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The Tyson Documentary: Has Truth Been Kayoed?

BY Ron Borges ON May 21, 2008
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Mike Tyson often used to sleep on Steve Lott’s couch in Manhattan between 1985 and 1988, the years of his ascension in boxing. Apparently of all the maladies Tyson is now claiming he’s suffered with as he and his new set of handlers try to resurrect his reputation with a new documentary on his life, he left one out. According to Lott, it would be amnesia.

“It’s easier for Mike to say he has demons, that he was a thug, that he was crazy, than it is to say he got conned by the people he allowed into his life,’’ said Lott, who served as Tyson’s assistant manager during the years the former heavyweight champion was handled by the late Jim Jacobs and Bill Cayton.

Those were the years when Tyson went from Cus D’Amato protégé to the youngest heavyweight champion in boxing history. Those were the years when he also became the most recognizable athlete in the world, perhaps the last boxer even able to make that claim.

Lott argues forcefully that during that period Tyson was neither an addict, nor a hoodlum, nor a manic depressive. Instead he was the biggest name in sports, one Lott claims was “the golden boy of corporate America.’’ Lott cites Tyson’s commercials for Pepsi-Cola, Nintendo and Kodak film as well as his time serving as a spokesperson for the New York Police Department, the FBI and the DEA as examples of his unrivaled popularity.

Lott watched the documentary “Tyson,’’ directed by James Toback, before it was recently shown at the Cannes Film Festival with Tyson and his family on hand for the screening. What he heard Tyson say amazed him, as did the fact Tyson was the only voice Toback bothered to put on film.

“There was no mention of the years 1985 to 1988, the years before Robin Givens and Don King took over,’’ Lott said. “He was the world’s most popular athlete then and he never mentions it. When he was working with Jim and Bill he had control of himself because there were limits put on him by Jim.

“Once he got into Don King’s world, and later Shelly Finkel’s world, there was no control. No one would say ‘That’s wrong!’ That’s when all these things he talked about in the film began.’’

While some might dispute that, Lott is adamant. Just as adamant as Toback’s film seems to be that Tyson has long been a mess of a man. The film, which has yet to be shown publicly in the United States but is intended for theatre audiences later this year, mingles interviews with Tyson during his recent time spent in drug and alcohol rehab with fight films of his past glories and his stunning failures.

With that film as the starting point, 40-year-old marketing and licensing agent Harlan Werner and young Damon Bingham, son of well-known photographer and Muhammad Ali confidante Howard Bingham, intend to try and resurrect Tyson as a product America will once again buy. Tyson reportedly agreed to an autobiography project as part of this effort while still staying at the Wonderland Center, a rehab facility in California where he went to fight what he claims was a serious drug addiction.

Lott said he met with Werner two years ago to discuss his ideas of how to help his old friend. He suggested he first get rid of the face tattoo he began to wear late in his boxing career and then do a series of exhibitions for the troops in Iraq followed by similar fund raising appearances in the U.S. for various fire and police departments. Only after that, Lott felt, would there be a chance to return Tyson to the public consciousness as a saleable commodity.

“I told Harlan because of the way he’s been mishandled by the people who came after Jim and Bill, Mike is seen as the bum of the century,’’ Lott said. “No one in corporate American is going to buy him after everything that has gone on since he left Jim and Bill.

“Instead they produced a documentary in which Mike is the only one speaking and he tells lie after lie after lie. The reason they didn’t do what I suggested was it wouldn’t put any money in their pocket.’’

What seems to have most raised Lott’s ire was Tyson’s reference to his former bosses as “two slave masters’’ who, he implies, coerced him into signing a contract with them when he was under age.

“I have the contract right here,’’ Lott said. “Mike Tyson was 18 when he signed that contract, not 16. He’s saying these lies for two reasons. The effect of Don King and all those years of him telling Mike it was the white guys who screwed him and the fact that Jimmy is dead and can’t defend himself. I defy anyone to come out of the woodwork and say something bad that Jim did to Mike Tyson.’’

Many have argued that the way Jacobs, while himself was dying from leukemia but keeping it from Tyson, altered the contract with Tyson’s approval so that upon either his death or Cayton’s their shares would go to their wives, was devious and unconscionable. King certainly used it as part of his takeover strategy but Lott contends, “When they revised that contract Mike said ‘No problem.’

“He can lie about what happened and he can leave out those years between 1985 and 1988 but 99 per cent of what happened with Mike when Jimmy and Bill were managing him was good. Once he left for King, Robin (to whom Tyson was briefly married before a very public and explosive divorce) and then Finkel everything that could go wrong did go wrong.

“It was unbelievable. It was bad under King and worse under Finkel but Mike comes down on King, gives Robin a pass and there’s not a mention of Finkel in the documentary. The only thing Shelly did that was brilliant was keep Mike surrounded with all those cretins who were in his life.’’

Lott also challenged a New York Times article of May 11 on many points in a letter the Times chose not to print. Among the things he claimed was, “Mike told the author ‘I was born an addict,’’’ Lott wrote. “The author should have asked Mike why he wasn’t an addict when he was living with Cus or the four years he was with Cayton and Jacobs.

“Regarding the documentary itself, I spoke with Toback last year, warning him that Mike would not have the courage to tell the truth about his career. Mike wants the world to think that he was destroyed by his demons. Where were those demons when he was a world-wide hero with Cayton and Jacobs for year after year? Toback just told me Mike was going to tell his story.’’

Lott screened the film several months ago at the request of ESPN, who asked him to ID many of the film clips and photographs used in the documentary. Lott claimed he was stunned to hear some of what Tyson now insists is his story.

“If Harlan took Mike over two years ago and made him a hero and revamped his whole image I’d take my hat off to him,’’ Lott said. “That’s not what happened. Once this film comes out and the people who knew Mike when he was heavyweight champion speak out they will have buried him further in a cesspool of scum.

“I know some people will just say ‘Lott’s just jealous.’ I’m not jealous. I’m pissed. Do they have him doing one thing that would lead people to say, ‘He’s done a lot of bad things but that’s nice what he’s doing now?’ They’re just drilling him to fill their own pockets. It’s the same old story.’’

According to the guy on whose couch Mike Tyson spent a lot of nights over a four year period 20 years ago, it’s a sad, sad story. On that he and Mike Tyson agree. They just don’t agree on when that story began.

‘It’s got to be the most painful thing in the world to go from being a hero to who he is today,’’ Lott said of Tyson. “It’s embarrassing to say he was a hero who turned into a punk. It’s easier to say he was evil than to say he was conned by the people in his life. They told me they were letting Mike tell his story. What they did was let him tell a lie.’’

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