If memory serves me right, I cried the night Buster Douglas knocked Mike Tyson out. I wept because the man, in the ring, was poetry in motion and to watch it all come to an end that fateful night in 1990 was a difficult pill to swallow. Of course, I didn’t realize quite how hard that pill was for Mike Tyson to swallow. In the documentary Tyson, director James Toback gives some insight into that time period, as well as all that preceded and followed it, direct from the oft misunderstood man’s mouth.
Toback, who happens to be a close friend of Tyson’s, makes it a point to paint a very different picture than what has been floated around by the media all these years. And to say Tyson had it tough may very well be the biggest understatement of the century.
The layout of the film is very basic and I should think that is why it works so well. The bulk of it is simply Tyson, seated on a leopard skinned sofa, retelling his story as best as he can remember it. Toback then uses archival footage — home videos, snippets from boxing matches and news clips — to delve a bit deeper into the topic Mike is addressing. Presenting it any other way would have been contrived; who better to tell the story than the man who is living it?
And it all starts with his childhood in Brooklyn; Tyson walks us through how the ferocious and feared fighter was created — interestingly enough, when a bully kills one of his homing pigeons. Realizing he can hurt people with his hands, Mike vows to never to ever be the subject of bullying again (something that sticks with him to this day) and he begins his rampage of strong arm robberies and other nefarious behavior that ultimately lands him in an upstate juvenile detention center.
Whereas most kids of his ilk would end up repeating the cycle of getting arrested and released (until an untimely death), Tyson, due to his natural ability, finds himself in the hands of legendary trainer Cus D’Amato. The rest, by now, you know: Mike becomes the youngest boxing heavyweight champion of the world and for years he rules supreme until he spirals out of control and loses it all.
What is most riveting about Tyson is how candid and open Mike Tyson is talking about the good and the bad in his life. No subject is off limits and some of the revelations are eye opening. I wouldn’t say he is exactly apologetic for his behavior, but it is clear if he had things to do again, he probably would do many things differently. Things like: Avoiding Desiree Washington (the girl whose claim of rape put him in prison for three years), steering clear of Don King (who robbed him of millions), and following the teachings of Cus D’Amato’s more closely after his death (the reasons he says he lost his edge).
Most startling of all though, is the obvious internal battle the man struggles with to this day. Soft-spoken and fearful on one hand, dominating and immensely angry on the other. Many of the words he chooses to describe his thoughts are carefully chosen and yet very troubling, to say the least. How he manages to keep it all together is a mystery, but it is evident that he wants the viewer to believe he has the slumbering volcano inside him under control now.
Whether he does or doesn’t is immaterial though — the objective of Tyson is to show the monster is really a misunderstood and complex man. At this it succeeds. So much so, that I want to cry for again for him — this time as a person and not as a performer.