For a time, Mike Tyson was one of the most famous men alive – and one of the most freakishly intimidating boxers ever to lace a glove. He is also a convicted and unrepentant rapist, a man born into carnage who would later generate so much of his own.
By all accounts, Mike Tyson was seriously broken by his impoverished Brooklyn childhood, which was stamped with insistent and intimate violence. As a man, he would visit great violence upon others, both in the ring – where it was codified and glamorised – and outside it. Often, there didn’t seem to be much distinction between the two, and Tyson never stopped reminding us of how primal and vicious the “entertainment” he provided was. “Every punch I threw with bad intentions to a vital area,” he said of his famous fight against Trevor Berbick in 1986, the one that made him history’s youngest heavyweight champion at the age of 20.
There is, of course, a long history of hyperbolic machismo and verbal intimidation in boxing – but when Tyson once said he had “murderous intentions” in the ring, he meant it. “I wanted to hit him in the nose one more time so that maybe the bone could have gone up into his brain.”
At least, he usually meant it. Sometimes Tyson himself wasn’t so sure. The line between performance and reality was porous and ever-shifting. Most boxers can delineate between their public and private selves, but for a time Tyson seemed vulnerable to being swallowed by his own masks.
Sometimes he would tearfully confess he had no idea who he was – his identity was illusory, made of whatever others projected upon his blank soul. He told us he was a “killer”, a “monster”, a “sewer rat” and a “pig”. He told us he was “Charlemagne” and “a reincarnation of Alexander the Great”. He told us he was a lover and a philosopher. Tyson wasn’t a gifted or comfortable chameleon – not like his former manager Don King, who transformed himself from hustler and convicted killer to the influential and electrically amoral svengali of boxing. In his memoir, Tyson writes that his trainer and mentor “wanted an antisocial champion, so I drew on the bad guys from the movies … I immersed myself in the role of the arrogant sociopath.”
And for good spells, he became one.
It’s depressing what scriptwriters and cinematographers can do to the climates of poverty and abuse – too often, they transform them into pretty scenes and plot points. Material squalor is made aesthetically attractive, or at least interesting to look at; and moments of violence are dislocated from their seediness and desperation. Cause and effect are simplified, and we’re tacitly encouraged not to think or care too much about the early abuse, because it’s offered to us merely as an early floor on our hero’s ascending elevator ride.
And so, in Mike, the New York projects of Tyson’s youth are artfully framed and the buses pop with colour. Few beatings, muggings or armed robberies are shown without an alleviating soundtrack. It’s almost amusing how often music glibly undercuts the grime and severity of what we’re seeing.
Later, we watch Tyson (played by the excellent Trevante Rhodes) hurl a television at his wife and mother-in-law in slow motion. This brief scene resembles a ’90s music clip in its silly contrivance. This nullifying stylisation doesn’t stop here. The boxing scenes are false, as most are in film and television. It captures neither the subtlety of boxing nor its movements. Instead, there are the obliging close-ups of rippling flesh and splashed blood. It can’t get boxing right, but it doesn’t want to: Mike is more entertainment, even as the show wrestles – usually superficially – with Tyson’s own view that boxing is entertainment that hinges on multiple forms of exploitation.
Mike wants to be above this but doesn’t seem to know how.
Tyson craved the love and acknowledgment he never had at home, and he would famously discover them as a teenager in the legendary trainer Cus D’Amato (played wonderfully by Harvey Keitel), who served more as a mentor and father-figure (he would eventually become Tyson’s legal guardian, until his sudden death in 1985 – one year before Tyson fulfilled D’Amato’s prediction that he would become heavyweight champ). “You will supersede everyone,” he tells Tyson. “You are a giant. You are a colossus amongst men.”
At which point Tyson turns to the camera, in one of the series’ many breaches of the fourth wall, and says: “I never heard anyone say anything good about me. I wanted to hear more.”
It’s not obvious that D’Amato thought this through, or even if he wanted to. D’Amato took an insecure, impulsive and shockingly combustible kid and built an insecure, impulsive and shockingly combustible world heavyweight champ.
