The last episode of Mike ended with the immediate aftermath of Mike Tyson’s failed marriage to Robin Givens and her subsequent $120 million civil lawsuit against him, which had led the press, the public, and late-night jokesters to the conclusion that Givens was a gold digger, despite the notorious Barbara Walters interview. But the narrative would shift more in Givens’s direction over time, as his erratic and excessive behavior, combined with fresh support for her side of the story, started chipping away at his powerful PR front. Tonight’s episode, “Meal Ticket,” opens with a piece of this famous excerpt from Jose Torres’s 1989 biography, Fire and Fear: The Inside Story of Mike Tyson:
“She really offended me and I went BAM. She flew backwards, hitting every wall in the apartment. That was the best punch I’ve ever thrown in my life.”
At that point in his career, Tyson was 36-0 with 32 KOs as a professional heavyweight, known for punches so devastating that his habit of flattening opponents in the first round became a running joke. (Tyson winks at it in this episode, too: “After I knocked out Spinks in the first round, I figured I owed you guys a bit of a show in the Bruno fight.” Bruno went down in five rounds.) The idea of having that much force in his punches, without gloves, directed at the face of his wife, suggests a special category of domestic abuse. Givens would have had to feel more than fear of being beaten; she would have had to fear for her life.
With that in the background, Tyson clings to his new manager, Don King, who offers him all the reassurance and flattery he needs while encouraging his most indulgent whims. It feels great and it’s the worst thing for him. Tyson tells his audience in Indiana that King and the legendary Nintendo video game Punch-Out! helped him get through the aftermath, but his euphoria over both would have an expiration date. The early scenes of “Meal Ticket” suit Craig Gillespie’s secondhand Scorsese style, allowing him the opportunity to swoop the camera around as Tyson engages in the profligate spending and womanizing afforded to the heavyweight champion of the world. He’s like Jordan Belfort in Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, only with more booze and fewer pills, tossing “fun coupons” around as if they’ll never run out.
One important difference between Belfort and Tyson, however, is that money was Belfort’s job — he had to know exactly how much he was grifting off suckers and how much he needed to launder or tuck into tax shelters overseas, away from prying federal eyes. In this episode, Tyson cedes that territory to King, who knows his client well enough to slip into the role of father figure in the wake of Cus D’Amato’s death. Cus and King could not be further apart — for one, Cus was a socialist while King would go on to give introductions to President Trump — but Tyson still has that childlike need for attention and guidance. Besides, King makes no demands of him, other than to keep the money spigot flowing. He’s the fun dad who gives his son sugar cereal and a sippy cup of beer and lets him stay up past midnight on a school night.
Tyson takes advantage. He buys a lot full of Rolls-Royce cars for his nameless entourage. He has a hot tub installed in his stretch limo. He even reburies his mother in a nicer plot, an epic act of postmortem passive-aggression. (“What’d you used to call me? A lowlife thief? A piece of shit?,” he asks. “Now look. You spend all your days in a box that I put you in.”) The only person who keeps it real with Tyson is his sister Denise, who side-eyes his ostentatious lifestyle and wonders if he even knows the last time he signed a check. She sees King as exactly the type of manager to build him up and fleece him in the end. “That’s how it works,” she says. “Everyone knows it. Except you.”
Meanwhile, Tyson has gone soft. Entering the Tokyo Dome in 1990 for his fight against Buster Douglas, Tyson had never lost the professional level, and his reputation had become so fearsome that his psychological edge over challengers was nearly as significant as his physical one. It’s not as if contenders hadn’t seen the best among them pulverized in seconds. Mike suggests the obvious: Tyson is shown as distracted, out of fighting shape, and puffed up on his hype, with King serving less as a manager than an enabler. Even if Cus D’Amato had turned out exactly how Givens predicted he would, as yet another grown-up who didn’t have Tyson’s best interests in mind, it seems unlikely he’d have allowed his fighter to stick his chin out so egregiously.
“Trusting Don King was one of the biggest mistakes of my life,” Tyson tells the audience in Indiana. “Not preparing for that Buster Douglas fight was the other.” “Meal Ticket” makes the case that the first mistake is linked to the second. King is smart enough to recognize Tyson as the mark that he is — a vulnerable, fatherless naif who could be manipulated by flattery and attention, and taken for everything he’s got. There’s no great motivation on King’s part to make a sustainable winner out of Tyson. This is a smash-and-grab job, a chance to maximize his short-term value and wheel the money out the door.
Tyson would never be the heavyweight champion again. “That belt meant everything to me,” he says. “Without that, who was I?” The answer to that question would be shockingly bleak.
• Tyson nearly knocked out Douglas in the eighth round, but Douglas was saved by the bell. In fact, the long count was so close that King protested the bout and briefly had two of the three major boxing commissions on his side, until the resulting outcry led to an official acknowledgement of Douglas’s win four days later. Douglas knocked out Tyson in the tenth, but he’d have surely won on points had it gone the distance. He was dominant, and Tyson’s eighth-round comeback arose from an imperative to knock out Douglas lest he lose the fight.
• The odds in Douglas-Tyson fight were a staggering 42-1 in Tyson’s favor. There’s some good background here on how the odds ballooned to that size and what bettors had missed about the chaos surrounding Tyson at the time.
• If you were lucky to work your way through a slew of boxers to get to Mike Tyson (or “Mr. Dream,” as he was called when the rights expired) in the Nintendo game Punch-Out!!, you squared off against a virtually unbeatable opponent. He could knock you flat with a single uppercut, just like the real Tyson! (More good info on that game here.)
• “They’ll pay to see Michael Jordan drop a triple-double or Michael moonwalk or you dominate in the ring. Because as long as they’re watching that, as long as they see a few of you with money and freedom, they won’t have to think about the ones that don’t. And it makes them feel good when they go to sleep at night. But the minute you get too big, they cut you down. They got to make you out to be some kind of monster, but they can’t afford to see you as I see you — a king. Don’t be their monster. Be our king.” Don King is not wrong, and he’s a premium talker. There’s a reason why he was such a dominant promoter, especially in such a corrupt sport.
• Mike is full of empty technique, but the edit where Tyson is still holding his drink from a previous night as Douglas clocks him in the ring is a killer transition.