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Charting The Career Of 'Iron' Mike Tyson (Part 1)

Journalist Elmer Smith first met Mike Tyson when the future heavyweight champion was just turning 18. Smith, who worked as a boxing writer, a general sports columnist and a general news columnist, went on to cover the ups and downs of the boxer's career.

07:25

Other segments from the episode on April 27, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 27, 2009: Interview with Elmer Smith; Interview with James Toback.

Transcript

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Charting The Career Of 'Iron' Mike Tyson (Part 1)

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. In the new movie “Tyson,” Mike Tyson
reflects on a mystery that many people have wondered about: Who is he
really? How did he become such a damaged man and such a great boxer?

Tyson became the youngest heavyweight champion in 1986, when he was 20
years old. The following year, he became the first heavyweight to own
all three major belts at the same time.

The movie is a long monologue, edited from interviews with the film’s
director, James Toback. Tyson’s monologue is occasionally intercut with
fight excerpts and interviews with his boxing career.

(Soundbite of move, “Tyson”)

Mr. MIKE TYSON (Former Heavyweight Champion Boxer): My mission is to go
and destroy and not let anything get involved. You get punched, you get
hurt. I refuse to be hurt, knocked down and knocked out. I can’t lose. I
refuse to lose.

Unidentified Man: That’s a – that’s his right. That should be it.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

Mr. TYSON: I’m always trying to aim through the back of my opponent’s
head, trying to find my punch going through and ending out the back of
the head. It sounds like a brutal sport, but it’s just a technique. It’s
just an art. And, you know, people hear you talking in a particular
fashion, they think of you as some brutal monster, but it’s all about
the skill, the speed, the accuracy. And that’s basically what I named my
style after.

GROSS: Our film critic David Edelstein described the movie “Tyson” as an
enthralling documentary, an 88-minute stream-of-consciousness monologue
that makes you sympathize, wince, cringe, makes you wonder how a man
who’s seen for all the world an unrepentant thug, an ear-biter, a date
rapist, could turn out to be so gentle and reflective - not a monster,
but a damaged everyman.

In a few minutes, we’ll meet the film’s director, James Toback. But
first we’re going to talk about Tyson’s place in boxing with Elmer
Smith, who covered Tyson from ’83 to ’89 as a sportswriter and
columnist. Smith writes for the Philadelphia Daily News, where he’s a
columnist and member of the editorial board.

Elmer Smith, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. ELMER SMITH (Columnist, Philadelphia Daily News): Thank you.

GROSS: Now you pointed out in one of your columns that Tyson’s first 15
fights lasted a total of 23 rounds because he knocked out all of his
opponents so early in the fights. What made him such a great boxer?

Mr. SMITH: At that stage, I don’t know that he was as much a great boxer
as he was fighting spirit with a tremendous punch, but I think the thing
that made him so successful was an utter killer instinct. He would press
an attack immediately on coming into the ring. He believed that he was a
better man and opponent than he was facing, and he was driven by that
belief.

GROSS: Well, you quoted some of the things he said to you in interviews
early on. He said that he dreamed of hitting a man in the nose hard
enough to drive the bone into his brain and kill him.

Mr. SMITH: Right.

GROSS: He said he was going to cripple this one or break that one’s
back. Was that typical boxer or talk, or was it…

Mr. SMITH: No.

GROSS: No?

Mr. SMITH: No. That is not typical boxer talk. In fact, the way boxing
historically and traditionally has been sort of marketed is to present
the fighter as sort of the Kid Galahad, the sort of person who is a
fierce competitor in the ring, just a tagger turned loose. But outside
the ring, he’s somebody that you would introduce to your daughter and
maybe let him take her to the prom.

He turned that on its head and created this sort of malevolent figure
that got to be the legend of Mike Tyson. I think he did it for – in
part, to intimidate his opponents, but in part, I think there’s a dark
side of him. And he sort of saw himself that way.

GROSS: How did you react as a journalist when he would say these things
to you?

Mr. SMITH: Oh, it’s like listening to some of the stuff you hear from
al-Qaida. You know, we will bury you. We will…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SMITH: It may reflect their mood at the moment, but it’s so far
disconnected from the reality of what’s getting ready to happen in the
ring. The ring - what happens in the ring has very little to do with
anger. Boxing’s a technical sport. It has to be sort of conducted that
way to be done successfully.

A fight is very difficult and aerobic, kind of a physical exercise three
minutes into each round. The average street fight lasts longer than a
round - doesn’t last as long as a round of boxing. Anger won’t sustain
you through that.

GROSS: I think one of the reasons why Tyson was so popular and everybody
knows his name is not just his skill as a boxer, but his personal story,
too.

Mr. SMITH: Yes.

GROSS: When he was 13, he was arrested for robbing a woman. He confesses
in the movie that he did steal, but he says he didn’t rob this woman.
But he was arrested and sent to, you know, juvenile hall. And then
before he was done serving his time, he was basically adopted by the
famous trainer, Cus D'Amato, who became his legal guardian and his
trainer and changed his life. Can you talk a little bit about what you
think Cus D'Amato did for Mike Tyson as a person and as a boxer?

