Directed by James Toback
90 Minutes (Sony Pictures Classics)
Directed by Pete McCormack
100 Minutes (Lionsgate)
Boxing’s chroniclers write as though athletic contests can reveal key aspects of the culture at large. But boxing in particular, they generally insist, is more than just fighting governed by the Marquis of Queensbury rules. Boxing says something about race, wealth, poverty, masculinity, religion and violence in ways that other sports do not, and when the focus comes down to superhuman spectacles like Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali, the case seems plausible not despite but because of the contrast between the two men.
Ali mesmerized with a studied ambiguity; his quickness and bantering personality hid his power and determination in the ring. Outside the ring he took stands on major issues, ascending in the eyes of many from pariah to beloved symbol of courage. Tyson’s strength and focus inside the ring were not in the least ambiguous, and his boorishness and crudity outside of it took his fame in the opposite direction. From looking like an indestructible prospect headed for certain greatness, Tyson’s shattered star soon shined only for insatiable connoisseurs of schadenfreude, while Ali’s only got brighter over time. Two new films, especially when seen together, spark reflections not only on these diverging personal narratives, but on boxing and the “big issues” it claims to reflect.
In the documentary Tyson, director James Toback aims to add to the story of the boxer’s messy life by concentrating on the sensitivity and thoughtfulness not usually associated with the former “baddest man on the planet.” The film doesn’t downplay Tyson’s shabby and criminal behavior—though the fighter denies committing the rape for which he was convicted—but it permits the ex-heavyweight champion to express his purportedly hard-won maturity and the insights gained from introspection.
Toback doesn’t attempt an exhaustive history. Instead, he compiles a case study of celebrity gone awry. Tyson, the sole speaker in the documentary, gives an ambitious if somewhat unconvincing performance. Tyson chokes up and nears tears when recalling Cus D’Amato, his boxing trainer and manager. Tyson was a fat, essentially parentless kid, often in trouble with the law, who found in D’Amato the first person he could trust and love. D’Amato was already known for being the upstate New York boxing trainer and manager who, three decades earlier, helped Floyd Patterson become the youngest heavyweight champion of his time. D’Amato spied in Tyson a late-in-life shot at repeating the feat. D’Amato not only worked with Tyson on physical conditioning; he also cultivated the mental component he believed was the principal part of boxing.
Indeed, Tyson pays his debt to D’Amato by proclaiming himself a master of “the art of skullduggery.” He thinks he won many of his fights by intimidating his opponents before the bout ever began. Having early on established the crushing power of his punches, for later matches Tyson would emerge from his dressing room not sheathed in a showy silk robe like other boxers but as a sweating destroyer in black trunks eager to go to work. Stalking around the ring, intently staring down the other man, he sought to assert the terror of his own personality. Tyson remembers living in constant fear as a child in the “horrific” Brownsville section of Brooklyn, but feeling fright subside the closer he stepped to a boxing ring. He enjoyed outsmarting others as a criminal, and he found application for that skill in boxing. As a boxer, he prevailed by causing in other fighters the very fear he struggled to squelch in himself.
Tyson describes the arc of his life as first the gaining of the confidence he needed to become the heavyweight champion and then the gradual loss of that confidence as he fell into a mess of personal turmoil. Though he came to possess unshakable confidence in his talent, the very lessening of the fear that spurred his success then undermined his ability to sustain it. So certain of his invincibility was he that he trained less and less as time passed.
Tyson attributes the disastrous course of his boxing career to events outside the ring, however. Just as he repeats his mentor’s theories about the psychology of fighting, he seems to mouth lines he learned in rehab when he claims to take responsibility for his poor choices and behavior. But at the same time he repeatedly finds ways to suggest that events beyond his control were the real causes of such choices.
