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Jockbeat: The Beguiling Power of Mike Tyson

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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.” 

 
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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