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'Taking On Tyson' review: Mike Tyson takes a bite out of Animal Planet

I knew that Mike Tyson had been raising pigeons since he was young, but didn’t know, until I watched the premiere of Taking On Tyson on Sunday night, that Tyson raced them as well.

Actually, I’m still not entirely convinced Tyson races homing pigeons, at least when there aren’t any cameras around, for pure enjoyment. It looked as though the producers had taken Tyson’s affinity for the birds and then surrounded him with a team of professional pigeon racers, who coach the fighter in the rules and discipline of their subculture, all for the purpose of a TV series.

“Mike’s birds have never raced before,” said narrator Michael Kenneth Williams (Boardwalk Empire; immortal as Omar in The Wire). This Animal Planet series’ way of building suspense is to have Williams say intensely, “If they are released too early, they might not come back.”

Makes sense, right?

The fighter who served three years in prison for rape and took a firm nibble from Evander Holyfield’s ear has spent the past few years rehabilitating his public image. I don’t doubt that Tyson has long found comfort spending time alone on rooftops with his beloved birds, but I also think the show is just as much an effort to domesticate Tyson’s image in the same way his cameo in The Hangover was.

Actually, the weakest aspect of Taking On Tyson isn’t the boxer, who has always been a more complex, intriguing figure than his critics will allow. No, it’s the cast of self-consciously colorful pigeon trainers, who each behaves as though he’s auditioning for his own cable tv reality show, that get in the way of enjoying Tyson communing with the pigeons. For a portrait of the man as both a sensitive soul and competitive brute, you have to see director James Toback’s terrific 2008 documentary Tyson. Toback taps into Tyson’s psyche in a way Taking On Tyson never achieves. As a reality show about pigeon racing, Taking On isn’t terribly compelling, either. In short, it’s neither fish nor fowl.

Twitter: @kentucker

Originally posted March 7 2011 — 7:04 AM EST

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