By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
If it is today impossible to talk about Mike Tyson without also talking about the strange cult of celebrity, or, Barack Obama notwithstanding, the still-limited expectations for a black man in mainstream American society — it is, above all, impossible not to talk about the state of boxing as a popular American sport, the fluctuating fortunes of which have largely paralleled Tyson’s own. During the height of his stardom — four of his fights remain in the top five all-time Pay Per View attractions — Tyson was credited with rescuing the sport from the doldrums of the post-Ali ’80s. By the time of his final fight in 2005, it seemed as if it wasn’t just a fighter who was exiting the stage in defeat but maybe the entire fight game itself.
“You start with [John L.] Sullivan, then you go to [James J.] Corbett, to Jack Johnson, then Dempsey, Louis, Ali and Tyson — that’s it,” says Toback. “Those are the great heavyweight champions, and Tyson’s the end of the line.” Toback lays much of the blame for boxing’s bad fortunes on the exponential proliferation of titles and championships throughout the ’80s and ’90s. Others have pinpointed the antics of ignominious promoters like Don King, the decline of the talent pool and the competition from mixed-martial-arts Ultimate Fighting.
Or maybe boxing, like Tyson, has simply fallen out of fashion in a P.C. culture that wants to believe we have transcended what Joyce Carol Oates termed the “raw aggression and the mysterious will to do hurt that resides, for better or worse, in the human soul.” And yet, the more we deny this, the more life has a funny way of reminding us that we remain prisoners of a barbaric cycle of domination and submission, whether it is the MySpace mom who taunts a depressed teenage girl into suicide, the crowd of Wal-Mart shoppers who trample a Black Friday stock clerk to death, or the nations that stage modern wars over ancient disputes. The boxing ring, far more than the football field or the baseball diamond, has always stood as the ultimate metaphor for that unbridled rage that beats at the heart of seemingly peaceable men — a canvas square capable, as Oates also wrote, of revealing “how thin and fragile the veneer of civilization is.” And few in our lifetimes have punctured that illusory membrane as devastatingly as Tyson. This is why Tyson makes people uneasy. It is why, even in retreat, he remains monolithic.
To consider Tyson in 2009 is finally to consider all of this, and Tyson leaves it up to the audience to referee. “It’s not Mike Tyson up there,” Tyson says of the film. “It’s just a person, who states his story, states his fact, the way he sees it. You may not even see it the way I see it, you know?”
“The thing that makes it fascinating to me is to present him as he is, and then people can respond in any way they like, in the same way that I would say to someone about to meet Mike Tyson, ‘Here he is,’” says Toback. “I wouldn’t say, ‘You’re going to love him.’ I like to let people discover for themselves.” At private screenings and festival appearances, many of those people have even emerged from the theater visibly moved by a man whom they might have dismissed as an unfeeling beast 90 minutes earlier. For whatever else one wishes to say about Tyson the person, Tyson the movie makes it clear that he is nothing if not all too human.
While he was still in the editing room, Toback showed a rough cut to a test audience composed of a few dozen women who told the filmmaker they had no desire to see a film about Mike Tyson or about boxing, and whom Toback promised a $100 cash reward if they wanted to leave after five minutes. None, he claims, took him up on his offer. Still, such guarantees are hard to proffer in the commercial-movie marketplace. “That’s going to be the great marketing task for the movie,” he says. “I don’t know how I would get people who end up loving the movie to want to see it when they start out the way they do. Certainly, the answer is not simply to say, ‘You’re not going to believe how much you’re going to love this movie despite the fact that you don’t think you are.’”
For Tyson, who also has a cameo in the Warner Bros. comedy The Hangover (scheduled for release June 5), the film seems to be serving as a much-needed lifeline, helping him to focus, keeping him on the relatively straight and narrow. But “I have to watch out, because whenever anything great happens, that’s when I really have to be careful,” he says, less to me than to himself. “My trouble always starts when things are going well.”
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