December 10, 1985
All fighters come from mean streets and lower depths. Champions such as Sonny Liston, Archie Moore, Jake LaMotta, Dwight Braxton, and Macho Camacho have survived prison detours. Mike Tyson, who could be the next great fighter, comes from the mean streets of Bed-Stuy and is a survivor of a penal institution for incorrigible boys. When Tyson was 13 years old he moved directly from an upstate reformatory — where he’d spent two years — into the communal home of Cus D’Amato — boxing’s supreme teacher, psychologist, moralist, saver of souls, and father-substitute. D’Amato died last month at 77, and Mike Tyson, at 19, is his unfinished masterpiece.
At this point, only boxing buffs know Mike Tyson’s name. He’s had only 13 professional fights — all awesome knockout demolitions, nine in the first round — but he hasn’t appeared yet on network television. On March 23, 1985, he started his professional career fighting for $500. Since then he has fought in Albany, Houston, and Atlantic City. He does not have the kind of six-figure, multifight television contract that the 1984 Olympic champions received at the birth of their pro careers. He has been booked, and then bumped, from four cable-TV fights. This Friday night he makes his 10-round debut on his native ground, at the Felt Forum, against Sam Scaff for $5000.
Tyson started in boxing’s outside lane because he did not have the marketing advantage of an Olympic gold medal. He did not have the headstart glitz of past Olympic boxing champions like Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, Joe Frazier, Michael and Leon Spinks, Floyd Patterson, or George Foreman — or even of Tyrell Biggs and Henry Tillman, the Olympic super-heavyweight and heavyweight gold medalists of the 1984 games in Los Angeles. All Tyson has is the power, speed, and character that might constitute ring genius.
The politics of amateur boxing cheated Tyson out of his rightful place on America’s 1984 Olympic boxing team. Cus D’Amato was advised, in a friendly way, not to even enter Tyson in the super-heavyweight trials because that berth was reserved for Tyrell Biggs. And Tyson was robbed of two decisions in elimination fights with Tillman for the right to be the heavyweight on the Olympic squad. In one of those three-round fights Tyson scored a clean knockdown, and in the other he nearly chased Tillman out of the ring. But he lost split decisions each time.
Afterward, Tyson smashed the second place trophy against the wall of his dressing room.
Tyson was not even a New York City Golden Gloves champion, like current pro contenders Carl “The Truth” Williams, Eddie Gregg, and Mitch Green. Tyson had only 25 amateur fights. He never entered the Gloves during the years he was a secret being sculpted by Cus D’Amato in a gym above the police station in rural Catskill, New York, 100 miles from the deprivations and temptations of Bed-Stuy.
During those decisive years, when Tyson was between 13 and 19, Cus D’Amato taught him everything he knew about boxing, for which Tyson had an instinctive aptitude, and about life — which is so much harder to learn, and for which Tyson had only the primitive preparation of the streets and jail.
Inside the ring, Tyson quickly mastered the signature D’Amato moves of elusive aggression that made Floyd Patterson and Jose Torres (both former pupils of D’Amato) champions: bending at the knees to maintain balance and position; holding your gloves high, next to the cheekbones; keeping your chin down; getting under and inside the opponent’s jab; punching straight, short, and fast from the shoulder; and stepping to the side and throwing a left hook to the liver. (“The punch nobody can take,” Tyson says.)
During the long country walks, communal meals, and quiet evenings of watching grainy black and white films of the boxing masters of the past, D’Amato imparted to Tyson his special blend of psychology and philosophy. The key to it is what D’Amato called the “cultivation of character.” To Cus, “character” was a mystical combination of will, courage, self-denial, self-respect, and intensity. Cus told all his fighters, “The hero and the coward both feel exactly the same fear, only the hero confronts his fear and converts it into fire.”
Cus also said that fighters of good skill and great character will often beat an opponent of superior skill but less character.
Cus also conveyed to Tyson his idea of the goal of the trainer-fighter relationship: for the fighter to eventually become completely independent of the trainer, and for the trainer to make himself obsolete. This was one reason why D’Amato himself never worked in Tyson’s corner; he wanted to nurture in Tyson the confidence of self-sufficiency during a fight, so he would not feel dependent on an external adviser.
Five years ago my friend José Torres told me that D’Amato had found a troubled 14-year-old “kid from Brooklyn who is going to become the heavyweight champion of the world.” D’Amato had discovered Jose in the squalor of Ponce, Puerto Rico, in 1957 when Jose was still an amateur, and guided him not just to a world championship but to a successful second act as a writer and state commissioner after his boxing career was over. Along the way Cus never had a written contract with José. Cus never took a dime from all the money José earned during his career, because Cus felt he was making enough money to live on from Floyd Patterson’s purses. When José was broke and on the way up, Cus paid for his wedding. When Cus died, he left no material assets or estate; he hadn’t had a bank account for 15 years. Jim Jacobs, Cus’s best friend, paid all of his expenses.
So one morning in 1980, José and I went to the gym above the police station in Catskill, and we saw the future. Tyson was then 14 years old, 200 pounds, and about five-six. Outside the ring he seemed withdrawn and sullen. Inside the ring he was a manchild prodigy puncher. Toward Cus he displayed the beginnings of trust and affection.
