The making of a champ

When I was a bad kid, said Mike Tyson, two boxing coaches saw something special in me.

THE FACT THAT they were sending me up to the state reformatory was not cool. I was with the big boys now. But Tryon wasn’t a bad place. There were a lot of cottages there, and you could walk outside, play basketball, walk to the gym. But I got in trouble right away. I was just angry all the time. I had a bad attitude.

Soon I got sent to Elmwood, which was a lockdown cottage for the incorrigible kids. Elmwood was creepy. They had big tough-ass redneck staff members over there.

On the weekends, all the kids from Elmwood who earned credits would go away for a few hours and then come back with broken noses, cracked teeth, busted mouths, bruised ribs—they were all jacked up. I just thought they were getting beat up by the staff, because back then nobody would call the Health Department or Social Services if the staff were hurting the kids. But the more I talked to these hurt guys, the more I realized they were happy.

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“Yeah, man, we almost got him, we almost got him,” they laughed. They were boxing Mr. Stewart, one of the counselors. Bobby Stewart was a tough Irish guy, around 170 pounds, who had been a professional boxer. He was a national amateur champ. When I was in the hole, staff members told me there was an ex–boxing champ teaching kids how to box. The staff members that told me about him were very nice to me and I wanted to meet him because I thought he’d be nice too.

I was in my room one night when there was a loud, intimidating knock on the door. I opened the door and it was Mr. Stewart.

“I heard you want to talk to me,” he growled.

“I want to be a fighter,” I said.

“So do the rest of the guys. But they don’t have the balls to work to be a fighter,” he said. “Maybe if you straighten up your act and stop being such an a--hole and show some respect around here, I’ll work with you.”

SO I REALLY started to apply myself. I think I’m the stupidest guy in the world when it comes to scholastics, but I got my honor-roll star and I said “Yes, sir” and “No, ma’am” to everyone, just being a model citizen so I could go over to fight with Stewart. It took me a month, but I finally earned enough credits to go.

I immediately started flailing and throwing a bunch of punches and he covered up. I’m punching him and slugging him and then suddenly he slips by me and goes boom and hits me right in the stomach.

“Boosh. Uggghhh, uggghhh.” I threw up everything I had eaten for the last two years. I didn’t know anything about boxing then. Now I know that if you get hit in the stomach, you’re just going to lose your breath for a couple of seconds, but it comes back. I didn’t know that then. I really thought that I wouldn’t be able to ever breathe again and I’d die. I was trying desperately to breathe but all I could do was throw up.

After everyone left, I approached him real humble. “Excuse me, sir, can you teach me how to do that?” I asked. He must have seen something in me that he liked, because after our second session he said to me, “Would you like to do this for real?” So we started training regularly. And after our workouts, I’d go back to my room and shadowbox all night long. I started to get a lot better.

After a few months of workouts, I called my mother and put Bobby on the phone with her. “Tell her, tell her,” I said. I wanted him to tell her how good I was doing. I just wanted her to know I could do something. I figured she might believe me if a white person was telling her it. But she just told him that she had trouble believing that I had changed. She just thought I was incorrigible.

Shortly after that Bobby came to me with an idea. “I want to bring you to see this legendary boxing trainer, Cus D’Amato. He can take you to the next level.”

So one weekend in March 1980, Bobby and I drove to Catskill, N.Y. Cus’s gym was a converted meeting hall that was above the town police station. There were no windows, so they had some old-fashioned lamps to provide light.

CUS LOOKED EXACTLY like what you’d envision a hard-boiled boxing trainer to look like. He was short and stout with a bald head and you could see that he was strong. He even talked tough and he was dead serious; there wasn’t a happy muscle in his face.

“How you doin’, I’m Cus,” he introduced himself. He had a strong Bronx accent. He was with a younger trainer named Teddy Atlas.

Bobby and I got in the ring and started sparring. I started out strong, really knocking Bobby around the ring. We would usually do three rounds, but in the middle of the second round Bobby hit me in the nose with a couple of rights and I started bleeding. It didn’t really hurt but the blood was all over my face.

“That’s enough,” Atlas said.

“But, sir, please let me finish this round and go one more round. That’s what we normally do,” I pleaded. I wanted to impress Cus.