Perhaps there is some truth here. D’Amato’s death, coming soon before Tyson reached the pinnacle of his career, shook his confidence. The public breakdown of his brief marriage to the actress Robin Givens weakened it further. Tyson judged the best punch he ever threw to be the one that bounced Givens off every wall in the room, according to Fire & Fear: The Inside Story of Mike Tyson, a 1989 biography by José Torres, a D’Amato trainee and former light heavyweight champion. (In a revealing contrast, George Foreman, in director Pete McCormack’s Facing Ali, names Ali the greatest fighter he ever fought because of a punch not thrown—of which more in a moment.)
Tyson’s 1992 rape conviction further damaged his always-fragile mental state. Anger animates the often subdued speaker when he disparages his accuser, beauty queen Desiree Washington, “that wretched swine of a woman.” He hurls similarly spiteful insults at one of the “leeches” he blames for his financial ruin, the “wretched, slimy, reptilian” boxing promoter Don King, whom he accuses of bilking him of millions of dollars.
The film never gets to the bottom of such accusations, because it can’t. But it does show that King recognized precisely what Tyson also realized: No one sells tickets like Mike Tyson. The ex-boxer knows what to say to get attention, whether this means saying calculatedly shocking things—such as his proclaimed wish to devour Lennox Lewis’s children, or his description of visualizing punching through to the backs of other boxers’ heads—or therapeutic confessions suitable for daytime talk shows, as when he admits to heavy drug use, laments his divorces and describes his financial troubles.
Ironically, Tyson’s greatest fear as a youngster was to be publicly, humiliatingly beaten up. His irreversible decline as a fighter involves precisely that: the embarrassing loss of his title to underdog James “Buster” Douglas, his disqualification after biting off part of Evander Holyfield’s ear, his dismantlement at the hands of Lewis (whose leg Tyson bit at a press conference), and his risible performances against journeymen he would have dispatched in seconds during the days when he inspired the right balance of fear in others and confidence in himself. In an article reprinted in her 2009 collection One Ring Circus, Katherine Dunn defended Tyson’s dental maneuver in the 1997 Holyfield fight, and in the film, Tyson echoes her argument that the other boxer’s repeated head butts were the real, overlooked problem. (In October 2009, Tyson appeared on Oprah and admitted that he felt no guilt at the time about the incident from roughly a dozen years earlier. On a return visit with Holyfield, Tyson attempted something resembling amends by telling the “beautiful guy” at his side that it had been “a pleasure passing through life being acquainted with you.” Holyfield, as if reading from a generic script, said he hoped children learned something about conflict resolution.)
For all his excuse-making, Tyson desperately wants the fame he can’t handle. Even decades after his discovery that he was known all over the world, he sounds startled by it. He lists places he went before parole limitations interfered with his travels, speaking of them as achievements no less important than the big fights he won. He knows that he is widely viewed as “a bad black man”, in contrast to the vocally Christian, and therefore “good”, Holyfield, but he is never reconciled to his role, expecting fans to distinguish between his professional “show” persona and who he really is as a man.
Race does arise in Tyson. When he was welcomed into the D’Amato household, he thought about how he could “rob these white folks.” In a tirade at a media event, he says a white heckler could never understand or survive his world. Religion surfaces too, as when Tyson describes becoming a militant Muslim while incarcerated, only to find that he didn’t really understand Islam. More than race or religion, however, Tyson mostly enjoys musing on sex and his desire to dominate powerful women.
Toback presents Tyson the monologist alternately with bright sun shining through windows behind him or in a darkened room, as if to hint at the extremes of his subject’s psyche. He occasionally shoots the reflective pugilist staring off at the ocean, as if to suggest his depth. Toback also splits the screen into multiple views of Tyson’s face (or parts of it), indicating visually the fractured state of the fighter’s soul. Toback seeks cinematic expression of an idea voiced two decades earlier, in Fire & Fear, where Torres wonders if “there were really two Tysons”, one “sensitive and compassionate” and another who “enjoyed the sight of pain and hurt in others.” If these obvious and intrusive cues grow tedious, they provide some relief from the unceasing self-exposure of a man who veers between self-awareness and delusion.
