In a shocking breach of network tradition, Fallen Champ: The Untold Story of Mike Tyson (is something rare indeed: a two-hour documentary on a commercial network that approaches its subject with intelligent curiosity, not exploitive cynicism.
Fallen Champ is organized around the central question of Mike Tyson’s life: How, wonders director Barbara Kopple, could the heavyweight-champion boxer, a gifted athlete by any measure, end up wasting the best years of his career in jail, convicted of rape last year at the age of 25? Kopple is an intriguing person to do such wondering. The Academy Award-winning director of 1991’s American Dream, a documentary about the Hormel meat company’s labor strike, she’s no jaded sports journalist or tabloid-headline chaser. Her earlier work has demonstrated an understanding of the difficulties of working-class lives pushed into extreme situations, which helps a lot when you’re tackling a subject as rough-and-tumble as Tyson.
Fallen Champ tells Tyson’s story at a brisk chronological pace; Kopple didn’t interview Tyson, but she has filmed scores of conversations with people surrounding the fighter through every period of his life and has assembled a remarkable amount of rarely seen footage — old training films, home movies, various media interviews with Tyson.
Kopple’s taped chats with the boxer’s boyhood friends in Brooklyn reveal that as a kid growing up strong and poor, Tyson ran with pals who mugged and robbed people. ”It was so exciting!” says Tyson in a startlingly cheerful, frank film clip. A chorus of voices testifies to Tyson’s weaknesses and complex-ities. ”He was cocky and shy at the same time,” says Ernestine Coleman, Tyson’s caseworker after his lawbreaking landed him in New York’s Tryon School for Boys. ”He’s easily misled,” says one of his first boxing trainers, Teddy Atlas. ”He needs love. He needs confidence.”
By all accounts, the turning point in Tyson’s life was his relationship with his first manager, veteran fight trainer Cus D’Amato, who became a father figure to Tyson. D’Amato groomed his young charge for boxing stardom and kept him in line, and when D’Amato died in 1985, the structure and hope in Tyson’s life seemed to die as well. This once idealistic athlete is shown in a 1988 interview muttering, ”People basically suck — they’re always trying to screw you.”
Champ details the way Tyson’s life fell apart even as he achieved his greatest professional success: his brief, troubled marriage to actress Robin Givens; the vicious battle between Givens and promoter Don King to oversee Tyson’s career; his increasingly contemptuous attitude toward women. Champ captures both the art and savagery of boxing; whether you love or hate this sport, you’ll be drawn into it here.
Kopple gives Tyson credit for his talent and skill as a boxer and provides a context for the violence in his life, but she doesn’t cut him any slack for his rape of beauty contestant Desiree Washington in Indianapolis in 1991. The director also provides the pop-cultural framework for Tyson’s conviction and the six-year sentence he’s now serving, including a chilling clip from a rally in support of Tyson in which Louis Farrakhan defends the boxer by hectoring the women in his audience. ”How many times, sisters,” he shouts, ”have you said ‘No’ and you meant ‘Yes’?”
NBC, so unused to presenting material of this kind and doubtless petrified that viewers seeing the word documentary will assume impending boredom, refers to Fallen Champ as a ”reality film.” Let’s hope the Nielsen ratings for this reality film are high enough to bring more such original, independent work to the network again, and soon. A