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Admittedly, Brown was a self-consciously political figure who sauntered willingly into the fray of the country’s race wars, trying to help disenfranchised American blacks elevate their standards of living through nonviolent means. The psychological embers of Watts were still smoldering when Toback flew to L.A. to meet him in the winter of 1968, and during the time they spent together Brown was repeatedly brought up on charges (nearly all involving some alleged act of physical violence, all subsequently dismissed) by the LAPD. Tyson, by contrast, is the product of an allegedly more enlightened era, a supposedly “post-racial” society that no longer has need of a Jack Johnson or a Muhammad Ali to hold its hypocritical feet to the fire. Yet he too has been politicized and demonized, at least in part because of the color of his skin. “If he had had a persona similar to his and he’d been white, he simply wouldn’t have had the kind of demonic weight that he has had in the public imagination,” suggests Toback.
That is not to say that Tyson is innocent of his alleged crimes; even while continuing to protest the rape allegations of 18-year-old Miss Black America contestant Desiree Washington (whom he refers to, in Tyson, as “that wretched swine of a woman”), he cops to having committed other unspecified trespasses in his life for which he was never prosecuted, and says that prison is a place he entirely deserved to go. Still, as the novelist Pete Dexter (among others) argued in an editorial from the period, the equally (if not more) damning evidence in the previous year’s William Kennedy Smith rape case had resulted in an acquittal, in part because Smith had played the role of upstanding society member before the jury, whereas Tyson seemed congenitally incapable of playing anything other than himself. (But could Kennedy Smith, one wonders, quote Chairman Mao and Nelson Mandela at the drop of a hat?) Tyson’s guilty verdict, all but a foregone conclusion, was subsequently championed as a triumph for justice, women’s rights and the feminist agenda. Where Mike Tyson is concerned, it would appear, everything ends up couched in terms of a victory or a defeat.
Today, Tyson carries a lifetime’s worth of regret on his still-massive shoulders, though neither in person nor in Tyson the movie does he ask for absolution. The regret is more of a mark that will be with him always, like the elaborate Maori tattoo that splays across his face. It makes itself felt when Tyson leans in and says that he feels compassion for R&B stars Chris Brown and Rihanna, whose recent tabloid relationship meltdown, amid charges of domestic violence, prompted none other than Robin Givens to appear on national television likening the case to her own years as Mrs. Mike Tyson. To Tyson, who doesn’t mention the Givens appearance and has only kind words for his ex-spouse in Tyson, Brown and Rihanna are “just kids, at the age when you’re supposed to be able to learn from your mistakes.”
It is at this moment that Tyson suddenly brightens and proceeds to regale Toback with an imagined account of how prehistoric man first discovered the concept of jealousy. “I’ve been meaning to tell you this, Jim,” he says, excitedly throwing his massive hands in the air. “There’s this caveman sitting with this cavewoman, building a fire or something. And then this other caveman comes over and smashes him on the head with a rock. And that was the beginning of jealousy!”
Tyson is less effusive on the subject of his “Iron Mike” glory days, preferring — if boxing must be discussed at all — to enthuse about brilliant fighters all but forgotten by boxing history, like the 1916-1920 World Light-Heavyweight champ, Battling Levinsky: “It’s just emotionally impossible for us to be as tough as those guys were at the turn of the century,” he says with a kind of awed reverence. “The lifestyle they lived. ... Today, a guy who’s just a junior fighter can get lucky and knock out a guy, get a headlining fight and become a millionaire in one night. These guys didn’t become millionaires after 25 years of boxing, and some of them were on top of their game for 15 or 20 years. It’s wholly a dedication, commitment, desire, will to win ... it just supercedes anything that this era of fighting or this lifetime has ever seen.”
When I suggest that some would place Tyson on par with just such fighters, his multiple voices respond that part of him denies ever having been Heavyweight Champion at all. “You know, I don’t know who the fuck I am,” he says with cool sobriety. “I have people call on me, ask me for autographs, ask me for pictures. I feel like a freak show. Who the hell am I that, when I arrive in certain countries, they have to block off the streets? I try to put it in perspective, to tell myself that this is how I looked at other fighters when I was young. I think it’s a form of self-hatred that makes me deny all that. I can never feel it. It must be something deep down inside me that makes me believe that I’m not this person. I have no connection with the guy. It’s just a thing that I can’t hardly describe sometimes.”
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