“I don’t know how to fight to lose,” he says in his distinct voice, slightly high-pitched with a lisp. “Only to win.”
Champion boxer Mike Tyson’s wins, losses and everything in between get the TV treatment in Hulu’s eight-episode limited series “Mike” (first two episodes now streaming, then weekly on Thursdays), with Trevante Rhodes (“Moonlight,” “Bird Box”) as the fighter.
Rhodes’ Tyson narrates the series through the vehicle of his 2017 Indiana stage show, providing commentary as he shape-shifts starting with his childhood and going through his fights in and out of the ring over the years, including his championship belt, rape conviction and ear-biting fight against Evander Holyfield.
Rhodes says the physical transformation to Iron Mike included lifting more weights and cutting some of his usual cardio, although the muscular actor didn’t have far to go. He worked with coach and retired boxer Ann Wolfe to get in shape for the role. But boxing, for Rhodes, was more about emotional toughness.
“Boxing is very much a mental thing,” Rhodes says. “We did a lot of mental spirit-strengthening drills.”
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Becoming Tyson, complete with prosthetics, the infamous face tattoo and gap-toothed smile, took upward of three hours a day for Rhodes, and removing it all took over an hour after each round of filming the series.
On days when the production had to shoot Tyson at different stages of his life, “we would have to do the prosthetics first, then take it all off, and then go back to an 18-year-old version,” says Rhodes, 32.
The “Don King diet” for Russell Hornsby (“Lincoln Heights,” “BMF”), who plays the brash promoter known for organizing Muhammad Ali’s “Thrilla in Manilla” and “Rumble in the Jungle” fights, was less stringent. “Hurricanes (cocktails) and beignets” helped “put a little bloat, a little age on” Hornsby, along with the use of padding and a wig to re-create King’s signature hair.
To prepare for the role, Rhodes devoured almost limitless material about the “grandiose” and very public figure: “It was YouTube videos, it was the training, it was his interviews, it was listening to his podcast.”
Fans have seen Tyson fight many competitors. But the Hulu series is as much about the man in the ring as it is about the good, bad and ugly of how he got there. “Mike” provides a front-row seat to Tyson versus his demons, his many flaws, the people who created the fame monster around him and the women in his life who loved him, hurt him, slept with him and pushed him toward the ropes of accountability in each phase of his life.
While only one of the five episodes made available for review centers on the voice of a Black woman – Desiree Washington (Li Eubanks) – each episode shows Tyson’s complicated and fraught relationship with the Black women in his life: his mother, Lorna Smith (Olunike Adeliyi), with whom he had a strained relationship; first wife and actress Robin Givens (Laura Harrier); his older sister, Denise Tyson (Chédra Arielle); and Washington, the woman a jury found him guilty of raping in 1992.
Harrier was “shocked” when she learned of the media narrative surrounding Givens at the time. “There are publications, serious publications like The Wall Street Journal, calling her a gold digger, and it was really sad to see the sort of rhetoric that was acceptable to speak about women,” she says, adding that Givens has been “misportrayed in pop culture” and judged for a singular relationship from her early 20s.
Givens has pushed back against depictions of their tumultuous eight-month marriage, and she has said Tyson continues to “revictimize” her.
Re-creating the 1988 joint sit-down TV interview with Barbara Walters at Tyson’s former New Jersey home, where the real one was filmed, was the most affecting for Harrier, who says Tyson “had a lot of very complicated relationships with women, and wasn’t given the tools in his life to be able to have healthy, successful relationships.”
The rape scene “was a tough scene, like top to bottom … that was a scene where I had to put my producer foot down,” says Rhodes, an executive producer, calling it “the most difficult scene for me to shoot emotionally.”
Hornsby says that often when there’s a strained mother-son relationship, “there’s a void that you’re always constantly trying to fill. I think that happens to a lot of men, and a lot of Black men specifically.”
The rapid-fire 30-minute episodes force viewers to fill in the contextual blanks and ultimately decide how sympathetic the fictionalized series is toward Tyson, and whether he’s an unreliable narrator in his own story. But Hornsby says the creators tried to be “honest without being salacious.”
“We were looking to honor but not exalt, to tell the truth, but not denigrate,” Hornsby says.
Tyson, 56, has made known his disdain for the limited series and Hulu, criticizing the streaming service for its unauthorized telling of his story and calling it a “slave master take over story about my life.”
‘They stole my life story’:Mike Tyson calls Hulu a ‘slave master’ over unauthorized show
Rhodes says he direct-messaged Tyson – letting him know he was starring in the show, acknowledging Tyson’s misgivings and thanking him for his “life influence” – and he never heard back (“I do what I want to do, respectfully,” he says of the criticism); Hornsby never reached out to or heard from King, now 91; Harrier didn’t reach out to Givens in order to “remain objective.”
Rhodes wanted to do the story justice, even without input from the man he played.
“My interpretation of Mike is very empathetic and sympathetic to that particular Black male experience because I know it, and I understand it from a space that a lot of people can’t,” Rhodes says. “It could come across as too sympathetic … but it’s hard for me not to feel that way,” he says. “People will see that in my eyes because that’s how I feel.”
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