Mr. SMITH: He did what trainers do, especially first trainers for most
fighters. A kid comes into a gym because somebody’s been stealing his
lunch money or confronting him in school. He’s been beaten up,
intimidated.

He goes to somebody, who says you need to go the gym. He runs into an
old guy with a few Q-tips behind his ears and his arms and hands all
gnarled, and he tells him what happened. And the guy says kid, this is
what you have to do. When you see him again, stand right in front of
him. When he opens his mouth, punch him in the middle of his stomach.
Don’t hit him in the face, and when he doubles over, then you can finish
him off.

The kid comes back to the gym a day later, and it worked exactly as the
old man said, and he’s suddenly in this old man’s sway. It’s not an
uncommon story. It is just that story to a greater degree in the case of
Cus D’Amato because Cus tended to take people who were at their
extremity, kids who were in reform schools, who were disconnected from
families, if they had families.

Before Mike Tyson, it was Jose Torres who he tutored onto the light
heavyweight championship of the world. Before that, of course, the great
Floyd Patterson, who got it the same way.

So there’s nothing that unusual about this relationship between him and
that first trainer, except that he lived with this trainer. His whole
life became defined by the pursuit of excellence in boxing.

GROSS: What was it like to cover Tyson early on, when he was knocking
out opponent after opponent and he was still, what, like in his late
teens, probably?

Mr. SMITH: Well, you know, when you - you can tell when there’s a
phenomenon in a nascent stage. You can sort of see that this is getting
ready to be something. So one of the ways that you cover that is to sort
of project forward to what this is getting ready to be.

That’s a pitfall sometimes for a writer, because you can get sort of
caught up in the sort of pre-hype. But even with all your efforts to
avoid that, Tyson is such a - was such a magnetic figure in the early
part of that.

He was soft-spoken. He was a student of the game. I mean, we’ve spent
our time writing about and learning about and understanding boxing. He
had a clearer understanding of the nuts and bolts of boxing than most of
us who were covering it. So we were – it was very beguiling to see this
novice who could describe the punch that Harry Greb threw in a certain
fight 60 years earlier.

So it was a phenomenon in the making. You could see that it was going to
be something. You didn’t know how long it was going to go before he ran
into that real challenge, but it was that kind of a situation.

GROSS: Elmer Smith is a columnist with the Philadelphia Daily News.
We’ll talk with him again later in the show. Coming up, we talk with the
director of the documentary “Tyson,” James Toback. This is FRESH AIR.
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Talking 'Tyson' With Filmmaker James Toback

TERRY GROSS, host:

My guest, James Toback, directed the new documentary “Tyson” about the
former world heavyweight champion, Mike Tyson. Toback’s films usually
reflect his obsessions with masculinity, race, sex, gambling and the
meaning of life.

His films include “The Pick-up Artist,” “Harvard Man,” “The Big Bang”
and “Black and White,” which featured Tyson. Let’s start with a clip
from “Tyson,” in which Tyson’s talking about the period of his life
after reform school, when the famous boxing trainer Cus D’Amato took him
in and became his guardian trainer and mentor.

(Soundbite of movie, “Tyson”)

Mr. TYSON: So I was staying at Cus’ house. You know, I come from a
really poverty-stricken area, and when I came to live with Cus, they
live in a 14-room Victorian mansion. And when I first come here, I said
wow. I could rob these white guys, just being hip, not thinking - I’m
not knowing this guy been around the world a bunch of times.

I never knew he was like me. He was from a bad neighborhood. He was a
street kid like me. And then one day, he just said listen. You have the
chance to change your life, your family’s life. You could be something
very special. Don’t you want to be champion? You could be champion of
the world.

And I didn’t pay no attention to it. He said, really, you could be
champion of the world. You could devastate the world. No man can take
what you did. You just got to believe it.

I looked at this guy, and then I started thinking. It just really – and
I said this guy’s really crazy. This guy’s crazy. He said you do what I
tell you to do, and if it doesn’t work, then you can leave.

So I said okay, bet. So I did everything he told me to and I won. I won
every championship from the amateur championships. I won all the
championships. I got - I’m going to cry. And so I won every championship
that he told me because he told me what to do.

GROSS: That’s an excerpt of James Toback’s new documentary, “Tyson.”
James Toback, welcome to FRESH AIR.

You know, one of the things that really fascinated me about this film,
people have always made fun of how Mike Tyson talked. And I never really
followed either boxing or Mike Tyson’s career. I just assumed Tyson
would sound really stupid if I heard him talking, and he’s actually a
really good speaker. And I guess you knew that about him when you
decided to make the film. You knew that he was very articulate.

