Depending on your age and perspective, Mike Tyson is a monster, a has-been, a criminal, a rags-to-riches story of redemption, or the greatest boxer of all time. In truth, Tyson is all those things and more, which Hulu’s eight episode limited series Mike powerfully and sometimes painfully demonstrates.
Created by I, Tonya screenwriter Steven Rogers, the program also manages to examine a wide range of social issues through the lens of a man who once said of an opponent, “I want to eat his children.” It’s a bit unusual to frame social commentary through such a controversial figure, but nothing about Tyson’s life has ever been usual.
Mike, which is unauthorized by Tyson, is essentially a dramatized version of the boxer’s life as told by the man himself during the 2013 Spike Lee produced HBO special, Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth. Just like his long-running one-man show, Tyson (Trevante Rhodes) is shown on stage laying out his life for all to see, warts and all, as he looks back through his roller coaster existence in a series of flashbacks. It all begins in 1974, when Tyson is eight years old.
To say Tyson had a rough childhood would be a gross understatement. Born and raised in the tumultuous Brooklyn, New York neighborhood of Brownsville, in hindsight it’s a miracle Tyson wasn’t murdered or jailed for life. With no father figure around (to this day Tyson still isn’t sure who his dad is) he was raised by a single mother struggling with three children. His family moved from one abandoned apartment to another when his mother wasn’t shacking up with abusive boyfriends.
Tyson started stealing at age eight, dropped out of school in second grade, and began breaking into houses at 10. He was arrested 38 times by age 12. As a kid, Tyson felt like he never had any control over his life, so he gained it the only way he knew how: by taking it from somebody else.
When we see legendary trainer Cus D’Amato (an almost unrecognizable Harvey Keitel) ask Mike’s mother Lorna (Olunike Adeliyi) if he can take the young man to live and train with him in upstate New York her response of, “Take him, he’s only going to disappoint you” rings painfully true. You feel for Tyson’s troubled mother, who just can’t control her unruly son. But you also feel for Mike, who seemingly never had a shot at a decent future.
While Mike crafts a sympathetic figure, it’s also unafraid to show that time and again many of Tyson’s problems were self-inflicted. Nature versus nurture debaters will notice that while also going through a hostile upbringing his sister Denise (who died of a heart attack at 24) and brother Rodney (a physician’s assistant) never caused their mother the same difficulties as their younger sibling. Tyson also routinely makes excuses for his behavior. Whether it was a lack of affection, unfair treatment, a rough home life, drugs, his addictive personality or his own ignorance, there’s always a reason something goes wrong.
While some of that reasoning is valid due to things out of Tyson’s control, there are plenty of other examples that his life could have been different if Mike didn’t get in his own way. Although his life is filled with a painfully unfair amount of tragedy, the primary theme of Mike is that despite dealing with issues of racism, class warfare, and manipulation, Tyson compounded his life challenges through his own greed, selfishness, and an outsized ego.
Throughout the first four of five episodes made available to critics, Tyson’s rough-and-tumble past unfolds in devastating, entertaining, and at times surprisingly humorous ways. Episode titles like “Thief, Monster, Lover,” and “Meal Ticket” are harbingers that detail Tyson’s brutal childhood, his emergence as a boxer and loss of father figure D’Amato, his disastrous marriage to actress Robin Givens (Laura Harrier), and the fighter’s catastrophic relationship with money vacuum Don King (Russell Hornsby).
Mike is clearly a drama, but its storytelling is done in such a unique way that it also works as a dark comedy, occasionally poking fun at Tyson’s over-the-top antics. Fourth wall breaking interludes from young Mike (BJ Minor) and older Mike (Rhodes) add much-needed levity to tense or awkward moments, and show Tyson as the sometimes self-deprecating figure prominently displayed in his one-man show. The past can be easy to laugh at for both the storyteller and the audience when it’s in your rearview mirror—especially when you’ve been a self-obsessed jerk.
Minor and Rhodes, who are both superb, make Mike Tyson feel more like mafia boss Tony Soprano than a professional boxer. Both are ruthless, oddly charismatic, can’t be trusted, and make for strong antiheroes. Yet both can also be, in their own ways, the butt of a joke only the audience sees and hears. It’s a difficult balance to strike but Mike does it beautifully. That dangerous yet playful tone shifts briefly late in the second act leading to a powerful episode, “Desiree,” that shows a side of Tyson his defenders say doesn’t exist and detractors say makes him a monster. It’s both a moving and chilling episode.
Much like the man himself, Mike is a series of fascinating yet well-crafted contradictions. At times riveting, sad, funny, and appalling, there are times when you just don’t know what version of Tyson you’re going to get when watching this program.
Who is Mike Tyson? Is he a monster, a criminal, a rehabilitated hero, or a boxing legend? It all depends on your perspective and because there’s no wrong answer, it’s what makes watching Mike so engrossing whether you love him or hate him.
The first two episodes of the eight episode season of Mike premiere Thursday, August 25th on Hulu.
Terry Terrones is a Television Critics Association and Critics Choice Association member, licensed drone pilot and aspiring hand model.
When he’s not ducking Mike Tyson jabs, you can find him hiking in the mountains of Colorado. You can follow him on Twitter @terryterrones.
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.