Tyson film shows nation’s fascination with violence

gharden@tri-statedefender.com | 5/27/2009, 7 p.m.

Tyson represents the kind of boxer many fans look on with disdain and promoters approach with caution. He is the kind of person decent mothers tell their sons not to be like and their daughters not to date. News reports indicate Tyson was an unlikely favorite, eagerly sought after, recently when he circulated among the attendees at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, and appeared at the screening of  “Tyson.” The movie features background information about Tyson, clips from his fights, and the boxer responding to numerous interview questions. It follows his life from the time he was a 13-year-old kid in Brooklyn who became a ward of Cus D’Amato, the noted boxing impresario, to the present. D’Amato also trained Floyd Patterson. Some of the interviews were conducted while Tyson was out on day passes from the rehabilitation facility where he was being treated for substance abuse.

A Sony Pictures executive said “Tyson” is being promoted to attract art-house moviegoers and African-American viewers, the same audiences that made “Hoop Dreams” such a hit. “Hoop Dreams,” the documentary about two black Chicago students and their efforts to become NBA stars, also premiered at Sundance, the film festival founded by Robert Redford, and went on to earn $7.8 million. “Tyson” was directed by John Toback, with Damon Bingham and Harlan Werner as producers.

Boxing is seen as so brutal there have been efforts in Congress to ban it. It is viewed as an unsavory way to earn a living and most of the participants who step into the ring are black or brown and from impoverished backgrounds. The name “ring” itself is an oxymoron—the fighting area is square—a holdover from the early days when matches were held outdoors and spectators stood around a ring drawn on the ground.

Tyson, 42, has served time in prison, abused drugs and alcohol, been arrested for domestic violence and convicted of rape. His record shows numerous incidents of punching men  and fondling women. In 1997, in one of boxing’s most outlandish incidents, he was disqualified after biting off part of Evander Holyfield’s ear in a fight. Tyson has called himself “the baddest man on the planet,” but movie reviewers say his recent statements suggest he is trying to move away from his bad-boy image, realizing he is not respected like Muhammad Ali. He wants to be known as something other than a bully, always ready to fight—even outside the ring. Tyson has said he is embarrassed by some of his former behavior.

When Tyson won the heavyweight championship at age 20 in 1986 by knocking out Trevor Berbick, he became the youngest man ever to win the title. Floyd Patterson, who also lived in Brooklyn as a child, earlier became champion at age 21.

Boxing is larger than any one participant and it has been decried by the American Medical Association. It is the only sport in which the aim is to injure or incapacitate one’s opponent rather than to gain possession of a ball and advance toward a goal. Punch, injure and knock out are the actions that really matter.

Last month, Greg Page, 50, once a promising young boxer, died after suffering for eight years with traumatic brain injury and paralysis from injuries received in a boxing match. He was once Ali’s sparring partner and Ali said of Page, “That boy hit me so hard it jarred my kinfolks in Africa.”

Boxing’s ferocity is tolerated because violence is ingrained in American culture and this nation’s origins are steeped in violence. Crudity comes to the forefront and basic human values take a beating when two boxers step into a ring.
(George E. Hardin worked as a photographer, reporter and editor, and in public relations during a long career before he retired. His column appears every other week.)