“Mark Twain said boxing is the only sport where a slave, if he's successful, can rub shoulders with royalty,” says former heavyweight Mike Tyson, who once knocked out 19 opponents in a row. “Can you imagine that? Just by fighting another human being, he can meet a king, a prince, a queen, eat at the same table with them, be invited to the castle.” Or in modern times, make $30 million in one fight, build your own castle, stock it with tigers, and still wake up every morning the pawn of powerful men who make money off your sweat.
When Tyson was a fighter, he studied tapes of old brawls to learn what made men win or fail. He was an encyclopedia of the past. After retirement, after the bankruptcies and prison sentence, after the public shame, he widened his interest to learn about the history of fighting, going all the way back to the gladiators. He wanted to figure out what had happened to him.
Tyson spotted a pattern.
“Since the beginning of time, it was the lowest sport in the history of entertainment, and it always made the most money,” says Tyson. “But the participants were worse when they finished than when they started. Only difference is now people know their names.” And these fighters were men like him: people with few options and little education, be they war captives in 65 B.C., African slaves in 1795, Irish immigrants in 1893, or a battered 9-year-old boy in '70s Brooklyn, forced to rob houses to buy clothes.
“Extraordinary fighters come from the financial quagmire of poverty,” explains Tyson. “We're the bottom of the barrel in society.” No wonder that when they do earn cash, they have no idea what to do with it except prove, sports car by sports car, how far they've come.
Meanwhile, boxers often trust the wrong advisers and ask the wrong financial questions, not even knowing what the right questions are. “A lot of skulduggery is happening on the part of the managers, the promoters — these people are taking advantage of fighters with impunity,” says Tyson, who himself sued Don King for $100 million. (The case was settled out of court for $14 million.) When a boxer's body weakens, he fights cheaper and more humiliating fights until he's forced to retire, often alone and broke. “It's almost like selling flesh, real flesh,” says Tyson. “If he dies, they get another one.”
He sighs. “I didn't understand me 15 years ago. I got old too soon and smart too late.”
Tyson told his personal story in the James Toback doc Tyson. It felt good to get real after years of bluster, “like confession.” Now, he wants to tell this bigger history of boxing in his own documentary, Champs, opening March 13 in theaters, on demand and on iTunes. Bert Marcus directs, but Tyson was an active producer. “It's not like a vanity piece where I use my name,” insists Tyson. “I wanted to have the chance to be behind the camera.”
His first job was to persuade two other boxers to share their lives: Bernard Hopkins, a former prison boxer and middleweight champion who sees penitentiaries as another business built on struggling men, and even Olympian straight-arrow Evander Holyfield, who lost a chunk of his ear to Tyson, and his fortune after retirement. “I knew I wasn't the only one who felt that way,” says Tyson, who asked his old rivals to be honest about their pasts. “You have to be man enough to get emotionally naked.”
Besides, there's no shame in going broke. “John D. Rockefeller almost went bankrupt!” says Tyson. “In 1913. That's when taxes were invented and the robber barons just fell to oblivion because they didn't have the art of handling money and tax shelters and the didactical way of doing things.” But eventually, you have to wise up.
Tyson has been trying to warn younger boxers not to repeat his mistakes. (“I don't know if they listen, but they hear me.”) He wants Champs to educate the fans. Even more, he wants Champs to start a conversation about reforming the boxing industry, which, unlike the NFL, NHL, MLB and NBA, lacks federal guidelines. Regulated state by state, the sport offers fighters scant protection: There's no minimum salary and no mandatory physicals. Though 90 percent of boxers suffer brain injuries, they're only asked to take an MRI once, at the very start of their career. Yet baseball players, who take far fewer hits to the head, get a neurophysical test every year.
Champs argues that boxers, as scary as they seem, demand more of our empathy than other athletes who have a team, a league and a support structure. While they're active, boxers don't even have each other — why make friends you have to fight? “Boxing is a very lonely sport,” says Tyson. He doesn't watch his old fights. Today, he voices his hit Adult Swim cartoon Mike Tyson Mysteries, an even sillier Scooby-Doo where he solves crimes with a sassy pigeon. (His kids aren't fans. “They think I curse too much.”)
More often, he reads. “I may read about Caligula, I may read about Moses, I may read about the history of African Americans in America, I may read about the history of New York,” says Tyson in a gush. “I'm just a history-buff-time guy more than anything.
“During the height of the gladiators, they were celebrities as well. The nobility thought the gladiators were barbarians. But they weren't barbarians, they were just people with their own culture,” exclaims Tyson. “Listen, this is what I've learned in life. The nightmares of thousands of generations live on the heads of the living now. Everything is from the past. The fighters are from the past. All our beefs is from the past. We can never let the past die.”