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All of those Tysons appear in Toback’s film, as do quite a few others, including the doting father of four (two from his second marriage, to Monica Steele, sister of Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele). Aside from the valedictory montage of Tyson vanquishing one challenger after another for his heavyweight crown, rarely in Tyson does he seem as happy and at peace as in some fleeting home-video footage that sees him playing the paterfamilias he never had. It is one of the few moments when Tyson seems to find calm within his ever-present chaos.
The Tyson who shows up at Green Valley Ranch seems yet another chameleonic apparition, this one not unlike a T-Rex that has realized its might is no match for the fossilizing tar creeping upwards from its ankles. There is an existential sadness about him now that is partly the inevitability of a fighter who no longer fights but also the Dostoyevskyan disappointment of a man consumed by the thought that all of his achievements may have been for naught. “My whole life has been a waste — I’ve been a failure,” he told a reporter in 2005, eight days before the McBride fight. Not for nothing did Toback name the Tyson production outfit Fyodor Productions.
Toback himself has flown in from New York for the day, and when Tyson greets him with a warm embrace, it’s obvious that the 64-year-old filmmaker is one of the many surrogate fathers to whom Tyson has attached himself through the years, includuing D’Amato, the manager Jim Jacobs and, later, Don King. He may also be the only one who has shown no vested interest in Tyson other than friendship. The affinity is understandable: Like his latest subject, Toback is a self-professed extremist — a former compulsive gambler, drinker and womanizer for whom life at or anywhere near the middle has rarely held much attraction. Both men are a long way away from fighting shape — Tyson still fit but not boxing fit, Toback an image of almost Wellesian girth and grandeur. Both say they never expected they’d live to see 40. Toback, whose credits include Two Girls and a Guy and the Oscar-nominated screenplay for Bugsy, first encountered Tyson in 1986, while directing the Robert Downey Jr.–Molly Ringwald romantic comedy The Pick-Up Artist. In a meeting of the minds only a Hollywood film shoot could accommodate, Tyson was invited to the set by photographer and boxing enthusiast Brian Hamill on a day that also found executive producer Warren Beatty and Democratic presidential hopeful Gary Hart milling about. Hart, Toback recalls, solicited Tyson to serve as his campaign liaison to the black community.
In some respects, the seeds for Tyson were sown later that night, when shooting wrapped and Tyson joined Toback for a predawn stroll through Central Park. “We talked about boxing and sex and madness,” says the famously uncensored director, who regaled the eager young fighter with stories of his own youthful boxing exploits and of chance meetings with Dempsey, Marciano and Sugar Ray Robinson. Specifically, they talked about the time that Toback, then a 19-year-old Harvard undergrad, consumed a single high-test dose of LSD and proceeded to trip for eight straight days — events that would later inspire his 2001 film, Harvard Man.
“I told him about my LSD experience, and I remember feeling this tremendous sense of connection — a very smart, curious, interesting guy,” says Toback. “He had the seeds of ... well, let’s say he was so curious about what it meant to go crazy, what did the word mean. Not many people had asked that. My LSD experience at that point was 21 years earlier. Over the years, I referred to it to a fairly large number of people. I don’t think anybody had ever asked me, ‘What do you mean when you say you experienced madness?’ And as I tried to answer the question, I realized how unusual it was and how significant it was that he seemed so eager for me to explain it to him. I ultimately ended by saying that the only way to know it is to experience it — everything else is just going to sound like words.”
Of that initial conversation, Tyson says, “I’ve been interviewed by people, I’ve met people willing to be my friend, I’ve met people who found me intriguing, but nobody has ever opened up that Pandora’s box. Anybody else would think: If you ask Mike this, Mike is going to be upset, or Mike is going to approach this situation in a way that we don’t want to particularly deal with right now. I mean, he just came out and asked these questions and unlocked a bunch of things that were always in my mind but I would never approach people with them or comment on them. When he came to me on that level, I elaborated with him, and said I understand that way of thinking.”
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