On February 11, 1990, the ground in Tokyo shook so violently that its reverberations—at least metaphorically—were felt in the small upstate town of Catskill, New York, some 6,650 miles away. It was early afternoon in the Tokyo Dome when boxer Mike Tyson, favored to win 42 to 1, was knocked out for the first time in his professional career. The undefeated heavyweight champion, with a 37-0 record, Tyson began his fall from grace at the hands of underdog James “Buster” Douglas, a talented fighter who had been branded as “lacking heart” in his career. Tyson went down at 1 minute, 23 seconds in the tenth round and did not get back up.
The sporting world, especially those watching in Catskill, the small town on the Hudson River where Tyson learned his trade, were shocked. The idea of “Iron Mike” being cut down in his world-beating prime by anyone, let alone a journeyman, was unfathomable; at the time, 29 of Tyson’s victories hadn’t even gone past the fifth round.
Buster laying out the “baddest man on the planet” remains one of the biggest upsets in not only boxing but also sports history. For fight fans of a certain age, the match has always provided a “do you remember where you were” moment—which I do. I was with a college buddy inside the Central Park Athletic Club, a sports-and-arts venue built back when downtown Milwaukee was a thriving enterprise. The ramshackle facility was known for its bar, which featured a big screen, an HBO subscription and a lax policy toward the sale of beer to Marquette University freshmen.
Given what a monumental night it was in my own memory, I was curious to see how the 42-1 bout would be handled in “Mike,” a new Hulu series dropping August 25. Beyond that, how could the show encompass the totality of the man—from the brutal force of nature that was “Kid Dynamite” inside the ring to his violent, chaotic life outside of it? Throughout the nearly four decades of Tyson’s presence in the public sphere, he has been alternatively an athletic superstar, a video game legend, a tabloid stalwart, a convicted rapist, a C-list celebrity, a Broadway actor, a marijuana entrepreneur and much more. Can one limited series possibly capture all of that?
What is “Mike” based on?
“Mike” is the brainchild of creator-director Steven Rogers, showrunner-writer Karin Gist and the rest of the team behind I, Tonya (another dramatization of a notorious ’90s athlete, figure skater Tonya Harding). The limited eight-episode production—the first five installments of which were made available to the media—does not include the participation of the real-life Tyson. Suffice to say, he is none too happy about the project. He’s been railing against “Mike” for weeks, claiming on Instagram, “They stole my life story and didn’t pay me.”
Rogers and Gist have made it clear that their show is an “unauthorized” look at Tyson’s life, culled from countless articles, interviews, media appearances, documentaries, podcasts, videos, cartoons and reality shows. (Tyson’s outrage may have something to do with Hulu getting the jump on the Jamie Foxx–led biopic he’s involved in.)
Tyson’s beatdown by Douglas arrives at the series’ mid-point, a strong parallel to Tyson’s life, as the knockout divided his unbeatable era and his infamous post-Tokyo boxing career.
The creative team behind “Mike” doesn’t really aim for verisimilitude when it comes to Tyson’s skills and abilities as a fighter. Known as the young, primal destroyer of worlds, he went from an unknown who knocked out 19-year-old Hector Mercedes (a Puerto Rican fighter with an 0-3 record), his first professional opponent, in March 1985 to the Sports Illustrated coverboy in January 1986. That November, Tyson became the youngest heavyweight champion in history, with a second-round technical knockout over World Boxing Council titleholder Trevor Berbick that brought his undefeated record to 28-0. These were the days when Tyson routinely dismantled his opponents with an efficient brutality you couldn’t look away from. If you did, the fight might be over, like in the infamous “30-second execution” of Marvis Frazier, son of the all-time great Smokin’ Joe Frazier.
“Mike told me the Berbick fight was the best he ever was, and that is when he was absolutely at the peak of his powers. His hands were quick and even though he liked to wade in, he was hard to hit,” says Tim Layden, an NBC Sports writer-at-large who, as a young reporter, covered Tyson from 1985 to ’88 for the Albany Times Union, one of the local papers in the Catskills region, where trainer Cus D’Amato took a wayward kid under his wing and taught him how to box.
Layden also spent 25 years at Sports Illustrated, where he wrote a 2015 essay looking back at the whirlwind and tumult of those early Tyson years.
“In the 1980s, boxing was starting to go out of fashion, not like today, but it was waning and Mike showed up and breathed a lot of life into the sport,” says Layden. “There is a quote in the SI story from a boxing analyst of that era basically saying Mike wasn’t a great technician but his power and speed were so incredible, you didn’t want to miss it. Those were fun times.”
Instead of presenting a chronological telling of his life, “Mike” has its titular star, Trevante Rhodes of Moonlight fame, relay his story in a loose, jokey fictional one-man stage show, as the real-life Tyson did in his Spike Lee–directed Broadway monologue, Undisputed Truth.
