Review: Tyson (2008)

Directed by: James Toback | 90 minutes | documentary, sports | Featuring: Mike Tyson, Trevor Berbick, William Cayton, Cus D’Amato, James ‘Buster’ Douglas, Robin Givens, Evander Holyfield, Jim Jacobs, Don King, Monica Turner, Desiree Washington

Was it pure aggression or was boxer Mike Tyson just hungry when he took a bite out of his rival Evander Holyfield’s ear twice during the heavyweight world title fight in June 1997? For many, this unhinged action is typical of Tyson’s madness. It wasn’t the first bizarre incident, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last he’d hit the news with. Is Tyson really a madman, a beast both in and out of the ring? Or is he the textbook example of a man who is simply not well understood? Tyson doesn’t like to talk to the media, because they just twist his words anyway. He made an exception for his good friend James Toback. In fact, in the documentary ‘Tyson’ (2008), the former boxing champion treats us to a one and a half hour long monologue,

That Bronx-born Tyson had a troubled childhood is an understatement of the century. He never knew his father and his mother led a loose life. Little Mike soon had to learn how to fend for himself. He preferred to be busy with his pigeons. At least they didn’t harass him, like the kids on the street did. Once when one of those boys killed one of his pigeons, Tyson got so angry that he beat the boy up. It was then that he discovered how to bite off. Before long, Mike came across the wrong friends. At the age of twelve he ended up in a penitentiary youth institution. “A woman claimed that I had stolen her bag and I was arrested. But I hadn’t stolen her bag. Especially hers. “It marks the injustice that has haunted Tyson all his life in his eyes. His stay in the youth institution is difficult, but it also brings something positive: he comes into contact with boxing. When he is released, he ends up with the experienced boxing trainer Cus D’Amato, who sees enormous potential in the strong Tyson. He takes the boy in and trains him to become a true fighting machine. Tyson is thriving. “Cus complimented me. I had never received it before. At first I didn’t even know what to do with it. It gave me a lot of self-confidence. ” Tyson gets emotional when he thinks back to D’Amato, the only person he could ever trust. Unfortunately, he could no longer experience the great successes of his pupil. He died in November 1985 at the age of 77. Tyson is inconsolable but has to move on. In 1986 he won the world heavyweight title at the age of twenty. He is the youngest boxer in history to do that. The title is of course dedicated to D’Amato.

Without the support of his surrogate father, things quickly go downhill for Tyson. He gets involved with the wrong people (shady boxing promoters like Don King stand in line to rip off the wealthy boxer), spills his millions and gets involved with women, many women. In 1988 he married actress Robin Givens, a marriage that did not last long. She accuses him of having loose hands and cheating on her. A year later, the much-discussed pair has already split up. Tyson can’t let go of the women (and they visit him again and again), with the result that beauty queen Desiree Washington sues him for rape. In the documentary, he denies the allegations, but acknowledges that he sometimes cannot contain himself. “But I didn’t touch her. Tyson ends up in jail for three years, a period he prefers to forget as soon as possible. He picks up his boxing career after his release, but he has lost his unbeatable reputation, not only literally but also figuratively.

In the second half of the nineties, Tyson derails. Fights in discotheques, insults against journalists and drug addicts are almost the order of the day. Tragic low point is the ear incident. Tyson explains that Holyfield challenged him with headbutts, as he had done before. He bit him because he blacked out. An unsatisfactory answer, but it could very well be that Tyson really has no idea why he did what he did. The documentary does not aim to provide answers to questions, but to give the boxer himself the chance to tell his story, as best as possible. Tyson is food for psychologists and feels like a broken man, disappointed in the world but also in himself. Because he certainly does not spare himself. He recognizes that he has done many things wrong in his life. Toback shapes the voices he regularly hears in his head in his editing. Furthermore, his film is sober in design. Apart from some archive material – mostly from boxing matches – he limits himself to portraying Tyson.

Despite not providing a clear explanation of the how and why of his bizarre outbursts, Tyson nevertheless arouses sympathy. He has a fragile attitude – which is a lot for a boxer once considered invincible. The frankness with which he approaches the viewers is disarming. Although Tyson will always remain an inscrutable figure, this film still provides a glimpse of the human behind the controversial fighting machine. The scenes in which Cus D’Amato is discussed are particularly moving. Who would have thought that an animal like Mike Tyson had so many feelings? The documentary itself is quite one-sided – Tyson is the only one who has the floor – and might have been better and more complete if others were allowed to have their say too. But if Tyson would have been as forthright as he is now, it is best to question it. In that respect, Toback made the right choices.

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