Mike Tyson in Five Acts: A Rumpus Consideration

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Mike Tyson doesn’t seem full of it, but sometimes it seems full of him. Each persona gets taken to an extreme. Think Gollum in Lord of the Rings, if he moved up a few weight-classes; or Hamlet on protein shakes.

According to director James Toback, who has known Tyson since 1985, the former undisputed (and youngest) world heavyweight champion does indeed have multiple personalities, along with a photographic memory which allowed him access to high-sensory reflections in Toback’s new documentary, Tyson. (The Rumpus interview with the director can be found here.)

The film builds its portrait of Tyson by intercutting a new feature-length interview with classic footage of the champion. Straight out of rehab, with that twelve-step sense of vulnerability and analytical clarity (in the vein of Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew), the peak of Tyson’s self-knowledge is now. “It’s like a Greek tragedy,” he says.  “Only I’m the subject.”

The subtleties of Tyson may surprise the viewer, whether they know Mike’s timeline or just the more sensational moments, such as his ear-biting incident during a 1997 title bout with Evander Holyfield. This film is the single closest entity to contain the whole force of Tyson, whose strong spirit overflows even his impressive incarnation. It may reinforce what you know, but you will surely experience some nouvelle Tyson.

We explore his vulnerable moments: as a little boy in Brooklyn he kept pigeons on the roof and got bullied; as a teen, before his first amateur match, he slipped downstairs to shake off the pre-fight jitters and considered jumping on the subway train rattling by the building.

The ferocious moments unveil a man’s desperation of being backed into a corner, as Tyson, in a more lucid state, explains his fear of never again wanting to be disempowered and reduced to that helpless little boy. He feared being “dominated in the streets.” Or as Tyson put it another way, during his pre-fight press conference with Lewis in 2002, after a scuffle between entourages , yelling at the reporters he felt were antagonizing him: “I’ll eat your asshole alive, you bitch.  Nobody in this room can fuck with this man… You can’t last two minutes in my world… I’ll fuck you til you love me, faggot.” Onstage, there’s a grisly aura to Tyson’s freestyle slam poetry, charged with incarceration-infected alpha machismo, ironically homoerotic. No doubt he’s immersed in this persona… for that moment.

With a thematic twist worthy of Joseph Campbell, Tyson provides a progressive inversion of expectations. Cut to the post-fight. During an interview in the ring, a sweaty and battered Tyson gives Lewis full credit as a warrior athlete, and says they’ve been friends for a long time. Tyson attributes the scuffle they had at the press conference to the likeness of pigeons being fed, every creature for themselves when the breadcrumbs are at stake. In this moment, he conducts himself as a sportsman, classy in his defeat. These successive contradictions add to the overall portrait, ever shifting.  The bigger picture is elusive and in-your-face. Breadcrumbs, indeed.

We see a particularly sensitive moment when Tyson gets choked up while discussing Cus D’Amato, his former trainer, mentor, and unspoken father figure, who passed away in 1985. The camera stays on Tyson for a ten-count as he struggles to finish his sentence. Cus is the one who encouraged Tyson to scrap his teenage delinquency and focus on competition. Until this time, Tyson’s newfound killer instinct had mostly manifested in street crime and aggression; but now he could pour all of himself into the role of the boxer. Cus treated Tyson like family and helped instill confidence and a warrior-spirit in the kid.

Tyson got beat up during his first spar audition. The bloody-nosed teen was eager to demonstrate his toughness. He wanted to get out of the ghetto. Tyson’s transition to laser beam focus took time; he still reverted back to street crime (and today most of his childhood peers are in jail or dead). His first thought in the Catskills: “I could rob these white motherfuckers.” But Cus D’Amato extended trust and support, and Tyson knew there was something there worth more than any of the material objects in the room.

Tyson immersed himself in the sport, both in practice and history. At night, he watched old reels of the classic fights from the early days of boxing. He studied the fighters and memorized their moves. He knew the stats and held himself in this canon, both empowered and humbled by the knowledge that every streak must end.

Early training footage captures Tyson’s unlimited potential and natural athletic ability: speed, power, precision, and intensity. The fight clips are awesome – the kid was a predator. The explosive agility, the calm aggression – if he doesn’t finish you with this uppercut, how about this one, or this one? – bobbing and weaving, a pendulum of muscle and bone, ticking down the seconds.