I guess I had. When we got out of the ring, Cus’s first words to Bobby were, “That’s the heavyweight champion of the world.”

Right after that sparring session, we went to Cus’s house for lunch. He lived in a big white Victorian house on 10 acres. You could see the Hudson River from the porch. There were towering maple trees and large rosebushes on the side of the house. I had never seen a house like that in my life.

We sat down and Cus told me he couldn’t believe I was only 13 years old. And then he told me what my future would be. He had seen me spar for not even six minutes, but he said it in a way that was like law.

“You looked splendid,” he said. “You’re a great fighter.” It was compliment after compliment. “If you listen to me, I can make you the youngest heavyweight champion of all time.”

I thought he was a pervert. In the world I came from, people do s--- like that when they want to perv out on you. I didn’t know what to say. I had never heard anyone say nice things about me before.

I WAS EXCITED on the ride back. I was sitting with a bunch of Cus’s roses in my lap. I had never seen roses in person before, only on television, but I wanted some because they looked so exquisite. I wanted to have something nice to take back with me so I asked him if I could take some. Between the smell of the roses and Cus’s words ringing in my ears, I felt good, like my whole world had changed. In that one moment, I knew I was going to be somebody.

“I think he likes you,” Bobby said.

I got back to my cottage and put the roses in water. Cus had given me a huge boxing encyclopedia to look at and I didn’t sleep that whole night, I just read the whole book. I read about Benny Leonard and Harry Greb and Jack Johnson. I got turned out real bad. I wanted to be like those guys; they looked like they had no rules. They worked hard, but on their downtime they just lounged and people came to them like they were gods.

I started going out to Cus’s house every weekend to work out. I’d work with Teddy in the gym and then I’d stay over at Cus’s house. There were a few other fighters living there with Cus and his companion, a sweet Ukrainian lady named Camille Ewald. When I first got to the house, I would steal money from Teddy’s wallet. I had to get money for weed. I would hear Teddy tell Cus, “It has to be him.”

“It’s not him,” Cus said.

I was excited about the boxing, but I became certain that boxing was what I wanted to do with my life after I watched the first Leonard-Duran fight on TV at Cus’s house one weekend. Wow, that fight turned me out, it was so exciting. They were both so stylish and deadly, throwing punches so fast. It looked choreographed, like the two of them were acting. I was just amazed. I’ve never felt that feeling again.

When I first started going to Cus’s, he didn’t even let me box. After I finished my workout with Teddy, Cus would sit down with me and we’d talk. He’d talk about my feelings and emotions and about the psychology of boxing. He wanted to reach me at the root. We talked about pretty abstract concepts, but he was getting through to me. Cus knew how to talk my language. He had grown up in tough neighborhoods and he had been a street kid too.

The first thing Cus talked about was fear and how to overcome it.

“Fear is the greatest obstacle to learning. But fear is your best friend. Fear is like fire. If you learn to control it, you let it work for you.... You think you know the difference between a hero and a coward, Mike? Well, there is no difference between a hero and a coward in what they feel. It’s what they do that makes them different.

“Your mind is not your friend, Mike.... Fatigue in the ring is 90 percent psychological. It’s just the excuse of a man who wants to quit. The night before a fight, you won’t sleep. Don’t worry, the other guy didn’t either. You’ll go to the weigh-in, he’ll look much bigger than you and calmer, like ice, but he’s burning up with fear inside.... The moment the bell rings, and you come in contact with each other, suddenly your opponent seems like everybody else, because now your imagination has dissipated. The fight itself is the only reality that matters.”

The goal of all this was to build confidence in the fighter. Confidence was everything. But in order to possess that confidence, you had to test yourself and put yourself on the line. It doesn’t come from osmosis, out of the air. It comes from consistently going over the visualization in your mind to help you develop the confidence that you want to possess.

Cus laid all this out for me in the first few weeks that we were together. He gave me the whole plan. He gave me a mission. I was going to be the youngest heavyweight champion of all time. I didn’t know it then, but after one of our first long talks, Cus confided in Camille. “Camille, this is the one I’ve been waiting for all my life.”

Excerpted from Undisputed Truth by Mike Tyson with Larry Sloman by arrangement with Blue Rider Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, a Penguin Random House Company. ©2013 by Tyrannic Literary Company LLC.

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