Mr. JAMES TOBACK (Director, “Tyson”): I knew that from the first night I
met him when he was 19 and we walked through Central Park for an hour.
I’d met him on the set of “The Pick-up Artist,” and we talked and talked
and walked and talked, and I was amazed at how fresh and direct and free
of jargon his language was and how intellectually curious he was. And
one of the things that fascinated me was how open he was to any new
ideas, any new way of looking at things.

When I talked about my LSD flip-out when I was a sophomore at Harvard
when I was 19, which was his age then, he was absolutely obsessed with
finding out what I meant by madness in saying that I’d gone insane.

What does it mean to go insane? What does it mean to lose the self? How
can you lose the self? If your body is still there, how can you say that
the I doesn’t exist?

In fact, the curiosity was so intense that I assumed that at some point
in the future, he would susceptible to an episode not unlike that
himself. And indeed, after 19 months in prison years later - we remained
friends during that time leading up to his incarceration - he said that
all of a sudden he realized, lying in a six-by-eight-foot cell in the
corner that he was now experiencing what Toback had told him about when
he was 19 years old and announced to himself that he was now insane.

GROSS: He talks about that a little in your documentary.

Mr. TOBACK: Yeah.

GROSS: What was your goal when you made this movie? What did you want to
get to about Tyson as a boxer and as a man?

Mr. TOBACK: Well, he himself said when I showed him the movie for the
first time, it’s like a Greek tragedy. The only problem is I’m a
subject. And I think he has had a tragic life in the classical sense -
that is to say starting from nothing, with an overwhelmingly improbable
and hugely successful rise then a catastrophic fall and crash triggered
by his own hubris, his own megalomania, his own grandiosity. And then
it’s really a double tragedy because the same dynamic repeats itself.

He comes out of prison, regains the - two championships, has himself re-
established as this icon and then again crashes. And I thought that this
is a inherently, tremendously dramatic story.

GROSS: When you shot the interviews that you used for your documentary
about Mike Tyson, he was in rehab, right?

Mr. TOBACK: He was. He was in rehab, and in fact had he not been in
rehab, I doubt whether we would have been able to do the movie.

GROSS: Why?

Mr. TOBACK: Well because rehab enabled him, first of all, to open
himself to one of the many sides of his personality, which is to say the
self, analytical, meditative side. So he was in an environment which
helped to keep that as the current, predominant reality. He has many
other realities that are more fragmented. And also because it meant that
I knew that he was going to be in one place at the time that I needed
him. Otherwise, Mike tends to travel.

GROSS: So you’re saying, like, if he was hanging out with his entourage
during the time that you were shooting the movie, he maybe wouldn’t have
been so introspective?

Mr. TOBACK: Maybe not so reliably concentrated in his appearances. I
mean, when we shot “Black and White” - I used him in “Black and White”
in a great scene with Downey and Brooke Shields and then another scene
after that – he did exactly what I asked him to do, and we shot it over
a two-day period. But had I asked him for 10 hours a day for five days,
I don’t think that would have been remotely possible.

GROSS: Is that what you shot, 10 hours a day for five days?

Mr. TOBACK: With this movie, yes.

GROSS: So what did the people who were running the rehab facility where
he was – was he, like, living in the facility or just going…

Mr. TOBACK: He living in the rehab facility.

GROSS: So they had no objections to you coming in and shooting?

Mr. TOBACK: No, they didn’t. I think they felt it would be very good for
him and therapeutic, as indeed I think it was, because he has a
confessional nature. And this was a chance in a sort of quasi-
psychoanalytic environment to get back into the recesses of his
consciousness and articulate a lot of the things that had been buried.

GROSS: So how did you get him talking? What was your interviewing style
like?

Mr. TOBACK: It was psychoanalytic, as opposed to therapeutic. It wasn’t
question-answer, question-answer. It was suggestion and then allowing
him to go on for 40 minutes with two cameras running with no response on
my part. I was standing behind him, so he couldn’t even see me. And I,
for instance, at the very beginning said so what are your earliest
memories? And then I shot for 40 minutes while he responded.

Probably 15 of those minutes or so involved his talking, some of it
absolutely stunning, with some interruptions. But maybe a good 60
percent of the time he was silent, and we got a lot of great facial
shots, reactions, because he was thinking, and you can read his mind
while he’s thinking.

GROSS: Why were you standing behind him? Didn’t you want him looking at
you so he’d have something to focus on?

Mr. TOBACK: No. I wanted him to feel the way someone engaged in a deep
psychoanalysis feels, which is that his voices are coming out and
provoked by some mysterious voice behind him.

When I was in psychoanalysis in my 20s with Gustav Bychowski, a famous
Polish analyst, I found myself saying things in the first three or four
months that shocked me. In fact, I used to jump off the couch and say I
didn’t mean that after most of what I said, and he would sit there and
shrug. But I know that I never would have come out with that stuff if
I’d been sitting facing him.

GROSS: So you didn’t want him to see you. So how did you even know – did
you have a monitor to see what he was looking like when he was talking
to the camera?

Mr. TOBACK: I did not see his face at all when I was talking, no. I
knew…

GROSS: So you were surprised whenever you’d go and look at the rushes.

