Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Tyson's torment: Champ opens up to Oprah

The documentary was crass and coarse -- a vulgar, unedited introspective into Mike Tyson the man. The film, a hauntingly brutal look inside one of boxing’s most enigmatic figures, left people with not much to like about Tyson.

They had long ago learned to revile Tyson the person as they revered Tyson the prizefighter, so nobody needed a film to expose that hard side of his character. Yet as much as people knew about Tyson, they couldn’t possibly know all of him, which made his documentary even more riveting.

"I was so impressed with what you were able to reveal about yourself," talk show queen Oprah Winfrey told Tyson when he sat in front of her for an interview that aired Monday. "It feels like it's more than about you; it really is a study in humanity."

In her face-to-face chat Monday with Tyson, Oprah dug deeper into the humanity of this troubled athlete. She brought out a side of him that even his documentary could not do. She showed Tyson as a contradiction -- a complex man chasing shadows, a man peering too far into his past and seemingly unable to enjoy the present.

As he sat next to Oprah, Tyson shed tears. He cried, too, in his documentary, but the slickness of it showed the jagged edges that made him the most feared prizefighter of his era.

No cutting room or video editing, however, could mask the man’s torment. Tyson told Oprah about his childhood and about his love for his mentor, an aging white trainer named Cus D’Amato. He took the teenaged Tyson into his home, befriended him and taught him the finer points of fighting.

Under D’Amato’s tutelage, Tyson harnessed the rage he felt, a rage nurtured on the unforgiving streets of Brooklyn. His life in the public’s eyes might not have amounted to much if not for D’Amato and his steadfast support of Tyson.

The trainer’s death loosened the reins on Mike Tyson. The rage inside Tyson, stored there since his boyhood, emerged for the public to see.

The rage turned Tyson into a beast -- a loveless, thoughtless, unrepentant monster whose excesses led to the most destructive of behaviors. Those behaviors reigned over Tyson’s life and sent it barreling through stop signs that others tried to put in front of him.

He took others on his joyride.

Tyson recounted that joyride for Oprah. He talked about his fights with women and with boxers and with himself, a fight he’s continued to wage with no hint that he has banked many rounds in the win column.

Yet his Oprah interview showed even better than James Toback's documentary, released last year, how vulnerable Tyson is. While he acknowledged to Oprah that the streets taught him to show no weakness and to use his fists to settle matters, Tyson never learned the lessons there that would bring him respect away from the streets.

The streets helped him earn adulation and wealth and notoriety, all the trappings of being able to use his fists well. But his fists couldn’t teach him how to live in a world larger than Brooklyn. His fists didn’t teach him to love and to care and to trust.

His fists of fury also didn’t teach Tyson how to overcome tragedies that would visit his life, and he faced many of those tragic events after Cus D’Amato’s death. It was difficult on Tyson, though not as difficult, it seems now, as the death of his 4-year-old daughter Exodus earlier this year.

Tyson, his voice choking, struggled to find the words for losing his daughter, and Oprah didn’t press him on it. She sat back and let Tyson take his feelings about this loss wherever they dared to go.

And as he wrestled with his emotions, Tyson told Oprah: “I’m tired of losing. I wanna win now.”

For the champ, the losses have piled higher than his wins, and maybe he’s solely to blame for that. He told Oprah as much. But no wins or losses are as important as finding a handle on life, and Mike Tyson might yet do so before he steps out of the public’s eye forever.


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