The champ is still as intimidating as ever.

(Sony Classics) Mike Tyson, Cus D’Amato, Michael Spinks, Evander Holyfield, Don King, Robin Douglas, Desiree Washington, James “Buster” Douglas. Directed by James Toback

Iron Mike Tyson is a figure that polarizes sports fans around the globe. Some see him as an astonishing ferocious fighter, one who managed to elevate himself from poverty and crime in his native Brooklyn and rise to the highest strata in professional sports. Others see him as little more than an animal, one who abuses and rapes women and bites the ears of fighters in the ring. But how does the former champion see himself?

Filmmaker James Toback, who’s been friends with Tyson since Tyson was a teenager, decided to find out and to do that he turned the camera on the former heavyweight champion and shot nearly 30 hours of interview footage. The understanding was that no subject would be off-limits including the more painful items, and that Tyson would have no say in how the film was edited. That Tyson agreed to those conditions illustrates the trust he has in Toback and also the willingness to bare his soul in front of the world.

The movie more or less follows Tyson’s career chronologically, from his start as a juvenile delinquent in Brooklyn, one of the roughest neighborhoods on earth through his lean, hungry days as an aspiring boxer through his days at the pinnacle of championship boxing to the end of his fighting career.

There is no pretense of objectivity here. We are hearing Tyson’s voice exclusively. However, the case against the champ is pretty well-documented and most of the accusations are addressed to some degree. He is surprisingly candid about things, admitting to treating women contemptibly but denying the highly publicized rape charges brought against him by beauty pageant contestant Desiree Washington, whom he refers to as a “swine.” He would serve prison time for that.

He also talks reverently about Cus D’Amato, the legendary boxing trainer who saw something in Tyson and taught him not just how to fight, but how to win. When discussing D’Amato’s passing, Tyson gets unexpectedly emotional. He credits D’Amato with essentially his entire success; for good or bad, you can blame Tyson on D’Amato. The trainer passed away a year before Tyson would win his first championship.

There is a lot of archival footage from Tyson’s boxing matches, but wisely Tyson doesn’t dwell so much on those. Certainly there is some discussion about the significance of the various fights, but they are generally used to illustrate Tyson’s state of mind at the time, and occasionally some of the techniques he used to prepare for the fights.

Mostly this is about Mike Tyson the man and less about Mike Tyson the boxer. However, since boxing is so integral a part of him, you must look at Mike Tyson the boxer to understand Mike Tyson the man.

I will admit to not having a high opinion of Tyson before I saw this. Yes, he is an impressive fighter and a powerful puncher but then again so is a jackhammer. However, seeing the man talk so honestly and unflinchingly about the mistakes he’s made gave me a newfound respect for the man. His courage isn’t merely physical.

I didn’t leave the movie thinking Mike Tyson is a misunderstood saint, but I did leave with a different opinion of him. Perhaps even a touch of understanding. Mike Tyson’s journey has been a more difficult one than most, but he has overcome things you and I will never even begin to comprehend. He went from being a frightened, bullied little boy into a ferocious, terrifying man, the self-proclaimed Baddest Man on Earth, a title which he richly deserved at the time. These days, he is trying to overcome a drug habit and has settled down to be a doting father (although he is divorced from the mother of his son, they are on good terms). He has mellowed somewhat, but still inside the man is the fighter, and he fights with the heart and skill of a champion.

WHY RENT THIS: Considering that you’re only essentially hearing one voice, this is a fascinating look at one of the most controversial figures in sports.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: It is essentially mostly Tyson talking about his life; there’s some archival footage in it but you’re really only getting one viewpoint, albeit a surprisingly honest one.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is definitely rough, with some crude sexual references. There is also extensive footage of Tyson’s boxing matches so those who object to that sort of violence should be warned.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The documentary only received one distribution offer, that from Sony Classics. When screened at the Cannes Film Festival, the film received a ten-minute standing ovation in front of many of the executives who had originally passed on it.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Nothing listed.


TOMORROW: Alice in Wonderland (2010)