'Mike' could never capture the real Mike Tyson

At eight episodes, Hulu’s new limited series has just enough room to mention everything without really saying much about anything.

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It’s February of 2020. Sugar Ray Leonard is sitting across from Mike Tyson. They’re recording an episode of the podcast Hotboxin’ with Mike Tyson and Leonard is talking about sobriety, weakness, the man each of us chooses to show the world. “I’ve done all those things. Cocaine. I’m an alcoholic.” Leonard’s eyes are bright. “I wrote a book back in 2011 … I talked about sexual child abuse, I talked about being an alcoholic and all these things, things I would never tell, because I was Sugar Ray Leonard, and I was the best, I was strong.”

Tyson has an unlit cigarette pinched in his fingers and he’s twirling it around. He hasn’t spoken yet but there’s a tear coming down his cheek. His forehead is starting to shine. His cohost, Eben Britton, says, “Mike, how you doing?”

“I’m doing good, um, it’s beautiful that you came to this place in your life. And we all come to this place in our life and I guess it has to do with our mortality in some way. Do we want to know … do we … do we really believe that we’re going to see god after we die and if he sees us is he gonna be alright with what he saw in my lifetime? And I know that’s some n***** bullshit sometimes. But when I see you, I don’t see that, I see um … I saw you fight Wilfredo Benitez, I was locked up, what was that, in ’79?”

“‘79, yes.”

“I’m locked up, so what, I’m 13 years old, I’m locked up in juvenile.”

Tyson’s voice is a dry hiss. He talks about the Benitez fight, specific dates, about Leonard losing to Hector Camacho at 40 years old, “I didn’t even cry, it didn’t even bother me because I said ‘that’s not the Sugar Daddy.’” He remembers punch combinations Leonard threw against Roberto Durán, he’s rocking in his seat, shadowboxing in a heavy blazer, He threw two punches that sound like one, you know how magnificent your speed has to be for that?”. Tyson has come untethered and he’s sobbing, his words have found that crazy ballistic rhythm you recognize, sweat is raining down his temples now but there is a rightness, there is oil beneath all that rock.

He says, “I know the art of fighting, I know the art of war, that’s all I ever studied. That’s why I’m so feared, that’s why they feared me when I was in the ring, because I was an annihilator. That’s all I was born for. And now those days are gone. It’s empty, I’m nothing. I’m working on the art of humbleness. That’s the reason why I’m crying because I’m not that person no more and I miss him.”

Tyson’s mouth is open and he’s sitting back in his chair now and Leonard can’t stop staring at him.

***

These sort of moments with Tyson are everywhere. Podcasts, one-man shows, the anecdotes from every celebrity who ever ended up in a Vegas suite or a Lamborghini dealership with him that he is proud to confirm or deny. He has turned his life into a confessional, he has mined every compulsion for motive. At 56, every granule of his life has been documented and inspected, often by Tyson himself in humiliating detail.

He has spoken vividly of death, romantically about violence, been arrested, apologized, gotten sober, relapsed, crashed Bentleys and told the cops to keep it. Smuggled Kentucky Fried Chicken into prison and eaten it while his cellmate read aloud from a book about Cleopatra. Why would you want anyone to answer questions about his life besides the man himself? Why would you need anyone else when he is so willing? What streaming budget could conjure something as beautiful as him there with Sugar Ray, spiraling, reaching for God?

Hulu has decided to try anyway with Mike, which premiers August 25.

In the weeks leading up to it, Tyson, who did not authorize or participate in the show, has denounced the project emphatically. On August 6 he made a text-only all-caps Instagram post that read, "Don’t let Hulu fool you. I don't support their story about my life. It's not 1822. It's 2022. They stole my life story and didn't pay me. To Hulu executives I'm just another N****R they can sell on the auction block.” This explains the prevailing crisis of Tyson’s life better than Mike is ever able to — some ravenous entity stripping him for either metaphors or content or money, Tyson watching from the sidelines trying to set the record straight, no one really listening to him except when they need a profane soundbite for effect.

The boxing scenes are brief, never a focus, and missing all the broiling menace of any knockout compilation of Tyson’s you can find.

In press for the show, executive producer Steven Rogers recalled a moment in an interview where Tyson explained his face tattoo. "(He) was saying the reason he got the face tattoo was because Mike Tyson hated Mike Tyson and didn't want to see his face when he looked in the mirror.” This hinted at something searching and visceral, an examination of shame and self-mutilation, as did the trailer, all fury and euphoria and breathless stream of consciousness set to Sammy Davis Jr's "I've Gotta Be Me."

But there is little evidence of this in the show. It is not bad, exactly, but it has no tone of voice. There are ostensibly loud scenes but none of the panicked, ferocious heartbeat. There are some sequences of Tyson doing Wild Stuff but it all feels light and orderly. The “pain” is closer to a hangover than purgatory. The boxing scenes are brief, never a focus, and missing all the broiling menace of any knockout compilation of Tyson’s you can find.

In Tyson’s autobiography, he wrote of his sex life that, “The problem was, I was trying to satisfy each and every (woman) and be happy. That’s sick. It’s impossible to satisfy all of them, some of them were crazy, just as sick as I was, if not more. You’d lose your mind trying to do that.” In MIKE there is nudity but the show is never filthy; indulgence but never excess. The show almost always chooses some montage of the ridiculous antics of Tyson’s life (having sex with a jewelry saleswoman while buying a ring for his girlfriend; buying a Rolls Royce for each of his friends) over scenes of him as a starved childgod pleading for love.

