Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Film | Sports

May 31, 2009

Tyson Season

Documentary director James Toback tells Gelf that his subject—and friend—isn't the monster he was previously made out to be.

David Downs

Kid Dynamite is blowing up again. The new, widely-lauded documentary Tyson locks viewers across the country into solitary confinement with the heavyweight champ—notorious for his ferocity inside the ring and out. The summer's hottest video games also feature him. And this week, the tragic arc of the fighter's life was only deepened by the accidental death of his four-year-old daughter.

Tyson director, writer, and producer James Toback has been a friend of the fighter since he met him in 1985. As he detailed at April's San Francisco International Film Festival
interview and in a follow-up interview with Gelf Magazine, Toback was
riding high back then, hanging with buddy Warren Beatty, for whom he wrote Bugsy. Toback was also partying with football and film star Jim Brown, whom Toback lived with while writing an Esquire feature on the American icon that later became the book Jim. The Harvard grad has had some hits and misses since then, and is now getting the most positive reviews of his career for an extremely engrossing independent film that turns video game caricature Iron Mike into a three dimensional human being. In the following interview excerpts, Toback talks of the Tyson rape conviction, the head butting of Holyfield, and the acute aversion to humiliation that fueled Tyson's warrior spirit.

Mike Tyson (left) and James Toback
"Mike is so contemptuous of image that he doesn't fight any of the presentations of himself."—Tyson director James Toback

Mike Tyson (left) and James Toback

Gelf Magazine: It's insane to hear Tyson say he wasn't guilty of the rape he was convicted of. But you said during the talk that you also believed he was innocent. What does that mean for the average person who doesn't want to wade into the trial? Is there any take-away from the "he got convicted vs. you both say he wasn't guilty" debate?

James Toback: I always find it amusing when people use the word "conviction." I always say, "Well, what does that imply? That implies that you think that conviction means guilt and in fact—while obviously some of the time it does—a lot of the time it doesn't."

Gelf Magazine: Especially with African Americans in America.

James Toback: Right. So you see this all the time. "He's a convicted rapist, he's a convicted rapist," and I say, "So. Not to dismiss it, but tell me why you think that means he's guilty, because certainly you're not saying you think the judicial system is flawless."
And then, of course, you get to this remark Alan Dershowitz made, which is so extreme. It's not as if he said, "I've looked at the transcript and it seems to me that it's questionable"; it's saying that in 40 years of going over court cases, he's never seen a more obvious miscarriage of justice—a more clear-cut case of a person being railroaded. And I think that knowing Mike as I do, I can't imagine that he would be telling me over the years, over and over again, that he didn't do something and that it wasn't just an interpretation. One time he said to me, "If I raped her, then every act I've ever had with every girl I've ever been with has been rape." And the idea that he would be saying to me, over and over again, that he didn't do it—for whose benefit? I'm not going to get him off the hook. So it's just obviously a deeply wounding and enraging and unrelenting horror in his imagination he has never gotten over. In the movie he says, "People say to me, 'You have to move on' and 'Get over it'," and he says, "It's easy for them to say because it didn't happen to them."

Gelf Magazine: Another moment where you disagree with most people was whether Tyson's ear-biting in the second fight against Holyfield was at all explainable. You seem to say that Holyfield's head-butting almost seemed to justify the ear-biting. Was that intentional?

James Toback: I felt that you almost would have to say, "It's too bad there wasn't a third ear to bite" after watching that, because it was so egregious in both the first and the second fights. There are so many events that occur which are reported with a certain slant and that becomes the story. That becomes the party line. And because Mike is such a bad politician, and because he is so ultimately contemptuous of image and use of the press and solicitation that he is not apt ever to argue, question, or fight any of the presentations of himself. It creates an extremely misleading picture.

Gelf Magazine: How much of Tyson was genetics and how much of it was trainer Cus D'Amato coming along at the right time in his life, when you have a 14-year-old that you can break down and build up? He wasn't a big guy, he didn't have lung capacity—what is your take on what made Tyson so effective in the ring? Was it all warrior spirit?

James Toback: Yeah, exactly. He had this lightning speed and he did have tremendous power, but really I think it was the way he was trained physically by Cus D'Amato. I don't think there's any question that if he'd not found Cus, that he would never have become heavyweight champion, let alone the champion that he was. That was a very shrewd, skillful boxing trainer finding unbelievable raw material, cultivating, and delivering.

The trailer to Toback's documentary.

Gelf Magazine: For me, someone who was five during some of those crazy fights, it was viscerally thrilling. It's almost primal in the desire to pump your fist and say, "get him!"

James Toback: There was an impact that he had that no one else has had, when you think about the ferocity and the speed and the incredible skill of movement and craft, all mixed together. No one other heavyweight champ had it. You couldn't put together a montage like that three-and-a-half-minute montage at the beginning of the movie with any other fighter.

Gelf Magazine: The fall of Tyson almost felt classical, whether it was the loss of Cus; the divorce; or the drugs and alcohol that comes with being a multi-hundred millionaire world star. Is it a cop-out to see Tyson as a classic case of maldevelopment? I cover a lot of musicians who come from broken homes, get enabled by millions of dollars, and then what failed to raise them comes back to haunt them. Is that a cop-out with Tyson? Is it still an accurate reason to describe how he fell?

James Toback: I think that it wasn't inevitable, but the fact that it wasn't inevitable doesn't detract from its significance. For instance, he has a brother who is a surgical assistant. Now, his brother was brought up the same way he was, and yet his brother ended up a surgical assistant. Well, the fact is that with Mike, those circumstances affected him the way they did. And clearly they did affect him and they were a deeply significant part of it. So whether one offers it as an excuse as opposed to an explanation is really the issue. I don't think in his case it's an excuse, it's an explanation that is accurate. Was there a cause and effect? Yes.

Related on the web

Tyson is open in select theaters. Punch-Out!! is available now on Wii and Fight Night Round 4 featuring Ali versus Tyson will be available June 30th.

David Downs

David Downs is a journalist based in San Francisco.

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Article by David Downs

David Downs is a journalist based in San Francisco.

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