It had to begin with the ear. For all Mike Tyson’s myriad achievements, his scandals and crimes, his knockouts and losses, he will always be remembered as the man who bit Evander Holyfield’s ear off. It is with this visceral image that Mike, a new TV drama miniseries on Disney Plus, begins. After a quick glimpse at the money shot, such that it is, Mike rewinds to the early Seventies, when Tyson was a child. From there, we follow him through his life, ducking and weaving between his painful upbringing, his rise to become world heavyweight boxing champion, and his downfall.
Most people will be familiar with the gist of Tyson’s story. The way he dominated in the ring. His prison sentence after being convicted of rape. His facial tattoo. His pet tiger. Mike isn’t that interested in the tabloid eccentricities of Tyson’s life – but it’s not necessarily all that interested in boxing, either. Rather, it strives to be a character study, breaking down Iron Mike into little psychological ingots. Tyson is played, as an adult, by Trevante Rhodes, the actor best known for his role as the older version of the protagonist in Barry Jenkins’ elegiac 2016 Oscar-winner Moonlight. Harvey Keitel plays Cus D’Amato, Tyson’s coach and father figure throughout his formative years as a fighter. Russell Hornsby enters the series partway through as the felonious boxing promoter Don King.
There’s a real cinematic air to much of Mike, thanks in part to the slick direction by Craig Gillespie. Gillespie may be best known for 2018’s Oscar-winning Tonya Harding biopic I, Tonya – a roundly entertaining crime drama that many dismissed as an over-deferent Martin Scorsese homage. There is plenty of Scorsese, too, in Mike – the whole first episode feels like an extended Goodfellas riff. As it unfurls, the series becomes a little more of its own thing; scenes are given space to breathe.
While Scorsese’s own spin on the fisticuffs feature, the seminal 1980 drama Raging Bull, was lauded for its verisimilitude, Mike is not a great depiction of the sport of boxing. There are some cracking moments – great, horrible slow-mo shots of fists rippling flesh, of faces contorting with impact – but none of it feels like you’re watching two actual boxers have at it.
Of course, the ultimate problem with Mike for most people won’t be its sporting fidelity, but its choice of subject. There’s simply no getting around Tyson’s deplorable actions as a man. While the real Tyson has denounced the series in the strongest of terms, Mike nonetheless does a somewhat deft job of humanising him. Trevante Rhodes lends the boxer a vulnerability that you can’t help but feel pity for, even in many of his ugliest moments. Whether that pity is warranted is another matter.
How, then, does this leave Mike? Not a knockout, that’s for sure. Call it a respectable loss on points. No biting involved.