Mike Tyson documentary: A revelation of a film

‘Tyson’ the documentary, directed by James Toback, a personal acquaintance of the man himself, is a surprisingly candid and moving look at the former heavyweight boxing champion of the world, once known as ‘Iron Mike’. Unfortunately it is on such limited release in London, with only 3 cinemas carrying the film and showings mostly after 9pm, I had to go half way across the city to see it. I went with my lovely mum who sees Mike like the little brother she never had. Things got off to an auspicious start as we only paid a nifty £3.50 to get in! The audience in attendance was diverse, from elderly Caucasians to young men and women of varied ethnicity.

Without a doubt, a controversial individual, many might sneer at the thought of a film dedicated to such a curious, often volatile character. I come from a household of Mike Tyson-sympathisers and I have no problem admitting I am one by proxy. Nevertheless even the most ardent Mike critic will find it hard not to review their perception of this complicated figure. Articulate and astonishingly frank the film is narrated by Tyson himself, interspersed with clips, newspaper cuttings and footage from pivotal moments in his career. Starting with his turbulent childhood, it deals with the good, bad and the ugly and Mike -excuse the pun- pulls no punches least of all on himself. Tyson offers explanations but no excuses. Even when other figures contributed to the demise of his career (Desiree Washington, Don King, Holyfield’s dubious tactics in the ring), he makes no attempt to abdicate himself from responsibility. For instance, he is relatively charitable towards his first wife, actress Robyn Givens, saying they were both too young and immature to make things work.

There’s certainly no love lost though for murderous crook-cum-promoter Don King. Neither is there any for Ms Washington – who’s accusations of rape lead to Tyson’s 3-years incarceration – calling her a ‘wretched swine’ of a woman. Prison made Tyson more bitter and angry with the world and this is evident from the footage of his mercurial turns at press conferences, shortly after his release. I for one, was always very skeptical of the allegation and the ring of implausibility that accompanied the story behind it, albeit I would be biased. A woman accuses a man of rape and his reputation is tarnished for good, whether he’s guilty or not. However, having seen the film and how freely Mike T admits to so much else, I’m inclined to believe that if he had assaulted her he’d have come clean about that too. After all, he’s served his time and is so maligned in some people’s minds that he has nothing to lose by admitting to it.

Tyson talks freely about his insecurities, decadent lifestyle, promiscuity and the resultant STDs, his failed marriages and why he at times has been his own worst enemy. He has no qualms divulging his vulnerability and his regrets over the way he allowed, drugs, women and sycophants to take him off track. At the same time, without Mike having to chant the whole ‘Boy from the wrong side of the tracks and a broken home’ mantra, the all too familiar and devestating recurring issues of errant fathers, lack of guidance and lost youth leading to heartache, come to the surface. By far the saddest thing to blight his life was the death of his adopted father, coach and mentor Constantine ‘Cus’ D’Amato. Tyson still weeps openly for his beloved friend. Despite his initial success, it was downhill all the way for Mike after D’Amato’s death. The discipline he’d acquired through the old man’s care and attention after he rescued him from a life of petty crime, slowly disappeared as Mike’s prodigious achievements in the ring instigated a life of excess.

Tyson seems to have gained a lot of perspective with age and is therefore a lot more mellow and philosophical. He cuts a tragic figure but also one with the tenacity to survive. Most of his childhood friends are dead, in prison for a long stretch or addicts of some kind. Tyson admits to not believing he’d live to his 40s which explains why he at times spent money, literally like there was no tomorrow. He no longer has a love for boxing (he describes his last few poor performance fights as an example of his mercernary attitude towards the sport – he was broke and needed the dough). By the end of the film, I thought it was for the best that he’d hung up his gloves. There’s hope for him, as he talks of his continued journey towards redemption and his greatest success to date, his six adorable children.

Tyson:The documentary is a powerful illustration of the adage that there’s two sides to every story. Too many people are ready to believe the worst about Mike Tyson. Some might argue that this is understandable. But keep an open mind and you’ll be surprised how emotive and thought-provoking a film this is and endearing a subject matter. I will be praying for Iron Mike. Anyone that sincere and ready to admit their faults is surely more than halfway to vanquishing their demons.

‘Tyson’ on limited release in UK cinemas as of 27 March 2009.
Pre-order DVD now on Amazon.co.uk (release date 6 April).

For an excellent, in depth interview with Mike Tyson about the film please visit http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/2009/mar/21/mike-tyson-interview-boxing

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