Mike Tyson on Facing His Dark Past for Documentary 'Champs'

Mike Tyson
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"You should have saw his face when he saw me."

The boxer and Hangover actor, recalling Brad Pitt's reaction when the heavyweight champion caught the young actor in bed with his then-wife Robin Givens while the couple was getting divorced during the late 1980s.

"I'm still struggling, but right now, I'm kicking life's ass," the former heavyweight champion tells THR

Boxing legend and pop culture lightning rod Mike Tyson has been on the ropes — figuratively and literally — so many times, he's stopped counting. Once the richest and most famous athlete in the world, the ex-heavyweight champion was convicted of rape in 1992 and spent six years in prison. Once a multimillionaire, in 2003 he filed for bankruptcy.

But over the past decade, Iron Mike has staged an astounding comeback, launching a second career as an actor with the critically acclaimed one-man Broadway show Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth; a New York Times best-selling autobiography and walk-on roles in the Hangover movies. He even has his own cartoon, the Scooby Doo-style animated series Mike Tyson Mysteries, which premiered on Adult Swim last month.

The next round in Tyson's "only in America" career is as a film producer. He got his first feature production credit on Champs, a boxing documentary from director Bert Marcus (How to Make Money Selling Drugs). The film, which Tyson was promoting at the American Film Market this week, looks at the lives and careers of three world champs: Tyson, Evander Holyfield and Bernard Hopkins.

How does the version of Mike Tyson we know from comedies like The Hangover compare to the Mike Tyson we see in this film?

It's overtly different. This isn't Mike Tyson, the good-natured guy. In Champs it gets pretty dark. It's about someone being vulnerable and naked, and a lot of stuff is pretty embarrassing. I squandered all my wealth. But I lived a life like you could never believe.

But I don't want to be biased. I think Bert did a great job on this film. Bernard Hopkins has a very interesting story. I didn't get him before, maybe because I come from former low self-esteem. But I'm objective and looking at this person's story. Bernard Hopkins is an amazing individual. I realize why he has all this confidence and a form of superciliousness about him because he's been through a lot. He accomplished a lot. Being the prison boxing champion. You know what sort of street cred that is to be the champion of all the prisons? You know how many bad asses there are in those prisons? And then he took that and parlayed it into becoming world champion and became the record breaker in title defenses.

He broke the legendary Carlos Monzon's record [of 14 title defenses], which is almost unfathomable, and then came back and continued to fight and at 49 is fighting these young kids. What he has accomplished with just determination and great will power and intentional fortitude is amazing. I found that even more interesting than my story. He's really a hell of a man.

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You three are very different — different boxers and different men. Is there something that unites you, unites all boxers or all champions?

Yeah, overcoming adversity. Overcoming insurmountable odds. If someone had a big betting book and they were to bet on these three guys succeeding in life, forget about being famous and succeeding in their various fields, but just in life. Would they make it to a certain age, would they die in prison or of a drug overdose or street violence? Just beating those odds for us was almost a billion to one. With the three of us, there is nothing that would surprise us. We all come from that dark world, and we all saw that glimmer of light, and we focused on that. And we landed on the moon. That's very rare. Stories like ours don't end like this. That all three of us are very healthy, articulate — that's amazing.

Did you learn anything about yourself in the making of this movie?

That's interesting that you say that. I'm the kind of guy, innately, I'm a fighter. Even when I feel like giving up, I just fight. This is so weird about me. When I was going through bad times, if people would have told me 'Mike, you're a great guy,' I would have given up. But just that fact that they assailed me: 'Mike, you bastard, you raper, you this, you that' I fought back. To show them. And that's why I'm here talking to you now.

You also helped produce this film. How was that?

I followed Bert's lead. I went out of my way making the phone calls, with people I'd never seen in my life. To start demanding stuff, selling stuff to people. I've never had to sell anything to people, verbally. That was pretty new. But I feel comfortable being uncomfortable.

There are a lot of uncomfortable things about your life on display in this documentary.

Yeah, I never actually spoke before about how I got engaged in bankruptcy and what happened. It shows how I lived my life, buying planes and boats and buying houses all over the country that I didn't need and was never at. And a hundred lawsuits simultaneously. Being overcharged, being taken advantage of by agents or managers or promoters. These are things that a lot of people are ashamed of, but that's who we are as human beings.

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What do you think is the main thing that people misunderstand about you that comes through in this film?

It really comes down to what they want to get out of this. If people can see me as just a human being — he's no better than them, a guy who was this young kid who had nothing, started from sub zero and accomplished so much from hard working. We live in an era now where there's entitlement, my kids as well. They feel they don't have to work hard. My whole young life was about suffering for my success. I wasn't going to get it unless I suffered for it. I just wanted it more than anyone else. I wasn't the biggest guy, I wasn't probably the fastest or have all the experience, but my desire to want it. I really wanted to win, to have that status of heavyweight champion of the world. My trainer, Cus D'Amato, made me believe that being heavyweight champion of the world, all my problems would go away. And I had a lot of problems.

This film traces the highs and lows of your life. Where are you now personally?

I'm still struggling on a day-to-day basis. Right now, I'm kicking life's ass. If I was to die this moment, I would think I was truly blessed. I was overpaid. I really did a job on life. Now I'm reaching another climax to my life. I was the scary guy; now everyone thinks I'm an actor. I went to this school, and I'm talking to these kids, and the teacher had to show them pictures of me fighting, 'cause none of them knew I was a fighter!

Twitter: @sroxborough