On FOX Sports’ “Being: Mike Tyson”
“When you were pure in your profession, with them black shoes and those black trunks, you had the simplicity of a killer…”
“I wanted to be like Mickey Walker or Jack Dempsey – mean, savage, vicious.”—Mike Tyson
On Sunday afternoon, Sept. 22 on FOX, the first episode of the six-part “Being: Mike Tyson” has its world premiere (before the entire series moves to the new FOX Sports 1, where it has a regular time slot on Tuesdays at 10:30 pm). Some will run to their calendar to circle the date. Others will duck and cover.
Such are the reactions that Mike Tyson elicits.
Mike Tyson is described in a press release as “enigmatic.” He may be “enigmatic,” but a single word fails to encapsulate the self-described “baddest man on the planet.” We have followed his career from the Catskill days under the tutelage of Cus D’Amato and witnessed every step and misstep along the way. He may have crashed and burned more times than a film loop of the Hindenburg, but if there was ever a Phoenix who could rise from the ashes, it is the mythic Mike Tyson.
Press releases are notoriously one-sided. When they’re not treated as gospel, they’re used indiscriminately as filler. In “Being: Mike Tyson,” the one-time Brownsville resident is said to “open his life and very soul, allowing audiences to experience his amazing transformation from world renowned sports superstar to Mr. John Q. Public.”
He was certainly a “world renowned sports superstar,” however awkward the syntax, but the “Mr. John Q. Public” part had me scratching my head. It wasn’t until I saw the first three episodes of “Being: Mike Tyson” that I began to understand.
Quiet Before the Storm
Episode 1: QUIET BEFORE THE STORM begins with shots of Tyson preparing for the opening on his one-man show, “Undisputed Truth,” juxtaposed with Mike preparing for some of the biggest prizefights of life. Continuity is established, even though Mike speaks about his former self as another person entirely.
Tyson’s happiness, like happiness in general, comes and goes. He may have been in a sense reborn, but dissonance accompanies the growing pains. For example, there’s a shot where Mike, in a room in his home, lifts his daughter above his head and gives her a big kiss. The scene couldn’t be more touching. But behind him are two frames on the wall, neither of which contains a picture.
“Undisputed Truth,” which has been lauded in some quarters and lambasted in others, opened in Indianapolis. The cameras dutifully follow Mike to the city where he was convicted of raping Desiree Washington. The less said about that verdict the better. Let’s just say Don King’s tax attorney was no Johnnie Cochrane. Tyson visits the Plainfield Correctional Complex where he did time. It is stark, as are Mike’s memories.
The Real Deal
Episode 2 is titled THE REAL DEAL. It presumes to tell us the real deal about what really went down in the first fight between Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield. The Bite of the Century is one of those fights that most of us would just as soon forget. It was appalling, but time heals all wounds, even bite wounds in public during a prizefight.
But I wasn’t the one that was disfigured that night. It was Holyfield, and if Holyfield can forgive Tyson, as he apparently has, perhaps I should do the same. After all, it’s the Christian thing to do, and not being Christian is no excuse.
Tyson and Holyfield meet in a hotel room to discuss the fight in question. Like middle-aged men recounting the folly of their youth, they dissect the incident like ace pathologists.
Holyfield describes the bites in detail. Tyson listens carefully. He remembers biting one ear. Holyfield reminds him that it was both ears. Mike shakes his head in disbelief.
The Corner Man
The third episode opens with a montage of anti-rape activists expressing their hatred of Mike Tyson, followed by Robin Givens telling Barbara Walters that her marriage “has been torture, it’s been pure hell.” A quick shot of Mike’s wife Kiki is interrupted by the Tyson-Lewis presser where Mike, after biting Lennox’s thigh, turns his ire on the media. Kiki reappears. There’s a shot of anti-rape/anti-Tyson protesters frothing at the mouth. Mike is seen playing with his daughters when the words THE CORNER MAN appear on the screen.
Episode 3 is underway.
Tyson meets with football legend Jim Brown at his home in LA. Once incredibly nimble, Brown, an NFL casualty, can now barely walk, but he’s as eloquent as ever.
Because Tyson barely knew his father, Brown serves as a surrogate. He’s been a “personal hero and mentor” to Tyson for many years. When Jim Brown speaks, Mike Tyson listens.
“When you were pure in your profession,” he says, “with them black shoes and those black trunks, you had the simplicity of a killer.”
Although Jim Brown anchors Episode 3, Tyson is anchored by Kiki and their kids. Mike talks about how hard it is to remain monogamous. He also talks about the death of his daughter, Exodus, who accidentally strangled herself with a cord attached to a treadmill, before he starts to cry.
