The metaphysics of Iron Mike
by Jason Blair
TYSON: Written and Directed by James Toback. Cinematography, Larry McConkey. Starring Mike Tyson, Cus D’Amato, Muhammed Ali, Evander Holyfield, Don King and Robin Givens. Sony Pictures Classics, 2008. R. 88 minutes.
Remembered as much for chewing off the ear of Evander Holyfield as for his devastating uppercut, Mike Tyson is in need of a comeback. It wasn’t always this way. Under the tutelage of his trainer and mentor Cus D’Amato, the young Tyson obliterated his early opponents, bringing speed, power and discipline to bear on one jaw after another. He knocked out his Junior Olympic rival in eight seconds, a record that still stands. He won his first 19 fights by knockout, becoming, at the age of 20, the youngest heavyweight champion ever. By 1987, he was the most devastating and ferocious boxer of his generation. The paranoia was always there, but so was the childlike, effeminate lisp, and the mug that resembled a beefed up Jamie Foxx.
Then Cus D’Amato died. Within a few years, everything unraveled. With surprising calm and eloquence, Tyson narrates James Toback’s emotional Tyson, which essentially is an extended interview of a boxer who fell to Earth. Now 43 years old, Tyson has lost more money than most people will ever earn, been in jail twice and — a charge he disputes to this day — even been convicted of rape. He has few friends and, I don’t mind saying, probably deserves even fewer than he has. What holds Tyson together is how reflective, how conciliatory, even, this pugilist turns out to be. Tyson’s is a crude eloquence, but it’s still eloquence nonetheless. He can utter lines like “My insanity was my only sanity.” He can refer to money as “paper blood,” while still being prone to malapropisms, such as his reference to hardship being “a hard pill to sleep with.” Of his many foibles, says Tyson, his abusive nature created “a great stain in my heart.” As terrifying as Tyson was as a boxer — it took years before another fighter even knocked him down — it’s alarming, but highly effective, to see him peel himself apart in this way.
Like the recent gem Anvil! The Story of Anvil, Tyson won’t find a broad audience. It deserves one. The disconnect, if that’s what it is, is partly because audiences are experiencing, to my eyes, a golden age of documentary film, one in which filmgoers can afford to be selective about what they watch. Another reason is that, as with Anvil!, it’s easy to associate these films with their subjects, which in both cases happen to be obsessive males with little regard for how others perceive them. But Tyson intrigues as a portrait of a man reformed, a former worldwide celebrity who made harming others his way of life. He realizes his best days are behind him. But peace might still be ahead.