‘MIKE’ Is a Rare Peek at Tyson’s Toxic Relationship With Black Women

The unauthorized Hulu miniseries explores the boxer’s career in his prime, including his tumultuous marriage to Robin Givens and convicted rape of former Miss Black America contestant Desiree Washington.

Few will deny that Mike Tyson is one of the greatest heavyweight boxers of all time. But his reputation, however credible, is not impenetrable. For a boxer who has only lost six of 58 fights, the altercations Tyson experienced in his personal life are losses that tarnished his legacy. “I don’t know how to fight to lose,” says Trevante Rhodes, playing Mike Tyson, in Hulu’s MIKE, a biographical eight-part mini series. The series depicts Tyson as a man who was taught to fight—and more frighteningly—taught to win those fights, no matter the opponent. MIKE tours that antagonistic disposition through Tyson’s relationships with Robin Givens, the Head of the Class actress to whom he was married for eight months, and Desiree Washington, the former Miss Black America contestant who accused him of raping her in 1991. (He was convicted of rape and sentenced to six years in prison the following year). MIKE is a story of one of the most gifted boxers of our time; it is also the story of the Black women who endured his rage. 

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MIKE, although an unauthorized biopic, is told mostly through playful, tongue-in-cheek narration from Tyson’s 2017 one-man show at the Majestic Theatre, an in-person adaptation of his memoir. Here, helmed by creator Steven Rogers, best known for I, Tonya, and showrunner Karin Gist, who began her career writing on Girlfriends, viewers are thrust into Tyson’s perspective, which is far from impartial. By the time Tyson was coached by Cus D’Amato as a teen—who was not only his mentor but a surrogate father to him—he was constantly fed the need to be “a beast, a terror, and a monster.” The viewer grapples with where Tyson, as a young Black man who was rewarded for his aggression by older white men, falls on the scales of morality: Was he simply a product of his environment, or a deliberate aggressor? Two brief moments in the script—praise of Bill Cosby (“Everyone feels safe around Bill Cosby”) and Donald Trump (“That’s a businessman you can trust”)—demonstrate how the scales of righteousness have shifted since Tyson’s prime. Those brief, but salient, callbacks signal that the common understanding of Tyson most held in his heyday may be outdated by the close of the series.  

The series almost instantly uses Tyson’s relationship with his mother as a case study for his relationship with women. In the first episode, “Thief,” a young Mike says he felt like his mother Lorna had given up on him because his learning ability and temperament differed from his more reserved siblings—a sentiment Tyson shared in his 2013 memoir, Undisputed Truth: My Autobiography. When Mike isn’t feeling alienated by Lorna, he witnesses her approach romantic love like she’s in combat: At one point, she spits out a bloody gold tooth just before throwing a pot of hot soup on her live-in boyfriend Eddie. “I’m growing up around tough women, women who fight men,” Tyson wrote in his memoir. “So I didn’t think fighting a woman was taboo because the women I knew would kill you.” 

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In the third episode, “Lover,” Tyson sums up his outlook on women succinctly in a recreation of a television interview: “I probably cheated on every woman I’ve been with,” he says. “Probably didn’t respect them because I didn’t respect myself.” To the world, Mike Tyson and Robin Givens were polar opposites: Givens, who once claimed to have dropped out Harvard Medical School to pursue acting, and Tyson, who dropped out of high school. Rather than overexaggerating their differences, the series works hard to show that as two young Black celebrities, Givens and Tyson were held to immeasurable standards. 

Before long, the “rom-com” Tyson said he drummed up in his head about their relationship grew much darker. Following an unconfirmed pregnancy and Tyson’s manic depression diagnosis, tension between he, Givens, and her mother, Ruth, comes to a head in Moscow. The show leaves the details of what happened up for interpretation, with Rhodes’ voiceover calling it “The Russia incident,” as the women run in fear as he tears apart a hotel room in the background. “This is what Robin and Ruth said happened,” he says in the series. “But I was on lithium, coke, and weed at the time, so who the fuck knows?”  

Except, “The Russia incident” wasn’t just a montage that the couple breezed through. Days after the altercation occurred, Barbara Walters interviewed Tyson and Givens for ABC’s 20/20. Givens shared that the version of Tyson she saw in Moscow frightened her. “He shakes, he pushes, he swings,” she said. “Sometimes, I think he’s trying to scare me.” On-air, Tyson denied ever physically attacking Givens. (In a 2009 interview with Oprah, he admitted to “socking” her.) A few weeks after the incident, the New York Times reported that Tyson became erratic after having trouble sleeping. A source told the paper, “Michael was out of control. He was grabbing for Robin and tossing her around. He made no sense. He was almost, like, growling. He was threatening Russian militiamen in the lobby and the guards at the door. He was looking for an altercation.” Clearly, Tyson’s interpretation of events is not the only truth. 

MIKE takes an abrupt shift in tone when we meet Desiree Washington, an 18-year-old Miss Black America contestant from Rhode Island, who accused the boxer of raping her in a hotel room. Unlike Givens, we don’t learn about Washington through Tyson’s vantage point. The “Desiree” episode is told entirely from Washington’s perspective, a move that is probably less about giving her a voice than it is because Tyson declined to go into details in the 2013 memoir that forms the basis of the episode. After meeting at a Miss Black America rehearsal, Tyson invited Washington for a night out. According to Washington, the boxer mentioned he needed to make a stop at his hotel room, where he sexually assaulted her. “The harder I fought, the more aggressive and violent he became,” Li Eubanks, as Washington, says in MIKE. When Tyson was on trial for the rape, Washington was trapped in the throes of the court of public opinion. Protestors asked her to drop the case for “African American unity.” Others victim-blamed her, asking what did she expect to happen at 2AM? In 1992, Tyson was found guilty of rape and two counts of criminal deviant conduct. Today, if you watch Washington’s 1992 interview with Barbara Walters—which is the only time she’s addressed the situation publicly—you will find YouTube comments discrediting her story. Would the response be the same if he had assaulted Miss America instead of Miss Black America? 

MIKE does a good job of examining toxic masculinity and those affected most in its aftermath, including Tyson himself. But one moment, outside of the show, underscores why it’s so important. In the weeks leading up to the show's premiere, the boxer denounced the production. “Don’t let Hulu fool you,” he wrote on Instagram. “They stole my life story and didn’t pay me.” Tyson’s condemnation of MIKE still feels like it robs Givens and Washington of a fair portrayal of their involvement in his life. There are no shortage of Mike Tyson stories: a 1995 HBO film, a 2008 documentary, a 2013 memoir, and the one-man show about his life that he took on the road. We know Tyson’s perspective. Has anyone ever questioned how these women feel being relegated to minor players in the countless retellings of his life?

Kristin Corry is a senior staff writer for VICE.

Tagged:

Mike, Hulu, Robin Givens, desiree washington, Streaming, Toxic Masculinity

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