The life and trials of Tyson profiled in 'Fallen Champ'

February 12, 1993|By Lee Winfrey | Lee Winfrey,Knight-Ridder News Service

We all have our ups and downs, a human reality that makes Mike Tyson an archetypal figure. Few of us will ever rise so high or fall so low.

At the age of 20, Tyson became the youngest heavyweight boxing champion of all time. At the age of 25, he was shipped off to prison for rape.

"Fallen Champ: The Untold Story of Mike Tyson," a two-hour documentary at 9 tonight on WMAR (Channel 2), is an accurate and admirable examination of Tyson's rise and fall. There is no host or narrator here, no actors, just a lot of people who knew him well, talking about what they saw him do or heard him say.

"Fallen Champ" is another praiseworthy piece by producer/director Barbara Kopple, who won Academy Awards for two previous documentaries, "Harlan County, U.S.A." (1977) and "American Dream" (1991).

But, despite the title, there is no untold story. Anyone who has followed newspaper coverage of Tyson is unlikely to be surprised by anythinghere.

The first face seen on "Fallen Champ" is that of Desiree Washington, whom Tyson was convicted of raping in Indianapolis on July 19, 1991. She looks steadily into the camera to tell Tyson why she brought charges against him:

"I didn't do this to take your career away. I did it because you need help. You hurt me, and I was big enough to stand up to you and tell you you need help."

From there, "Fallen Champ" backtracks into a chronological account of Tyson's life, beginning with his birth in Bedford-Stuyvesant and his boyhood in Brownsville, the two toughest sections of Brooklyn. A juvenile delinquent who snatched purses and mugged pedestrians, Tyson was sentenced to the Tryon School for Boys in upstate New York.

Tryon youth supervisor Bobby Stewart says here that the first time he saw Tyson, the lad was in handcuffs. Tyson asked Mr. Stewart, an ex-boxer, to teach him how to fight. After Tyson broke Mr. Stewart's nose in a sparring session, Mr. Stewart took him to Cus D'Amato, who had managed Floyd Patterson to the heavyweight championship and Jose Torres to the light-heavyweight title.

Mr. D'Amato schooled Tyson well, and the two became close. In old home movies, Mr. D'Amato says, "He's my boy," and Tyson says, "He's like my father." His real father left the family before Tyson was born.

Boxing fans will probably want to tape this documentary, if only because it includes 22 of Tyson's knockouts, dating to his amateur days, and vivid demonstrations of his phenomenal hand speed, relentless aggression and awesome power.

Tyson turned professional in 1985 at the age of 18, and Mr. D'Amato died eight months later at the age of 77. Soon Tyson became close to co-manager Jim Jacobs, another astute and honest man who steered him to the heavyweight title in 1986. But Jacobs died of leukemia in 1988 and Tyson was left to his own devices, prey to the machinations of dubious companions seeking to use him for their own ends.

Then came the chaotic marriage to actress Robin Givens in 1988-89 during which she told Barbara Walters on "20/20," "Mike is a manic-depressive. It's been torture, it's been pure hell, it's been worse than anything I could possibly imagine."

After their divorce, Tyson fell into the clutches of promoter Don King.

Tyson's crude treatment of women is soundly documented in "Fallen Champ." New York boxing commissioner Randy Gordon talks aboutwatching Tyson sit on the floor of his office signing autographs, running his hands up the legs of the women. "Some of them loved it," Mr. Gordon says. "Some of them pulled back. One of them even cracked him on the top of the head, took the autograph and ripped it up."

Newspaper reporter Arlene Schulman describes how Tyson grabbed her breast when she asked him for an interview. "I didn't know what to do," she says, "so I hit him."

All of Tyson's 91-second demolition of Michael Spinks in 1988 is shown on "Fallen Champ." Author Joyce Carol Oates and many other boxing experts think it represents Tyson at the peak of his powers. But he and Mr. King allowed his skills to deteriorate after that, culminating in the ignominious loss of his title to James "Buster" Douglas in 1990.

Then came the 1991 Miss Black American Pageant, in which Ms. Washington competed as Miss Rhode Island. She and Tyson are shown together here once: He watched her dance in a chorus line, and then gave her a hug.

Then he called her at night, told her he'd take her to some parties, and took her to his hotel room instead. The rape is explicitly described by journalist Sonja Steptoe, who bases her account on trial testimony.

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