Burying The Lead

By Bernard Fernandez
Updated: August 18, 2009

PHILADELPHIA – The timing is coincidental, but, still, it could hardly be more curious.

Only five days after the Eagles shocked NFL fans and animal-rights activists by signing convicted felon and dogfighting pariah Michael Vick, “Tyson,” director James Toback’s documentary on the rise and fall of another high-profile sports star, two-time former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, was released Tuesday on DVD.

In “Tyson,” there are enough highlights of the fighter’s more spectacular knockouts to satisfy even his most rabid boosters. But the majority of the 90-minute film is comprised of talking-head recollections by Tyson himself, and his viewpoint noticeably tilts toward rationalizing his more aberrant behavior in and out of the ring.

Tyson recalls his urban-nightmare childhood in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, N.Y., and how at an early age, after his talent for knocking opponents stiff became obvious, all manner of leeches flocked to him as if he were their personal ATM machine.

He couldn’t quite figure out whom to trust, so he chose to trust no one except his grandfatherly trainer, Cus D’Amato, who was 77 when he died on Nov. 4, 1985, leaving Tyson to make his own, frequently unwise decisions.

It’s a plausible tale of lost innocence, but it fails to take into account that Tyson was rescued from the Tryon School for Boys at 13, whereupon he was introduced into the sort of pastoral, close-knit environment at D’Amato’s Catskill, N.Y., home that should have erased at least some of the taint of his wayward youth.

Tyson is 43 now, and at some point maturity and a sense of personal responsibility should have kicked in.

“If I have any anger, it’s directed at myself,” Tyson says toward the end of the film, a moment of introspection that wouldn’t ring quite so hollow had he not spent so much earlier time castigating nearly everyone, except D’Amato, who drifted into and out of his inner circle.

Not that a feature-length film can include all the twists and turns of someone whose life has been an ongoing roller-coaster ride, but Toback – whose intent clearly was to establish his subject as somewhat of a sympathetic figure – glosses over Tyson’s reprehensible attitude toward women, his predisposition for violence and other sociopathic tendencies.

At the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, Toback, who gave Tyson a bit role as himself in the 1999 film, “Black and White,” said he hoped the documentary would reveal Tyson as “a complex, iconic and noble human being.”

Nobility, of course, is an easier sell when you tell only that part of the story suiting your purpose. There is no mention of when a D’Amato aide, Teddy Atlas, put a gun to the 15-year-old Tyson’s head and threatened to blow a hole in it for making unwanted advances toward Atlas’ 13-year-old niece.

Also absent is any reference to Tyson’s alleged mistreatment of his menagerie of animals.

Tyson is going to be a first-ballot inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2011, and deservingly so even if his inability to control his baser instincts shortened his prime and eroded his greatness. At the top of his game, he was the most exciting fighter of the last quarter-century.

But boxing historians must also note that, as spectacularly dominant as he was for a time, he should have remained on top longer. In the ring and in life, Mike Tyson often fought himself, and lost.