black athletes at the time encouraged his portrayal as a beast. Something he would live up to.
like a baby stillborn,
Like a beast with his horn,
I have torn everyone who has reached out for me
-Leonard Cohen, “Bird on a Wire”