To watch "Tyson," the former heavyweight champion’s self-produced mea culpa on all things Mike, is to unpack two decades’ worth of crazy: the rape conviction, the prison conversion, the chewed ear, the DUI arrest, the bankruptcy, the Don King dustup … that Barbara Walters’ train wreck of an interview with Robin Givens.
The documentary feels especially timely viewed alongside the unfolding drama surrounding pop stars Chris Brown and Rihanna, who are rumored to be back together in the midst of a criminal investigation of domestic abuse.
Tyson—older, broker and not necessarily wiser in the film—has regrets aplenty: “I’m an insane individual. I put all these drugs in my body … What I’ve done in the past is history. And what I do in the future is a mystery.”
And so it goes. "Tyson," the documentary directed by James Toback, is a 90-minute monologue, a self-portrait of the boxer as an angry young man. A young man for whom carefully calibrated rage was the ticket to hundreds of millions in riches. Until it wasn’t.
"Tyson," which debuted at Sundance earlier this year and opens nationwide in May, is also an experience of unsettling déjà vu: Back in the day, he was half of a golden couple—the other half being Givens—a couple whose every move was tracked, discussed and paparazzi-fied. He was babyfaced and buff, the youngest to claim the heavyweight title, a man who found fame as a teen. She was beautiful and smart, Bill Cosby’s protégée. They were young, rich, famous and in love. Until it all fell apart amid accusations of domestic abuse and battery.
“It’s been torture. It’s been pure hell,” Givens told Barbara Walters back in the late ‘80s, while Tyson sat by her side, looking dazed and confused. “He gets out of control, throwing, screaming … He shakes, he pushes, he swings. Just recently, I became afraid … Very, very much afraid.”
And with those words, Tyson was cast in the role of the savage beast. Givens got to play the gold-digging she-devil, “the most hated woman in America,” her name shorthand in rap lyrics for the ultimate in conniving chickenheads. (Never mind that Givens says that she never saw a dime of Tyson’s money.)
I'll rob Boyz II Men like I'm Michael Bivens
Catch Tyson for half that cash, like Robin Givens.
—50 Cent, “How To Rob.”
“We were just two kids,” Tyson says, “and the whole world was in our business … I’m an abusive husband, and she was a gold digger.”
“We were just kids.”
“Just kids” is an apt description for another celebrity couple grabbing the news with lurid charges of beatdowns, bruising and battering: Chris Brown and Rihanna, aka Chrihanna.
Like Tyson, Chris Brown found fame before he was legal. Like Tyson, Brown grew up in chaos. In a 2007 interview with Giant, Brown said that his stepfather regularly beat his mother: “He made me terrified all the time, terrified like I had to pee on myself. I remember one night he made her nose bleed. I was crying and thinking, ‘I’m just gonna go crazy on him one day…’ I hate him to this day.” (Brown’s stepfather has since denied that he ever hit Brown’s mother.)
Compare that to Tyson talking about being bullied on the streets of Brooklyn, describing himself as a “vulnerable young boy,” a boy who vowed, “I would f****** kill someone if they f***** with me.” Is it a coincidence that Brown trained in martial arts or that Tyson turned to boxing? You’ve got to wonder what happens to the head of a young man from a troubled childhood when fame finds him. Big paychecks, coupled with immaturity and the unblinking eye of the press—these days TMZ and Bossip—can’t be good for the soul—or a relationship. Talk about a combustible mix.
Then there’s Rihanna, who, like Givens, found herself on the receiving end of a whole lot of misogyny. One gossip blog claimed in an “exclusive,” that the singer started the fight with her jealousy. Fans jumped into the fray, speculating that she must have done something to provoke the fight. “Beat that b**** everytime she wanna act like a man…,” wrote Jay Trishzzkie on Bossip. Even 50 Cent had to get involved, cracking jokes about the incident on his Web site. But after seeing the much-circulated photo of Rihanna’s bruised face, 50 decided to quit with the wisecracks.
It’s yet to be seen how the Chrihanna saga will play out. Media outlets are reporting that the two are back together, holed up in Diddy’s Miami hideaway. Meanwhile, police are still investigating the case. Brown, in a typical celebrity-in-hot-water PR move, is now taking anger management classes and consulting with his “pastor.” There are those who say Rihanna should take on the mantle of the role model, warning young girls about the dangers of domestic abuse. Brown, he of the dimples and the heretofore squeaky-clean image, has already lost out on some lucrative sponsorships. This is the stuff upon which careers are broken.
After all, Givens’ acting career never really recovered from the chaos of her yearlong marriage to Tyson, from the police calls to their home for domestic disturbances, to that ill-advised interview with Walters. Tyson, in his documentary, describes the events as “disastrous.” Back in the day, his job was, as he puts it, “to hurt people.” But even he didn’t walk away unscathed.
Not that he seems to have learned much from it. Givens, he says, lied about him to Walters—but then, in another scene, the documentary flashes news reels detailing police calls to their home for “domestic brawls.” What message is he trying to convey?
One thing he doesn’t seem to have let go of is the misogyny. He talks about boxing while infected with gonorrhea, which he says, matter of factly, that he got “from either a prostitute or a very filthy young lady.” And of his conviction for raping Desiree Washington, he only has this to say: “I have to be honest. I can be a jerk … I may have taken advantage of women before. But I never took advantage of [Desiree Washington].”
That’s our Mike Tyson, still in denial and deflecting blame, after all these years. Hopefully Chris Brown will be a quicker study. If not, he should check out "Tyson," for a preview of what life could look like for the next 20 years.
Teresa Wiltz is senior culture writer for The Root.