Toback has Tyson read part of Oscar Wilde’s poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”, presumably because crime and punishment make up part of the boxer’s personal province. (Wilde’s own legal troubles involved his relationship with the son of the marquis after whom modern-day boxing’s rules are named, which Tyson, a dedicated student of the sport’s history, surely knows.) However, another author, Cyril Connolly, more accurately sums up the boxer’s biography. Tyson’s explosive start as a professional—beating 25 of his first 27 opponents inside the distance, 15 of them by way of first-round knockouts, before winning the World Boxing Council belt from Trevor Berbick at age twenty and proceeding to capture other organizations’ belts to become the undisputed champion—persuaded many that he’d hold his title much longer than the three years he did. As Connolly says, “whom the gods wish to destroy they first call promising.”
With Muhamad Ali, observers were far less optimistic—at least at the beginning. A.J. Liebling, the dean of boxing writers, judged Cassius Clay’s gold medal-winning performance at the 1960 Olympics “attractive but not probative.” He said Clay, as Ali was then known, “had a skittering style, like a pebble over water”, and lacked punching power. Even after Clay turned professional and beat a dozen and half opponents, Liebling still wondered if the boxer would ever learn to hit harder. Sonny Liston joked that Clay ought to be arrested for impersonating a prizefighter.
Of course, that was before Liston lost to him—twice. Going into his first fight for the title against Liston, Clay was a seven-to-one underdog (not as prohibitive as the 42-to-1 odds against Buster Douglas beating Tyson, but still steep). Both sports writers and the boxing commissioners expected Liston, a fighter with Tyson-like style and temperament, to thoroughly thrash the challenger. Clay shocked the experts, rather than merely living up to expectations as Tyson did in his initial quest for the heavyweight crown.
Liebling did not live to see Clay transform into Ali and become reviled as a draft-dodging member of the separatist Nation of Islam. Nor did the New Yorker writer see Ali’s refusal to fight in the Vietnam War (because, he famously said, no Vietcong ever called him “nigger”) come to look like a principled stand, and his three-and-a-half year suspension from boxing (which lasted roughly as long as Tyson’s prison term) become popularly perceived as unjust. “To think about Ali is to think about race”, according to Gerald Early, author of The Culture of Bruising: Essays on Prizefighting, Literature, and Modern American Culture (1994) and the editor of The Muhammad Ali Reader (1998). The man Liebling dubbed “the heavyweight poet from Louisville” became the embodiment of the Civil Rights movement despite what he actually advocated. Changes in popular attitudes toward Ali, and changes in Ali’s outlook, such as his embrace of a de-radicalized version of Islam, may truly reflect changes in the nation’s thinking about race.
For all of Liebling’s doubts, Ali did develop a punch strong enough to put supposedly invincible George Foreman on the canvas in Zaire in the famous 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle.” That triumph, in which Ali reclaimed his illegitimately denied title, along with his status as a figure of global fascination, are examined in Leon Gast’s Academy Award-winning documentary When We Were Kings. Gast’s film, which mostly sidesteps Ali’s more incendiary statements, was released soon after a Parkinson’s-afflicted Ali made a poignant appearance at the 1996 Olympics to reignite the torch, as well as his own fame.
The fire of the latter continues to burn, as admirers tend to it. Facing Ali, produced in association with Muhammad Ali Enterprises and based on a 2003 book by Stephen Brunt, is a video love letter to the boxer who awed even those opponents who beat him. Both it and Tyson allow boxers to tell their own stories, but there the similarities between the two movies end. A straightforward documentary without attention-grabbing editing tricks, Facing Ali speeds through obligatory mentions of controversies to concentrate on Ali the performer. If Tyson enters the fighter’s head in search of previously unseen and unsuspected complexity, Facing Ali looks from the outside at the phenomenon, offering a streamlined hagiography that celebrates Ali’s impact on others. Men he fought reflect on Ali’s athletic prowess, his charismatic personality and his effect on them.
