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tyson_m04When you hear “Mike Tyson,” what comes to mind?

Evander Holyfield’s ear? Rape? Facial tattoos?

Whatever your first thought might be, it probably isn’t positive. And he’s brought some of that upon himself; I recognize that. But my heart breaks for Mike Tyson. It really does.

I can almost hear the derision in your collective response, “Why?”

Well, I’m glad you asked…

Last night my wife and I watched Tyson, the new documentary in which Iron Mike recounts the highs and lows of his unusual life. (To be accurate, my wife didn’t really “watch,” per se. She pretty much just sat in the same room…with her laptop…and she sort of listened and glanced up occasionally.)

I’ve always been drawn to Mike Tyson. I’ve always felt like the two of us, Mike Tyson and I, have an inexplicable affiliation—an unfounded companionship, if you will. I’m not sure why (although I am pretty sure the feeling isn’t mutual).

Six or seven years ago, I remember standing in my parents’ kitchen and telling them that I wanted to write a screenplay about Mike Tyson’s life. I was convinced that his story needed to be told. And if not by me, then by whom?

Well, by Mike Tyson, that’s who.

And getting his story straight from his mouth was infinitely better than anything I could have written. Some of you might scoff at that. You remember Tyson saying things like, “I’m going to eat his children,” and you’re thinking Really, that’s infinitely better than anything you could write?

Yes, it is.

And that’s one of the reasons I’ve always been drawn to Mike Tyson. To a fault, when Mike Tyson talks, he means exactly what he says. (Well, I guess he didn’t mean he was going to literally eat Holyfield’s kids…I just meant that Tyson doesn’t worry about the perceptions of others. His words come out unfiltered. Often filthy. But pure.)

For example, in the documentary, he refers to Don King as “a reptilian mothaf*#&er.” And he says it without any real venom—as if he’s just stating facts.

As for the woman he claims falsely accused him of rape…I won’t repeat the names he used for her.

Tyson also surprises me with his vocabulary. Sometimes he will misspeak, coming across as an unlearned and uncivilized brawler. Other times, in mid-sentence, he’ll rattle off a word like “skullduggery” (which my spell check seems to think isn’t a real word…but it is)—and it makes me scratch my head. And smile.

But ignoring for a moment Tyson’s intriguing vocabulary and his abrasive language, Tyson’s words are most compelling when he’s talking about himself.

In the ring, Tyson was a machine. A ferocious, terrifying animal (and I mean that in a good way). But away from boxing, Tyson has always been lost.

A very brief summary of his life:

  • Tyson’s father abandoned his family when Tyson was 2
  • Tyson was ridiculed as a child for being overweight, and for his high-pitched voice and lisp
  • Tyson was raised in one of the roughest neighborhoods in Brooklyn
  • By the age of 13, he’d been arrested 38 times.
  • Tyson’s mother died when he was 16
  • Tyson was taken in by Cus D’Amato, his boxing trainer who, in Tyson’s words, “was the only person I ever trusted”—and the man Tyson credits with straightening out his life
  • Cus died when Tyson was 19—a year before Tyson became the Heavyweight Champion
  • After Cus’ death, Tyson admits he felt alone—as if he had no one in his life.

    That might sound like hyperbole or a cliche, but for Tyson it was true. Cus was the only man he ever trusted. And then, he was gone.

    At 19 years old, Tyson was climbing the heavyweight ranks and becoming more and more famous with each first-round knockout. But he didn’t have anyone in his life who really cared about Tyson, the man. There were plenty of people who cared about Tyson, the boxer. Including managers who were eager to get rich off of him (and they did). But he didn’t have anyone who cared about him as an individual.

    Now, don’t get me wrong: Tyson has always had issues. Serious issues. So I’m not excusing him for all the mistakes he made. I’m not giving him a free pass just because of his past.

    As my wife pointed out last night, there are a lot of other people who have dealt with similar struggles (difficult childhood, losing parents, self-esteem issues, identity issues). That’s true. But how many of those people, in the midst of their confusion—in the midst of their struggle to figure out who and what they are—were elevated to the kind of celebrity status Tyson experienced?

    Kids are just starting to figure out who they are in their late teens and early twenties. For Tyson, that identity question had been answered for him. Put simply, he was “the baddest man on the planet.”

    And that identity suited him just fine…for a time.

    But when that was stripped away (first with his imprisonment and then with the Holyfield fights), it wasn’t just Tyson’s career that suffered, it was his identity. Suddenly, Tyson didn’t know who he was. And worse, he trusted no one, so he had no one to turn to for support.

    I think it’s telling that, in the documentary, he says the main thing he wanted in a wife was “protection.” He wanted to know that she would protect him. Mike Tyson, the heavyweight champion of the world and one of the most intimidating men who ever lived, wanted a woman to make him feel safe.

    And without getting into too much psychobabble, I think that speaks to a lot of unresolved issues from his childhood—not having family to support him, being bullied, feeling like he had to fight for his life (literally) on the streets of Brooklyn.

    And again, that doesn’t excuse the mistakes Tyson has made. But I just feel so much sadness for him. If Cus hadn’t died…if the other managers and promoters hadn’t used him and taken advantage of him…if there had been anyone in his life who truly cared about him enough…

    …who knows what kind of identity Mike Tyson could have embraced.

    Ultimately, I’d love to see Mike Tyson embrace his identity as a child of God. Like the rest of us, Mike Tyson needs Jesus. Except most of us have families and friends to support us—and that helps dull our need for a relationship with Christ. (Those relationships don’t fill that void, but they help.)

    But Mike Tyson’s unhappiness is on full display, and it breaks my heart. Because I think he’s convinced himself that he will always be standing alone. Just like he did when he entered the ring all those times—staring down anyone who dared to stand in the opponent’s corner.

    And I just wish I could tell him that it didn’t have to be that way.

    It doesn’t have to be that way.

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