The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have directly impacted the careers of men who have committed varying levels of sexual assault (Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey), or who have operated in a gray area (Aziz Ansari). But should Mike Tyson suffer the same fate?
At just 20 years old, Mike Tyson became the youngest boxer to ever win the heavyweight title. His speed and power in the ring earned him early round knockouts against the greatest fighters in the world.
Oscar-winning actor Jamie Foxx will portray Tyson in a film directed by Hollywood royalty Martin Scorsese. There will also be a biopic called Cornerman about Tyson’s deceased trainer and father figure Cus D’Amato, starring Bruce Willis.
A History of Alleged Abuse
But while these films will definitely look into the legacy of one of the greatest boxers ever, they also have the chance to look into his disturbing history of violence against women.
In 1988, in a blowout interview with Barbara Walters, Tyson’s then-wife Robin Givens accused him of having an “extremely volatile temper” and of being abusive. “He’s got a side to him that’s scary. I think there’s a time when he can’t control his temper, and that’s frightening to me and my mother and to anyone around, it’s scary. He gets out of control. Throwing, screaming. He shakes, he pushes, he swings… Just recently, I’ve become afraid,” said Givens.
In 1990, he was ordered to pay $100 in compensatory damages to a woman, Sandra Miller, who sued him after accusing him of groping her at a nightclub. “He hasn’t learned his lesson. There’s no stopping Mike Tyson,” she said, according to the Los Angeles Times. Another woman named Lori Davis filed a similar suit, saying that she “felt humiliated, violated, disgraced and petrified.” She later settled her case, according to New York Times.
In 1992, Mike Tyson was convicted of raping former Miss Rhode Island Desiree Washington, and served less than three years of a six-year prison sentence as a result.
Also in 1992, in one of the lesser known stories, Bill Cosby’s daughter Erinn Cosby publicly accused Tyson of sexually assaulting her a few years earlier in 1988. According to The Washington Post, no criminal charges were ever filed, but Cosby insisted through his lawyers that Tyson seek counseling. Cosby himself has been accused of sexual assault by dozens of women and was recently convicted of three counts of sexual assault.
Tyson has continuously denied sexual assaulting Desiree Washington despite his conviction, and he has accused Robin Givens of lying on him in the Barbara Walters interview.
Tyson was at the height of his career, regarded by many as the greatest boxer in the world when these accusations and conviction occurred, making him a polarizing figure in pop culture. His electricity in the ring was only matched by his controversy outside of it.
The seriousness of sexual assault paired with the racialized tropes of Black men as sexual deviants and women beaters made for a brutish public image for Tyson. But in the years since he finished his prison sentence and later retired from the sport, he has been one of the most successful redemption stories in pop culture history.
A Revamped Image
Tyson has undergone intense reconstructive media imaging over the past decade, portraying himself as a tortured soul of sorts with a violent reputation, but a heart of gold. He was the subject of an emotional 2008 documentary called Tyson that narrated his rough upbringing. He portrayed a Phil Collins-singing, tiger-owning version of himself in the film The Hangover. He later was the star of a one-man show called Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth, which enjoyed time on Broadway and a nationwide tour, along with being shot by iconic filmmaker Spike Lee. He’s also the main character of a cartoon on Adult Swim, Mike Tyson Mysteries.
Over the years he’s built an image of a conflicted, multifaceted individual with a stormy past and a bright future. While Tyson has had a past that he should be held accountable for, there’s value in the process of looking at all of the pieces of what creates a person who has hurt people, vs. simply demonizing them and throwing them away.
But that was before the #MeToo movement caught fire, taking down a swath of powerful men in its path. Should Tyson be subjected to the same scrutiny as Weinstein and others? Some would argue that since he served his time in prison, paid monetary fines (albeit small ones), and has arguably worked to become a productive citizen, that he should be left alone. But unlike many of the other offenders, Tyson has a court conviction and prison time under his belt and he has still denied the sexual violence he was accused of in the Washington case and the Cosby case.
I personally don’t get the same visceral disgust from him as I do for Floyd Mayweather. Partly, because Tyson spent more time in prison, so it doesn’t feel as much like he’s getting away with something. Plus, to my knowledge, he hasn’t been accused of inflicting violence toward women since he was released.
Mayweather, on the other hand, has a longer track record of abuse, has only served two months in prison and continued to show abusive tendencies after his release. Meanwhile the boxing world continued to exalt him and the Nevada State Athletic Commission never suspended him.
Rebranding aside, it seems like Tyson tried to become a better person after exiting prison. He certainly isn’t owed forgiveness – especially since he still hasn’t admitted to sexual assault – so I wouldn’t defend him against anyone who decided to boycott him, but I wouldn’t be leading the charge against him, either.
Though, if I’m being honest, part of my passivity also likely stems from the cluelessness of how to really penalize a retired boxer who has already paid his debt to society. Do you avoid watching his money-making ventures like Mike Tyson Mysteries (which you may not have watched anyway if you didn’t know about these allegations)? Do you boycott the film that he may be receiving a royalty for, even though it’d punish Jamie Foxx, who likely didn’t do anything wrong?
Court of Law vs Court of Public Opinion
Floyd Mayweather’s violence against women landed him in prison for 90 days, but despite a few uncomfortable interviews and controversial articles, he still retired as one of the most lucrative pay-per-view attractions of all time. Unfortunately, many notable boxers have been accused of committing domestic violence, yet reportedly, no state athletic commission has ever denied a boxer a license to fight because of a domestic violence charge or plea deal.
Sometimes though, even without out a criminal conviction, the public holds celebrities accountable for their actions. The #MuteRKelly movement has successfully cancelled performances of platinum selling singer R. Kelly who has two decades worth of allegations that he has had sex with multiple under-aged girls, but he also has no criminal convictions. Maybe that’s exactly why Tyson hasn’t been taken to task: people feel that he already paid for his misdeeds, so there’s no gnawing feeling that he’s gotten away with something.
Mike Tyson should still apologize to any of the women he has assaulted and these films should make a point to not simply tell these stories from his perspective and downplay his history by presenting the allegations as false accusations.
These films should dedicate the time and care to ensure that the perspective of the women in these instances is given the weight and consideration that the #MeToo movement has begun to teach us to consider. Tyson is one of the greatest boxers to have ever lived, but he also has a history of violence toward women – and the latter shouldn’t be left out of his story.
William E. Ketchum III is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn, New York City who covers hip-hop, entertainment, race, and culture. His work has appeared in NPR, Billboard, Ebony, Complex and more. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook at @WEKetchum.