Tyson documentary shows boxer's complexity

"I won that fight, and I never backed down from a fight again," the former champ tells director James Toback in the new documentary "Tyson," which premiered recently at the Cannes Film Festival.

Toback's documentary presents a portrait of Tyson that has rarely been seen. Often viewed as a convicted rapist with savage tendencies in the ring, Tyson comes off at times not only as a misogynist but also as a tortured existential soul.

Now living in Las Vegas with his family, Tyson cooperated with Toback for a series of unprecedented interviews, and he has an unspecified stake in the movie's success.

The two have been longtime friends, first meeting 23 years ago at a Manhattan party that was attended by Warren Beatty and former Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart. (The party was associated with the filming of the movie "The Pick-Up Artist," starring Robert Downey Jr.)

Hart was trying to get Tyson to become a political liaison to the black community, Toback said. But Tyson spent most of the evening with the director, ending up in Central Park at 6 a.m. Toback said he began to talk about "Heideggerean and Kierkegaardian notions of dread and nothingness" and that he suspected Tyson would quickly lose interest.

Instead, Tyson became fascinated and wanted to talk about whether there really was an "I."

The relationship continued over the years and has resulted in a remarkable look inside the life and thinking of the former champ.

The seamier side

Make no mistake: The new documentary is not a paean to Tyson, and it's not an effort to redeem him.

Instead, Toback is willing to show the seamier side of Tyson's psyche, from deriding his mother as "promiscuous" to referring to Desiree Washington, for whom he was convicted of rape, as a "wretched swine of a woman." Tyson also refers to money as "paper blood" and takes broad swipes against his former promoter Don King, whom he eventually sued, settling for $20 million to $30 million.

In the movie, Tyson bemoans the settlement and makes it sound like it's almost nothing, probably not endearing himself to potential viewers who can never dream of such riches. But for Tyson, the settlement was much less than the hundreds of millions he earned over his career.

There's also a hilarious takeout from an interview with Barabara Walters, where first wife Robin Givens talks about Tyson's failings at home life while Tyson looks on. Toback allows Tyson to comment on the interview in a voiceover while Givens is talking to Walters, and he has nothing but disgust. In fact, he says he doesn't know how he avoided throttling his wife during the interview.

Toback says he is convinced that the eventual rape conviction for an enounter with Washington was the result of "an extortion plot gone awry," but that the story of that sordidness would be a movie in itself.

"When Tyson got out of prison after that 3 1/2-year stint for the false rape conviction, I was walking down Columbus Avenue and I saw him (Tyson) in the City Grill," Toback says. "I went in and he said, 'You know, I now know what you meant. I was about halfway through my solitary, and when I was lying in my cell I thought, "This is what Toback was talking about." The difference is that you got your sense of self back and I didn't'" — a reference to Toback's extensive psychoanalysis and other treatments.

'Like a Greek tragedy'

The movie follows a fairly chronological progression of Tyson's life, from his early days with trainer Cus D'Amato, through the 1980s, when Tyson rose to the top of the world by defeating such boxers as James Smith, Pinklon Thomas and Tyrell Biggs, and the eventual WBA heavyweight title against Trevor Berbick. But most peole regard Tyson's victory over the then-undefeated Michael Spinks as the culmination of his career.

After partying too much and failing to train, Tyson eventually goes down. But he re-emerges on the boxing scene in the mid-1990s, winning the WBC title from Frank Bruno in '96 and the WBA title later that year from Bruce Seldon in 93 seconds.

The movie also takes us through the much-remembered fight in the late '90s with Evander Holyfield, whom Toback considers the "dirtiest fighter" in history. "He was much taller than Tyson, and he would head-butt him, and this infuriated Tyson."

Tyson himself confirms the judgment. He says he became furious over the head-butting and "just lost control," eventually biting Holyfield in the ear, not once but twice.

Toback says he knows that people will see the movie "with a preconception" but that he tries to "invert that preconception, distort it and discard it."

Tyson's "homicidal rage," Toback says, basically comes from his "weakness and fragility," and at several points in the movie, the former champ breaks down into tears. "I didn't expect that he would choke up and break down," Toback says. "I was shocked to discover the degree to which fear has played a role in his career and life."

Toback says that when he showed Tyson the documentary for the first time, the fighter simply replied: "It's like a Greek tragedy. The only problem is that I'm the subject."

In the documentary, Tyson says he doesn't know what will come next. "The past is history; the future is a mystery," he says. But Toback says he has urged Tyson to work with disadvantaged children and notes that the boxer recently celebrated 15 months of sobriety.

"This boxing movie doesn't end with a victory," Toback says. "Those days are over, and the great era of boxing seems to be over. No one after Tyson can say 'I'm the baddest of the bad.'"

Toback, a longtime boxing fan, then adds: "I think I'm going to be lost" as the greats begin to "fade away."

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.