Who’s the greater hero, Muhammad Ali or Mike Tyson? Obviously, it’s Ali, no contest. They’re both heavyweight legends who converted to Islam, and fought the law. But Ali was a noble war resister whose conviction for refusing the draft was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, while Tyson was the ear-biting thug who served hard time as a convicted rapist. Now let’s rephrase the question. Which of the two men would make the more compelling protagonist of a Shakespearean play? In this case, the answer is clearly Tyson, a tragic hero defeated by staggering hubris. At least that’s the impression created by a riveting new documentary that opens next week after its showing at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival.
Directed by veteran filmmaker James Toback, Tyson makes no pretense at balance. Uniquely devoted to its subject’s viewpoint, it unfolds as a bout of cinematic therapy, with the director in his corner as a sympathetic shrink. He puts Tyson on the couch—literally, his massive frame nestled in leopard-print cushions—and lets him pour out raw confessions for the camera. The movie is a bid to redeem Tyson’s image, but what emerges is a portrait of profound and scary complexity. Within the beast lies the pummelled psyche of an idiot savant—a monster-in-rehab who bares his soul with brutal candour, and unlikely glints of intellectual prowess.
Also at Macleans.ca: Exclusive videos of Tyson and Toback
Punctuated with clips of prizefights, Tyson’s interview plays on split-screens, his words echoing the rhythm of a boxer circling his prey. This documentary valentine finds poetry in the predator, but pulls no punches. On the phone from Los Angeles last week, Toback recalled Tyson turning to him after the film’s Sundance premiere: “He said, ‘I always wondered why people said they were scared of me. Watching the movie tonight I’m scared of the guy on the screen.’ ”
Tyson is the story of a fighting machine that spun out of control, a man who now says, “I don’t like the person I’ve become.” He was a bullied fat kid who learned to strike back, then a proud preteen thief who found a second home in correction facilities—and a surrogate father in trainer Cus D’Amato. “I was like his dog,” says Tyson, sobbing. “He broke me down and rebuilt me.” In his first title match, he demolished Trevor Berbick as Ali cheered him on. Tyson remembers burning with gonorrhea, but staying focused on driving his fist through the back of his opponent’s head. “People don’t have the slightest idea how hard it is to break somebody’s eye socket,” he says with clinical pride. “It’s all about the skill, the speed, the accuracy.”
Tyson makes no apology for the crimes that define his legacy. Referring to Desiree Washington, he claims he was “falsely accused of raping that wretched swine of a woman,” although he has the gall to admit he may have taken advantage of other women. It’s chilling to hear him talk about his desire to dominate strong females: “I want to ravish them completely. I love saying ‘no’ when I’m making love. Always ‘no.’ I don’t like being loved.” As for sinking his teeth into Evander Holyfield’s ear, Tyson says the man’s head-butts had driven him “totally insane.”
Madness is the one transgression that haunts him to this day. “He’s engaged in an ongoing struggle with it,” says Toback, who has served as a long-time mentor. They met when the boxer visited the set of his movie The Pick-Up Artist (1987), drawn to the director’s reputation as a legendary womanizer. Toback introduced Tyson to literature and philosophy, feeding him Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. The boxer became a voracious reader, especially during his three-year prison term, half of it spent in solitary confinement. The director later cast him in his screen debut, an explosive cameo opposite Robert Downey Jr. in Black and White (1999).
In the documentary, a more fragile Tyson wrestles with his demons, displaying a mongrel mix of eloquence and malapropism. “He has several voices going on in his head at the same time,” explains Toback, “all vying for privacy.” That may prove elusive. Now there’s talk of a Hollywood biopic. “Jamie Foxx is obsessed with playing Tyson,” says Toback, “and Mike wants it to happen, so it probably will.” Toback says you couldn’t pay him enough to direct it, not while Mike is alive. Besides, he adds, with a heavyweight’s immodesty, his is “the definitive work on this subject.”