This sporting life

By Helen Barlow

A surprisingly intimate documentary reveals the vulnerable side of the much-maligned former heavyweight champion of the world

A pensive and articulate Mike Tyson shares his innermost thoughts with friend and director James Toback in a documentary about his tumultuous life. Photo / Supplied
A pensive and articulate Mike Tyson shares his innermost thoughts with friend and director James Toback in a documentary about his tumultuous life. Photo / Supplied

When Mike Tyson allowed old friend James Toback to make a documentary about his turbulent life, he never expected the positive reception the film, simply titled Tyson, would receive.

A modern day anti-hero who has been through the mill and survived, the former world heavyweight boxing champion deserves credit for his bravery in laying his life bare.

"Jim just elicited all this stuff out of me, I don't know how he did it," admits Tyson, seated alongside Toback for our interview. "I'm humble now. I never was humble when I was fighting. I've learnt to be humble."

Certainly no one had expected the heavyweight presence Tyson would cast on screen. Essentially one long interview where Toback puts his friend in the psychiatrist's chair for 90 mins and points the camera straight into his tattooed face, the film reveals its subject to be thoughtful and pensive.

The retired boxer, who physically is relatively unscathed - although he does admit to having suffered blackouts - is surprisingly articulate as he reflects on his life and career in a world fuelled by drugs, sex and violence. But even if today the soft-spoken 43-year-old has put on weight and seems like a huge teddy bear, you still probably wouldn't want to cross him.

The film came about because Toback, the legendary filmmaker who directed Fingers (1978) and wrote Bugsy (1991) for his friend Warren Beatty, has known Tyson since he turned up on the 1987 set of Toback's The Pick-up Artist. They became close friends, ruminating philosophically on the vagaries of the human psyche, and eventually Tyson appeared in Toback's Black and White (1991) where he famously slapped and punched Robert Downey Jr. (the star of four Toback movies including The Pick-Up Artist). A documentary on Tyson's life had been brewing for years.

"Mike and I have had a lot of unusually intimate conversations and many of them have made it into film," Toback explains. "When we decided to do the film my mother had just died, Mike was in rehab and I felt if we were ever going to do this, now was the time as it could be done cheaply [on high definition digital video] in a visually arresting way. We both moved ahead not knowing where it would go. Mike had the idea it would be a DVD sold on 125th Street [of New York's Harlem] for cash, whereas my idea was it would be in the Cannes competition and win the Palme d'Or!" he laughs. "We were never in conflict essentially and it's not anything other than a truthful exploration of the themes and subjects that his fascinating, complicated life raises."

Tyson insists he did not do the film to set the record straight. "I just wanted to do it because James thought it would be interesting and I went along with James. I never thought this movie was going to make me a better person. In the United States I don't think if I won the Nobel Peace Prize it would change what people think about me."

Was he embarrassed talking about sex and love so openly on camera? "I wasn't embarrassed. I felt vulnerable, but to be honest I had no idea this thing would make it to such a grand scale. I've been totally overwhelmed."

Toback says, there was never any notion of making a dramatic film. "I just wanted to do Mike, because I think Mike comes across in a way no one else LOWDOWN

What: Tyson, acclaimed documentary about the disgraced boxing champ

Where and when: SkyCity Theatre, Tue 21 July, 4pm & 8:45pm

could. When a person is still alive it would be weird in a way, and Mike has such a distinctive presence. The voice, the face, the psychology and the spirit that comes through are very moving."

The film presents Tyson as a troubled, bullied kid from a tough Brooklyn neighbourhood whose fear of humiliation shaped his life. Suffering from a breathing problem, and hampered by a lisp and a general lack of self-esteem, he soon got into trouble and wound up in a juvenile detention centre. One of three children of a single mother who died when he was 16, his saviour and ultimate father figure was coach Cus D'Amato, who became his legal guardian. D'Amato taught him how to re-direct his rage into boxing and helped him master the mental side of the game, which led to his becoming an unprecedented champion, the youngest man ever to win a world heavyweight title at just 20 years old. Tyson won his first 19 professional bouts by knockout, 12 in the first round. He was the undisputed heavyweight champion for over two years, before losing to underdog Buster Douglas in 1990.

D'Amato had always insisted the young athlete follow the traditional fighters' rule of abstaining from sex prior to a fight, a rule Tyson disobeyed after D'Amato's death in 1985. He admits that his hyperactivity with women in Japan, combined with insufficient training, contributed to his loss to Douglas.

Ultimately without his father figure for support, Tyson regained his lack of self-belief, which led to several defeats and comebacks, and to a highly unstable life overall. Although Tyson says he's changed - "I guess I'm more stable now, I'm a different person, I've changed my life over time" - he still admits to being "a pretty extreme person. "I'm not going to stop overnight. It just doesn't work that way in life. I am who I am."

In the film and in interviews he takes responsibility for everything he has done, yet he becomes riled at the mention of the 1992 rape conviction that led to his imprisonment for three and a half years, as he still swears his innocence.

"Sometimes in my life I've been abusive to women," he admits, "but [with the rape case] I felt I was dealt a misjustice. I was convicted and thought it was wrong, unfair and inhumane."

The incident is still so clear in public memory that Tyson has tended to keep to himself in recent years. He has however been a fairly devoted father - well, as devoted as he can be given that he has children with several different women, and that he is no longer with any of them. Though our interview took place before the accidental death of his four-year-old daughter Exodus in a freak accident on a treadmill, and his subsequent marriage to girlfriend, Lakiha Spicer, 32, he speaks proudly about his love for his kids.

"I teach them to have respect for people and to treat them how you would want to be treated."

It seems that the recent tragedy struck just as Tyson has been trying to set things right, and just as he was experiencing another flush of fame in the smash hit movie, The Hangover.

"We all do things when we're ****** up," he told the young men who had stolen his pet tiger on their friend's buck's night. He also air-drums and sings along to the Phil Collins hit, In The Air Tonight.

Currently living in Las Vegas, Tyson admitted in a recent US interview that he has now been sober for 15 months, after years of drug and alcohol abuse. He has been happy travelling the world doing exhibition boxing shows and product endorsements for the cash (he was declared bankrupt in 2003) and enjoys lending his celebrity to help youth organisations across America.

Looking back, what was it that boxing gave him? "Some sort of bizarre spiritual self aggrandisement," he responds. "I always looked at it as if I was some barbaric king coming to conquer the Roman Empire. I wanted to take it. Then one day, the desire just disappeared."

He does not miss the adrenaline rush of walking into the ring. "I would never want that again. To me it was a lot of trouble. I felt I could do anything. I felt I could be invincible. I felt I could walk along the street and do whatever I wanted. I was just too young for that. I wasn't experienced enough to deal with it."

If he had looked after himself, could he have been the undisputed best boxer ever? "In hindsight yeah, I would have been doing some serious stuff."

- NZ Herald

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