“Once I'm in the ring, I'm a god,” Mike Tyson says in James Toback's new documentary, Tyson. “No one can beat me.”
Obviously, these days we know that's not true. Tyson actually held the heavyweight championship for a short while before swirling into a very protracted public meltdown. After all, when we think of Tyson these days, what comes to mind? His short-lived, ridiculous marriage to Robin Givens? Sure. His rape conviction and his years in prison? Oh, yeah. Stomping the shit out of Don King, whom he calls a “wretched, slimy, reptilian motherfucker.” Yep. Biting off a chunk of Evander Holyfield's ear—twice? Of course.
Tyson addresses all of these issues in the movie, which is made up of old footage from his life and times, as well as several lengthy interview sessions with him. Toback isn't looking for the absolute truth about Tyson's experience; he's interested in who Mike Tyson is and what he thinks about those events. And the result is fascinating.
In light of all the absurd problems Tyson has had, it's easy to forget what a dominant presence he was in the ring, what a terrifying, unbeatable fighter he was for so long. And now that he's a little older, a little bigger, perhaps even a little wiser, he's able to reflect on the things in his life that we do remember about him. Tyson knows that his marriage to Givens was ill-conceived and that he was far too immature to have tied the knot when he did. He's clearly unable to keep it in his pants, and his sexual relationships with women—which he discusses in detail—are largely based on a very emotional form of control. But he's able to recognize this, and, like so many problems he's had, he takes responsibility for his part.
Tyson is a man brimming with regret, a man who, as he says, wants to love but not be loved. It's evident that he still suffers from self-loathing and feels he's never been given the tools to succeed socially. And he's absolutely right. He comes from a horrific background of poverty and crime and drugs and would likely be dead if he hadn't hooked up with his trainer, Cus D'Amato, after a stint in reform school.
You think Mike Tyson is a monster? Just watch him choke up discussing his relationship with D'Amato, who became Tyson's guardian after the fighter's mother died. Picture it: Tyson is a young black kid from a bad part of town with no father figure. D'Amato guides him right, teaches him well and helps him develop as a boxer and as a person. For Tyson, as you can see in the old footage, this is so much more than just a vocation. This relationship, built around a skillful form of violence, is the father-son bond he never had. And no matter what you think of him, as a person, as a man, as a fighter, as the dude whose face is tattooed with Maori symbols, you suddenly understand exactly why he is the way he is. This marked the first, and perhaps only, time anyone ever truly got into Iron Mike's psychological corner.
It taught him self-respect and gave him self-confidence. And you can't help but feel that since his coach died in 1985, before Tyson won the championship, he's been adrift, a scared little boy in a huge, powerful body who knows only how to smash people into pulp and who doesn't truly have anyone.
You don't have to believe what Tyson says, though he speaks so poorly of himself that it's hard to see why you wouldn't. Toback, the director, has said in interviews that he's absolutely convinced Tyson never committed the rape that sent him to prison for three years. And you don't have to feel badly for him, although it's certainly difficult not to. But whatever you end up deciding about Mike Tyson, what you should never do is count him out.