The show begins with a scene almost identical to the opening of Raging Bull, in which Robert DeNiro as a bloated, has-been Jake LaMotta is rehearsing zingers backstage before his one-man show. MIKE begins with Tyson, played by Trevante Rhodes, backstage at his Undisputed Truth tour, a one-man show he has taken around the country in some form since 2013. MIKE then moves mostly chronologically, starting with his childhood in Brownsville, Brooklyn.

At eight episodes, it has just enough room to mention everything without really saying much about anything.

From there we get most of the highlights you’re already familiar with. Don King; Cus D’Amato; the gold tooth; his mother demolishing him; the pigeons; the head-to-toe windbreakers; the sleek black void of hotel rooms, limousines, night clubs, everyone neon-lit in two dimensions wanting money or a little nudge to micro stardom.

The show only seems comfortable looking at the debauchery with two or three layers of meta detachment. When Tyson is moving like a drunk sultan through a Versace store it’s quickly interrupted by freezeframes, voiceover narration, Rhodes breaking the fourth wall, cuts to Tyson on stage at his one-man show. The show feels timid, nervous of gluttony of any kind unless it’s delivered with a wink for the camera or a scolding finger wag. It rarely has the scalding heat of bad memories, which have to some degree stalked Tyson his entire life.

As soon as the show approaches some palpable anxiety, it pulls back to the traditional rhythms of what often plays like an expertly soundtracked double-decker bus tour of Tyson’s life. In one scene, Tyson and his then wife, Robin Givens, played by Laura Harrier, are in the Catskills to visit Camille Ewald, who raised Tyson as a teenager. At dinner Givens keeps poking Ewald, asking why Mike still pays the house’s bills; she doesn’t stop. Mike pounds the table. Givens storms into the kitchen and Mike follows her, the sound of rattling plates and serious steps on hardwood floors. Robin says, “You’re out here paying for this old white lady’s house, mowing her lawn like the hired help. And for what, because she gives you extra gravy and smiles at you?” Tyson says to Robin, “you better watch your mouth bitch.” He slams the wall, but the show won’t ever let itself percolate in that place. It cuts back to him on stage, looking right at us: “I don’t know how to fight to lose, only to win.”

At eight episodes, it has just enough room to mention everything without really saying much about anything. Tyson’s real-life fight against Michael Spinks was a volcanic event — an eternity of stillness, and then an explosion. In Mike it is compressed into what feels like a video game cutscene. Cus D’Amato, played by Harvey Keitel, is missing the deranged energy of the real man and speaks so exclusively in aphorisms he may as well be yet another voice narrating the show. At one moment, washing dishes after dinner, Cus says to Mike, “They’ll underestimate you too because you’re Black.” Tyson’s trial for the rape of Desiree Washington is given an entire episode, but still feels under-considered. Not every event in a life like Tyson’s can be told patiently, but to reference these things so briefly makes them feel smaller than if they hadn’t shown them at all.

The highlight is Rhodes’s performance. In the scenes that allow his character to prowl and steam rather than deliver exposition and neat psychoanalysis looking directly into the camera, he is spectacular. He resists the cartoon signifiers that might have been tempting in portraying one of the most meme’d and cheaply mimicked figures of modern times. He is smoother than Tyson, he never seems as overwhelmed and scared, but he hits the naked vulnerability, the feeling we get watching Tyson that he is frantically shuffling through a problem in his head in real time. All that compressed rage cracking fissures in Tyson’s otherwise infant-like calm.

Mike is all the decibels of Tyson’s life but none of the chaos.

In the fourth episode, Tyson is at the cemetery, he’s 20-years-old. When Tyson was 16 his mother died of cancer and was buried in a thin cardboard box. Four years later he’s the youngest heavyweight champion in history, a millionaire. He’s had his mother exhumed and replaced the box with a bronze casket. In the scene in Mike, he looks down at the casket and says, “What’d you used to call me? A lowlife thief, piece of shit? Wasn’t I supposed to spend all my days in jail? Now look. You’re gonna spend all your days in a box that I put you in. That I paid for.”

The scene flashes to Tyson as a boy, a handheld shot up-close of him lying with his head on his mother’s knee, she’s scratching his scalp, no dialogue, just them reclined in a shadowy living room. The scene cuts back to him standing in the cemetery and Tyson’s head yanks back, agitated, like the memory had the sour hit of smelling salts. He leans down and puffs a breath onto the gleaming lid and then smears a fist into the condensation. We don’t know exactly if he feels devastated or triumphant; the show, finally, doesn’t say, and it’s one of Mike’s finest moments.

But these sort of moments are rare. The series instead relies on the blunt annotations of these scenes from Tyson in the present day, saying things like, “When you’re young and you don’t have a relationship with your father, you go around searching for someone else to fill that space.” In case Don King and all of Tyson’s trainers and managers referring to him as “son” didn’t make it obvious enough. When his marriage with Givens explodes, it cuts to Tyson on stage saying, “There goes my romcom.” Almost all of Tyson’s real life relationships were an illusion, all his moods a mystery even to himself; he was flailing and alone and the only way he could negotiate with it all was boxing, where he was both terrified and indestructible at once. Making everything in his life crisp shapes that he was able to immediately recognize deprives the show of a certain paranoia and torment, it makes his life seem not treacherous but a tidy parable, a PSA about anger and fame with all the predictable ironic touches of a streaming network original.

Mike is all the decibels of Tyson’s life but none of the chaos. For decades we have watched Tyson in horror and awe and waited for glimpses of the great stirring confusion that clatters in all of us, these unsolvable crises, this vibrating human madness, something we recognized in him but could not totally comprehend. And so we became an audience in a frenzy, fascinated but delirious, trying to decipher him, where he came from and where we’re all coming from. Was he a victim or a maniac? Was he sad or insane? He’s working on it; he’s trying to tell us.