“Mike Tyson has been an open book now for 30 years, but in those mid-80s days, he was never jokey or ironic. Some days he would be in a pissy mood and ignore you, and there could be an air of menace to it,” says Layden. “I wasted more than one trip to Las Vegas, but when he wanted to really sit down and talk, usually about the boxing history he reveres so much, we would have engaging intellectual discussions. … When I was covering him, my wife and I started our family, and Mike would ask after my kids. I’ve been doing this a long time, and that never happens.”
The boxing scenes in “Mike” are highly stylized, as if the people behind “Mike” recognized they couldn’t possibly fully convey Tyson’s ferocity in the ring. Fans would be better served spending days watching YouTube clips of the actual Tyson. The bloody mouthpieces flying across the screen are more akin to a John Woo film than Million Dollar Baby. For example, viewers are thrust into the Douglas bout after a hard jumpcut from Tyson in a hotel suite, surrounded by naked women, partying in Tokyo instead of training. The champion holds a glass of liquor while wearing a tiger-striped robe—the same playboy outfit he dons when he’s felled by Douglas’ knockout blows. This isn’t the pseudo-realism of the original Rocky or Creed, or the recreated chaos of Raging Bull.
Mike Tyson’s early years
Tyson’s childhood was undoubtedly scarring, even as the series keeps the most brutal realities of the boxer’s early life at bay. His violent Brooklyn upbringing, systemic poverty, no father to speak of, the rejection of his mother and his juvenile life of crime are depicted in “Mike,” but not to the extent of what came out in a revealing 1988 Sports Illustrated profile published a month into Tyson’s volatile public marriage to actress Robin Givens. Reported by Gary Smith, a Hall-of-Fame level sportswriter, the article describes the young Tyson watching as grown men placed a noose around his friend’s neck and threw him off the side of a building. Tyson was about to die just like his friend for the crime of stealing pigeons, the birds he’s always loved as a source of serenity in constant chaos, but was saved by a neighbor’s screams.
By the age of 12, Tyson was already a seasoned criminal, robbing whatever, whenever and whomever he could. He ended up in the Tryon School for Boys, a juvenile reform school in rural Johnstown, New York, where he soon learned his fists of fury could be put to better use. A boxing coach at Tryon steered Tyson to D’Amato, an aging trainer who had taken Floyd Patterson and Jose Torres to world titles. D’Amato would soon emerge as a literal father figure to Tyson, becoming the 16-year-old’s legal guardian and officially adopting him after Tyson’s mother died of cancer in 1982. D’Amato died three years later, at 77, when the 18-year-old heavyweight sported an 11-0 record.
Tyson was naturally devastated by D’Amato’s death. But over the years, their relationship became something of a sports culture fable, always undergirded by the “what if?” question of whether Tyson’s life would have unraveled in such spectacular fashion if his mentor had stuck around another decade. In “Mike,” D’Amato is inhabited by acting legend Harvey Keitel. Called “a crazy white dude” in the memoir version of Tyson’s Undisputed Truth, D’Amato utilized techniques like taking the future champ to a Manhattan hypnotherapist who read the boxing lifer’s exhortations that “this is what you were actually born to do.” The show has a lot of fun with D’Amato’s eccentricities, but it also accepts the conventional narrative wisdom that good ole’ Cus adopted and trained his son primarily out of altruism.
In Smith’s 1988 magazine profile, Teddy Atlas, a renowned trainer who was helping D’Amato bring Tyson along, summed up their relationship by saying, “We had him in a time capsule up there in Catskill, we stacked the deck for him to become a champion without any outside influences. But I thought there were compromises being made as far as his guidance as a human being. Put up a house too fast, it can come back to haunt you when a strong wind comes along.”
Unseen in the show is a 1982 incident in which Atlas put a gun to Tyson’s head after the teenage boxer did something untoward to Atlas’ 12-year-old sister-in-law, as David Remnick later reported for the New Yorker. The details remain murky on what exactly happened with the young girl, but Tyson admitted to inappropriate behavior.
D’Amato wasn’t a secular saint. He was a boxing trainer, one who saved Tyson from a life in prison or a death on the streets, but also one who knew he needed to ride his protege’s broad shoulders to get back to the top. D’Amato fired Atlas shortly after the ugly event.
The irony is that by eschewing some of the sordid details and having Tyson narrate his life story from his point of view as he sees fit—including his dubious assertion that Givens faked a miscarriage—”Mike” come across as telling the same generally accurate story as the one the living, breathing Tyson has been sharing for years. Under different circumstances, it’s easy to imagine him signing off on the colorfully rogue Rhodes portrayal, at least for the first four episodes The fifth episode, “Desiree,” tells a very different story than the one Tyson wants you to hear.
The Desiree Washington rape case
On February 10, 1992, an Indianapolis jury of eight men and two women found Tyson guilty of raping 18-year-old Desiree Washington, an honors student from Rhode Island whom he’d met while she was competing in the Miss Black America beauty pageant the previous July. Tyson was sentenced to six years in prison. He was paroled after serving three years in the Indiana Youth Center prison.
