A Blues Song Just For Fighters: James Toback’s Tyson
Boxing is our most controversial American sport, always, it seems, on the brink of being abolished. Its detractors speak of it in contempt as a “so-called ‘sport,’” and surely their logic is correct: if “sport” means harmless play, boxing is not a sport; it is certainly not a game. But “sport” can signify a paradigm of life, a reduction of its complexities in terms of a single symbolic action—in this case its competitiveness, the cruelty of its Darwinian enterprise—defined and restrained by any number of rules, regulations, and customs: in which case boxing is probably, as the ex-heavyweight champion George Foreman has said, the sport to which all other sports aspire. It is the quintessential image of human struggle, masculine or otherwise, against not only other people but one’s own divided self.
Someday, they’re gonna write a blues song just for fighters. It’ll be for slow guitar, soft trumpet and a bell.
— Sonny Liston
As a child somewhere on the journey towards adolescence in the mid-to-late 1980s, there were certain names that brought with them entire worlds. “Maradona” was one this little Canadian Scot spent a lot of time rolling around his tongue, while balls rolled around football pitches marked out by jumpers and trees, at the feet of players far more capable than he. “Schwarzenegger” and “Stallone” made for air machine guns, bandannas, throwing each other in the mud and learning to love the art of gratuitious bloodshed.
Then there was Tyson. Tyson was what the older kids who worked at the slaughterhouse would name their dogs (and, eventually, their children). Tyson was huddled conversations under the bridge about sixty second knockouts, older cousins with cigarettes in their mouths, replaying the fist swings with a slow and sincere reverence. Tyson was in the playground, our heads smashed against walls by the bulkier and more slowly moving amongst us, games of British Bulldogs suddenly turning to the heavyweight championship for inspiration. Seconds out, they’d shout, and the bricks were only ever those seconds away.
At the time, Joyce Carol Oates was writing very smart and eventually legendary work on Tyson, contextualising him amongst the greats. But the rumble in the jungle, to us, was probably an episode of GI Joe. We were becoming vaguely aware that Cassius Clay and Muhammad Ali were the same person but could not tell you the reasons why. Frank Bruno was on the Saturday telly, that lovely Irish McGuigan lad too. But those weren’t the word that made the world shake.
That word was Tyson.
I knew nothing of boxing, but I knew what I saw. That vicious, raw, pure distillation of the fight. Kid Dynamite transformed into Iron Mike. The purists hated him. He wasn’t the art. The world did not dance on his fists. It was pummelled. He was unbeatable because you can’t beat rage like that. You can’t beat the streets, and the prisons, and the anger.
You know what happened. Others have written it better. Those who actually know something about boxing. Start with David Remnick and go on from there. There was the rape. The prison sentence. The comeback. Evander Holyfield. The ear bite. Fuck you til you love me, faggot. Don King. The collapse. Dragging boxing down with him.
And always, at the center, that man, that strange, self-victimising madman with the motor mouth. With his mansions abandoned, he is reduced to that hoariest of cliches, the fallen heavyweight champ. The Raging Bull. The Sonny Liston. Long ago a realisation there would be no triumphant Balboa return, horns ablaze. This was it.
James Toback’s film about the man could barely be called a documentary. It’s a portrait, I suppose, or a monologue. Or something else. It’s a fascinating beast of a film, largely because it does that most obvious of things: it points a camera at Mike Tyson and asks him to tell us who he is, and how he got to here.
“I think that he is so incapable of guile and of representing himself with intention one way or another, as opposed to just saying what’s on his mind,” Toback explains to me as he works the phones for the Australian release of the film.
“There is enough self-incrimination from him that one doesn’t need to add to the mix in order for it to feel like a balanced portrait. In the way I edited the film, it was also without any effort to try to make him look good, it was just to try to make him look like what he is.”
