A documentary, like any movie trying to hold your attention, needs either a big theme some tremendous political injustice will do or a magnetic character that keeps people watching. Tyson has character to spare, since its subject and star is the two-time heavyweight champion and three-year guest of the Indiana penal system. In boxing, “the sweet science,” he was the Frankenstein monster.
Yet Mike Tyson, now 42, would be worthy of documentary attention even if he hadn’t been convicted of rape or snacked on Evander Holyfield’s ear. Behind the elaborate facial tattoos and that odd soft lisp, parodied on The Simpsons and Don Imus’s old radio show, is a compelling mind-voice, at once naive and reflective. The man may be washed up, bankrupt, a figure of fear or fun to those who remember him. But in close-up here, detailing his “madness of the mind, chaos of the brain,” Mike Tyson is a star.
And in James Toback, he found the ideal listener for what it essentially a 90-minute monologue punctuated by film clips, with Tyson narrating his entire life, including the blow-by-blow commentary of his fight footage. Since his first film as screenwriter, The Gambler in 1974, and Fingers, his 1978 debut as writer-director, Toback has put churning, charismatic self-destructive characters on the screen. Toback has always been fascinated by the machismo of professional athletes; he wrote a tell-all memoir of his years spent with football-star-turned-actor Jim Brown. In Tyson he had a man who took Brown’s use of violence to extravagant, uncontrollable depths. It’s as if Tyson did everything wrong and interesting in his life to make himself the perfect Toback topic.
Tyson’s attraction to any biographer is that he carries epic achievements and contradictions within him. At first he was a variation on the proverbial 97-pound weakling: an overweight street kid from the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. He got beaten up regularly by the local toughs “Very few of them,” he says, “are functioning adults right now” who lured him into street crime. As a 12-year-old in a detention home he was discovered by Cus d’Amato, who had trained and managed Floyd Patterson to the heavyweight boxing title in the ’50s. Cus saw potential in this soft-spoken junior thug, and Mike went along with the program because “I was afraid of being physically humiliated in the streets again.”
In d’Amato, Tyson found the father he never had. “He broke me down and rebuilt me,” Tyson says of his coach, who adopted him, raised him with the d’Amato family in the Catskills and gave the boy focus and purpose as a boxer. Tyson was an apt pupil: he obsessively studied old films of boxing legends, learned the spiritual side of the warrior mentality and, he says, “restrained myself from having sex for about five years.” He tore through the amateur ranks, knocking out one opponent in a record eight seconds, and was heavyweight champ before he was 21. Those victories helped him realize that “I don’t have to worry about anyone bullying me again.”