Jockbeat: The Beguiling Power of Mike Tyson

In the interest of full disclosure, James Toback owes me money.  At a party in 1992, he assured me that if Evander Holyfield ever met Mike Tyson, Tyson would surely destroy him. We made a $100 bet. You know how that one turned out.

At a memorial service for Pauline Kael in the winter of 2002, I reminded him of the bet. And he pulled a $2 bill out of his pocket and autographed it for me as an IOU. I never did get the $100, but if it went into the making of Tyson, Toback's second nonfiction film, it was more than worth it.

Toback, who had a brief but brilliant career as a sportswriter before getting into film, has always loved boxing. In his autobiographical script for Karel Reisz's The Gambler (1974) he has James Caan showing off his Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier moves. In his hugely entertaining 1978 cult favorite Fingers he cast football great Jim Brown as a Sony Liston-type former champ. And, of course, he gave Tyson a nice juicy part in his 1999 film, Black and White.

Toback is fascinated with Tyson, and clearly film critics are fascinated with Toback's fascination. (The Voice's review, by Scott Foundas, can be read here.) In Friday's New York Times, A.O. Scott (who incorrectly calls Tyson Toback's first nonfiction film, apparently unaware of Toback's 1989 The Big Bang) writes that Tyson "is not an entirely trustworthy movie, but it does feel profoundly honest." 

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In the New York Press, Armond White, as big a sucker as this city has when it comes to gushing over a hot racial issue, writes that "To my knowledge, there is simply no film on
record that examines a boxer's intellect this way ... Tyson's brutishness also recalls Marlon Brando as boxer Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront. We see the mind and soul within the animal." 

It's not clear that Mike Tyson has succeeded in pulling the wool over James Toback's eyes; I don't think Toback really feels he understands Tyson or cares to.  But Tyson certainly has succeeded in trickerating (to borrow an old favorite from Don King) the film critics.

Tyson's psyche, to the degree that it can be explained by his actions, was revealed perfectly well in Barbara Kopple's 1993 documentary, Fallen Champ: the Untold Story of Mike Tyson. That's not what Toback is after here. He wants us to be as thrilled by Tyson's record of savagery in and out of the ring as he is and to at least pretend that such a man has something deeper to think or say behind his sly masks (which are often presented on screen in fancy multi-frame images).

Tyson isn't about explaining Tyson, it's about mirroring Toback's hero worship. The film offers no other point of view - not even Toback's - except Tyson's, and there's not so much as a suggestion that Tyson feels he has anything to apologize for. I would suggest to both Toback and Tyson that biting off Holyfield's ear in the ring, his brutality towards his ex-wife Robin Givens, and his conviction for raping Miss Black America contestant Desiree Washington might call for a little remorse, but I'm afraid that would seem too moralistic. At the very least, you might have thought Toback would have warned Tyson that calling Ms. Washington "that wretched swine of a woman" might not be ...  well, cool.

A.O. Scott feels that Toback's cinematic effects, such as dividing the screen into two or three parts (and editing the audio to make it sound as if Tyson was "in dialogue with himself") "emphasized the film's main point, which is that Mr. Tyson is too mercurial, too self-contradictory, to be easily summed up." The simpler explanation, that Tyson might just be a little nuts, doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone.

Instead, we're treated to a rehash of the old Tyson stories of twenty-something years ago, the kind he used to beguile writers like, I'm sorry to say, the Voice's own late Jack Newfield  (who, taking off from Dwight Gooden's nickname of "Doctor K," dubbed Tyson "Doctor KO") about how his horrible childhood in Bed-Stuy shaped his life. One of the film's most soulful moments has Tyson telling the camera how he was afraid, afraid, afraid while he was growing up, with just the slightest glance at the camera to make sure the moment was captured on film. He talks about how afraid he was of being bullied as a boy without the least thought as to how the people who were bullied by him felt. (Quite a few, if we are to believe the early police reports.)

As in an old-fashioned Hollywood melodrama, we are led to believe that Tyson's violent behavior is the result of his environment, but there are no counter stories of how other fighters from similar backgrounds (former heavyweight champ Riddick Bowe, for instance, who grew up near Tyson's neighborhood) managed to escape without the emotional scars.

Worst of all, we're once again offered the old sad story about Tyson's relationship with his adopted father figure, trainer Cus D'Amato (who raised two young fighters from tough backgrounds, two-time heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson and light-heavyweight champ Jose Torres to their professional peaks). If only Cus had bee able to live longer, Tyson and the movie lead us to believe, things might have worked out differently for Mike. But this myth was long ago dispelled in a 1991 book, Mike Tyson: Money, Myth and Betrayal, by a writer named Montieth Illingworth. In it D'Amato is revealed as a self-serving old man who spoiled Tyson, letting him get away with numerous misdeeds because he wanted just one more champion before he died. It's not surprising that Illingworth's myth-puncturing book was ignored by most of the local press when it was published, but it is worth seeking out for anyone interested in the real story.

Tyson, with its terrific ring footage and enigmatic star, couldn't help but be outrageously entertaining, and as the latest insight into the fascinating head of James Toback it's worth the price of admission. But let's drop the illusion that it tells us anything meaningful about Tyson or race or sex. What Tyson tells us, mostly, is how enthralled some intellectuals can be by a man's ability to render other men unconscious with the swing of their fist.


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