The film offers a bonus commentary track within the feature, as Tyson voices moody interiority for some of the archive footage, ranging from insightful to inadvertently humorous. He talks about his pre-fight rituals, his mentality once he enters the ring, how he keeps eye contact from across the canvas, and once his opponent looks away he knows that he’s already broken the man’s spirit. During one of these psych-outs, with Tyson pacing and frowning, we learn that he was suffering from gonorrhea – burning the candle at both ends, so to speak.  Then he won the belt from Trevor Berbick and became the youngest heavyweight champ ever.

II

During a press interview upon the film’s premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2008, Tyson said it was difficult to watch James Toback’s portrait of him: “I’ve always been objective and a hard critic of myself,” Tyson said, discussing his constant striving for perfection. “Even if someone thinks something is great, I see the non-perfection in it.” Properly channeled that attitude was a recipe for success, but these days it borders on tragic. His adamancies are still evasive; it’s hard to decipher what he means. Tyson didn’t appear to be embarrassed or regret discussing his less flattering moments, including the rape allegation, street violence, and so forth. Perhaps this perfection is a reference to the fight footage itself, or one of the archetypes he embodies in the film; only Tyson, if anyone, knows.

During this Cannes interview, Tyson said, “Always believe in yourself and keep fighting; never let people put you down and limit you; this is what makes life worth living and fighting for.” That’s a more inspiring moment, but otherwise, Tyson appeared more exhausted and uncomfortable doing media for the film, than he does in Tyson. That achievement of relative clarity and tranquility is clearly not the final word, though it feels like it. After the film premiere, a reporter asked in a toned-down, condescending way how Mike has been since the film – the unspoken question, “Have you gone crazy again yet?” Mike appeared defensive and, reminiscent of the Bob Dylan’s Don’t Look Back media conferences in 60s San Francisco, said, “How are YOU?”

Due to all the media attention and cameras, Tyson felt overwhelmed and intimidated at the Cannes Festival, though he put a lot of faith and trust into Toback’s vision. According to Tyson, he got called by Toback on his way to AA, and he thought the film would just become “some bootleg,” and he could make a few bucks.

Director Toback describes Tyson as “an American hero under dark circumstances.” Toback has been obsessed with boxing since he was four or five, and became a boxer himself in “misguided attempt to see if I could ever last with someone who was good for more than thirty seconds.” He said, “I found Mike to be light years more interesting than any of the others, more articulate, and symbolically more significant, because there is an iconographic status that Mike has achieved, and in fact, had almost from the beginning.” He spoke of Mike’s “speed, accuracy, craft, and power,” his “mystique,” and even more so than Muhammad Ali, consider Mike the “representative iconic figure of that profession.”

III

Tyson and Ali appeared together on the Arsenio Hall Show in 1989 with respect and admiration for one another. They both were sure that the other would win if they both fought in their prime. Ali said about the reputed bad boy, “He can be modest, humble, and nice.” The entire segment was touching and hilarious, and Arsenio fell back on the cough, laughing.

An ESPN special, Ringside Tyson, archives more of his early interview footage, his visions of grandeur meshed with a foresight of inevitable downfall. The special chronicles Tyson’s career to his first professional loss against Buster Douglas in Japan (Tyson’s personal life was in public turmoil at that time, under the spell of Don King, and his team so underestimated Buster Douglas that the corner team did not bring all their medical gear from the locker room). Douglas who had been deemed a manqué his whole career had dedicated that match to his recently deceased mother and he fought like a true champion for one night.

According to Teddy Atlas, who co-hosted the Ringside special, Tyson’s grand character flaw is his inability to deal with adversity. Tyson had learned how to charge through his opponents, and how to charge through life, but whenever he met anything that could stop him in his tracks, he didn’t know what to do.

Atlas, who grew up rough himself, as notated by the prominent knife scar on his face, recognized Tyson’s potential and also his instability, early on, but his concerns went largely ignored, and caused controversies in D’Amato’s camp in the 80s. Meanwhile Cus, elderly and ill, went on television and claimed he was only alive to that day because of Mike. After Cus’s death, and Mike’s exploitation by grand pimp, Don King, Mike’s professional and personal life began going down the tubes.

Here’s the Dynamite Kid, who can be seen in his early fights picking up his opponents after he knocked them out, asking if they’re ok, kissing them on the head, with real eager sportsmanship.

Years later, in 1997, Atlas made a broad accurate prediction that something would happen during the Tyson-Holyfield rematch. He saw the desperation and fear (which Cus had helped mold into Iron Mike, but now that the once unbeatable kid was feeling this again, full-circle it was simply dangerous). The way Tyson acted in the days preceding the fight, Atlas predicted there would be something dirty: “He’ll bite Holyfield. He’ll butt him. He’ll hit him low. He’ll do something if he don’t get him early with a lucky shot. I know this guy. He’s got this all set up in his mind. That’s the only way he can face it. That’s what this is all about.”