Earlier this year as I passed through Kentucky, I visited the Louisville museum built in honour of hometown boy Muhammad Ali. When I say museum, I mean shrine/motivational speech in the form of building. As I wandered amidst the children’s handprints and soaring string-soundtracked documentaries about the audacity of self-belief or some such, I got to thinking a lot about the stories of the great boxers. The interesting stuff is never in what they achieved, it’s in how they failed. It’s in where these people who we invested so much hope and belief in, for the most basic and primal of abilities, acted as thugs. As fighters. As failures. That’s the story I wanted from the Ali museum. It’s the story you always want about the champ. “Find the greatness within”? That’s hardly the story we’re looking for.
Toback has been Tyson’s friend for most of the two and a half decades that he has spent in the gaze of an often repulsed but always fascinated public. Toback himself has an interesting place in Hollywood history as a director who has never particularly lived up to the promise of his 1978 debut Fingers, a man full of great ideas for films that never quite come off. Just as I was beginning to study film, a decade or so after those playground head smashes, I came across a copy of his diary in an issue of the British film journal Projections. It documented his idea for a film that was sort of the remnants of an acid trip, something deeper and darker and more brilliant. But it was lost to his own unreliability, and to his procrastination. It’s a strange, compelling slice of the creative self that I’ve always kept somewhere in my head. The film he was trying to make eventually became the much-derided Harvard Man, with Adrian Grenier starring (in place of the young Leonardo DiCaprio Toback was attempting to woo in his diary), and Sarah Michelle Gellar back when she could get roles in films. It was not the film he wrote around in a thousand different ways in those diary pages. Toback, in my Hollywood story, is genius and potential, almost always lost at the point of actual realisation.
With Tyson, he hits upon a perfect intersection of style and subject. To make Mike Tyson “look like what he is” is not simple — first one must figure out what Mike Tyson is. Toback might have a better idea of that than any other filmmaker. That “self-incrimination” he talks about is at the core of the film. Joan Didion wrote that we tell ourselves stories in order to live. Tyson tells himself many; he blurs the boundaries of himself in their contradictions and their justifications. Toback seizes this, lays the man over the top of himself in split screen, throwing you directly into the confused, uncertain space of his head.
“Since he is a fractured, multiple personality, I felt that the only way of aesthetically and stylistically finding a good structure for him as a subject of a cinematic portrait would be split-screen and multiple voices,” he says. “I’d experimented with both techniques before in Harvard Man and in Black & White, and had grown increasingly intrigued by that method, so I thought if ever it was warranted, it’s now.”
For Toback, there was never any temptation to introduce the sort of talking heads you might have had in the great boxing films of the past, like say a Norman Mailer equivalent.
“I would probably not have wanted to make that movie,” he explains. “That ends up being a kind of journalistic exercise, which would not at all have appealed to me.
“The only vague moment of temptation I had with that, and it wasn’t a real one, because it would have blown the whole movie stylistically, was to allow Alan Dershowitz, who was one of the most prominent criminal lawyers and law professors in America, to say what he has said many times, which is that the rape conviction was the single worst miscarriage of justice in his forty years of following and participating in criminal cases. And that any lawyer who thought that it wasn’t should go back to law school, only try a different one from the one he went to the first time.”
If you are to look at the film as either an attempt to sell a “true” version of Tyson, or as a journalistic enquiry, this is an inherently fatal flaw in Toback’s approach. If he were to include Dershowitz, Toback could and should have included a thousand others who have said just the opposite. But that is a different film. It is not this one. I asked him if any ground rules were laid down on other side when it came to the topics of the rape charges, or Evander Holyfield’s ear, or any of the other critical junctures in the story.
“None,” he says. “I just threw them out as subjects and treated them the way I treated everything else, which was to throw them out as subjects and let him go.
“That to me was the way to do the movie, not to try in any way to get him to say this or that, or cover a subject he hadn’t, but to give him the subjects that I considered of fundamental interest, introduce those subjects, and then just let him go.”
The end result, as Oates put it, is to turn Tyson into something like an abstract piece of art. We do not know the objective truth of the man, but then nor does he. Tyson himself did not know that this was the film that would result.
