Iron Mike: the gloves are off

Mike Tyson, former heavyweight champion of the world, enters the room quietly. He has asked for bodyguards and got them. They mill around silently, darkly in the background.

He is solid, nearly six-foot tall, and appears almost awkward, sitting sheepishly in the spotlight.

His notoriety within the boxing world exceeds all other pugilist icons, but the man I see here seems bemused by the attention. Bemused and battling to keep his body and soul together.

For Tyson, it is all about body and soul – the body that's been punched and pumped for decades in the ring and the soul, he says, he hopes is on the ascendant, but there's a long way yet to travel to the light.

"I'm trying to figure it all out," he begins softly in his familiar high-pitched voice with a trace of a lisp. "It's painful stuff. I'm not promising anything."

With the tattoo that virtually covers his left cheek, he is hesitant when answering questions, scratching his rather elongated head thoughtfully. Once dubbed "the baddest man on the planet" – the explosive fighter fought with everyone from Lennox Lewis to Evander Holyfield (whose ear he bit off in the process) – he's now apparently a kinder, less dangerous man who committed to a new fight: that of becoming a better person.

This 'journey' towards new-mandom has been caught in close-up by Tyson's director friend James Toback in a straightforward, intriguing documentary where Tyson speaks strikingly, candidly and at times with great wit, about his life: his childhood, the poverty, his triumph in the ring, the riches, his various falls from grace, his troubled times with drink, drugs and sex, and, of course, serving time for rape.

Toback's film does not pretend to be objective about the boxer. It is as though he has put Tyson in a psychiatrist's chair for 90 minutes and invited him to take an unflinching look at his life, where Tyson's self-awareness and thoughtfulness comes as a surprise.

Using split-screen imagery and often an overlapping soundtrack of voices in Tyson's mind to add extra edge, more than an hour is of original footage containing archival fight scenes, interviews and photographs.

Toback excludes himself from the film; the camera focuses only on Tyson.

"Watching this film is very tough for me," says Tyson. "I've always been a harsh critic of myself and the whole scenario of my life. I was taught that early on, as a kid. I feel embarrassed seeing myself talking about such private stuff.

"I have known Jim [Toback] for years. We first met in 1987 on his film The Pick-up Artist, when I was about to become heavyweight champion. I went to the set and we got on like crazy.

"He gave me bit parts in his movies and when he approached me about a documentary I was in rehab. I wasn't going anywhere. I said 'sure'."

Tyson was born in Brooklyn, one of three children to a mainly single breadwinning mother who died when he was 16. By the time he was 13 he had been arrested 38 times and was a young drug thug. By 18 he was heavyweight champion of the world under the cautious eye of Cus D'Amato, the trainer who would become his surrogate father.

When D'Amato died, Tyson says honestly: "It was like I lost my whole life and didn't know where to go from there".

He's been married twice and has six children with several women. His first wife, actress Robin Givens, described him in a joint interview with Tyson on American talk-show hostess Barbara Walters' show as "manic-depressive" and said life with him was "torture, pure hell, worse than anything I could possibly imagine". His second wife, pediatrician Monica Turner, divorced him on the grounds of adultery.

His bad-boy, womanising behaviour kept him in the tabloids and was ultimately going to keep him behind bars. He served three years in an Indiana penitentiary after being convicted in 1992 of raping former beauty queen, Desiree Washington, in a hotel room. Tyson still denies the rape charge that sent him to prison.

"I thought that was a miscarriage of justice," he says shrugging. "I have been abusive with women in my life."

He states in the film that he wants to "ravish them completely".

"Let's just say I'm a very extreme person. I'm made that way. I've had an extreme life, had some extreme altercations." Other (briefer) spells in prison followed in 1999 and 2007, for assault and driving under drugs.

For a man who unleashed a ferocious rage in the ring, which frequently spilled over into his private life, Iron Mike seems a bit of a tired, arguably tragic figure now, someone who has been confronted by devils from a young age and now appears as a vulnerable man of 42 who does entertainment boxing shows and product endorsement since being declared bankrupt in 2003.

"They can judge me, but they never understood me," he says of his critics. "I might have done a job which was to hurt people in the ring, but I have always been shy and had low self-esteem.

"I got bad advisers and I must have run through $300 or $400m's worth of amassed riches. I just about killed myself in pursuit of money, drugs and sex.

"I was a hero under dark circumstances."

Now this hero looks back on his dark circumstances through Toback's film.

"I thought it was real corny making the movie, but everybody is saying how courageous I was. And I'm thinking, 'courageous'? Looking at it now, maybe I shouldn't have said some of that stuff. But that's OK.

"If you say 'yes' to doing a documentary on your life it has got to be confessional and personal."

A telling personal revelation comes in the film when Tyson describes being bullied as a child in Brooklyn for his lisp and how that fear of humiliation has haunted and shaped his adult life. Pulverising an opponent was one way to banish those fears.

"I was a messed up kid. We lived through hard times," he explains. "I always wished that my mother was alive to see that I did turn out to do something that was good. Even though I made mistakes, I did some things that were good.

"I became a famous figure. At 18, became a star. I made some money. I wanted to say 'Look, Ma! I'm not stealin' and robbin'!

"I'm making money'. At the time my mother was living, that money would have meant a lot.

"When I was 14 or 15, I entered a local tournament. I won three fights. I had three knockouts. After my first fight I had a little picture in the paper. I brought it home and showed my mother.

"I said, 'Look, Mom! I'm gonna be heavyweight champion of the world! Nobody's ever gonna beat me." She looked at me with this piece of paper.

"She was so used to me disappointing her. She just said, 'I'll read it one day. Just let me do the dishes'. In hindsight, my mother probably thought I pasted this article, this fake article.

"And now there's this movie," relishes the man famed for having the speed of a lightweight and power of a heavyweight.

"When the film had its first big public screening, I didn't go to the screening. I felt shy. I stayed with my kids and hung out.

"But then I came in at the end and stood on the stage and was real embarrassed because the ovation went on so long. When the audience first came out of the theatre I was talking to this young lady and asked her 'I'm pretty messed up, huh?' And she said, 'No, you're pretty interesting'. I just had to kiss her.

"I thought the movie would just be some kind of bootleg tape," he says in awe. "A lot of movies come out and you get it the same day, released on bootleg. So I'm thinking it's going to be a bootleg tape on 125th Street.

"I go and I'll make some bootleg money, maybe $50,000. And here it is getting reviewed in all the newspapers like a real film!'

Tyson, who quit boxing three years ago, says his future plans don't include getting back into the ring professionally.

"I have no desire now to fight. I don't watch boxing any more. If I feel like some boxing to watch I rerun a tape of Raging Bull with Robert De Niro.

"My job was to hurt people and to pulverise people and I was fortunate enough to win in the ring.

"I've had a fascinating and complicated life. But that's over now. All my life I've been drinking and drugging and partying and that has to stop. Yesterday is history and tomorrow is a mystery."

'Tyson'– The Documentary

'Tyson' is directed by James Toback and was first screened at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. It was released last month and has proved a knockout with critics.

The New York Times wrote last week: " 'Tyson' [Toback] is held in check by the irreducible, excruciating realness of the man in front of the camera. The transaction between them is charged with a strange kind of magic.

"The filmmaker allows the fighter to have his unchallenged say to justify, condemn and contradict himself. 'Tyson' is worth seeing even if you have no particular interest in the sport or the man."


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