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[Pop Culture]

Vanilla Mike?

Rebranding Tyson for the age of Obama

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Illustration: Colleen Wang
John Lombardi

Is there room for mike Tyson in Obamaville? The former “baddest man on the planet” was a mere Don King hustling ploy by the end of his career in 2002, selling closed-circuit-TV boxing tickets at $54.59 a pop, albeit on an Iron Man movie scale. But those were the last days of gangsta rap & Mass Market Hip, the country’s white obsession with ghetto defiance, 9-millimeter rhyming, NWA and the more ominous tinctures of the color black. (Mike used to show up at Suge Knight parties escorted by the Grape Street Crips) ... By 2004, though, the president-to-be was making his famous Democratic Convention speech in Boston, and the culture started mutating toward consensus politics, skinny Jimmy Fallon suits and cool reason. Even Ice-T stopped cracking on “Cop Killer” and got a job as Detective Fin Tutuola on Law & Order: SVU.

After Lennox Lewis humiliated Tyson at the Pyramid in Vegas, knocking him out in the eighth round, Mike dropped all the rough, gate-building “wolfing” of his opponents—“I’ll make him my girlfriend! I’ll eat his children!”—which nobody but the soft white underbelly of suburban sportswriters paid attention to anyway. These were guys who’d never been quick in the quarter mile, or strong rebounders in the paint—I’m talking about millionaires like Mike Lupica of the N.Y. Daily News and Bob Costas of NBC, and comfortable types such as Mark Kriegel, then of the Post, and Robert Lipsyte of the Times—who seemed convinced Tyson and Don were certified public enemies who’d beat them up if they got the chance, and were partners in dragging boxing through the gutter (!), “corrupting” its fans: “Psycho-pup!” barked Lipsyte, normally as liberal as Bill Moyers, at Mike. “Tyson, this nightmare in a suit!” shrieked Kriegel, righteously indignant over Tyson’s conviction at the Desiree Washington Indiana rape trial in 1992.

Mike shed King long ago, and has even successfully sued him for $14 million (he earned $300 million to $400 million between 1986, when he won the heavyweight championship, and 2002, when he was kayoed trying to regain it). But he was bankrupt by 2003, had the IRS on him the next year and entered rehab by 2007. That was when his old pal director Jim Toback convinced him to sit for a film portrait, Tyson, which opens here this week. This is the first and most effective move on the part of Tyson’s new “advisers”—Harlan Werner, who worked for Muhammad Ali for 20 years as a licensing and marketing man, and Damon Bingham, Ali’s godson, whose father is the photographer Howard Bingham, Ali’s best friend. A healthier crew than Mike’s old handlers, who, besides Don, included John Horne, a failed stand-up comic, and Rory Holloway of Albany, two old running buddies who used to lay on the booze, drugs and broads for Mike, even when he was living in Catskill under the tutelage of the late Cus D’Amato, his discoverer and original trainer. King lost no time hiring them as “managers” to help him wrench Mike loose from Bill Cayton, Tyson’s first promoter and financier.

In Tyson, Toback brings the audience closer to his man than most are comfortable being. Here you have a 43-year-old ex-fighter with a shaved head, ridges of scar tissue and 30 extra pounds, a Maori tribal tattoo disfiguring his left eye, ugliness flaunted, like Anthony Quinn as Mountain Rivera in Requiem for a Heavyweight. He’s on furlough from Wonderland Rehab, in an empty Malibu beach house Toback rented, answering questions and prompts that have been edited out. So the film seems a long soliloquy, with the camera moving constantly, but sometimes framing three angles off the same shot, and the deceptively soft, slightly lisping voice appears to be arguing with itself, the director’s brilliant means of showing Tyson’s contradictions: “My life’s been a waste, I’ve never known who I am ... Like a dream, I’m not that interesting ... What did they all want, why did they pay all that money? Why did I get all I got, just for hitting other fighters ... poor slobs tryin’ to pay the rent and tryin’ to feed their kids, too ...” After serving three years in prison in the Indiana rape case, a film clip shows him destroying clubfighter Peter McNeeley in less than a round in a “comeback” fight, then crossing the ring to console him.

