I’m not sure how I feel about Mike Tyson.
In my earliest memories, he seemed like a clear-cut villain. The first Tyson fight I watched was the 1997 match when he bit off a chunk of Evander Holyfield’s ear. The quote I knew best was when he said of Lennox Lewis in 2000, “I want to eat his children.” I knew him as a legitimate danger to society, uncontrollable, impulsive, angry, the last person you’d want to get into an elevator with, a cold-blooded fighting machine who couldn’t seem to turn off his aggression when he stepped outside the ring.
In 1988, his then-wife, actor Robin Givens, said while sitting next to him in a joint televised interview with Barbara Walters that he had physically and emotionally abused her. He denied the allegations, claiming that she was trying to destroy his credibility to secure more money from the divorce. In 1992, he was convicted of raping Desiree Washington, an 18-year-old contestant in the Miss Black America pageant, and spent three years in prison. By the turn of the millennium, Tyson’s moniker, “The Baddest Man on the Planet,” carried a sinister ring.
But over the last two decades, Tyson’s persona has undergone a transformation. His menacing arrogance and cold intensity gave way to reflection, silliness, and warmth. In an interview right after his last fight, in 2005, he said that he no longer had the “stomach” for boxing and didn’t “have that ferocity,” adding, “I’m not an animal anymore.” In the 2008 documentary Tyson, which he executive produced, he says his drug habits had led him down a troublesome path and talks about efforts to turn his life around, including through rehab. “I wanna be a better person,” he says. “I don’t like the person I've become.” Playing himself in The Hangover in 2009, he was in on the jokes poking fun at his penchant for violence and pet tigers. He collaborated with Spike Lee on a stage show that hit Broadway in 2012, a solo performance chronicling his life story, from the depths of poverty to the heights of fame, the spiral toward rock bottom, and getting back on stable ground. The following year, he published an essay in New York magazine recounting his difficult childhood in Brooklyn’s Brownsville neighborhood, where violence simmered all around him and he threw his first punch at a guy who killed one of his pet pigeons. These days, he hosts a podcast, Hotboxin’ With Mike Tyson, does funny bits on Jimmy Kimmel Live, earns a sizable income recording custom videos on Cameo, and maintains a diverse business portfolio, including a cannabis enterprise that sells gummies in the shape of ears.
As I saw it, this new chapter of Tyson’s life marked a positive turn of events. I considered his public reinvention a corrective against a long history of white sports fans objectifying Black athletes, defining them by their physical traits without any consideration for the humanity within. I participated in the collective empathy for the conditions that spawned his troubles. Here was a kid who grew up in poverty in a rough neighborhood overcoming mental health issues, substance abuse problems, and structural racism to find peace in middle age. The popularity of his post-boxing persona is rooted in a simple, heartwarming twist: The terrifying antagonist had become a harmless court jester.
The terrifying antagonist had become a harmless court jester.
But the redemption arc feels uncomfortable because it is incomplete. For all the self-awareness and self-improvement at the heart of Tyson’s renaissance, his reconciliations have stopped short of the women he has harmed. In the 2008 documentary, he says he was “falsely accused of raping that wretched swine of a woman Desiree Washington.” In his Broadway show, he accuses Givens of using his fame to try to elevate hers, tells stories about her sexual exploits, makes fun of her hair, and denigrates her career.
I felt caught between the impulse to sympathize with a person’s lived experience and the urge to hold a wrongdoer fully accountable for their sins.
I had that dichotomy in mind when I watched the five episodes provided to critics of Hulu’s new miniseries about his life, Mike, a dramatized biography that Tyson wasn’t involved in producing. Created by Steven Rogers, who wrote the screenplay for I, Tonya, and starring Trevante Rhodes as Tyson, the show comes out today. I was skeptical, ready to pounce on yet another pillar upholding his reinvention without reckoning with the damage he has caused.
The show’s early episodes echo the beats of his post-boxing transformation. It opens with Tyson, portrayed with impeccable accuracy by Rhodes, telling us his story from a theater stage. Over the first four episodes we bounce between his contemporary performance and flashbacks to the past, all presented through his perspective, a distinctly sympathetic framing that highlights the steep obstacles he had to overcome on the road to fame and fortune. He gets beaten up by neighborhood kids and whooped by his mom. He is mesmerized seeing roses for the first time on a trip to the suburbs. He eats butter that’s so fancy he thinks it’s a kind of cheese. He cries when his mom dies of cancer, cries when his first trainer wants to hand him off to a more experienced trainer, cries when he realizes his fighting skills ensure he “won’t ever get bullied no more,” cries when an article in Playboy states that the “best punch he ever threw” was at Robin Givens.
In flashbacks, Rhodes plays Tyson with a bashful charisma, depicting a naive young man who doesn’t know any better and yearns to be loved by the people around him — “I just feel like if I don't win people will hate me,” he says in one scene early in his boxing career. Onstage, Rhodes’s Tyson serves as an endearing narrator who doesn’t take himself too seriously and is willing to call himself out on past transgressions. “I was just a lying piece of shit back then,” he says about his dating life as a young adult. “You know when you hate yourself like that, you can’t love nobody.”
These episodes are funny, delightfully stylized, and well acted, but I felt unsettled watching yet another version of Tyson’s story through Tyson’s eyes, the familiar rags-to-riches-to-addiction tale I could recite to you off the top of my head. In the third episode, as his first marriage falls apart, Givens (Laura Harrier) says to him, “You’re so desperate for someone to love you that you’ll rewrite the story just to feel loved, but what about my story?” I found myself nodding along, eager to hear more about Givens’s perspective and disappointed that all we got was Tyson’s. Amid the divorce proceedings, we see him naked in his hotel room, sipping a handle of Jack Daniels, flipping through television channels as a series of commentators accuse Givens of being “an ambitious gold digger,” “on the prowl for a big Black celebrity,” “the most hated woman in the world.” Tyson lights up. “I realized they still love me,” he says to us through the fourth wall. “Now I’m really gonna have some fun.” Rhodes dishes a wry smirk, daring you to keep laughing along with him.