Mr. TOBACK: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I knew his face well enough to
know that I was getting a lot of great stuff. And Larry McConkey, the
cinematographer, was telling me, you know, after each long, long, long
take, you know, we got some great stuff here.

But I was much more interested in creating a climate in which he could
allow himself to liberate these buried voices and have them come out and
say that he otherwise never would have said.

GROSS: Compare how you see Tyson in the ring and out of the ring,
because, you know, in the ring he’s really fierce. And out of the ring,
he has a reputation for being fierce with women. The fierce side of him
wasn’t coming out when you were shooting him, but you’ve hung around
with him a lot over the years. Do you see him as, like, having a lot of
different personalities?

Mr. TOBACK: Many, many personalities. He’s got multiple voices, multiple
personalities, and his shifts are mercurial and unpredictable. And I
think that…

GROSS: Give us an example of a time you’ve seen him make a shift like
that that surprised you.

Mr. TOBACK: Well, you know, just even in the last few weeks, as we’ve
done some interviews together, he either can be slightly sullen and
uninterested in talking at all and seems to want to just get it over
with and not really want to talk about himself, or he can get very
animated and laugh a lot and feel as if he’s having a great time and be
very open and communicative. And those shifts can be almost as sudden as
happening in the middle of a sentence.

GROSS: You know, in terms of his different personalities, during his
life he’s been both, like, the weakling and the boxing champion. You
know, he talks about how he was a fat kid. He was bullied as a kid. He
didn’t know how to fight. And it wasn’t until he was in prison, you
know, in juvie when he was like 13 that he learned how to punch.

Mr. TOBACK: That’s right. Well, he talks about his first punch being
landed when he was younger than that. I think when he was about eight or
nine, when he – the bully broke the neck of his pigeon. He used to
collect pigeons, and this guy broke the neck of his pigeon, and he
knocked the guy down.

But basically, he was an asthmatic. He was short, fat, ungainly and
frightened. So he was, on a certain level, the most unlikely person to
become heavyweight champion of the world. But it was what he did with
those limitations that made him heavyweight champion.

He quotes Cus D’Amato as saying it’s not just the physical strength or
the physical force. It’s the psychology. It’s the mind. It’s having the
soul of a warrior. It’s using your fear to overcome the other person’s
will and convert and transmute your fear into him and infect him with it
and take the suffering that you’ve had and the limitations you’ve had
and become intimidating and triumphant by transcending those weaknesses
and fears and using them.

GROSS: And that’s one of the interesting contradictions about Tyson. He
seems to have gotten his trainer Cus D’Amato’s message about, you know,
as he puts it, the more kind of spiritual aspects of the fight and the
importance of building character when you’re a fighter - but outside the
ring, didn’t necessarily get the message.

Mr. TOBACK: Well, that’s the thing. That was an incomplete education.
Cus sort of ran an almost military-school-type environment in which
certain disciplines were stressed rigorously, but the psychology that
was needed to deal with the outside world in a way that did not involve
boxing was left conspicuously absent.

Mr. TOBACK: James Toback will be back in the second half of the show.
His new documentary about Mike Tyson is called “Tyson.” I’m Terry Gross,
and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross, back with James Toback, the
director of the new film “Tyson” about the former world heavyweight
champion Mike Tyson. The film is essentially a monologue by Tyson,
edited from interviews he recorded with Toback, while Tyson was in
rehab. Tyson reflects on his early life, his boxing career and the
controversies that surrounded him.

Some of the greatest disasters in his life involve women. And he talks
about them in the movie and, you know, the two specific women I’m
thinking of are Robin Givens, to whom he was briefly married, who
accused him of abusing her and then Desiree Washington, the Ms. Black
America contestant, who filed charges against him, criminal charges, for
raping her. And he was convicted for rape and deviant sexual behavior
and was sentenced to a maximum of 10 years and spent three in prison.
And he basically denies a lot of this. He…

Mr. TOBACK: Well, he, I mean, I think anyone who looks at that case
would be at the very least highly suspicious of the accusations.

GROSS: You’re talking about Desiree Washington here?

Mr. TOBACK: Yeah, I mean Robin Givens is sort of all over the place I
think, she says. And Mike actually speaks much more fondly of her than
she does of him. But anyone who announces about her husband that she’s
scared of him and he is abusive on national television. In effect she
was announcing that she was going to divorce him on national television,
which struck me as a bit self promotional.

GROSS: What you’re referring to here is a very kind of bizarre interview
with Barbara Walters…

Mr. TOBACK: Right, yeah.

GROSS: …in which she talks about how he seems to be what, manic
depressed, that he has…

Mr. TOBACK: Right, she…

GROSS: …he has incredible mood swings and that he is…

Mr. TOBACK: Yeah, she psychoanalyzes him in his presence without having
told him she was going to do it in an interview with Barbara Walters.
And in fact, Mike sat there shocked and says that the only way he can
explain it is that they were hoping that he would behave like a
psychopath and start throwing furniture and act crazy and that it would
be dramatic television, good for publicity and good for the ratings of
the show. But it certainly doesn’t, to me anyway, speak well for Robin
Givens as a way of handling a personal problem in what I would regard as
a sort of not even tabloid way of exhibition but more of a almost
glaringly self promotional way.

