It might be hard for younger sports fans to believe, but in the 1980s Mike Tyson was arguably the most famous athlete in the world named Mike. It’s hard to believe in large part because Tyson was a boxer, the last practitioner of the sport to command the American cultural imagination as so many others had throughout the 20th century. In 2022, when most Americans would be hard-pressed to tell you who the current heavyweight champion of the world is, it’s safe to say we will probably never see another like Tyson again.
He’s now the subject of the new Hulu limited series “Mike,” which premiered on Aug. 25. The show was created by Steve Rogers, the screenwriter behind the 2017 Tonya Harding biopic “I, Tonya.” “Mike” unfolds in retrospect as Tyson (wonderfully portrayed by the “Moonlight” star Trevante Rhodes) tells his life story at a 2017 performance of his one-man show. In the flashback scenes, Tyson, ever the impishly unreliable narrator, frequently addresses the camera with winking asides. Like “I, Tonya,” “Mike” attempts a tricky balance of irreverent humor, social commentary and shocking violence — prompting a few jarring tonal shifts, particularly when it moves into Tyson’s alleged domestic abuse and his 1992 rape conviction. (Tyson himself has denounced the series.)
Boxing stories are such a timeworn genre that it’s a delicate balancing act to satisfy certain of the audience’s expectations while also veering from convention enough to avoid staleness. In “Mike,” we get Tyson’s upbringing in harrowing poverty and his youthful dalliances in petty crime. The latter lands him at the Tryon School for Boys, where he discovers boxing and comes under the wing of trainer Cus D’Amato (Harvey Keitel). From there Tyson’s ascent is meteoric: By the end of the show’s second episode, he has become the youngest heavyweight champion in history. The broad strokes of this “rise” are standard fare for boxing stories, and if it all sounds a bit rushed, that’s because the show is eager to get to the more salacious part of its story, namely its subject’s calamitous fall from grace. There’s Tyson’s marriage to Robin Givens and her abuse allegations, his 1990 upset at the hands of Buster Douglas, his rape conviction, his quixotic post-prison comeback that reached its nadir when he bit Evander Holyfield’s ear in 1997. (This last indignity serves as the series’s opening sequence, before we jump ahead to 2017 — like a too-cute fighter, “Mike” likes its feints.)
While interest in watching real boxing seems to have declined, movies about the sport keep drawing viewers in. Following its release in 2004, “Million Dollar Baby” grossed more than $200 million at the global box office and went on to win an Oscar for best picture. “The Fighter” (2010) topped $120 million and was nominated for seven Academy Awards; the “Rocky” spinoff “Creed” (2015) made more than $170 million, while its 2018 sequel surpassed even that.
The standard boxingpictures of classic Hollywood tended to be romantic paeans to a certain brand of masculinity: gutsy, industrious, almost always white. They were unambiguous stories of triumph or tragedy, and for all their idealized stoicism, they were often deeply sentimental. Tyson’s story is a limit case of the boxing narrative, from his spectacular climb to his equally spectacular collapse. “Mike” frames much of Tyson’s troubles in terms of his inability to maintain the focus of his youth, his disloyalty to his sport being the sin that precipitates his fall.
Two films have had an outsized impact on the way modern viewers have come to understand prizefighting. The first is “Rocky” (1976), which — along with its sequels, in which Rocky actually wins — laid the modern framework for the boxer as an action hero. Its oft-parodied training montages did essentially the same work as the boot-camp sequences in a war movie, and Sylvester Stallone used the franchise as a springboard to become one of the era’s most popular action stars. The second is Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” (1980). The ring sequences in “Raging Bull” are rightly legendary, the black-and-white cinematography alternating between frenetic immediacy and elegant slo-mo. But the boxing itself is ludicrous. The subtlety of the sport — which, as any expert will tell you, is nearly all of the sport — is erased. Almost every punch thrown is a devastating hook, cross or uppercut, and defense is all but nonexistent. It’s like watching a baseball flick in which every batter somehow hits a grand slam.
You don’t have to have seen much boxing to recognize that the boxing in “Raging Bull” doesn’t look like boxing, or even like actors pretending to box — it looks like something else, something purely cinematic. It is, visually, probably the most imitated depiction of pugilism ever produced: It’s hard to think of any made since that entirely sidesteps its influence. “Mike” certainly doesn’t. If anything, its frequent use of extreme slow motion and loving close-ups veer into ham-handed homage.
The aesthetically alluring boxing sequences in “Mike” seem to betray a larger ambivalence toward its subject’s reality. Boxing is a blood sport: Its unapologetic brutality often provokes a moral queasiness, and “Mike” is at its least sure-footed when confronting these broader ethical issues of violence. The third episode of “Mike” is devoted to Tyson’s relationship with Givens, who accused him of abuse in 1988. Despite the fact that Tyson has admitted to hitting Givens, the episode treats the accusations as a he-said-she-said affair, its lone depiction of domestic violence (which shows the boxer wrestling with Givens’s mother, Ruth) accompanied by a voice-over from Tyson stipulating that “this is what Robin and Ruth said happened.”
The show’s narrative frame needs Tyson to be at least a somewhat sympathetic figure, but it can’t resolve the contradiction that the same inclination to violence that makes parts of his life so repellent is the very reason we’re watching a show about him. And of course, making moral bargains over violence and its consequences isn’t some bygone practice for sports fans: Despite all we’ve come to know about traumatic brain injuries, the N.F.L. is more popular than ever. Boxing hasn’t declined in popularity simply because we’ve become more enlightened, even if it flatters us to think so. The series’s relationship to the intertwining of violence and sports spectacle ultimately feels as unsettled as our own.
Tyson was the first American boxing superstar to emerge after “Rocky” and “Raging Bull,” and in many ways he came closest to living up to the expectations of their mythmaking. The blindingly fast knockouts, the action-hero marketing (he was literally the final boss in a video game that bore his name), the physique that resembled a bodybuilder’s in ways that previous heavyweights’ mostly didn’t. He’s both an ideal subject for the way that Hollywood likes its stories about boxing — where struggles in life are neatly grafted onto struggles within the ring, triumphs and disgraces alike — and an ideal boxer for how Hollywood likes to show the sport. After all, if no one watches real boxing anymore, does it matter if the boxing we do watch is realistic? While flesh-and-blood boxers become more irrelevant in American culture, their stories are just tall tales that we love to tell ourselves.
Source photographs: Bob Thomas Sports Photography, via Getty Images; Neil Leifer/Sports Illustrated, via Getty Images; Library of Congress.