Opinion: ‘Mike’ Helps Tyson Keep the Women He Abused in the Shadows

British boxer Tyson Fury says his cousin was fatally stabbed in England

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In the weeks leading up to the premiere of Mike, the new Hulu limited series based upon Mike Tyson’s life, the heavyweight boxing champion took to Instagram to express his displeasure. “They stole my life story and didn’t pay me,” he alleges in his post. Referring to Hulu as the “streaming version of the slave master,” the post captured more of Iron Mike’s frustrations via text. “Don’t let Hulu fool you,” he writes. “To Hulu executives, I'm just a n****r they can sell on the auction block.”

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It’s clear why he’s speaking out against this adaptation of his life story. In 2014, Tyson announced plans to collaborate on a biopic with Academy Award-winner Jamie Foxx, whom he had befriended in the late 1980s and was a bystander to the brawler’s decline from peak global celebrity; initially, Wolf of Wall Street screenwriter Terence Winter was attached to the project, with Martin Scorsese set to direct. Foxx shared details intermittently in the years that followed, along with photos of his physical transformation for the project.

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But it wasn’t until last year that reports finally confirmed that a limited series called Tyson, starring Foxx, directed by Antoine Fuqua, and executive produced by Tyson and Scorsese, was in active development. The momentum around Mike, starring Trevante Rhodes as Tyson at his peak, infringes upon the excitement Tyson and Foxx have worked to build around his latest redemption project.

It’s unlikely that Tyson has much of a case against a different adaptation of his life, however, thanks to the First Amendment. Moreover, he has repeatedly been able to share his own story at will across multiple media platforms, ranging from his best-selling autobiography, one-man show, and corresponding HBO special—all named Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth—to his podcast, Hotboxin’ with Mike Tyson. In fact, the one-man show serves as a template for the Hulu series, offering a loose framework for the show to jump in and out of different eras of the Brooklyn native’s life, from youth through adulthood.

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Despite offering a framework for the Hulu series to utilize,there are key differences between the two. In Tyson’s show, which aired in 2012, he dedicates just seven minutes to his eight-month marriage with actress Robin Givens. He spends them denigrating Givens (and her mother) with a colorful array of insults, from calling Givens a gold digger and mocking her hair to comparing Givensand Tyson’s ex-mother-in-law to a “pack of wild dogs from Africa.” This took place three years after Tyson’s infamous Oprah interview, where he conceded that he and Givens were physically violent toward each other. He suggested that strikes between one of the greatest heavyweight fighters in history and his five-foot-five actress wife are of mutual impact: “I have socked her before, and she socked me before, as well. It was just that kind of relationship." Givens has expressed feeling re-victimized every time Tyson invokes her name in this manner, stating that "he's not physically hitting me anymore, but it hurts almost as much."

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Paradoxically, Tyson is uninterested in protecting Givens’ rights to tell her own story. It took a cease-and-desist notice for his representatives to announce their lack of intent in focusing on Givens in Tyson’s upcoming biopic. This came after the boxer previously taunted Givens, in his one-man show and elsewhere, for what he assessed as a failed career after their split. He claimed that any mention of her would only benefit her, allowing her to leverage it in an attempt to capitalize off of him. While Tyson is steadfast about controlling his own life story, he has continued his efforts to control how the women who have publicly defied them are perceived in the media.

Similarly, former pageant queen Desiree Washington has not been spared the indignity of having her 1991 rape and subsequent pillorying by the media be continuously re-litigated by Tyson as a punitive retribution for the prizefighter’s years of unrepentant success, excess, and indulgence. The evidence—including his conviction, sentencing, and vast public support at the time—contradicts his vehement proclamations of prosecutorial bias. But Tyson is clearly fond of writing his own history.. Washington, meanwhile, has nowhere near Tyson’s level of fame or clout, leaving her, unable to push back against any public narrative Tyson crafts about his 1992 conviction for her rape.

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In the HBO special, Tyson references allegations that Washington had once falsely accused someone of rape, which his appeal lawyer, Alan Dershowitz (who would later go on to be part of Jeffrey Epstein’s defense team), was unable to admit as evidence due to Rape Shield Laws. This, he says, is enough to discredit her case against him. But there were no actual legal filings or police reports to corroborate these claims, beyond the sworn affidavit of Washington’s accuser: a white, male classmate. Tyson further suggests that his sentencing—six years in prison, plus four years of probation—is somehow proof positive of his lack of culpability: “What Black man you know got convicted of rape in the state of Indiana and only got three years?” That this ruling is standard for his crime is merely an inconvenient detail.