The Desiree Washington case was one in which, you know, who knows - the
only two people who know what happened between two people are the two
people who were there. And I wasn’t there, so I don’t know. But I do
know that Mike, over the years, has insisted to me when we’ve talked
privately that it was a complete lie. Not an ambiguous case, not I guess
there is a way that she might have thought this, but just an out and out
lie. And…

GROSS: Now, is she saying that it’s a lie that they had sex and rough
sex or is he just saying it’s a lie that is wasn’t consensual?

Mr. TOBACK: No - yeah, a lie that it was rough. It was apparently in his
taste not even remotely rough, not even – he said, at one point to me,
he said if that was rape, then every act of sex I’ve ever had with every
person I’ve had sex with was rape. He said, then I’ve never had a sexual
act that wasn’t rape.

GROSS: Let me quote something our film critic David Edelstein says about
the film, well about Tyson. He says, Tyson is candid, though not
detailed or specific about his mistreatment of women. But he still
maintains he was wrongly convicted of rape and on the basis of this
movie, I believe he believes that. But I also believe he had no way of
knowing back then what a woman wanted or didn’t want. He had zero
capacity for empathy and way too much power. What do you think of what
Edelstein says?

Mr. TOBACK: Well, I think that you know he certainly had a hugely
expansive and self-centered notion of life. And to be in that position
when he was 19 and 20 where the world is - he is getting parades in
(unintelligible) Moscow and being worshipped around the world. It would
be hard for that not to go to the head of a kid in that case and it
certainly went to his head. He talks rather shockingly and originally
about what he wants in women, and what his relationship to women has
been.

In the movie, it’s kind of very uninhibitedly bold. I would say that
women come on to Mike on a ratio of about 50:1 as opposed to his coming
on to them. I mean if you spend any time around Mike, women are chasing
him and pursuing him, not the other way around. But, you know, this -
the rape case, he had tax lawyer from Washington, D.C. representing him
in an Indiana court, with an Indiana judge and an Indiana prosecutor who
were friendly with an all white jury, with a black guy from Brooklyn
accused of rape.

You know, and to say convicted – I mean rape is obviously an atrocious
and unpardonable crime. But to say convicted rapist, the word convicted
means nothing. I mean who thinks that because someone is convicted, he
is guilty. It’s like saying O. J. Simpson was an innocent murderer. Who
thinks O. J. Simpson was innocent just because an all black jury found
him innocent?

GROSS: Well, that doesn’t – that doesn’t throw out every single
conviction…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Or…

Mr. TOBACK: Not but it, not but it…

GROSS: Or claim of innocence ever made, you know, but…

Mr. TOBACK: Of course it doesn’t. But it doesn’t mean that conviction
means guilty. And what conviction - and when people say he’s a convicted
this or that, the assumption is that convicted means guilty. Because
when the word, the word convicted means that 12 people said, we think
he’s guilty. And maybe they’re right. I mean, who knows what the
percentage is? But we all know that people have been sent to death when
they didn’t commit murders, that people who have been rotting away on
death row when DNA has proved that they didn’t commit murders.

GROSS: Let me get back to something you said about Tyson’s, the rape
case. You said he had a tax attorney for his lawyer. How did he ended up
– how did he end up with a tax attorney?

Mr. TOBACK: Don King picked him.

GROSS: Oh, because Don King was managing Tyson then.

Mr. TOBACK: That’s correct.

GROSS: And Tyson has a very…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: …very low regard for Don King as he made it clear in the movie.

Mr. TOBACK: Correct, yeah. I mean, once one actually studies…

GROSS: Oh, he sued on him – sued him for basically stealing money from
him.

Mr. TOBACK: Yeah, and won.

GROSS: Tyson sued King. Yeah, and won.

Mr. TOBACK: Yeah, and won. I mean, once one actually looks at the
circumstances of that case, nobody can come away with the same
conclusion you started with because there are too many thing about it
that are absolutely unbelievable, where you just say, what? What? How
did this happen? How did that happen?

GROSS: My guest is James Toback. We’re talking about his documentary
“Tyson.” We’ll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

My guest is film director James Toback. His new movie is a documentary
about Mike Tyson. It’s called “Tyson.” One of the things Tyson is famous
for, or infamous for, is having bit his opponent Evander Holyfield’s ear
twice in one fight.

Mr. TOBACK: Right.

GROSS: This is a very famous rematch. And what Tyson says is that
Holyfield head butted him. And he was so angry that he bit him.

