Released in the spring of 2009, James Toback’s documentary Tyson features former heavyweight champ Mike Tyson alone, sitting in a chair, talking into the camera, and as such seems as much about language as anything else. Mike Tyson has always been fascinating to listen to—his speech is scary sometimes (threats to eat his opponents’ children and the like), but just as often excoriatingly vulnerable and emotionally charged. His voice is unmistakable—an idiosyncratic instrument of his own making, played out in an accent that’s not exactly Brooklynese or African-American. Even when its creator mangles a word or upends the syntax, Tyson’s talk somehow comes out as even more expressive. Listen to his private relationship with the meaning and pronunciation of “skullduggery” in the film—you’ll want to play it over and over, like a phrase in a song that just grabs your attention.
Mike Tyson, chewing your ear off, is never boring. He has little interest in making excuses for himself, nor does he attempt to evade his compelling contradictions—thoughtful, intelligent, sensitive one moment, frighteningly predatory the next. All the notable ingredients of the Tyson saga come into play in the film—his touching father-son relationship with trainer Cus D’Amato (which brings him to the point of tears on screen), his still-raw anger over his rape conviction and three-year prison term, his eight-month catastrophe of a marriage to Robin Givens. And, of course, his stunning rise to the top of the heavyweight division—at age 20, he became the youngest champ in history—and his subsequent fall: the shocking loss to Buster Douglas in Japan in 1990 and his bizarre bouts with Evander Holyfield later in the decade (Tyson timeline) . While he didn’t eat Holyfield’s children, he did famously take a few bites out of Evander himself.
There is some interesting footage from Tyson’s life and career in the movie, and there probably could have been more, but this extended dramatic monologue would have worked without any.
Of course, no boxer has ever had more fun with the language than Muhammad Ali, who delighted in ridiculous light verse designed to accomplish such goals as the unmanning of the fearsome Sonny Liston or the gaslighting of Smokin’ Joe Frazier. "I Am the Greatest," "Float like a Butterfly, Sting like a Bee," and "Total Eclipse of the Sonny," are among Ali’s classic creative endeavors that remain fresh and funny nearly half a century later.
But as far as poetry and boxing go, there may be no
equivalent in the heavyweight boxing ranks to match Iron Mike Tyson reciting a
section of Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol, as happens in Tyson.
I only wish that I could find my old cassette recording of Wilde himself
reading from the poem, which was first published anonymously in 1898 following
Wilde’s release from prison after serving two years of hard labor for the crime
of being homosexual. Tyson and Wilde: celebrity convicts. The tape was sent to me by the late James Liddy in the
1970s, and was supposedly originally recorded on wax cylinder by Thomas Edison
in Paris in
In the Tyson DVD
extras, Toback says he suggested the poem to Tyson. Although Tyson didn’t know the poem, Toback
reports, he was quite familiar with Wilde, as well as with Lord Alfred Douglas,
I recorded Tyson’s reading off my tv screen and include it here (Download Mike Tyson reading from The Ballad of Reading Jail). That’s the surf in the background.