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Courtesy of Hot Docs


Brutally honest film returns some dignity to the former heavyweight boxing champion

By Kevin Spurgaitis

Directed by James Toback
(Fyodor Productions and Greenroom Films)

Mike Tyson — now in his 40s — doesn’t talk much about his “Iron Mike” glory days anymore. Interviewed while staying at a California rehabilitation clinic for drug and alcohol addiction, the former heavyweight boxing champion is introspective and even thoughtful.

At least, that’s the impression given in James Toback’s brutally honest, no-holds-barred documentary, which uses a mix of original interviews and archival footage to depict Tyson’s early days as a Brooklyn thug, his meteoric rise in the bloody sport of boxing — and his subsequent fall from grace.

In his prime, Tyson was among the dominant athletes of his era. Once he stepped into the ring, he felt like “a god,” he boasts in the film. In 1986, he became the youngest heavyweight champion in history at age 20 and was the undisputed champion from 1987 to 1990. Tyson lost and later reclaimed the heavyweight title, only to lose it again to Evander Holyfield in 1996. In a rematch the next year, he twice sunk his teeth into Holyfield’s earlobes, which led to his banishment from the sport. Outside the ring, he has been convicted of drug possession and driving under the influence. In the early 1990s, he served three years in prison for sexually assaulting an 18-year-old beauty pageant contestant.

Today, the ex-heavyweight boxer maintains his innocence but says he has committed other trespasses for which he was never prosecuted. Prison, he admits, was a place he entirely deserved to go. However, as Toback conveys in his film, Tyson was politicized and demonized, at least in part, because of the colour of his skin. As a result, he was “congenitally incapable” of playing anything other than a brawler, according to the director.

Age and perspective have now shifted Tyson’s priorities. He is overcome by a desire to be a good father to his six children and, as he puts it, truly know himself. He has immersed himself in the writings of Tolstoy, Machiavelli and Mao Zedong in the same way he once studied old boxing reels of Jack Dempsey and Henry Armstrong.

Tyson may be one-sided in its treatment. Still, the film returns some of the dignity to the disgraced prizefighter without pleading for his absolution. It’s obvious he carries a lifetime’s worth of regret on his massive frame. Like the elaborate Maori tattoo on his face, remorse will always be with him. In light of this, Tyson, the man, emerges as a complex and deeply self-aware figure. I found myself wondering if he doesn’t deserve a second appraisal. 
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