Most sound star-struck. Ken Norton, who broke Ali’s jaw in a 1973 bout, says: “To be in the same ring with this man called Muhammad was to me an honor, a life saver, career saver and I can’t thank him enough for giving me the chance.” Norton had marital and financial troubles; he saw fighting Ali as a means of feeding and clothing his son and having “a chance at a life, period.” Later a car accident left Norton paralyzed for years. He was told that, while comatose, he nonetheless responded when Ali visited him in the hospital. Norton is shown walking with a cane and is one of several boxers in Facing Ali whose slurred or mumbled words are rendered onscreen. Clips of the young, verbally dexterous Ali are shown; the older Ali appears only briefly, and silently.
Larry Holmes, an Ali sparring partner who succeeded him as heavyweight champion, declares: “I love him like a brother and like a guy that’s a celebrity.” He explains that “Ali was one of those guys that made you feel good about yourself.” Foreman calls him “a hero to the world.” Leon Spinks—whose story of growing up brutally poor, learning to protect himself from bullies, becoming a young champion, and having drug-related problems prefigures Tyson’s—deposed his avowed idol in their first 1978 fight. After handing back the title belt later the same year, Spinks thanked Ali because “there’s only one Ali.” Earnie Shavers says fighting Ali changed his life. “Just his name’s got magic, if you do well with him.”
Even those whose comments on Ali amount to more than unalloyed adulation testify to his uniqueness. Pace Larry Holmes, Ali didn’t make Joe Frazier feel good. Frazier never stopped resenting Ali for calling him an Uncle Tom. Even so, he ends up calling Ali a great guy. Ron Lyle insists on Ali’s importance outside the ring, but acknowledges that no one would seek his opinion if he hadn’t met Ali inside one. Lyle believes Ali “meant a lot to the black community, and he means a lot today”, and he draws a connection between Ali and Malcolm X. Lyle was devastated when the referee stopped his 1975 fight against Ali, which he thought he was winning, because it was his “moment.” Ali’s last fight (which Facing Ali ignores) was a loss to Trevor Berbick in 1981. Tyson, in his film, recounts that Ali told him to beat Berbick for his sake. He also recalls D’Amato telling him that Ali’s personality was what made him a great fighter. Tyson didn’t understand the remark at the time.
If Tyson did eventually discover what D’Amato meant, he either didn’t or couldn’t follow Ali’s example of image cultivation. Tyson never developed the media-savvy of his predecessor, who could be amusing and likable even when insulting people. This may have been in part because the forces shaping the fighters were so dissimilar. “You’ve got to want to get out of the environment you’re in”, says Henry Cooper in Facing Ali of the struggle to exit poverty. “That’s what motivates a fighter.” However, Ali’s less tumultuous upbringing sets him apart. Ali came from a middle-class background and a loving family—far different circumstances than the vicious poverty and domestic chaos that forged Tyson and most other boxers. While Ali could play the fierce critic and the charming clown simultaneously, Tyson made his living by being, or at least seeming to be, a menace, a threat and a misfit.
“A boxing match is like a cowboy movie”, said Sonny Liston. “There’s got to be good guys, and there’s got to be bad guys”—heels and heroes, in other words. The ex-convict thought he could wear only the black hat. Movies about Ali show that, in boxing, the same man can play both parts and appeal to a wide audience. Ali perfected the capacity for ceaseless reinvention. Tyson may have, like Ali, become immediately recognizable around the world, but with his more limited style of celebrity, he only enamors those who deem unrelenting ugliness more authentic than the ability to change. While Toback doesn’t try to recast Tyson as a glorious giant in the Ali mold, he does try to help the fighter expand his range. Ali established his movie-star bona fides well before retirement. “What a Hollywood ending”, Chuvalo says in Facing Ali regarding the upset Ali pulled off in Zaire (where, arm cocked as Foreman started falling, Ali refrained from throwing an unnecessary additional punch). “Have you ever seen anything more Hollywood than that?”