2008. Directed by James Toback.
Mike Tyson’s face is the most convincing proof that he was a boxer. He was shorter than nearly all his opponents. His peculiarly high voice, filtered through an odd lisp that you’d be surprised to hear uncorrected in an adult, made him an easy impersonation, easy to ridicule. His chaotic and scandalous personal life cost him years of freedom, the loss of his fortune, and much of the respect he’d gained in the ring. But I remember his fights. I remember thinking that there was no one more terrifying than Tyson in the ring, fixed with an unblinking and ferocious glare, waiting for the bell so that he could inflict pain.
There was a time that I wouldn’t have surprised to read about Tyson’s death, whether in the ring or in a jail cell. He seemed like an animal — such a loaded term, but a term he applied to himself — when it involved women or opponents. He acted without self-respect or restraint. He seemed almost too conditioned to be a fighter, almost without the personality and character we celebrated in heavyweight champs ever since Ali. After he bit Evander Holyfield, I dismissed him as a wasted soul, beyond redemption as a human being.
James Toback’s documentary challenges your assumptions about Mike Tyson. Nearly the only voice outside of fight clips and TV interviews is that of Tyson. He talks for 90 minutes, steadily and urgently, edited sometimes so that he overtakes his own thoughts, knocking down your expectations and forcing you to confront him through an unguarded, amazingly candid narration.
It’s revealing to listen to this once-furious fighter, renowned for his early and brutal knockouts, to hear him talk about being afraid, being bullied, feeling cheated, at the mercy of an impulsive nature he clearly can’t explain. His narrative mixes metaphors, plows past non sequiturs, earnestly searches for the right words only to settle for something vague and not quite appropriate. But in the hour-and-a-half of recounting his training and career and life since, he says some amazing things for a guy I thought incapable of reflection.
He talks about his pre-fight approach, emerging without a robe and already drenched in sweat, turning his fear into power with each step: “The closer I get to the ring, the more confident I get. Once I’m in the ring, I’m a god. No one could beat me. I walk around the ring but I never take my eyes off my opponent. Even if he’s ready and pumping, and can’t wait to get his hands on me. I keep my eyes on him. I keep my eyes on him. Then once I see a chink in his armor, boom, one of his eyes may move, and then I know I have him. Then once he comes to the center of the ring he looks at me with his piercing look as if he’s not afraid. But he already made that mistake when he looked down for that one-tenth of a second. I know I have him. He’ll fight hard for the first two or three rounds, but I know I broke his spirit.”
Unfortunately, Tyson excuses himself for his abusive behavior toward his wife of eight months, Robin Givens. (Watching him clearly and calmly growing furious during a Barbara Walters interview is unnerving.) And he viciously attacks Desiree Washington, whose charges of rape sent him to prison. But the same angry face with its framing Maori tattoo struggles to stay composed while describing the encouragement and support of Cus D’Amato, the man who first believed in him and trained him to be a champion.
And two amazing post-defeat moments that end Tyson’s career, as well as the film, help illustrate the complexity of the fighter. In the first, after a brutal rout, he gently wipes blood from the face of a triumphant Lennox Lewis, then, in a moment after a humiliating loss that ended his professional career, admits to an interviewer that there’s no fight left in him, that he knew he couldn’t win even before the fight, then graciously wishes the new champ luck with his life and career.
Stories capable of changing your established viewpoints don’t come along everyday. I knew what I thought of Mike Tyson before watching this film, and now I’m not sure. I think boxing is brutal and I think the sport is cynical and exploitative, and I think Tyson was already a dangerous and angry kid before they taught him how to destroy others with his fists. But after listening to him, without the bluster necessary of the ring and without asking anything of him other than his candid recounting of his life, flaws and all, I believe he is a fragile and confused human being, like all of us. And like each of us, I think he is redeemable.