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The Mouthpiece

Film Review – Tyson

By George Hanson Jr., Esq.

Starring: Mike Tyson
Director: James Toback
Writer: James Toback
Editor: Aaron Yanes
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classic
Released: March 27, 2009
Length: 90 Minutes
Rating: (R)estricted

Life is full of ironies and the unexpected. Case in point— Jack Johnson a documentary directed by Jim Jacobs and Bill Cayton about the life and times of the greatest heavyweight boxer was nominated for the 1970 Academy Award for Best Documentary, but lost to Woodstock. Jacobs and Cayton are famous for managing the career of former heavyweight champion, Mike Tyson—the plot thickens.

How ironic it would be if forty years later on March 7, 2010, director James Toback wins the Oscar for Tyson, a documentary about the intriguing life of the youngest heavyweight champion ever, who in the film describes Jacobs and Cayton as slave masters who took a third of his earnings.

Tyson is a must see! The film opens with a twenty-year-old Tyson annihilating Trevor Berbick in 1986. Toback then transitions into Tyson’s living room and you quickly forget that you are in a movie theater. The director places you on the couch with Iron Mike resting between leopard print pillows. And it is from this vantage point that Tyson walks you through his life beginning with his recollections of being bullied as a child and retaliating only after an older kid ripped the head off of one of his beloved pigeons when he was eleven years of age. On that day, the fire that was to burn for two decades in the ring was ignited.

Tyson’s reflections are remarkably candid. He is brutally honest about his life and accepts responsibility for his trials and tribulations. While listening to Tyson, you are treated to fight footage and film clips of salient events in his life. You observe a young Tyson and his trainer/mentor/surrogate father Cus D’Amato in the gym and at home in the Catskills. At one point D’Amato explains that Tyson is his reason for living. You are treated to a unique glimpse into the psychology of D’Amato and how he was able to take a thirteen-year-old boy who lacked confidence and transform him into the most exciting, destructive fighting machine in the history of boxing.

The movie continues as it depicts a teenage Tyson spending his evenings watching countless hours of boxing footage of the greatest fighters that came before him. “I know all of their moves, what they are going to do. I study for hours every day before going to bed.” It is clear that the kid is a dedicated student of the game. Years of intense tutelage from D’Amato coupled with Tyson’s autodidactic nature created a skilled, erudite boxer.

Therefore, given the deep paternal bond between D’Amato and Tyson one cannot escape feeling the pain of the nineteen-year-old as he serves as a pallbearer at D’Amato’s funeral in 1985. It is at this point Tyson is brought to tears as he recalls how he lost it all when Cus died. You become lost in the moment of sadness and want to put an arm around Tyson to console him, but remember you are in a theater and not actually conversing with Iron Mike. Kudos to Toback for causing viewers to suspend reality.

Throughout the film, no topic is forbidden. On his marriage to actress Robin Givens, Tyson believes that they were both too young to be married and that he was “a pig with too many extra-curricular activities.” He states he was confounded by the infamous Barbara Walters interview in which Givens openly aired her unflattering perspective of their marital problems while Tyson sat mute by her side as if he were a Shaolin monk. Despite the debasing debacle, Tyson shares that he always wanted to maintain contact with Givens after their divorce and is not critical of her—“we were just two married kids and the whole world was in our business.”

Articulate and passionate Tyson’s usage of the word “skullduggery” reminded me of reading Treasure Island for the first time as a seven-year-old. With the rolling of the word off of his tongue I imagined Long John Silver, parrot perched on his shoulder, joining us in the living room. Tyson was effective at beating his opponents because he knew the art of skullduggery—intimidation and psychological warfare. “The fight was won before I entered the ring. I had the speed and bad intentions of the devil.” The black trunks, shoes sans socks and the absence of a robe were all part of his tactical skullduggery (my new favorite word). “If my opponent took his eyes off me [when the referee was giving instructions], even for a split second, that split second, I knew I had him.”

As the movie progressed, you sat waiting for Tyson to shed some light on his managers and promoters. Jacobs and Cayton were cited as slave masters who “took” a third of his earnings. He describes promoter Don King as, “a reptilian piece of shit who would kill his mother for a dollar.” In an almost comedic manner, Tyson explains a confrontation with King in Beverly Hills when he discovered that his money was “missing” from his accounts—“I stomped the shit out of him, in front of these elderly white ladies…” Tyson was completely unfettered in his reminiscence.

Tyson continues to shed light on his life and his amazing journey, throughout the film. Despite experiencing tremendous lows, after riding so high for so long, and admitting to many mistakes, Tyson repeatedly accepts responsibility by saying, “I brought it all on myself.” He never thought that he would live to see forty. “It is a miracle and my only wish is that I was smarter.” In the movie, Toback shows him playing with his six children who range in age from two to eighteen. His current goal is to see his kids graduate from college and get married because he one day wants to be a grandfather.

Tyson postulates, “My past is history, my future is a mystery.”

Continue to support the sweet science and remember, always carry your mouthpiece!

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