Mr. TOBACK: Well, you see in the first Holyfield fight that Holyfield
was intentionally butting him in the eye and opening a cut. And then
Mike warned the referee and said, watch out because he was afraid
Holyfield was again going to try to open that cut with head butts. And
you see very clearly in the movie that he does exactly that. And Mike
looks to the referee after he does it twice in a period of 20 seconds,
and the referee warns Holyfield the first time but then ignores Tyson’s
reminder of what’s happened the second time. And he just snaps and he
does a very dramatic voiceover.

And actually watching that, I think you sort of feel that he would have
been justified in biting a third ear if Holyfield had one. Certainly he
says - it’s quite startling. He says he has no remorse whatsoever for
having bitten the ears. His remorse is for having lost his discipline.
He said the fighter is worth - a boxer is worth anything only to the
extent that he has discipline and that the warrior needs discipline. And
he lost his discipline and went crazy in the ring, not just then but
after the ring where he’s still trying to get at Holyfield.

And I think that’s in effect when his career ended, when his love of
boxing ended, when his belief in himself as a boxer ended. Not because
of the ear biting but because of his complete psychotic response after
that.

GROSS: Were you there for Tyson’s final fight?

Mr. TOBACK: No. At that point I didn’t want to watch him fight. I knew
what he was doing. I knew he was just fighting for money. That was
humiliating and degrading and not something that I enjoyed watching. And
even putting it in the movie, I know it’s painful for him to watch. It’s
also painful for me to watch. I mean, it needs to be in the movie and
you need to see him having him be - getting beaten up just to make the
horror of it felt. But…

GROSS: Describe how the fight ended. And this was what, in June 2005?

Mr. TOBACK: Yeah, I mean, the big Pride fight. I think, my theory is
that he secretly at least unconsciously wanted to lose because he had a
six fight deal for $80 million if he won the fight. And I don’t think he
on any level he could - face with having six more fights after that. And
the only way he was going to get out of it was to lose. So, I think he
literally was hoping he would lose, certainly unconsciously. And - but
the, I mean he cut up McBride. He landed a lot of very strong punches
and actually McBride looks far worse at the end of the fight than Tyson
does.

But Mike was - he literally sat down at the end of the sixth round and
didn’t want to get up. And the referee is basically standing there
waiting for him to go up and get back into his corner and Mike sort of
slowly gets up, as if to say, I don’t even know where I’m and I don’t
care where I am. And then one of his handlers, who was an Australian
fighter who loves Mike just said, that’s it, we’re not – he is not
coming out for the seventh round.

GROSS: And when he talks about calling off the fight, like just ending
it in your movie, he says, you know, he was just fighting to pay the
bills and that he didn’t have the fight and the guts anymore.

Mr. TOBACK: Yeah, he doesn’t have the fighting guts anymore.

GROSS: And he says actually - I think this is actually a clip from the

time, like an interview from the time right after the fight. And he
said, I’m not an animal anymore. I don’t love this anymore.

Mr. TOBACK: Right, right. And he says, I’m sorry I disappointed the fans
that paid to see me but I just don’t want to do this anymore. I mean
it’s - it was a sad ending and not any atypical one. Boxing is a brutal,
brutal sport and almost every ends in a horrible way. Jack Johnson by
getting knocked out, John L. Sullivan by getting knocked out, Joe Louis
getting knocked through the rings by - the ropes by Rocky Marciano, who
idolized Joe Louis and he knocked him right out of the ring. It’s a
very, very dark, brutal sport.

GROSS: Your movie ends with Tyson basically on camera not speaking. Like
the final few seconds, he’s just reflecting and breathing.

Mr. TOBACK: And breathing, and breathing…

GROSS: …and you hear him breathing. He has like a little wheeze in his
breath. And…

Mr. TOBACK: Yeah…

GROSS: …we learn early in the film that he had asthma as a child.

Mr. TOBACK: That’s right. That goes back to…

GROSS: Does he still he that? And did he fight with asthma?

Mr. TOBACK: He did. Yeah, he fought with bronchial problems and he says
he was always hoping that he could end the fights early because of his
breathing problems. And you can imagine what kind of panic he was in as
a kid. I was an asthmatic kid and, you know, you’re terrified of these
bouts where you can’t breathe. It feels if your head’s being held
underwater. And I think it always stays with you. I think it’s very
powerful in forming personality. I think people who’ve had asthma as a
kid, there has never been an adequate understanding of how deep-rooted
that fear is and how it carries through the rest of your life. And I
think it’s one of the key things in seeing Mike Tyson and understanding
him, that he was this asthmatic kid.

But what happened was, when I put my earphones on at the beginning, the
first morning of shooting, there he was sitting on the couch and I hear
this…

(Soundbite of breathing)

Mr. TOBACK: …and I looked over, thinking, is there something wrong? And
I thought, no, he is just sitting there breathing normally. But it
wasn’t normal breathing, it was labored breathing. And I actually said
to myself at that moment, that’s what the last sound of the movie is
going to be, that breathing. And we found a great image for it and a
great moment for. And it’s quite haunting at the end.

