Mike Tyson: 'For the first time, I get it'

April 29, 2009 7:45:49 AM PDT
Mike Tyson is looking over the reviews for the new documentary "Tyson." Gathered together for an interview in a Manhattan hotel, director James Toback is eagerly sharing magazine clippings with the former heavy weight champion, pointing to fresh reviews from critics who have called it Toback's best film and a revelation of the polarizing pugilist.

Tyson, 42 and four years retired from the ring, is only so impressed. Now heavier around the waist, Tyson exudes a knocked-around serenity.

"Those things don't excite me anymore - press and lights and cameras," says Tyson. "I know if I start believing that stuff, I could be a monster and nobody would like me."

And many don't like Tyson. Though he was perhaps the last great heavyweight champion (44 of his 50 wins came by knockout and he was the youngest to take the titles), he is often remembered more for his violent outbursts inside and outside of the ring.

In 1992, he was convicted of raping Desiree Washington and he served three years in prison. In a fight with his chief rival, Evander Holyfield, in 1996, he was disqualified for biting off a piece of his ear.

The picture that emerged of Tyson was of an out-of-control monster. "Tyson" hopes to illuminate a fuller, more humanistic view of Tyson, depicting him as a rags-to-riches tragedy and, above all, a misunderstood figure.

"Not only misunderstood, but grotesquely misunderstood," says Toback, the 64-year-old filmmaker of "Fingers" and the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of "Bugsy." "The vast majority of the people who have put Mike down don't have a tenth of the intelligence or the character that he has. Mike is a fundamentally very, very good human being. That doesn't mean he hasn't done bad things."

In the 88 minutes of "Tyson," Tyson is the only talking head - neither Washington nor Holyfield nor anyone else gets a say here. The film, of which Tyson is also a producer, makes no claim of objectivity but it's nevertheless striking for its honesty.

Tyson, who Toback interviewed for a week in Los Angeles while Tyson was going through rehab, begins by discussing - in his uniquely philosophical way - "the chaos of the brain," wondering, "Who am I?"

He discusses humiliation as a child leading him to take up boxing; his mentoring by legendary trainer and surrogate father Cus D'Amato (Tyson cries discussing his 1985 death); his obsession with women; his brief marriage to Robin Givens ("we were just kids"); his embarrassing final defeats in 2004 and 2005; contracting gonorrhea from a "filthy lady"; and the feeling of physical triumph: "Once I'm in the ring, I'm a God."

Tyson says that watching the film - a kind of mashed-up monologue - is difficult for him.

"When I look at the movie, I say, `If I was in the room with that guy, I would be very nervous,'" says Tyson.

"I never knew - and this is crazy - I never knew why I had the public opinion the way I did. Then when I watch the movie, I get it," says Tyson. "For the first time, I get it. I'm watching it as a human being that's very rational now. I say, `This guy's so unpredictable, you don't know if he's going to (take you) out to dinner or stab you with a fork. His mind will run riot.'"

At times, the screen splinters into several boxes of talking Tysons, clearly suggesting his many contradictions - an enormous, animalistic ego contrasted with an inferiority complex.

Though he acknowledges abusing women in the documentary, Tyson still denies raping Washington. About the Holyfield fight, he says, "I'm a good person, but I went insane."

Later, Tyson says: "If I have any anger, it's directed at myself."

Some will immediately dismiss "Tyson" because of the boxer's reputation and, in particular, his rape conviction.

To those people, Tyson says: "I'm a human being. I was young at one time. Yes, I have abused a woman before. ... I've made a mistake. And I'm going to continue to make mistakes - but not the same ones."

Tyson adds that growing up, he watched his mother be abused, warping his sense of relationships. He also argues that women's rights have come so far in the past century that society is still catching up.

Critics have been largely forgiving of "Tyson," applauding Toback's film which got a standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival last year. Rolling Stone called it "a world-class exhibition of punch-drunk love." Slate, though, said it was "candid without being truthful."

Toback - a larger than life figure in his own right - and Tyson have been friends for more than two decades. They first bonded, they say in the 2005 documentary about Toback "The Outsider," in a conversation about "madness and orgies."

"I figured he'd be champion for 15 years," says Toback while swallowing a pile of assorted pills. (He says he takes 150 in a day.) "Then he turns out to be as complicated and crazy as I am. You have your internal enemies."

They each consider themselves "extremists." Tyson made cameos in two of Toback's earlier films, including a scene in 1999's "Black and White" in which Tyson assaults Robert Downey Jr.'s character after he comes on to him.

Tyson says he and Toback are similar "in a bizarre way."

"We challenge the borders of sanity and insanity," says Tyson. "We challenge it. I don't know if I'm still this way, but this is where I know I've been. I've been to the edge and I've looked over the cliff of sanity and I wanted to take a swan dive."

Toback - who once nearly died from an eight-day LSD trip - chuckles, nodding at Tyson's metaphor.

Ultimately, Toback says he hopes Tyson is "seen fresh, as if for the first time."

Tyson simply sounds ready for old age and continued retirement. He's most animated when discussing the 65-year-old Joe Frazier, who still holds a grudge against his rival, Muhammad Ali.

"I look forward to those days when I'm 60-years-old and there's another champ, like Evander or somebody," says Tyson. "Like, `Come on man, let's go see these young guys they think are good fighters. What do you think we would have done to these guys?'"


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