With the fifth episode, though, it becomes clear that everything to this point has been a tightly orchestrated setup. After four episodes of Tyson narration, the fifth opens with the voice of Desiree Washington (Li Eubanks), a sudden shift in perspective that shatters the show’s lighthearted tone.
“The truth is, this is the worst day of my life,” she says right off the bat. We get to know Washington, the events that led her to Tyson’s hotel room, the trauma she endured there, the tearful aftermath in the hospital, and the efforts by his supporters to smear her reputation. She narrates the details of the rape on the witness stand as flashbacks play from the night in question.
In this episode, Rhodes brings a darker edge to the character we hadn’t seen before — not because that darkness didn’t exist, but because we had only been seeing Tyson through Tyson’s eyes. Watching him from Washington’s perspective, the playfulness disappears, replaced by a stubborn aggression. After the rape, as Tyson leaves the room, he looks into the camera and says to us, chillingly, “Don’t love me no more?” When he takes the stand to give his version of events, he comes across as defensive, indifferent, mean — a tone far removed from the jovial jokester narrating the preceding episodes.
By highlighting the story’s divergent perspectives, it challenges you to examine your personal position on Tyson.
The jarring juxtaposition captures the tension at the core of Tyson’s public persona. But the intent isn’t to influence your opinion of him. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, showrunner Karin Gist said the limited series was “not supposed to be a love letter or an indictment.” “Our goal was to take a very complicated and controversial figure and try to get under the hood of what he was praised and vilified for while staying true to our North Star of ‘no one person is one thing,’” said Gist, a former executive producer on Grey’s Anatomy and Mixed-ish.
In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Rhodes and Russell Hornsby, who plays boxing manager Don King, said that they hoped the show would capture the scope of Tyson’s humanity. “America thought about him as this Black buck, this brute,” Hornsby said. “Now as artists, we’re coming to it with a different lens, a lot more sensitive to … what America was doing to him.” Rhodes said he saw the Tyson role “as a catalyst to better understand the Black male.”
Tyson has expressed his displeasure about the show, posting on Instagram that Hulu “stole my life story and didn't pay me." But we’ve already heard Tyson’s version of events repeatedly in recent years. In fact, Tyson was early to a phenomenon that has become more common: public figures taking control of their public perceptions by collaborating on authorized content about their own lives, like Michael Jordan’s docuseries The Last Dance and Tom Brady’s Tom vs. Time. Mike serves as a critical reminder that leaving the stories of powerful people in their own hands appeases their interests at the expense of neutrality. It’s one thing for Jordan to get the final word on whether Gary Payton was able to effectively guard him. For Mike Tyson, the stakes of whose truth wins out are much higher.
That isn’t to say that Mike sets out to straighten any misconceptions. The facts of Tyson’s life have been clear for years. His rape conviction is public record, as are his defiant denials. The target of the show’s core critique doesn’t seem to be Tyson; it’s you and me, the viewers. By highlighting the story’s divergent perspectives, it challenges you to examine your personal position on Tyson.
Watching it, I realized that I don’t know how I feel — maybe because I have avoided the question, maybe because I fear the answer. Though I was aware of Tyson’s worst acts from the start, I still grew up with an appreciation for his in-ring brilliance and style. I watched dozens of his early fights on YouTube and engaged in heated debates over where he ranks as an all-time great. He was authentically intimidating, and that heightened his mythology in my mind. Avoiding the shiny robes, colorful trunks, and bombastic entrances of his rivals, he strolled to the ring in plain black shorts, no towel, no walkout music, just eerie industrial noises that sounded like a horror movie score. I loved watching him perform, and maybe I am part of the problem.
The show seems to ask: How do you feel about how you feel about Mike Tyson?
The series confronts the structural forces that shaped his psyche and enabled his success. We see that Tyson first developed a taste for violence in order to ward off the bullies picking on him in Brownsville, which had the highest concentration of housing projects in America because local officials had designed it as a place where they could sweep people living in poverty out of sight. We see that Tyson’s first trainer, Cus D’Amato, instilled in him the idea that to become a great boxer “you need to embrace your villainy.” We hear people describing Tyson as a “beast,” a “barbarian,” a “demon.” The show builds a case that Tyson was incentivized toward violence, that structural inequities made violence the most appealing path. But it doesn’t absolve him of the violence he imposed upon the women he pursued. Screeners for the final three episodes were not available at the time of writing, so I can’t tell you how it ends. But through its first five episodes, at least, the details of Tyson’s story exist on an even plane, and it’s up to you to decide how you want to weigh them.
The audience in the Broadway show that serves as Mike’s structural spine is our most direct proxy. There you are, sitting among the crowd as they cheer his transformation, laugh at his jokes about all the women he has slept with, sit silently as he denigrates Robin Givens. The show seems to ask: How do you feel about how you feel about Mike Tyson?
Tyson’s fame offers a mirror reflecting our own standards for mercy and accountability. Maybe you believe his three years in prison were sufficient penance, wiping the slate clean for his reinvention. Maybe you resist the idea of his transformation, seeing it as calculated fuel for a lucrative entertainment career. Maybe you recognize the magnitude of his sins but still enjoy the spectacle.
Mike hasn’t revealed anything new that might guide how I feel about Tyson. The man has been a victim of American circumstances and he is also an unrepentant predator. He has changed his life for the better and he also has a long way to go toward reckoning with his past. There isn’t any mystery left — and how I feel about Mike Tyson probably says more about me than it does about him. ●