Tyson: The documentary

As a film about the notorious former world heavyweight champion is released in Britain, Kaleem Aftab explains why pugilism always packs such a punch on the big screen

When Mike Tyson was approached by the director James Toback about doing a documentary on his life and times, the former heavyweight champion of the world joked, "I was expecting that with any film about my life would only ever end up being sold on street corners."

Tyson may long ago have lost the ability to live up to his self-acclaimed tag as "the baddest man on the planet", but he has seemingly found wit to replace his left hook. Tyson has previously put in two brief appearances as himself in fictional films directed by Toback: a hilarious cameo opposite Robert Downey Jr in hip-hop movie Black and White and a turn in 2004's When Will I Be Loved. Tyson, as he makes known in the documentary, is a boxing historian and he'd know full well that boxing films have made an impact on cinema like no other sport.

The sexagenarian director intermingles archives of fight footage and old interviews with a series of new in-depth interviews in which Tyson talks straight to camera, as if he were sitting on a psychoanalyst's couch. Split screens and overlaid sound are used effectively to make it seem as if Tyson speaks in long rambling monologues, when the truth is that his answers are usually over as quickly as his early fights.

In making a documentary that concentrates so closely on one man, Toback pays homage to Japanese director Hiroshi Teshigahara's brilliant left-right couplet of films about the Puerto Rican light heavyweight champion José Torres. Teshigahara's made his first short film about Torres in 1959, which features the late boxing trainer Constantine "Cus" D'Amato, who trained the young Mike Tyson, and has a brilliant score by the Japanese modernist composer Toru Takemitsu. When Tyson talks in the new documentary about his old manager who taught him how to fight, he visibly holds back the tears. He describes how, at first, he "didn't trust Cus D'Amato", and his reaction to his death: "I lost that belief in myself."

What Toback is brilliant at is getting into the mind of the boxer. He gets Tyson talking about sex – "I love saying no all the time; what I want is extreme" – as well as making the revelation that when he fought Trevor Berbick he suffered more from gonorrhoea than the boxing bout. When he talks about Don King he spouts, "I loved leeches". He is also at his most lucid since converting to Islam.

The result is a documentary that once again highlights that, of all sports, boxing is the one that cinema has been most successful in recording, whether in documentaries, such as When We Were Kings, or feature films such as Raging Bull.

Boxing is the only sport that is visually enhanced by the unique angles used by cinematographers. The main difference between watching fighters on television rather than at the ringside is that the sound of each blow is dulled by the commentators, the rate that punches are thrown often means that it's not until the slow-motion replay that the full power and impact of a shot can be appreciated, and even then it rarely gives a clear view of the shot. When fights are recreated for the big screen, directors are able to manipulate the close-up and reaction shot so that audiences experience the true speed of the delivery and wince at every punch.

Boxing and cinema is a match made in heaven because the story of most championship boxers and that of many classic Hollywood tales is identical. A working-class hero, puts his life on the line in an effort to beat great odds to achieve his goal. Each moment could possibly lead to the protagonist's fall. Charlie Chaplin often took advantage of this narrative, starting with The Knockout, and taken another round in The Champion and reaching an apex in City Lights.

Whereas with football the question that most often arises is whether there has ever been a good movie about the beautiful game, in contrast boxing movie fans have such a great choice of options. Tyson reveals that he and Toback have disagreed about the matter. The former champ says: "I like Gentleman Jim starring Errol Flynn. Raging Bull is a good film, but James thinks it's shit." Toback counters, "I think Fat City is a great boxing film. Raging Bull is so overpraised."

John Huston's 1972 film Fat City, based on Leonard Gardner's novel, is the tale of two boxers, one whose career has finished while the other is on the way up. Huston, better known for his classics such as The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, was a former professional boxer and brings this knowledge to the film.

Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull, which depicts the demise of Jake LaMotta, is often described as one of the greatest movies ever made. It features the famous "I could have been a contender" speech, which the author and scriptwriter Budd Schulberg originally penned for On the Waterfront. Indeed Schulberg, the first non-boxer to be incorporated into the boxing hall of fame, is still rankled by the amount that he was paid for the use of his prose in Raging Bull, saying, "When they called me about it they said that Jake had used the prose in a stand-up routine. They sent me $100 for it to be in the film and I didn't think anything of it. But when I saw the film, it was the thematic climax of the picture, and when I saw that I frankly felt a little bit abused, I really did."

The link between sportswriters, boxing and unscrupulous individuals is also a feature of Humphrey Bogart's last performance, written by Schulberg. In The Harder They Fall, Bogart plays the journalist Eddie Willis who works with a fight promoter, Nick Benko (Rod Steiger), to fix fights. Cinematographer Burnett Guffey was nominated for an Oscar for his expressionistic shots that put the audience into the ring. However, it's Nick Benko who explains the real reason why boxing and cinema are perfect for each other: "The fight game today is like show business. There's no real fighters anymore, they're all actors. The best showman becomes the champ."

Good boxing isn't necessarily a guarantee of a good film. Michael Mann's biggest misstep was Ali, and Ron Howard's Cinderella Man is best forgotten. However, Toback is on to a winner because he shows that, while Tyson might no longer be a champ, he is still a master showman.

'Tyson' is out now

Hard hitting: The best boxing films

When We Were Kings (1996)

The Rumble in the Jungle was the source for one of the great books on boxing, Norman Mailer's 'The Fight', and 20 years later came the Leon Gast documentary that re-lived the occasion. The footage shows Muhammad Ali in his prime.

Rocky (1976)

The terrible sequels and the fact that this Oscar-winning tale turned Sylvester Stallone into a global superstar are still not reason enough to forget that Rocky is the perfect Hollywood tale.

Raging Bull (1980)

James Toback is usually a good judge but his dismissal of the Scorsese classic shows that the director is punch drunk. The fraternal rivalry and acting of Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci alone make this film worthy of all its plaudits.

Gentleman Jim (1942)

Errol Flynn is excellent in this film, based on a true story, about how James J Corbett benefited from the advent of the Queensberry Rules to become one of the first heavyweight champions of the world.

The Set-Up (1949)

Robert Ryan stars as a washed-up boxer backed by his own team to lose. Based on a poem, it contains classic film noir imagery and a fight shown almost in real-time.

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