If any heavyweight champion from the post-Ali era of boxing has lived a life that seems like it should be ready-made for the biopic treatment, it is “Iron Mike” Tyson. In 1995, HBO stepped up to provide just such a film.
In an episodic fashion, Tyson tells the story of Mike Tyson’s rise and fall. At the start of the movie, Tyson is a child trying to survive on the tough streets of Brooklyn. The events that unfold should be familiar to any fight fan: Mike (played by Spawn himself, Michael Jai White) gets sent to reform school. Mike is taken under the wing of the legendary trainer, Cus D’Amato (George C. Scott). Mike becomes the youngest heavyweight champion, marries and divorces Robin Givens (Kristen Wilson), and eventually falls under the corrupting influence of the flamboyant Don King (Paul Winfield). After failing to train properly for what should have been a routine fight, Tyson loses his title and subsequently, he is convicted of rape and sent to prison.
Tyson aired shortly after the real Mike was released from prison and announced his return to boxing. Unfortunately, much of what Mike Tyson is best known for occurred after he was released from prison. As a result, don’t watch Tyson to see Mike bite off Evander Holyfield’s ear. Don’t watch it expecting to see Mike get his famous facial tattoo. All of that happened after Tyson aired. Instead, Tyson tells the story of the first half of Mike’s life in conventional biopic style. There is even a montage of newspaper headlines.
The best thing about Tyson is the cast. Even though the film does not delve too deeply into any aspect of Tyson’s life, all of the actors are well-chosen. In some ways, Michael Jai White has an impossible role. Tyson has such a famous persona that it had to be difficult to play him without slipping into mere impersonation but White does a good job of suggesting that there is more to Tyson than just his voice and his anger. Scott and Winfield are both ideally cast as Tyson’s contrasting father figures, with Winfield especially digging into the Don King role.
HBO’s Tyson is a good starter if you do not know anything about Mike’s early career but the definitive Mike Tyson film remains James Toback’s documentary, which also happens to be titled Tyson.