— I went to Las Vegas recently, and something wasn’t quite right. Certainly it could have been the ill effects of a feeble economy, but there was still enough humanity to give the casinos and The Strip at least the illusion of vibrancy.
No, this was a void that went beyond revenue. Las Vegas has never been all about boxing, and boxing has never been all about Mike Tyson. Yet there was a time when every other human pursuit in that city represented the undercard when Tyson headlined a fight. He was a cultural magnet, a one-man Rat Pack, only with style and sophistication replaced by raw brutality.
That’s what was missing. Tyson.
Not long after returning home from Vegas, I saw a screening of the new documentary, “Tyson,” a feature-length confessional from director James Toback (that opens Friday in limited release) in which the former heavyweight champion recounts his life, low blows and all. Tyson hung up the gloves in 2005 after losing to journeyman Kevin McBride, so his absence from Las Vegas marquees and from the fight game in general is no news bulletin. But the juxtaposition of being there in the gambling mecca, and then seeing “Tyson” right after, hammered home his impact like a swift uppercut.
I would like to say that after viewing “Tyson” I came to the realization that underneath the brute is a puppy dog. But actually, what the film illustrates is that underneath the brute is another brute, and underneath that is a caring individual, and underneath that is someone who will bust your jaw if provoked, and underneath that is a frightened child, and so on.
Tyson is not the least bit misunderstood. Tyson is under-understood. A graduate course in psychology might not be enough to fully grasp the complexity of someone who raced back and forth between sweetheart and thug for his entire career, making every stop in between.
“There is a sense here of being introduced to a complex human being with no restraint and no blocks to understanding his complexity,” said Toback, who first met Tyson in 1985 when he was directing a film starring Robert Downey, Jr. called “The Pick-Up Artist.”
“That alone,” he said, “is a kind of fascinating ambition for the movie to have and a worthwhile one, and he doesn’t in any way try to alter anything so as to come across one way or another. You have the experience of meeting another human being and having a complete connection with him, which rarely happens in life and never in film.”
Toback chose to let Tyson reveal himself rather than let others explain him. Therefore, there are no interviews with prominent boxing journalists or historians, no interviews with Tyson’s friends and loved ones, no interviews with former opponents, and only a few snippets of archival interviews with the fighter’s former mentor and father figure Cus D’Amato.
This method has come under some criticism in reviews for being too limited, but Toback made an excellent point in response: All of the perspectives of Tyson-watchers over the years have already been put on the record. That stuff is out there if you want it. “Why let somebody pontificate on his agenda,” Toback explained, “which they’ve already done?”
Indeed, after thinking about it, this was probably the only way to do it. Tyson is a puzzle that nobody can figure out except Tyson himself, so why not let his reflections on his own life experiences offer the answers?
As the film explains, history may remember Tyson as a burly savage who won many fights before they even started through intimidation and the cunning intellectual warfare of a former street criminal, but he saw himself as a fat kid who was inferior to those around him and the object of ridicule growing up in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, N.Y. Throughout his life and career, he was stalked by the possibility of humiliation, and that colored everything else he did.
Toback, who has remained friends with Tyson since their initial meeting, said even he was taken aback by the extent to which that single element shaped his life.
“I was quite shocked to find out how pervasive and deep-rooted fear was for the explanation and the motivation for his behavior throughout life,” the director said. “Those moments of triumph, and the transcendence of his fear and the very impressive uses of his fear, never purged his fear.”
Tyson’s detractors will chuckle, because they’ll insist a thug is a thug is a thug, and all the post-career analysis is just so much revisionist blather. And it’s possible they could be right. A study of Tyson may represent a thousand points of insight, or it could be that the kid who was once shrewd enough to help fool and rob unsuspecting victims grew up to con the world into thinking there are more layers to him than there are.
Yet in the film, ugliness has a major role, and Tyson speaks candidly about it. There was the rape conviction; the tussles with Don King over money; the partying and the womanizing; the sadistic, profanity-laced press conference rant; the myriad brushes with the law. It’s hard to say he’s conning us when the wounds of his life are right there, openly festering.
Whether Tyson was a great fighter is open to debate. To me, he was a fighter with great potential, great moments and great accomplishments: He became the youngest heavyweight champ ever at the age of 20 (defeating Trevor Berbick in 1986), and he became the first to own all three major heavyweight title belts — the WBA, WBC and the IBF — at the same time.
But I can’t get my mind off the fact that, after D’Amato died in 1985, Tyson lost the only anchor he ever had in life. That affected the path of his boxing career. Obviously, he went on to worldwide fame and amassed a casino vault full of cash. But imagine how good he would have been as a technician and sweet scientist if Cus had lived a lot longer to guide his career and incorporate the pulverizing punching power into a consistent and disciplined boxing way of life. Imagine if someone, anyone, had successfully filled the void left by Cus and steered Tyson away from his haywire behavior.
Then again, if that were the case, he probably wouldn’t have been the Tyson we love, and loathe, and scrutinize, and criticize, and rhapsodize about, and wonder what will become of him after divorce and bankruptcy and purging and reflection.
“I think what he says at the end is a very good summary, a terse summary of his fate: ‘The past is history, the future is a mystery,’” Toback said. “Nothing would surprise him. Nothing would surprise anyone who knows him.”
Tyson is no longer the champ. But if you go to Las Vegas, or Atlantic City, or any of the cities where he fought, people remember the buzz in the air wherever he went, and how boxing is just not the same without it.