by Thomas Delapa
At age 20, he was the youngest heavyweight champ in history. But “Iron Mike” Tyson was no Gentleman Jim. Nor would anyone confuse the scowling brawler with the charismatic showman Muhammad Ali. A surly, gold-toothed brute who once declared he wanted to pound a foe’s nose “back through his head,” Tyson was the leading contender as America’s worst sporting nightmare.
In a career that had more ups and downs than a punchy ham-and-egger, Tyson won and lost a lifetime of titles, served time in prison, chewed the ear of a foe, was eaten alive by Robin Givens, and been knocked out of boxing. Now retired from the ring, he’s back slugging in Tyson, an incisive, no-holds-barred documentary that packs a wallop.
In the filmic arena created by director James Toback, Tyson sits comfortably on his couch addressing the camera, his monologues at times delivered in a flurry of split-screen images. Toback skillfully combines Tyson’s revealing confessions with fight footage chronicling a career that began in the early 1980s under the tutelage of the legendary trainer Cus D’Amato. In this first-person memoir, Tyson takes the gloves off, riffing on (and sometimes ripping) everyone from Don King to ex-wife Givens. It’s an ideal set-up for Tyson, since no one is allowed to punch back.
Of all the people who are conspicuously absent from the interviews, the most pivotal may be D’Amato, who became Tyson’s legal guardian as a teen. After a troubled Brooklyn boyhood striped with stays in reform school, Tyson found in D’Amato both a mentor and father-figure who made him believe he could be a champion. It doesn’t take a Freudian to recognize that D’Amato’s death in 1985 was a punishing blow to the young fighter, and one he’s perhaps never recovered from.
With that lisping, high-pitched voice (and now Maori facial tattoo), Tyson has always been a contradiction, even when he was knocking peoples’ blocks off. In place of that fearsome stare, Tyson here counters with an emotional and articulate side that confesses to fears, addictions and a self-described inferiority complex. He still remembers the shocked hurt he felt as a boy when a man robbed him on the streets of Brooklyn.
While anger, talent and a killer instinct propelled Tyson’s rise to the top, he also was determined to hit the books--learning his craft by studying fight films of past champs from Marciano to Ali. All the work paid off in worldwide fame and paydays amounting in the tens of millions of dollars. “In Japan they wrote comic books about me,” he proudly recalls.
A Raging Bull in living color, Tyson was his own worst enemy, going down for the count repeatedly, most notoriously in the 1992 rape conviction that sent him to an Indiana prison for three years. Soft-spoken but mercilessly blunt, Tyson saves his verbal pummeling for his accuser. He also lays it on shock-haired promoter Don King, who would “kill his mother for a dollar.”
Whether you’re in Tyson’s corner or not, Toback’s replay could have included a few outside observations without losing its punch. But Toback lets Tyson and the footage do all the talking, culminating with the fighter's ear-biting 1997 bout with Evander Holyfield, an appalling fiasco that may have sounded the death knell for heavyweight boxing as a legitimate spectator sport in America.