Kiki, who has been a visible but largely silent presence, discusses her marriage and life. She mentions her troubles with the law, including a stint in prison, without self-pity or regret, as it was the journey she needed to be “strong enough to be with a man like this.”
Tyson’s life has been well-documented. Countless interviews, articles, films, books, TV and radio appearances have left almost no stone unturned. He was a subject of fascination early on. His exploits became fodder for the tabloids, which in turn gave us instant access whether we wanted it or not. As a result, there are no earth-shattering revelations in “Being: Mike Tyson.” Those revelations, such as they are, and if they exist, may emerge over time. But FOX’s “Being: Mike Tyson,” which is beautifully done, has an immediacy, an unrehearsed fly-on-the-wall quality that is different, and dramatically so, from that which preceded it.
Wanting to take this a step further, I contact Michael Bloom, Senior Vice President of Original Programming at FOX Sports, and ask about the progress of Mike Tyson.
“That’s the hallmark of the ‘Being’ franchise. We tell stories that unfold in front of us. We think, like in sports, that the best is yet to come. Look,” he says, “a whole generation of viewers has grown up, for better or worse, with reality television, and there’s a device that’s part of the DNA of reality television. That’s first-person point-of-view storytelling. The way you ‘walk a mile in a man’s shoes’ is what we’ve focused on, both strategically, and creatively. We want to embed and take viewers to places they’ve never been before and be in the moment as much as possible. Everybody does documentaries that look back. We want to look forward.”
But Tyson is a special case. There’s no athlete in modern times that has evolved, devolved, and perhaps revolved as continually as Mike Tyson. I ask Michael Bloom what, aside from celebrity cachet, led him to select the former champion as his subject.
“We’re always on the hunt for iconic characters, whether they’re world champions or unknown amateurs, and Mike’s story is only partly told at this point in his life. He went from nothing to the top to some very dark places. We all know these stories…and look at the comeback. It’s a classic story. The guy has turned himself and his life around, reinvented himself, reimagined himself, and at the same time—he’ll be the first to tell you—he struggles every day. The biggest challenge that he has is himself, and he’s been incredibly honest with himself and the TV viewer. It’s a compelling story, but he’ll also be the first to tell you how frustrating the process was.”
Some of that frustration can be seen in “Being: Mike Tyson.” Irritation with the process, even irritation with his wife, occasionally bubbles to the surface. I ask Michael Bloom, who is as polite as he is confident, if he had personal dealings with Mike, or was negotiating with his handlers.
Bloom sighs and says, “I have been dealing with Mike and Kiki since day one. To do a project like the one we imagined takes an enormous amount of trust on both sides. We didn’t always agree. We continue to not always agree. But I think there’s a trust and respect and mutual admiration, and Mike has been incredible throughout. He can be so darn eloquent sometimes. It’s captivating. You can’t turn away from the screen when he’s talking. Did we accomplish everything we wanted? No. But did we get way more than we expected? Of course. That’s the risk you take when you don’t look back, when you are striving to tell a story in the moment.”
Tyson’s recent admission that he had relapsed took many by surprise.
“I wasn’t surprised by his honesty,” Bloom tells me, “because he’s one of the most honest personalities I ever worked with. He wears his heart on his sleeve. He doesn’t hide from things. He faces them head on. I think that’s part of his recovery. I think he’s an extraordinary figure. I don’t know many people that own the mea culpa the way he continues to. We’re partners in this endeavor and wish him the best and support him always.
“I think this show, if you give it a chance, reveals a different side of Mike Tyson. It’s Dickensian; I think Charles Dickens would find Mike a very interesting character. He looks at his life now through things that happened in his past. There’s a little Christmas Carol to this. Think of all the sad stories with sports figures who went to the top and then didn’t know what to do, what to do next, or couldn’t handle it. Ten years ago, do you think we’d be sitting here talking about Mike in this way? You have to give this guy kudos. He’s a fighter to the end, even though he might not want to be considered a fighter.”
Mike may not consider himself a fighter, but after watching him punch his way to the pinnacle, it’s hard to think of him otherwise.
Michael Bloom agrees.
“We’re bullish on boxing,” he says. “Part of FOX Sports’ brand is toughness and being loud and being right there. What’s more primal than the sport of boxing? What’s more exciting than a top level prizefight? What’s sweeter than a boxing match that’s highly technical? It’s so up close. It’s so stripped down. It’s the real thing.”