Mike Tyson: A Man Seen More Clearly Through the Eyes of James Toback

Stacy W.L.Correspondent IJune 7, 2009

NEW YORK - APRIL 20: Mike Tyson and James Toback attends Sony Pictures Classics' screening of 'Tyson' at the AMC Loews 19th Street on April 20, 2009 in New York City, New York. (Photo by Brad Barket/Getty Images)

If you haven’t seen the documentary Tyson yet, you should.  In light of Mike Tyson’s recent tragic loss, this is a good time to get to know the man behind the myth, and James Toback reveals the ‘beast’ to be a troubled man, one who is trying to come to terms with his past, to whom many viewers will be able to relate.

The movie takes us on a journey in Mike’s words through the experience of what it has been like to be Mike Tyson, from his experiences in childhood, to his relationship with Cus d’Amato, to his rise and fall as heavyweight champ. 

It detours into just the streets we want to know more about, like his experience of being convicted as a rapist and of fighting after losing his love for boxing and turning toward drugs and alcohol. 

James Toback, a close friend of Tyson’s and an astute observer of the intricacies of his confusion about life, compassionately reveals contradictions in key parts of Tyson’s stories, laying bare more about Tyson than Tyson knows about himself.

This is no small task in a documentary in which the only person speaking about the subject is the subject himself, in monologues intermixed with footage taken in training camps and before, during, and after a number of his fights. 

Toback’s trick was to let Mike talk, uninterrupted, for a 30-40 minute period of time, and to let him tell and retell his stories.  He explained the value of this technique in an interview with Daniel Seeley on buzzfocus.com “you get this psychoanalytic effect where things that you’re not thinking about rationally or consciously come out.”

Tyson’s relationship with his trainer, Cus D’Amato, has taken on mythical proportions, and this movie gives a clear slice of insight into the unique bond between this trainer and boxer pair.  Tyson came from an environment without rules or boundaries, as he uses the word  ‘promiscuious’ to describe his mother and other women in the neighborhood. 

With his high pitched voice and lack of a father figure to model for him how to be a man, Tyson admits that he was a terrified young boy in a rough neighborhood, hiding from bullies who would take his money and humiliate him. 

He reacted to these circumstances by picking on targets more vulnerable than himself, as he engaged in robberies and petty assaults, often of elderly women.

Tyson lacked the tools to cope with his environment until he was introduced to boxing during a stay at a center for troubled boys, at the age of 12. 

His introduction to legendary trainer D’Amato gave him the exact thing he needed in order to reinvent himself, the knowledge that through owning the power in his fists, he would never have to be humiliated again--that he could kill rather than let that happen. 

D’Amato took Tyson into his house, fed him, and gave him the structure, discipline, and positive feedback for which his soul was starving, and Tyson gave the bitter D’Amato a last chance at winning the heavyweight title. 

Throughout the documentary, Tyson repeats various phrases he learned from D’Amato’s incessant repetition which provided order to his world.  The scenes around D’Amato’s death and burial are heartbreaking, as Tyson admits that without his trainer he was completely vulnerable and exposed in the world.

Tyson describes his confusion about how to handle the fame and fortune which came his way after Don King, to whom he refers with a variety of slurs and curse words, became his manager in 1988. 

Without guidance, while in a position of power as a heavyweight champion, he acknowledges that he didn’t treat women with respect, expressing what comes across as sincere regret for how he has treated his wives in particular, as he unabashedly engaged in affairs. 

Tyson addresses some of the hardest questions about his life in the film.  Though he clearly denies that he raped Desiree Washington, and uses some choice words to describe her and her role in putting him in prison for three years, he also admits that through the incident he lost trust in himself—due to what he knows can come out of him. 

Toback leaves the question of Mike’s guilt in this situation ambiguous, leaving the audience certain that at least Tyson is aware of some of the havoc he has wreaked in many of his relationships, and hopeful that he is in a position of greater self-awareness and control.

In accepting responsibility for his life and his poor decisions, clean of drugs and alcohol for 15 months, with some softness in his frame and humility etched into the lines in his face, Tyson is clear that he wants to move forward in his life, to find himself. 

He describes this task, ““I don’t know who I am,” “That might sound stupid. I really have no idea. All my life I’ve been drinking and drugging and partying, and all of a sudden this comes to a stop.”

Noting that in his pursuit of titles and his decline into drugs, he missed out on what he now realizes are some of the most important relationships in his life—with his children—he expresses commitment to rekindling those bonds. 

These final moments of the film are all the more poignant in light of the tragic loss of his four year old daughter which befell Tyson just as the documentary was hitting mainstream theaters across the country.

Toback frees Tyson from his role as the monster manifesting the various shadows of the human soul while providing a foil for the ‘civilized men and women’ who consume his image. 

In revealing Tyson’s humanity as well as our fascination with his transgressions, he reminds us that none of us are immune to these shadows.  By doing so, he opens up the possibility of compassion for Mike Tyson as a man.  As Tyson himself said after watching the film, “It’s like a Greek tragedy, only I’m the subject.”