Okay, that’s more like it. This third season of 30 For 30 has been kind of a bust up to now—with one embarrassing cancelled episode, a couple of odd hagiographies, and a frustrating overall lack of ambition and artfulness. But tonight’s “Chasing Tyson” feels like a throwback: like something from the series’ first season. Director Steven Cantor brings shape and definition to the material, keeping the style simple yet effective. I wouldn’t call this a top-tier 30 For 30. It’s longer than it needs to be, and could use a little more actual analysis. But it is an actual documentary film, about actual notable athletes—and that alone makes it better than any other episode this fall.
Cantor has an eclectic documentary filmography, but has worked on some movies that people who keep up with popular culture might know—in particular Lucy Walker’s Amish rumspringa doc Devil’s Playground and the Pixies doc loudQUIETloud. The smartest decision he makes with “Chasing Tyson” is to emphasize the archival footage at his disposal rather than loading up on too many talking heads or quirky animations. This episode traces the tumultuous decade that boxer Evander Holyfield spent trying to book a heavyweight title fight with Mike Tyson, who was indisposed for various personal, legal, and business reasons. Given that boxing is still a sport a lot of people can’t afford to see, a lot of the clips in “Chasing Tyson” will be new to some, which is a great reason to include as many of them as possible, rather than cutting back to newer interviews.
The other advantage to this approach is that it puts the focus directly on how the docs’ subjects evolved over the course of ten-plus years. And I’m not just talking about Holyfield and Tyson here. Though the title of of the episode is “Chasing Tyson,” it’s really about the public perception of Holyfield, and how the media shaped Evander’s reputation as the era’s biggest also-ran. It’s startling at times to see how brazenly reporters question both fighters right to their faces. At a joint interview, Holyfield was asked whether he was worried that Tyson’s erratic behavior will land him in jail before they could tussle; and later, immediately after Buster Douglas upset the champ in Tokyo, Holyfield was asked ringside whether he felt like “the biggest loser,” for being deprived of a planned title fight against Tyson. The lack of proper respect for Holyfield is evident throughout the early part of his career, as he’s criticized for being boringly placid in his private life and lacking “knockout power” in the ring.
But by cutting from those old interviews and comments to the footage of the actual fights, “Chasing Tyson” undercuts the media’s indifference. Holyfield looks ferocious in his prime, even though he wasn’t beating his opponents down to the canvas back then. Cantor has fresh interviews with Holyfield and Tyson, but he and his editors mainly use just the audio, letting those comments serve as a narration, running under images of both at their best. That gives Holyfield a chance to defend his steely demeanor, and Tyson a chance to set the record straight about his feelings toward Evander, whom he clearly admires—and to some extent even envies.
“Chasing Tyson” ends with what it’s been building to all along: two of the most memorable fights of the 1990s. In the first, Holyfield methodically wears the title-holding Tyson down; and in the second a frustrated Tyson notoriously bites a chunk out of the new champion’s ear. Cantor resists the temptation to press on to what happened next for both men, beyond a short closing crawl. That restraint helps keep the film clearer and more direct. This is a story about how Holyfield was underrated for years because he didn’t get to go up against Tyson. Once they fight? The story’s essentially done.
Like I said, even with the curtailed narrative, “Chasing Tyson” feels a little repetitive—as though in its ideal form it spilled past an hourlong TV slot, and so was stretched to fill 90 minutes. And even though it’s overextended, it’s missing the richer detail about the flow and strategy of the various bouts, and about Holyfield’s life outside the arena. (I for one would like to have heard from an actual doctor about how Evander’s bad heart was healed by a televangelist.) But Cantor has one clear goal with this doc—to increase awareness and appreciation of Holyfield—and he got the job done. At one point, the fighter tells an interviewer, “I don’t want to be a used-to-be, I want to be a be.” Anyone who watches him in “Chasing Tyson” will have a batter understanding of who he was, who he is, and how he’ll one day be remembered.
- Something else depressingly evident from all of this episode’s old clips of sportscasters: They were weirdly obsessed with the boxers’ paydays, as though athletes like Holyfield and Tyson were making choices in their careers solely based on money. What I wish they’d talked about more was the way that promoters, managers, and governing bodies constrain those choices, in ways that ensure millions don’t last—so that fighters with name recognition feel obliged to keep fighting.
- Speaking of promoters, there’s a classic bit of Don King word-invention here when he complains that Holyfield’s pre-Tyson title defenses lacked “competitivenessism.”
- (Belated) Full disclosure: I was living in Athens, GA between 1988 and 1992, during the rise of Holyfield, and since he was a local, I became a fan. I’ve always felt he’s never gotten his full due as a boxer, due to the circumstances of his competition (and the general disreputability of the sport). I have to admit this may have had something to do with why I thought this episode was a return to form for 30 For 30. It was nice to see “The Real Deal” in the spotlight.