Still ‘the baddest man on the planet’?

Tyson was once regarded as the embodiment of terrifying black rage, yet a new film shows that his story is a very human one.

John Dennen

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Tyson is not an easy film to watch. It’s an hour-and-a-half of Mike Tyson telling you, mostly directly into the camera, his story.

It is not really a normal documentary. It does not look at Tyson as the phenomenon he was in boxing, almost certainly the best heavyweight since Ali. Or, indeed, as the devil many have depicted him as. James Toback’s film looks at Tyson from no angle other than his own. This makes for an imperfect documentary, but it is a compelling film.

Tyson’s life has many elements of the classic boxing storyline. A kid from a bad neighbourhood and in bad company finding his way out of it through boxing. Except when Tyson tells it, it sounds real.

The film starts arrestingly, with Tyson talking about being afraid all of the time and being bullied when he was young. Learning to box made him feel safe. Cus D’Amato was the trainer who took the young Tyson into his home and guided him right up to his early success. He died before he could see Tyson become the youngest champion ever to win a heavyweight title. One of the most memorable things about the film is the sound Tyson makes, a kind of hacking at the back of his throat, as he tries to stop himself from crying, even now, at the memory of his mentor’s death.

It is also strange to see him speak so fondly of this father-figure with such aggressive language. He talks of the confidence D’Amato gave him, the confidence to know, in Tyson’s words, that nobody would ever be able to fuck with him again.

The footage of the young Tyson training and fighting is a reminder of how good a boxer he was. Not tall but with huge arms and legs, his technique incredibly fast, especially so for a heavyweight. The best fighters, he says, are happy fighters, boxers who love what they’re doing and are happy with how they’re doing it.

He speaks truthfully of how afraid he was before his first amateur bout. Indeed, even as a hardened professional, the fear remains. It is only on his walk to the ring that his fear falls away. He describes his entrance to the ring, saying that the closer he gets to the ropes, the more his confidence grows. By the time he is in the ring he is, he says, a god.

Those good years were incredibly few, for all the impact Tyson made on boxing. It sounds as though he became too confident. He lost his discipline, lost the lifestyle of a boxer, and didn’t train right for fighters he thought were beneath him. One of those fighters, James ‘Buster’ Douglas, scored a shock knockout against him in 1990. Although his last fight was in 2005, with hindsight you can see his slide really started with that first loss. This still didn’t prevent Tyson from managing to win and lose a fortune, maybe a couple of times over.

Tyson won the world title for the first time from Trevor Berbick in 1986 in two devastating rounds. It was a surprise to find out that he won the championship while suffering from gonorrhea and so was all the more eager to stop Berbick as quickly as possible.

It is uncomfortable to listen to Tyson speaking about women and how he thought great men had to have many ‘conquests’. It is unsettling to hear him speak so openly about these kind of intimacies. At one point, he says he wants a woman to feel ravished, when it is well known that he spent three years in jail, convicted of rape. Yet on this matter the film says little. Tyson denies it, condemning the woman vehemently for, he says, falsely accusing him, and the film moves on. A more normal documentary would not be able to just shut down this subject, almost a defining moment in Tyson’s story. To get a full picture of the man, more does need to be said.

But this is not a documentary that looks at him in the round. It is a conversation with him, albeit a long, intense conversation where only Mike Tyson speaks. Does this excuse the film for not tackling it head on, for letting Tyson shut down the conversation at that point? It is a subjective picture, but I found it an honest one; Tyson describes how he sees himself.

The film does not style itself as a definitive take on his life and times. It is Tyson speaking with much more openness than I might have expected. He does not pity himself or blame anyone else. He points out that he allowed himself to be surrounded by ‘leeches’, as he calls them. He chose to live recklessly. What the film does uniquely is to present Tyson not as a beast or as ‘the baddest man on the planet’, but as a human being.

As such, Mike Tyson doesn’t fit into any straightforward categories. His story has its tragedies and its triumphs. Though he may not be admirable he is certainly not hateful. Speaking with honesty about his character does make Tyson uneasy viewing, but it is gripping because it is human.

John Dennen is a journalist and the writer of a short film about Joe Frazier.

Duleep Allirajah is away.

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