Bryan Armen Graham
Thursday April 23rd, 2009

For children of the '80s, there's never been an athlete who captured the imagination quite like Mike Tyson. It wasn't just his electric peek-a-boo style or arresting combination of strength, hand speed, accuracy and coordination; it was his unprecedented air of indestructibility. But deep within history's youngest heavyweight champion laid a fear that's the undercurrent of James Toback's riveting new documentary, Tyson, out in theaters Friday after a hearty reception on the festival circuit.

The film is less a critical study and more a window into the former champ's tortured psyche. The lone talking head in the piece belongs to Tyson himself, an immediate red flag to those in search of journalistic scrutiny. But the director enables no revisionist history, and neither romanticizes nor demonizes his subject. Toback's work, instead, consists of lush, restored archival footage interspersed with Tyson's lengthy, poignant self-interrogation.

The end product is extraordinary filmmaking -- the finest documentary on the sweet science since When We Were Kings -- that manages to compel both boxing aficionados and those indifferent to sports without pandering to either group.

Through tight, intimate shots, Tyson recounts the fear that drove him into his first fist-fight as a bullied doughboy in 1970s Brooklyn, after a neighborhood kid pulled off the head from one of his pet pigeons. "That's why people like myself become more assertive in life and become more aggressive," Tyson reasoned. "They don't want to be humiliated."

What follows is a chronological account of his delinquent Brownsville upbringing (under a "promiscuous" mother), his teenage years in juvie detention centers, his monastic apprenticeship and reform at Cus D'Amato's upstate compound, the ultimate blossoming of his prodigious talent and ascent to world champion at age 20, his tumultuous eight-month marriage to Robin Givens.

And the long way down.

One can't help but feel a chill of pathos when Buster Douglas pummels Tyson to the canvas at the film's midpoint, aware of both the champ's inner terror and the spectacular downfall the upset would catalyze. (It's a more vicious beating than you may remember.) Worse, still, is his description of the horrors of prison while serving a three-year sentence for rape charges brought forth by Desiree Washington ("that wretched swine of a woman"), whose story Tyson still vehemently denies.

The plot points of Tyson's meteoric rise and corrosive decline are well-known. But it's his disarming candor and mature perspective that lend new insight to familiar details, like his explanation of the infamous ear-biting incident ("chaos of the brain") and the duality of his famous pre-fight intimidation tactics ("When I come out [to the ring] I have supreme confidence, but I'm scared to death," Tyson said. "I'm afraid of everything, I'm afraid of losing, I'm afraid of being humiliated, but I was totally confident.")

Particularly moving are a series of never-before-seen interviews from the film's first act with D'Amato, the surrogate father responsible for Tyson's storybook transformation from street brawler to world champion through their precious common trust.

Tyson's last fight, against journeyman Kevin McBride in 2005, ended with the once-invincible champion quitting exhausted on his stool, done in ultimately by his own apathy -- a fitting ending for a man whose most dangerous opponent always lay within. "It's like a Greek tragedy," Tyson told Toback upon first viewing of the final cut. "The only problem is that I'm the subject."


JUNG: Q&A with "Tyson" director, James Toback

GALLERY: Iron Mike through the years

VIDEO: Clip from the Toback film "Tyson"

VAULT: Best stories of Mike Tyson

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