Mike Tyson is mad. The former heavyweight champ, convicted rapist, and star of the Adult Swim animated series Mike Tyson Mysteries, after calling Hulu’s new limited series on his life “cultural misappropriation” last year, came back with somewhat stronger language this month: “Hulu is the streaming version of the slave master. They stole my story and didn’t pay me.” Of course, a network needn’t pay to tell the story of a public figure, and, of course, there is further personal interest from Iron Mike: He is working on a Mike Tyson project all his own. (Also, he is quite clearly indicated as something of a monster here, but more on that later.)
Moreover, Mike Tyson being angry feels as much a part of the public performance of the character of Mike Tyson as any real emotion. He’s a whole vibe, as the kids might say. And, depending on when you were a kid, today’s headlines seem a continuation of the peppering of pop culture that may extend back to, say, the video game Mike Tyson’s Punch Outor the surrealistically disastrous Barbara Walters interview, or the infamous Holyfield ear-bite fight, or the Spike Lee-directed one-man Broadway show, or, maybe the cameo in The Hangover. Earlier this year, he made headlines for punching a heckler on a plane. While that guy certainly had it coming, it was further evidence of one of the most famous men ever, being famous for being famous, existing as the shadow of a boxer known for many things aside from beating an elite opponent in a big moment.
As for this show, we start in Brownsville, Brooklyn, a one-dimensional character in and of itself, looking bombed-out and smoldering and hopeless. It’s the kind of place where cops shoot young Black kids for petty crimes, where roving packs of amoral hoodlums roam the streets past tin-drum hobo fires a half-step from mad max. It is a dystopian stage of shadows the show repeatedly would like viewers to remember as a part of the whole Tyson package. Against this, we meet a young Michael, a “retarded fat fuck with a lisp,” a sympathetic tyke who can witness a brutal one-two between his mother and father involving scalding soup and a sauce pot with numb familiarity. We follow him in rapid succession from flop houses, watching his mother sell her body, to group homes and juvenile detention centers, everything clouded by crippling poverty, an absent father, and a maternal figure that feels like inner-city Livia Soprano. Tyson was arrested 37 times by the age of 13. The crime math, like the ring math—he won his first 19 professional fights by knockout, 12 in the first round—defies sense and reason. “Why should I have compassion? I didn’t have a future,” he ponders.
With the one-man show acting as an easy narrative device, we are introduced to Mike (Trevante Rhodes) as a latter-day raconteur, reflective and rueful, yet still boastful and swaggering. With impossibly loud lats and illegal-looking traps, he stalks the stage in his physique that still looks fresh from the set of moon light with a white suit, bald head, and that face tattoo. An adoring crowd eats up his meandering presentation like he’s unveiling new iPhone tech. He has it all down: that disarming cutesiness, the aww shucks wrist flips, that high whispery, ever-lisping voice, that slow way of moving his head, as if he is trying to process a foreign land while also suffering from CTE.
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If you’re like me and can’t resist checking out House of the Dragon despite the wildly controversial ending to the main series, you might as well save some money while you do it.
We open with a quick glimpse of the ’97 Holyfield debacle, before Tyson breaks the fourth wall with a “No no no, fuck that shit. Not gonna start here, there’s a lot of fucked up shit we’ll get to.”
And the show does have a steep syllabus of audience-known timeline beats to hit. Within all of that narrative, though, we thankfully have the sweet science itself, with flourishes that remind us that boxing is the most cinematic of sports. There are whip pans, dollies, jump cuts, sweaty closeups, and a lot of kinetic intimacy with coiled and musclebound specimens, as if the cinematographer was given carte blanche to flex. And flex they do, with unmistakable punctuations of camera flashes, crowds in a frenzy, quick flashbacks of injustices showing motivation—say, a beloved bird’s head being ripped off—and a hyperbolic announcer extolling “even Tyson’s punches sound different.” What rhythm, what fun, with everything spiked by the catharsis of cranked-up DMX.
Such movements seem tailor fit for the punchy style of the writer/director team Steven Rogers and Craig Gillespie, the duo behind I, Tonya. In the same brawny vein, there are fantastical asides, freeze frames, ’70s-washed aesthetics, and vintage needle drops—Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “You Got To Move,” the 8th Day’s “She’s Not Just Another Woman”—that might leave you fumbling for Shazam as Robin Givens makes a slo-mo entrance into a room. Everything feels like a contact high from a recent late-night viewing of a remastered Goodfellas. And then, just like that, Scorsese is directly honored. Harvey Keitel shows up as trainer/mentor/father figure Cus D’Amato; and, eventually, a young Tyson laments, “everyone took a beating at some point,” echoing a young Henry Hill nearly verbatim. (Henry Hill also happens to be from Brownsville.)
Mike is formed by Cus, unhinged by his obsession with Robin Givens (Laura Harrier), and guided and misguided by Don King (Russell Hornsby). He goes from cliched naivete (“Are those roses?”) to cliched advice (“Embrace your villainy”). And we go from all my friends are dead depths to the impossible highs of fucking in a hot tub that’s inside a soda Along the way, he is diagnosed as manic depressive, becomes heavyweight champ, loses his heavyweight champ title, and is dogged by hangers-on and questionable advice. Robin Givens’ mother, for instance, pushes for the consulting services of one Donald Trump, saying, “Now that’s a businessman you can trust.” (Allen Weisselberg, chief financial officer of the Trump Organization, is also from Brownsville.) Eventually, after all the punches taken and given, the sport becomes secondary, and human tragedy washes over everything else.
Episode five gives a bold rope-a-dope, completely shifting the narrative perspective to that of Desiree Washington (a star turn by Li Eubanks). She tells her story as a victim of Tyson direct to the camera, then the court, with unwavering steadiness and strength. Heartbreaking, story-bending, and stomach-churning, the episode seems to nearly bend in on itself with a graceful and moving half hour. A striking, standout segment, it feels meant to be witnessed and felt rather than commented upon. In a show set in a world of excessive violence, here is a hard reminder that most brutality can come from the sway a powerful man has over a vulnerable woman.
For a story so often fraught with busyness, the jabs and the hooks and the ceaseless speedbag flow, that sad core can sometimes be forgotten. I, Tonya toyed with a similar tonal deficit, casting a villainous, problematic world-class athlete in a stylish, playful light.
Yet in a moment of the recognition of the fragility of the sports psyche, when the likes of Serena Williams and Simone Biles, Kevin Love and Naomi Osaka, are all speaking to the perilous nature of mental health among top athletes, as “the people that are supposed to be looking out for you aren’t,” as the mother of Robin Givens puts it, there seems almost too much to explore about the psyche of the man Mike Tyson: tHere’s the price of celebrity, the personal cost of extreme success, how exploitative systems burn and churn their product. What’s more, there’s how he reconciled or failed to reconcile a loveless childhood with superstardom, and then this biggie of a question: Should we laugh at, or with him, now?
Also, more importantly: How will he be remembered? As a rapist, a crazy man of ceaseless aggression and face tattoos, a domestic abuser, a video game villain, comedic relief, one of the greatest heavyweight punchers the world has ever seen? History belongs to those who write it (historian Howard Zinn is also from Brownsville), and for the answer, we won’t have to wait for the next Tyson story project. “You don’t love me no more?” Desiree claims Tyson asked at the end of her attack. Here, chillingly, he addresses it right to the camera. Asking us to wonder ourselves.