GROSS: Yeah, agreed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Tyson has this famous tattoo on his face. It covers the whole
side of his face. And in the movie, he explains that it’s a warrior
tattoo from the Maori tribe.

Mr. TOBACK: Right.

GROSS: And I’m wondering what that offered to you a filmmaker because
the camera is on his face just about the whole time…

Mr. TOBACK: Absolutely. It’s a great image. I mean it’s a - he loves the
tattoo and I think it’s a - it marks his face in a very distinguished
way. And also his other tattoos, which are Mao and Che, you know. He
says that he hated America for putting him in prison unjustly when he
didn’t do what he was convicted for. And his protest against being
falsely incarcerated was to have himself tattooed with symbols of anti-
American fervor.

GROSS: So, when you were interviewing Mike Tyson for your film, what
interested you most in what he had to say about his approach to boxing
in terms of how he prepared mentally and what went on his mind when he
was in the ring just before he went into the ring?

Mr. TOBACK: Well, there’s a fascinating passage in the movie where he
talks about being consumed by fear during training and leading up to a
fight, fear of the other fighter. And that only as he’s walking towards
the ring the night of the fight, does he start to feel that he can
summon up enough ferocity in him to purge himself of the fear and
inflict it on the other fighter. And he does it through his eyes,
through his gaze, staring at the eyes of the opponent, walking towards
the other opponent - and the opponent.

And you see it happening as he describes it very dramatically. And it’s
as if he’s looking straight into the terror that he’s creating in the
other person. And the other fighter looks away. As soon as he looks
away, they both know Tyson’s going to knock him out.

GROSS: He never gave you that look, did he?

Mr. TOBACK: No, but as a matter of fact we were having - posing for
photographs a couple of weeks ago. And we were – the photographer said,
face each other. And I looked into Tyson’s eyes and he cracked up. He
said, you would terrify almost anybody with that look.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: James Toback, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. TOBACK: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: James Toback directed the new documentary “Tyson.”
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Charting The Career Of 'Iron' Mike Tyson (Part 2)

TERRY GROSS, host:

Let’s get back to our interview with former sports writer Elmer Smith,
who covered Tyson’s career from ‘83 to ‘89. Smith is now a columnist
with the Philadelphia Daily News, where he’s also a member of the
editorial board. Earlier we talked about what made Tyson a great boxer.
We also wanted Smith’s take on some of the controversies surrounding
Tyson’s life.

The character issues became very extreme later in his career when his
then wife Robin Givens accused him of abusing her. And then there was
the rape charges from Desiree Washington, who at the time of the
incident, was a contestant for Miss Black America. She accused him of
rape. He was convicted, served three years in prison. He was convicted
of rape and deviant sexual acts. So you are no longer covering boxing at
the time of his trial. But you are still following it very closely.

Mr. ELMER SMITH (Columnist, Philadelphia Daily News): Yes.

GROSS: In the movie “Tyson,” we get Tyson’s version of the story, which
is, you know, that he was wronged.

Mr. SMITH: Right.

GROSS: That he did not rape her. He doesn’t say they didn’t have sex,
but he does say he did not rape her.

Mr. SMITH: Right.

GROSS: And I’m wondering what, you saw the movie, what would you like to
add to what was said, are we missing any perspective do you think,
hearing just his point of view?

Mr. SMITH: I think - he sort of cast the situation in terms of his own
victimization. So he felt that he was a victim. We didn’t really so much
in the movie get his side of the story except that he declared his
innocence and her villainy that she was somebody, who for reasons that
he couldn’t articulate or didn’t attempt to, just defamed him for god
knows what reason. He doesn’t get into that.

He characterizes her in very clear and profane terms. And, again, sort
of portrays himself as a victim. There was a lot of feeling in America
on both side of that issue. But I don’t know of anything that I’ve
learned since or during that time that would cause me to take issue with
the verdict.

There’s been a lot of feeling on both sides of the issue, but it’s
largely emotional in terms of what we actually know about the case and
what was presented before that jury. They made their decision. And I
just don’t have any information that would cause me to second guess
that.

GROSS: And then not second guessing it, are you saying that he always
had problems with women or that, you know, he doesn’t understand the
line of appropriate sexual behavior? Or is that kind of beyond what you
can say as a columnist?

Mr. SMITH: Well, I could point to what his defense was at the time. I
thought he was really ill-served by the defense. Essentially what the
defense said was that this young woman could not have been as innocent
as she wanted to portray herself because quote unquote, “everybody
knows” what kind of guy Mike Tyson is. That was his defense at that
time. I think that says…

GROSS: To the premise that she should’ve known better, it’s her fault.

Mr. SMITH: Exactly. She should’ve known better. It is her fault.
Everybody knows what kind of guy Mike Tyson is. They presented him as a
monster for their own purposes. Again, I don’t know of anything outside
of the context of that trial that I could add to that.

GROSS: James Toback said that Tyson’s attorney in that case was
basically a tax lawyer.

Mr. SMITH: Right.