Tyson’s persecution complex didn’t evolve in a vacuum: He grew up neglected and exploited, bullied in his youth, spending years in and out of juvenile detention, and dropping out of high school. When he became a fighter, endless promoters and managers took advantage of him at his expense.

Mike attempts to retell this journey with pathos, digging into how it feels to be valued only as an object of brute force. This rests on Rhodes’ shoulders to get right. While he accomplishes an impressive physical transformation and vocal impersonation of Tyson's signature lisp, however, he fails to fully inhabit the spirit of a man so burdened by the weight of tragedy. In attempting to exemplify the emotional vacuum that molded Tyson into “Iron Mike,” Rhodes reduces his performance to little more than a high-quality pastiche act.

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The show expects you to empathize with Tyson, as he navigates his emotional immaturity. He is constantly seeking love—from his mother, from longtime coach and father figure Cus D’Amato, from the adoring fans, and, ultimately, women—with aimless hunger, doling out charm and venom with the force of his signature 1-2 jabs. But the focus reads as dispositive of his behavior with the women that he harmed, as if to say, yes, he was wrong, but it was almost inevitable, given the circumstances.

It doesn’t help that Laura Harrier, who portrays Robin Givens, struggles to encapsulate the gravitas that enveloped the actress, model, and activist in her younger years. Despite making it clear that Tyson equates love with possession—it’s how he always found his own value— Mike stops short of showcasing how devastating and traumatic their marriage was. (As Rhodes’ Tyson quips, “Y’all aren’t paying to see her show.”) We never see him strike Givens directly; that would be far too painful and honest for this series to reckon with. Even more, it would be far too shameful for the viewing public to reconcile Tyson’s abuses with their willing redemption of him—despite his failure to take responsibility for his actions with the women who have lived in fear of him.

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Women get the short end of the stick for the majority of Mike’s narrative. The fifth episode, which focuses on Desiree Washington (Li Eubanks), cedes narration duties to someone other than Tyson. But even as it works to redeem Washington in the eyes of a judgmental society, the framing falls short. Following the assault, an indignant Tyson breaks the fourth wall, looking into the camera and asking the audience, “You don’t love me no more?” The answer, of course, is that Tyson had robust support during his trial within the Black community, including from many Black women, who both testified on his behalf then and continue to victim-blame Washington. The $1 million bribe Washington alleged that she was offered to recant her charges, which the FBI investigated, was fully omitted.

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The episode does recreate a portion of Washington’s infamous interview with Barbara Walters, but only the moments in which she expresses pity for Tyson and a lack of desire to cash in on her trauma. This is the show’s way of offering her a quiet dignity and grace that is supposed to serve as a principled end to her journey. But it is a damning choice, as the most incendiary portions of the real interview are not about Washington’s reactions, but how the press and public alike mistreated her: Walters not only reads out malicious excerpts of a Washington Post survey about Washington, but she also offers up a searing critique of her actions. “Maybe it’s the age difference,” Walters sighs. “In a man’s room, with beds—what were you doing there at two o’clock in the morning?”

In truth, Washington was never shown grace, and if Mike is entering into a speculative exercise in proffering Washington a well-overdue voice, the only just narrative approach would be to capture the extent of her humiliation before the world.

It is a clever misdirect on Tyson’s part to make the conversation around Hulu’s miniseries about justice and intellectual property. Despite his repeated transgressions , Tyson has remained relatively inoculated from any fallout of the #MeToo movement. Both of the women he most famously abused have stepped aside from the spotlight or their associations with Tyson.

No story based on Tyson's life could be told without including Robin Givens and Desiree Washington, women whose experiences Tyson has continued to invalidate and reject through his many platforms. Considering the current cycles of discourse around mutual abuse and sexual violence, it proves even more important that Tyson’s level of denial over his culpability in his abuse of Black women and public complicity are accounted for. That accountability, however, should come with a proper assessment of the gap between the perception and the truth of the events in question.

Mike should be used as a corrective tool, an effort to streamline the narrative and the scope of the harm without demanding additional labor from either Givens or Washington. But so far, the show finds itself ill-prepared, if not outright unable, to do so. It seems that the life rights that are truly being stolen are not Tyson’s, but those of the women that he has deemed as disposable.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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