IV

Tyson has spoken about himself as a tragic hero, a powerful being that brought about his own doom. Others may consider him an antihero, with the flaws always outweighing the greatness (and these opinions have changed over the years). Or maybe he’s a villain seeking redemption.

Part heroic and admirable, part ruthless; both kind and nasty. Who is the man?

He’s at least two-headed. In a post-fight interview, after his very last bout, with Kevin McBride, Tyson said that he only fought for the money, and that his heart wasn’t in it anymore. There’s an honesty there, a cruel truth; he knows he’s finished, losing to “that caliber of fighter.”  Yet, a few seconds later, he also praised McBride and wished him the best. These manners may be a lip service afterthought, or a another persona, or just a façade, but Tyson seems to embrace this. He fills the role.

Tyson is larger than life, almost as if our conceptions of him can only comprehend so many angles; this town ain’t big enough for the entire Tyson, maybe; and with that said, he isn’t sure either. As he said in an early 80s interview, almost bragging: “No one knows Mike Tyson.”

Why the fascination in our pop mythology? What can Tyson teach us about ourselves?

Is it possible that Tyson, with however many heads he has, the trickster hydra, is only a reflection of us?  not just our vampiric obsession with celebrities, our fickle love and hate, sucking them dry, and composting them as retro novelties on VH1 and other media cameos; no, just us as everyday human beings, in the awkwardness, in the glory?

He is the supersized version of our strengths and weaknesses, our superpowers and mortal coil frailties, orbiting around issues of power and dominance. That EPIC inner-conflict, the 300 Spartan battle of the psyche. He embodies our contradictions and earnest hypocrisies. It’s all there.

Instead of backpedaling, Tyson goes kamikaze into the vanishing point. He is what we fear and what we want to be, our vicariousness, our voyeurism, our goal, our nightmare. He is the spark of friction between ambition and attrition. Tyson is the part of us that eats well and exercises; he’s the part that says screw it, what does it really matter, I’m gonna die anyway, I should just take it easy and have fun; he’s the part that says well that isn’t even possible without taking care of the body. The shaky borders of victory and self-defeat. The multitudes of the collective neuroses, ancient and modern. A caricature of the human mind and spirit, intertwined with Gordian knots and feedback loops.

But enough about us.

V

There are many ways to skin the words and actions of Tyson. In Toback’s Black and White, filmed about two years before the Lewis fiasco, Tyson does some improv with Robert Downey Jr, Brooke Shields, and others.  Downey’s character keeps bothering him at a gangster soiree, while Tyson explains that he’s trying to have a peaceful moment. He improvs to the effect, “I’m on parole c’mon,” and later tells Shields’ character, who is trying to film him, “I’m not an animal.” Of course, in a comedic moment, he slaps Downey Jr., all part of the improv. (Ironically, it was his admiration of Downey Jr that first brought Tyson to Toback’s film set where they met in 1985). Even here, in the scene not found in Toback’s Tyson, the man is an embodiment of contradiction… an intersection of a conundrum that is occasionally at equilibrium but sometimes wriggles as if it is going to explode.

Might there be a future industry in Tyson-chic?  Should the man have his own talk show? How about Tyson figurines with accessories and mood rings?

In Todd Philips’ new comedy, The Hangover, Tyson sings Phil Collins, carvinalesque, self-imposed inversion of iconography. Or, esoteric hysterics aside, it’s just funny. It’s a sight gag that tickles something about our culture. It gets the same laugh that his commentary about gonorrhea does.

The scene plays mostly uncomfortable, with a little funny. Tyson seems awkward and weathered. In one brief moment, with a John Lequizamo collegiate inflection, he says “NICE,” impressed by footage of the characters stealing a cop car during their Vegas shenanigans. The protagonists get caught up in all kinds of things, such as stealing Tyson’s tiger and mock-humping it in front of the surveillance camera. This clearly irritates him, but beyond sending one of the fellas out of the room he is remarkably patient. With a world weariness, Tyson says on the couch, “People do dumb shit when they’re fucked up,” and everyone onscreen and in the theater seems to agree.

**

top image of Tyson fighting by Christian Wiseman.


Joe Cervelin, a native of Brooklyn, now resides in the Bay Area. He awaits an international fellowship to carry him to sea. More from this author →