GROSS: Who was appointed - appointed - who was chosen for him by Don
King, the infamous manager who was managing Tyson at the time.

Mr. SMITH: Yes.

GROSS: That sounds kind of crazy.

Mr. SMITH: That is kind of crazy. And it was noted at the time. I mean,
there were a number of criminal defense attorneys with great reputations
who would gladly have taken that case, any kind of date rape case,
despite the fact that there was medical evidence essentially saying that
the injuries that they saw were inconsistent with consensual sex. Even
with that, the date rapes are a hard win for prosecutor. And I think to
have chosen a seasoned veteran defense attorney would’ve been a much
smarter move. I have no idea why they landed on this guy.

GROSS: My guest is Philadelphia Daily News columnist and former sports
writer Elmer Smith, who covered Mike Tyson’s career. We’ll talk more
about Tyson and the new documentary “Tyson” after a break. This is FRESH
AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Philadelphia Daily News columnist and former sports
writer Elmer Smith, who covered Tyson’s boxing career. We’re talking
about “Tyson,” the new documentary about him and the controversies that
have surrounded him.

Another kind of character question about Mike Tyson that he talks about
in the movie is the time he bit Evander Holyfield a couple of times in
the ear.

Mr. SMITH: Yes.

GROSS: During a match. And, you know, Tyson says that Holyfield was head
butting him, which is, you know, against the rules. And he was so angry
at the referee for not doing anything to stop him and to intervene that
he just kind of bit him twice. And so I’m wondering, someone who
followed his career so closely, did you see that match?

Mr. SMITH: I did.

GROSS: What - is he right that - can you see in the video that he’s
being head butted?

Mr. SMITH: I watched that fight a number of times, and I see Holyfield’s
head come forward in a way that it generally does. It did not to me seem
egregious. It did not seem a case where he was purposely propelling his
head in a way to injure Mike Tyson. That was my perspective from outside
the ring. It was also the perspective of the referee, Mills Lane, one of
the best championship fight referees in America at that time. But,
again, he’s on the inside of it. I think what I really see from Tyson as
much as anything else is a level of frustration in some ways.

And it’s unfortunate to say this, but in some ways Tyson’s career is
marked early on by him being sort of the schoolyard bully. He intimated
people. Evander Holyfield is not a guy who’s going to be intimidated by
anybody. If you lace up your shoes and gloves the same way he does and
walk those same three steps to get into the ring, he cannot be afraid of
you or intimidated by you.

And I think one of the frustrating things that happened to Tyson in that
fight was that he could not quite solve Evander Holyfield. And that to
me is very much a factor in the level of frustration and anger he was
feeling.

GROSS: So I haven’t asked you yet, what did you think of James Toback’s
movie, “Tyson?” What did you think of the portrait that Tyson presents?

Mr. SMITH: Well, I’m surprised that I found it as revealing as it was.
He didn’t say anything that I haven’t heard him say before in one form
or another, but something about having it all together at that way and
hearing it again from him, made it revealing for me, even though
sometimes really only a nuance. But those nuances were so important.

For instance, he talked more about fear than I’ve ever heard him talk
about before, at least to me. Now, I’ve read that he’s admitted to some
fear in certain situations. But fear was actually an almost overriding
kind of an aura almost for him. And I find that interesting. I don’t
trust fighters who don’t have any fear. I think that’s unrealistic. But
to hear him own as much fear as he did, I thought was interesting, not
just in the ring.

GROSS: And it sounds like fear motivated him from the very start.

Mr. SMITH: Exactly.

GROSS: ‘Cause he was bullied as a kid.

Mr. SMITH: Exactly.

GROSS: He was fat. And he was bullied.

Mr. SMITH: Yeah. I’ve heard Riddick Bowe, who was a - went on to become
a heavyweight champion and came from - and lived at some point in the
same neighborhood in Brownsville - he told me one time, he said, yeah, I
remember Tyson. He was a fat kid. He was always disheveled, his clothes
looked funny. So we called him Bummy Ike.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. SMITH: So it’s the irony of the two of them ending up where they did
from that beginning is incredible.

GROSS: Did the movie change your opinion of Tyson at all as a boxer or
as a man?

Mr. SMITH: As a man, I have to say, he was a somewhat more sympathetic
character to me in the ring. I have to add that, in part, the reason for
that is when I was covering him, there’s only so much sympathy, if you
will, that I could allow to be a factor in how I saw him. It’s, you
know, I had to take a more objective view, being this far removed sort
of softens, to some extent, my sort of recollections of him.

But he just seemed more human. He seemed more mature, more adult, more
reflective than I remember him being at the time. It had to be awfully
tough to live out that sort of saga of Mike Tyson.

GROSS: Elmer Smith, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. SMITH: It’s been a pleasure.

GROSS: Elmer Smith is a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News and a
member of the editorial board. The new movie “Tyson” was directed by
James Toback, who we heard from earlier. You can download both
interviews on our Web site freshair.npr.org.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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