Monday, August 31, 2009

Tyson on Tyson

Mike Tyson is one of those people I never think about. I'm aware that he's still alive but really don't wonder what he's up to. When I think about him, I remember the time back in the mid-80s when he was knocking out opponents one after the other, each more quickly than the other, and when he was everywhere in our culture. I remember the whole Robin Givens thing, and watching their interview with Barbara Walters. I remember marveling at the disconnect between his physique and ferocity and his little baby voice, and how the Givens mess was the beginning of a steep decline, the instance where he began the journey from kind of sexy in his own way to monstrous in every way. The rape conviction was big news so of course I remember that, and the biting of Holyfield's ear, but in general he's just not someone I've thought about for at least 15 years.

I wouldn't be thinking of him today were it not for James Toback's Tyson, a documentary shot entirely from Tyson's point of view. There he is, looking somewhat ruined, telling his side of the sordid tale: his early life on the mean streets, being rescued by Cus D'Amato and turned into a boxer, how he never recovered from D'Amato's death, how he's never trusted anyone else, how he's been the victim time and time again.

There's no doubt that our culture is quick to vilify black men, particularly physically powerful black men. Could it really be that he never touched Robin Givens, never raped anyone, only bit Holyfield's ear as a reaction to a rash of illegal head butts? I guess, although common sense implies that someone repeatedly accused of brutality must be guilty of something. What's more interesting is to put aside questions of innocence and guilt and instead to take the film for what it is: a glimpse into the mind of someone very different than you or me.

In a matter of a few years he went from being a punk sent upstate to juvie to being a contender for the heavyweight title, from being no one to being famous. He became the youngest heavyweight champion, and just a few years after that lost the title and went to prison. Everything that happened to him happened in a 10-year period, and when it was all over and he found himself sitting in a prison cell in Indiana he was 25 years old. It's a bizarre enough life that any of us would have problems making sense of it all, let alone a kid raised on the streets with no education whose only adult role model had died and left him alone to navigate the world of fame and fortune.

The film is fascinating not because he is able to rehabilitate himself in anyone's eyes but because he narrates the events of his life from inside those events. It's a private record that stands beside the pubic record. If it makes us re-evaluate anything it makes us think about the ways our culture provided only one path for Tyson, violence, and the ways the same impulses and behaviors are rewarded in the ring that are condemned outside it. It's the fates, Greek tragedy writ large on the streets of Brooklyn, the mats of Las Vegas, and the sheets of the tabloids.

1 comment:

J. SPIKE ROGAN said...

I really want to see this. I'll never forget when he was beat by Buster Douglass. (Douglass would lose his first bout as the champ. But he did get a great game on Sega Master System to compete with the Nintendo blockbuster "Mike Tysons Punchout" It is back on the Wii minus Mike Tyson's name)

The biggest thing I recall about "Iron Mike" is my Senior year of High School, while banned for the ear bite. WWF signed Tyson to be a major part of Wrestlemania and the main event ("Stone Cold Steve Austin" fan fav anti-hero vs bad guy heel "The Heart Break Kid Sean Michaels" It was comical a man with such a wimpy voice was in the middle of this.)

But nothing was worst for him than the passing of Cus. After Cus Buckwheat aka Murderer/ Promotor Don King used Tyson like most notable boxers, and created awful onesided match ups. Many blame Tyson's story for the decline of Boxing.

I blame Buckwheat who is not "OH TAH!"