TERRY GROSS, host:
Let's get back to our interview with former sports writer Elmer Smith, who covered Tyson's career from '83 to '89. Smith is now a columnist with the Philadelphia Daily News, where he's also a member of the editorial board. Earlier we talked about what made Tyson a great boxer. We also wanted Smith's take on some of the controversies surrounding Tyson's life.
The character issues became very extreme later in his career when his then wife Robin Givens accused him of abusing her. And then there was the rape charges from Desiree Washington, who at the time of the incident, was a contestant for Miss Black America. She accused him of rape. He was convicted, served three years in prison. He was convicted of rape and deviant sexual acts. So you are no longer covering boxing at the time of his trial. But you are still following it very closely.
Mr. ELMER SMITH (Columnist, Philadelphia Daily News): Yes.
GROSS: In the movie "Tyson," we get Tyson's version of the story, which is, you know, that he was wronged.
Mr. SMITH: Right.
GROSS: That he did not rape her. He doesn't say they didn't have sex, but he does say he did not rape her.
Mr. SMITH: Right.
GROSS: And I'm wondering what, you saw the movie, what would you like to add to what was said, are we missing any perspective do you think, hearing just his point of view?
Mr. SMITH: I think - he sort of cast the situation in terms of his own victimization. So he felt that he was a victim. We didn't really so much in the movie get his side of the story except that he declared his innocence and her villainy that she was somebody, who for reasons that he couldn't articulate or didn't attempt to, just defamed him for god knows what reason. He doesn't get into that.
He characterizes her in very clear and profane terms. And, again, sort of portrays himself as a victim. There was a lot of feeling in America on both side of that issue. But I don't know of anything that I've learned since or during that time that would cause me to take issue with the verdict.
There's been a lot of feeling on both sides of the issue, but it's largely emotional in terms of what we actually know about the case and what was presented before that jury. They made their decision. And I just don't have any information that would cause me to second guess that.
GROSS: And then not second guessing it, are you saying that he always had problems with women or that, you know, he doesn't understand the line of appropriate sexual behavior? Or is that kind of beyond what you can say as a columnist?
Mr. SMITH: Well, I could point to what his defense was at the time. I thought he was really ill-served by the defense. Essentially what the defense said was that this young woman could not have been as innocent as she wanted to portray herself because quote unquote, "everybody knows" what kind of guy Mike Tyson is. That was his defense at that time. I think that says…
GROSS: To the premise that she should've known better, it's her fault.
Mr. SMITH: Exactly. She should've known better. It is her fault. Everybody knows what kind of guy Mike Tyson is. They presented him as a monster for their own purposes. Again, I don't know of anything outside of the context of that trial that I could add to that.
GROSS: James Toback said that Tyson's attorney in that case was basically a tax lawyer.
Mr. SMITH: Right.
GROSS: Who was appointed - appointed - who was chosen for him by Don King, the infamous manager who was managing Tyson at the time.
Mr. SMITH: Yes.
GROSS: That sounds kind of crazy.
Mr. SMITH: That is kind of crazy. And it was noted at the time. I mean, there were a number of criminal defense attorneys with great reputations who would gladly have taken that case, any kind of date rape case, despite the fact that there was medical evidence essentially saying that the injuries that they saw were inconsistent with consensual sex. Even with that, the date rapes are a hard win for prosecutor. And I think to have chosen a seasoned veteran defense attorney would've been a much smarter move. I have no idea why they landed on this guy.
GROSS: My guest is Philadelphia Daily News columnist and former sports writer Elmer Smith, who covered Mike Tyson's career. We'll talk more about Tyson and the new documentary "Tyson" after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Philadelphia Daily News columnist and former sports writer Elmer Smith, who covered Tyson's boxing career. We're talking about "Tyson," the new documentary about him and the controversies that have surrounded him.
Another kind of character question about Mike Tyson that he talks about in the movie is the time he bit Evander Holyfield a couple of times in the ear.
Mr. SMITH: Yes.
GROSS: During a match. And, you know, Tyson says that Holyfield was head butting him, which is, you know, against the rules. And he was so angry at the referee for not doing anything to stop him and to intervene that he just kind of bit him twice. And so I'm wondering, someone who followed his career so closely, did you see that match?
Mr. SMITH: I did.
GROSS: What - is he right that - can you see in the video that he's being head butted?
Mr. SMITH: I watched that fight a number of times, and I see Holyfield's head come forward in a way that it generally does. It did not to me seem egregious. It did not seem a case where he was purposely propelling his head in a way to injure Mike Tyson. That was my perspective from outside the ring. It was also the perspective of the referee, Mills Lane, one of the best championship fight referees in America at that time. But, again, he's on the inside of it. I think what I really see from Tyson as much as anything else is a level of frustration in some ways.
And it's unfortunate to say this, but in some ways Tyson's career is marked early on by him being sort of the schoolyard bully. He intimated people. Evander Holyfield is not a guy who's going to be intimidated by anybody. If you lace up your shoes and gloves the same way he does and walk those same three steps to get into the ring, he cannot be afraid of you or intimidated by you.
And I think one of the frustrating things that happened to Tyson in that fight was that he could not quite solve Evander Holyfield. And that to me is very much a factor in the level of frustration and anger he was feeling.
GROSS: So I haven't asked you yet, what did you think of James Toback's movie, "Tyson?" What did you think of the portrait that Tyson presents?
Mr. SMITH: Well, I'm surprised that I found it as revealing as it was. He didn't say anything that I haven't heard him say before in one form or another, but something about having it all together at that way and hearing it again from him, made it revealing for me, even though sometimes really only a nuance. But those nuances were so important.
For instance, he talked more about fear than I've ever heard him talk about before, at least to me. Now, I've read that he's admitted to some fear in certain situations. But fear was actually an almost overriding kind of an aura almost for him. And I find that interesting. I don't trust fighters who don't have any fear. I think that's unrealistic. But to hear him own as much fear as he did, I thought was interesting, not just in the ring.
GROSS: And it sounds like fear motivated him from the very start.
Mr. SMITH: Exactly.
GROSS: 'Cause he was bullied as a kid.
Mr. SMITH: Exactly.
GROSS: He was fat. And he was bullied.
Mr. SMITH: Yeah. I've heard Riddick Bowe, who was a - went on to become a heavyweight champion and came from - and lived at some point in the same neighborhood in Brownsville - he told me one time, he said, yeah, I remember Tyson. He was a fat kid. He was always disheveled, his clothes looked funny. So we called him Bummy Ike.
Mr. SMITH: So it's the irony of the two of them ending up where they did from that beginning is incredible.
GROSS: Did the movie change your opinion of Tyson at all as a boxer or as a man?
Mr. SMITH: As a man, I have to say, he was a somewhat more sympathetic character to me in the ring. I have to add that, in part, the reason for that is when I was covering him, there's only so much sympathy, if you will, that I could allow to be a factor in how I saw him. It's, you know, I had to take a more objective view, being this far removed sort of softens, to some extent, my sort of recollections of him.
But he just seemed more human. He seemed more mature, more adult, more reflective than I remember him being at the time. It had to be awfully tough to live out that sort of saga of Mike Tyson.
GROSS: Elmer Smith, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. SMITH: It's been a pleasure.
GROSS: Elmer Smith is a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News and a member of the editorial board. The new movie "Tyson" was directed by James Toback, who we heard from earlier. You can download both interviews on our Web site freshair.npr.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.