The metaphysical Tyson? Toback as the great reclaimer? Parallels seem drawn with John Lennon in his “Working Class Hero” phase. Or Bob Dylan after he cracked up his Triumph and renounced “the wild, thin Mercury sound” of Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, literally rhyming “moon” and “spoon” on “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonite”... sliding down the slope from that truly dangerous edge where so many terminally hip characters have plunged over—Charlie Parker, James Dean, Jimi Hendrix—and going way back—Jack Johnson, Stanley Ketchel, Robert Johnson. But can Mike “clean up” enough to attach his name to video-game sales, as Werner and Bingham want him to? As Dylan has done with Victoria’s Secret? And George Foreman with hamburger grills? Can there be Tyson T-shirts, leisure wear from China, public-service spots and PR rehab on Conan’s Tonight Show, or Letterman’s fast-crumbling synod? It’s said that Brad Pitt, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks were outdoing each other at the microphone to praise Tyson and get close to its star at the Cannes Film Festival, and that the 90-minute documentary got a 10-minute ovation, which even for the French is “supair cool,” as they say.

It’s all riding on U.S. box office. To help things along, Toback recently played his Hollywood card to get Mike on The Charlie Rose Show on PBS, as rehabilitative as it gets. Mike still rolls with a little crew to hand him his submarine sandwiches and light his cigars, but they weren’t in evidence. Just him in a white plaid shirt, Duke Ellington mustache and a thoughtful tone: “Hiya, Charlie.” “Hiya, Mike.” Two vets of the media wars, putting in another night’s work. Toback all in black, shirt, pants, beard, eyebrows, film-guy Angels’ shades and a Turkish hash-dealer’s black hat, striated with gold bands, the better to camo the balding dome ...

He still raps like a Harvard Bone Thug, which, with Fingers, The Pick-Up Artist and now Tyson, he surely is: “[Mike’s] a rich human being, he’s actualized himself, like a leading politician or a movie star, or great businessman—complexities emblematic of all extremes of human capacity—here’s a guy 5 feet, 11 inches, 220 pounds, putting fear in the eyes of the bigger, more experienced Trevor Berbick, when he was only 20, and winning the title; a fine clarity of focus that sent Larry Holmes, another giant, flying through the air like Bluto hit by Popeye—the speed of those combinations, the NASA coordination behind his ring moves ... Charlie, this is a man who’s experienced a human earthquake, he’s withstood every high and low that life has thrown him ... no wonder Brad and Steven and Tom are moshing around him!

“They see who he is, and what his potential still is ... When I screened Tyson for Warren and Annette, they both cried! Never happened before ...”

Don King II? Naw. Toback’s just a nice Jewish intellectual enamored by black masculinity of the street-thug brand. He made Jim Brown’s African Chief personality a virtue in Fingers (1978), but since the culture retracted after Obama in 2004, with macho on the remainder pile, he and Mike now think Jamie Foxx should play Tyson in a major motion picture they’re also trying to sell.

See, Jamie’s not scary. He could “Ali” Mike’s image. Even when a polymath like GQ’s Tom Carson, who’s a pop music/film critic getting to boxing late, tries to resuscitate old Robin Givens’ (Mike’s first wife) horror stories about being slapped around by the champ, or when Desiree Washington recounts her Indianapolis “rape”—they’re easily challenged: Why did Givens and her stage mom, Ruth Roper, load Mike up with lithium before booking him on BaBa Wawa on ABC, to expose “domestic battering,” and where were her bruises? How come Desiree went on with her Miss Black America contest duties for a couple of days after agreeing to meet Mike in his hotel at 2 a.m., and later accepted a limo ride home? Why didn’t she file charges for 24 hours? (And only after her father got to town?)

Maybe Carson—aspiring to the Lupica/Costas/Kriegel/Lipsyte salon—who’s said, “Toback presumably knows that his sexualized race fetishism is as maggoty as any phlegm a Klansman could cough up” (!), would agree to meet Jim in an Xtreme Fighting Contest steel-cage exhibition for charity—best out of three falls? To benefit AIDS, Swine Flu or The Old Boxers’ Fund? Or maybe they could do a tag-team match—Carson & Perez Hilton vs. Toback & Tyson? Think of the Extra! buzz.

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