“He had no clue,” Toback said. “It was actually remarkable, I showed it to him in a screening alone, the two of us were sitting there. He said ‘it’s like a Greek tragedy, the only problem is that I’m the subject’. One of the things that I knew would make the movie riveting is the elegiac consciousness and tone that he has.”
The version of Tyson I walk away from the film with isn’t the one I’ve carried with me over the years, built first on those playgrounds and bridges and later in the writings of the intellectualisers of the sport. This Tyson is a man who has lived a life dominated by insecurity, and by childhood traumas he has never been able to get past. For better or worse, this is what has defined the rest of his life.
“He gives you a very vivid sense of that in his description of his childhood,” Toback agrees. “This sense of a short fat kid being bullied and pushed around. That whole story of the neck of the pigeon being broken by some bully and how he managed to summon up the courage and the strength to knock the guy out, but still was always haunted by his sense of himself as someone who was, at any given moment, going to be pushed around and bullied.”
“Everything from that point on was without any guiding force,” Toback explains. “It was with Tyson on his own, or taking the advice and direction of people who were both uninterested in his welfare and, in practical effect, leading him down very destructive paths.
“It would have been possible to be uninterested in him personally and yet not be a destructive influence, but unfortunately he had both the lack of interest, and destructiveness, or at least people playing up his own capacity for self-destruction, which was clearly highly developed.”
Toback knew him over those years, and was watching this happen. But Tyson at that time was moving in a different world.
“I knew that when he was with Don King, then Robyn Givens, that he was off in a different place,” he says. “It was very hard to communicate with him in any serious way during that period of time.”
To me, the kid who still knows nothing about boxing, it seems clear that Tyson was the last great heavyweight champ. If, in sporting terms, he was never a great to be mentioned in the same breath as Ali or Marciano, then at least in legend, in the possession of that myth of being the one true Heavyweight Champion of the World, he sits alongside them in our memories.
“Is there any athlete,” Joyce Carol Oates asked in 1992, “however celebrated in his own sport, who would not rather reign as the heavyweight champion of the world?”. I’m sure Wladimir Klitschko and his brother Vitali are fascinating characters, and probably excellent boxers (with all of their doctorates and politicking, and the nicknames Dr Steelhammer and Dr Ironfist in their possession), but how many kids these days are replaying their punches under the bridge? How many dogs do we meet called Klitschko? Not twenty years later, it seems Oates’ rhetorical question has found itself with a different answer.
“I think there’s no doubt whatsoever that boxing’s heyday is over,” Toback says. “First of all, boxing has always been, in the public consciousness, coterminous with the heavyweight division, and you had these iconographic figures who, if you take them as a group, were probably more prominent than the president of the United States. The great champions going back from John L. Sullivan to Corbett, to Jack Johnson, to Dempsey and then Louis, Marciano, Ali and then Tyson, there is no way that that era, or anything close to it, is going to come back. For a number of reasons.”
“Well I think one of them is that, like film for instance, which is a dying artform — or let’s say one that’s being supplanted and complemented by competing artforms that might be offshoots of it — first of all there is Ultimate Fighting.
“But in addition to Ultimate Fighting, there is this dilution of the intensity by these competing other forms. You have too many divisions, too many fighters, the various other sports of physical competitivesness which have become prominent, and even primary. When boxing was in the era of Dempsey, Tunney, Johnson, there was basically no football, no professional basketball, there was really just boxing and baseball. Now there’s all the rest of this competition.”
What Toback doesn’t mention as having contributed to the death are the stories of boxing in the eighties and nineties that turned the public away. The intertwined stories of Mike Tyson, and of Don King, certainly no friends but co-stars in a tragedy played out in whichever casinos would take them (which, by the end, had them fighting in Kansas).
Though the competing sports he mentions may now be more popular than boxing, though they may draw the sponsors away, and the viewers who long ago gave up, there is one thing they will never have. They will never have that heavyweight champion of the world.
“That’s true,” Toback agrees. “The hope is for people who love boxing is that someone will come along to reignite interest but I don’t know who that fighter would be. He certainly doesn’t seem to be vaguely on the horizon today.”