And it’s unclear if D’Amato truly thought that success in the ring might make Tyson whole, or if he ever contemplated how an ego pegged to athletic success, and long threatened by insecurity, might respond when success faltered. D’Amato loved Tyson, and Tyson’s career might not have happened without his devotion. Certainly, his death was profoundly destabilising to the young boxer. But his influence is complex and debatable, and Tyson’s own lawyer in his rape trial suggested to the judge that “Mr Tyson the man was secondary to Mr D’Amato’s purpose”.
No doubt this was a convenient narrative – the convicted rapist as the gifted but exploited ghetto kid, his agency compromised by trauma and the manipulation of elders – crafted by the lawyer to induce sympathy from the judge when she was sentencing Tyson for rape in 1992. I wonder if Tyson approved this desperate slander of his late mentor, or if his lawyer came up with it himself. Had the ruthlessness his beloved mentor cultivated in Tyson been turned against him in death?
There’s a curious thing about Mike’s structure: it borrows from Tyson’s own one-man stage show – which debuted in Las Vegas in 2012 and was made into an HBO special directed by Spike Lee – to anchor it. We see Rhodes’ Tyson standing on the theatre’s stage, offering rote but colourful accounts of his brutal childhood, and leaning hard on the schtick of winking self-effacement and the promise of unvarnished truth.
But about his rape of 18-year-old Desiree Washington, Tyson has never been honest. In fact, he used his 2013 memoir to continue his denigration of his victim – a victim who has never sold her story and has maintained a dignified silence for almost 30 years.
And so, not trusting its narrator on this, Mike sensibly takes leave of him for episode five, and is devoted not only to telling the story of Washington’s rape and Tyson’s subsequent trial and conviction, but allows Desiree (Li Eubanks) to speak directly to camera. But this asks the question, if Tyson is unreliable on this, then why trust that he’s reliable on anything else?
Regardless, it’s a small act of restoration for a woman who was twice degraded: first by Tyson, then again by his legion of supporters who condemned her as a liar. It is nauseating to be reminded of the hysterically vicious slurring of a teenage rape victim.
In a lengthy and highly publicised interview with Barbara Walters not long after Tyson’s conviction – and the last one, as far as I’m aware, she’s ever done – Washington said: “I went from being such an outgoing person to someone who was… so secluded.
“I just sat in my room and in the corner of my bed, and I just couldn’t move for the longest time … I was such an outgoing person, such a loving person, such a trusting person, and I miss that person.”
When considering if he were capable of raping more women, Tyson’s judge concluded: “Quite honestly, I’m of the opinion that you are.” The judge added: “Something needs to be done with that attitude that I hear from you, saying that somehow she [the victim] misunderstood.”
But that attitude wasn’t exclusive to Tyson. It included Barbara Walters, who asked Washington with smug exasperation: “Maybe it’s the age difference… In a man’s room, with beds – what were you doing there at 2 o’clock in the morning?”, and Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, who mocked Washington in a public rally for Tyson, and then said: “You bring in a hawk at the chicken yard and wonder why the chicken got eaten up. You bring Mike to a beauty contest, and all these foxes just parading in front of Mike. Mike’s eyes begin to dance like a hungry man looking at a Wendy’s beef burger.”
But hell, millions of Americans thought this.
Mike Tyson has often said he doesn’t make much sense to himself, and Mike can’t really help us either. It’s too slick and perfunctory and comes to feel, as The Guardian put it, like a collection of Wikipedia bullet points artfully strung together.
The rise, fall and fateful comeback. The rage, coke and lithium. The surreal profligacy. The chewing of Evander Holyfield’s ear. The coterie of “leeches and vultures” that filled the vacuum left by D’Amato. The swindling of the magnetic crook, Don King. The paranoia and perversity. The vulnerability and viciousness. It’s all here, breezily recounted, but I’m not sure what it adds up to.
Through Tyson, there’s a powerful story to be told about American pathology, but this isn’t it.
Mike is streaming on Disney+.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 17, 2022 as "Raging bullshit".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription