The best Boston movie and the best boxing movie I’ve seen lately is 12 minutes long and available free online. Entitled “I Beat Mike Tyson,” this quietly affecting mini-documentary by Joshua Z. Weinstein tells the story of Kevin McBride, a big, slow heavyweight from Dorchester (by way of Clones in County Monaghan) who had one shining moment in the ring, an upset victory over Mike Tyson in 2005.
McBride caught Tyson at the tail end of a steep decline, when he was no more than a cartoonish parody of the champion he had been in his prime, but, still, defeating one of the premier bogeymen of our time was a journeyman’s dream come true. McBride just kept coming through Tyson’s increasingly desperate punches and fouls and made him quit. “One punch can change the chapters of anybody’s story,” says McBride in the film, “and my story is that I beat Mike Tyson.”
That story would be simpler if moments after having his wrapped hand raised in victory on that memorable night McBride had been seized by Valkyries and taken up to Valhalla to quaff mead with fellow bruisers for all eternity. But real lives do not proceed in the neat upward arcs favored by Hollywood. Weinstein captures the aftermath of McBride’s apotheosis with a few deftly economical strokes. He has a sweet life in a modest house with a devoted wife and two scene-stealing young children, but he still feels the urge to fight, and his imposing size and the victory over Tyson make him eligible for beatings at the hands of better boxers.
His wife, Danielle, asks an unanswerable question: “You think that I think it’s worth you getting knocked out like that, for what we end up with after you fight?” But McBride’s not doing it just for the money. Boxing orders his existence, infusing it with meaning and purpose.
So McBride comes back and gets knocked around, and the largely unrealized possibilities for accruing money and respect raised by his moment of triumph recede ever farther from his grasp. He knows that the damage is mounting. “I want to be around for the kids so at least they can understand me,” he says as he contemplates retiring. “They can hardly understand me now.”
There’s a lovely scene with his little daughter when he comes home all banged up after going the distance in defeat. “I had a bad night in the office,” he tells her. “Sometimes you win . . .” She finishes it for him — “. . . sometimes you don’t” — with a practiced tone that suggests they’ve been through this before. Then she snuggles against his 6-foot-6-inch, 285-pound bulk and goes peacefully to sleep.
“I couldn’t stand seeing him get beat up,” says McBride’s nephew as pity, pride, and harder-to-name feelings pass across his open face like time-release cloudscapes. After a pause (and an edit — it’s the editor, not the writer, who assembles the memorable lines caught by the documentary camera), he adds “He’s a brave man” with a precocious air of dismissing a painfully complex thought.
If you’ve been to the fights in Massachusetts in recent years, chances are you’ve seen the 39-year-old McBride called up from the crowd between bouts to be introduced as a ringside dignitary. On such occasions, he often finds himself in the ring standing next to Micky Ward, another celebrated local tough guy, now most famous for having had his life transmuted into regular-guy epic in the film “The Fighter.” The eternally trim Ward, the older of the two Irish-American heroes by eight years, looks as if he could burst McBride’s expanding middle with a left hook and go a few rounds right now with one of the headliners. McBride, who is literally twice Ward’s size, looks lost and unsteady, as if he’s been hurt and might go down.
One lesson taught by boxing is that life both encourages and resists the impulse to give it a pleasingly dramatic shape. If you take “The Fighter” and strip off its melodramatic arc and the stars’ and the industry’s self-regard, then compress what’s left into 12 poetically concise minutes, you get something almost as good, almost as grown-up, as “I Beat Mike Tyson.”Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. His latest book is “Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories.’’