Ever since then, Tyson has claimed he didn’t rape Washington, stating in his book, “She knows it, God knows it, and the consequences of her actions are something that she’s got to live with for the rest of her life.” In both versions of Undisputed Truth, as well as other public forums, he’s gone beyond simply professing his innocence to taking cheap potshots at his victim, getting public applause for questioning her motives and intimating she’s a “gold digger” who knew what she was getting into, just like his defense team did in 1992. As recently as a 2021 FightHype interview, he crassly said, “I’m not above violating a woman, but I didn’t violate that woman.” The clip has 106,000 views.
The facts of the case don’t change. Tyson was convicted of rape, which is uncommon in itself. According to Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) statistics, only 28 cases out of every 1,000 sexual assaults ends in a felony conviction, and only 25 of these perpetrators end up behind bars. In 2003, USA Today researchers found that out of of 168 sexual assault allegations against 164 athletes from 1991 to 2003, only 22 went to trial. Six resulted in convictions—a lower rate than recorded in the general population.
The “Desiree” episode does not include Tyson’s proclamations of innocence. In fact, it doesn’t feature his narration much at all. Instead, Washington (played by Li Eubanks) tells her story with voiceover lifted from courtroom transcripts and her lone media appearance, a 1992 interview with Barbara Walters. The onscreen physical violence is kept to a minimum, but the filmmakers don’t mince words about what happened in that hotel room. The fresh-out-of-high-school Washington looks straight into the camera and describes, in graphic detail, her rape at the hands of Tyson, slowly repeating what he kept telling her: “Don’t fight me. Don’t fight me.”
“It is somewhat remarkable that they didn’t shy away from the rape or allow Tyson his version of events,” says Jessica Luther, an investigative journalist who has written extensively on the intersection of sports and gendered violence and is the author of Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape. “‘Mike’ is showing a very popular celebrity athlete as the villain in a real-life case. That does feel different and, I think, makes everything around that feel novel, but I’m still conflicted about [the episode].”
Luther’s difficulty with the dramatization stems from the fact that Washington hasn’t spoken on the topic in decades and had no involvement in the episode. In 1992, Washington told Walters their interview would be her “only time addressing society.” In March 1995, after Tyson was released from prison and began training for his $25-million comeback fight—a pummeling of sacrificial “tomato can” Peter McNeeley—Los Angeles Times reporter Mitch Gelman spoke to a number of people in Washington’s orbit. The portrayal of her post-rape life was dismal. She was on track to graduate with a psychology degree from Providence College that May, but everything else was in turmoil. Her parents divorced, her family splintered, she lost friends and she had to leave her idyllic home with a swimming pool for a cramped apartment she shared with her mother.
Of the Coventry High School girl voted the friendliest and most talkative in her senior class, the one whose stated ambition was to be the first Black female president, her attorney, Michael Weisman, told Gelman, “For nearly four years she has attempted to pick up the pieces of her life and move on. This has not been easy to do. The trauma of the rape has had a profound and lasting impact on her life.”
In the summer of 1995, Washington settled a civil lawsuit with Tyson for an undisclosed amount, but she has never profited off her story in any way. By all accounts, Washington has lived up to her promise to Walters and has not been heard from since. One of the final things she said during the interview was the reason she put herself through the public hell of a trial was to protect other women. Had Tyson apologized and sought the help he needed, she wouldn’t have. The 108-pound Washington declared, “You hurt me and I was big enough to stand up to you.”
“The Desiree Washington episode is the best version of this retelling that exists, but it can't help but fall into the trap of only caring about Desiree Washington because Tyson raped her. Or perhaps, the trap of having Washington’s story begin in the run-up to being raped by Tyson and end with her interview post-conviction,” says Luther, who is also a co-host of “Burn It All Down,” a weekly feminist sports podcast. “She’s flattened into this single moment in her life. Obviously a huge one, one I imagine had long-term effects on her life, but it’s certainly not the beginning and end of who she was and who she is. We don’t know anything about her life, so each time we retell Tyson’s story, no matter how well it’s done, it participates in this flattening of her. I’'m not sure there’s any way not to, but it should be a consideration in determining whether telling his story is worth it then.”
From a strict television standpoint, “Desiree” provides a revelatory corrective to Tyson’s vengeful harrangues, but it is a jarring half hour. There is a moment where Tyson sneers at the viewer and asks, “You don’t love me no more?” What unfolds in the show’s final three episodes will play a role in any evaluation of what the Washington case means to the Tyson legacy, particularly if “Mike” indulges in his 30-year innocence rant, to say nothing of how the real-life Tyson responds to the portrayal.
After his release from prison, Tyson continued his downfall. In 1997, in a rematch with the reigning heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield, Tyson chomped down on his opponent’s ear and spit it out in the ring. The infamous moment is facetiously teased in the first scenes of “Mike,” foreshadowing that a later episode not released to the media will address it. Tyson, for his part, said in Undisputed Truth that Holyfield was fighting dirty and just got what he had coming to him.
As with so many moments throughout Tyson’s life, what happened—and who gets to tell their version of what happened—forever remains in dispute.