On the day Cus died last month, Tyson cried and was inconsolable. The next day José Torres drove him to the train that would take him back to Catskill and spoke to Tyson fighter-to-fighter, brother-to-brother, since Cus had been a father to both of them.
“Who is going to teach me now?” Tyson asked. ”I was learning every day with Cus.”
Torres answered: “Cus had enough time. You know everything already. You now know everything Cus could teach you. Cus gave you inspiration. All you need now is experience, confidence, and desire.”
That same night I happened to read my daughter the end of E. B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web,” the chapter where the brave old spider dies, consoled by the knowledge that her eggs are rescued and about to be hatched.
The history of boxing is the history of immigrant succession in America. Fighters don’t come from prep schools or seminaries. The best way to understand this dangerous, corrupt, and disorganized sport is through the eyes of Charles Darwin.
When the Irish were the urban underclass after the famine of 1848, the great champions were John L. Sullivan, James J. Corbett, Philadelphia Jack O’Brien, and Torry McGovern. The generation of Jewish immigrants fleeing the pogroms of Russia and Europe produced, during the ’20s and ’30s, Benjamin Leiner, known as Benny Leonard, and Beryl David Rosofsky, known as Barney Ross.
In the ’30s and ’40s, blacks found boxing as an exit from the slum, and started to dominate the sport. Out of the jobless Detroit ghetto, at the bottom of the Depression, stormed Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson. From Los Angeles came the first triple champion, Henry Armstrong.
In the ’60s and ’70s, great fighters emerged out of Latin America’s third world poverty: Roberto Duran from Panama, Wilfredo Gomez from Puerto Rico, Carlos Monzon from Argentina, Alexis Arguello from Nicaragua, Jose Napoles from Cuba, Ruben Oliyares and Salvador Sanchez from Mexico.
And so Mike Tyson was born in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant in July 1966 into an environment of riots, heroin, crime, disintegrating family structure, and collapsing public schools. He was born on Franklin Avenue, between DeKalb and Willoughby, not far from where another fighter of the future, Mark Breland — the 1984 Olympic welterweight gold medal winner — was growing up. When Tyson was about nine, he moved to Brownsville, which is even more impoverished than Bed-Stuy.
It is probably a miracle that Mike Tyson did not die in a shootout with police, or end up doing 25 years in Attica. By the time he was 10 or 11 years old he was a remorseless predator, disconnected from society, doing muggings, stick-ups, and holding the gun during armed robberies, “because I was a juvenile.” Once he was knifed in the face by someone he had beaten in a fair fight.
Tyson attended the same public school I did — P.S. 54, at the corner of Nostrand Avenue and Hart Street. He was a good student at the beginning, but by fifth grade he had become a chronic truant. “I knew who my father was, but he never lived with us,” Tyson says. Abnormally strong for his age, he was able to knock kids five years older unconscious in street fights. They would jab and jive like Ali, and Tyson would rush in and land his punch of natural power.
“I started hanging out with a bad crowd,” he recalls now. “After I was about 10, I lived on the street. We robbed stores, gas stations, everything. I got arrested lots of times. I can’t count how many. They put me in a lot of different places that I escaped from. I just walked out in the middle of the night because they had no fences. I was in Spofford House in the Bronx for about eight months. Then I got convicted of assault and they sentenced me to 18 months in Tryon, a school for bad boys. But the held me overtime. I did two years because I knocked out a few guards and some residents. I was hyper in Tryon, and I couldn’t escape. I felt cooped up and frustrated with all my energy, so I had a lot of fights. But please, don’t think I was a murderer or anything like that. I wasn’t that bad.”
The confidentiality provisions of the state’s social services law prohibited the administration and counselors at the Tryon School in Johnstown, New York, from talking for quotation about Tyson. But off-the-record they are all proud of the kid they remember as originally the most difficult of 35 residents who lived in medium-security Elmwood Cottage. In April 1984, the state’s youth services commissioner, Leonard Dunston, presented Tyson with a plaque for accomplishment after being a resident in a state juvenile facility.
When Tyson first arrived at Tryon he was “violent, depressed, and mute,” according to one of his counselors. After a couple months he discovered boxing with gloves instead of fists. One of the guards at Tryon was Bobby Stewart, a former pro boxer who knew about D’Amato’s boxing club in nearby Catskill. Stewart arranged a meeting during which he sparred with Tyson in front of Cus. Eventually, Tyson was paroled into Cus D’Amato’s custody. He moved in with Cus; Cus’s companion of 45 years, Camille Ewald; Kevin Rooney, Cus’s loyal fighter from Staten Island, who would become Tyson’s friend and trainer; and the other young boxers who were part of the extended D’Amato family.
Things did not go smoothly at first. Cus enrolled Tyson in the local public school, but Tyson knocked out a few classmates, and Cus had to arrange for a private tutor to visit the house.
For the next six years D’Amato and Tyson worked and talked together every day. Tyson not only learned how to box from Cus, he learned the rules of civilized society. He also learned Cus’s code of honor: loyalty, perfectionism, courage. And no contact with — and no compromise with — the corrupters and connivers of boxing.
By being such a gifted pupil, Tyson, in return, gave Cus the treasure of looking forward to the future. He made Cus feel young again. Cus felt like it was 1962 again, and José Torres was undefeated, and Paul Pender, the middleweight champion, was ducking his fighter. With Tyson’s father absent, and his mother (now deceased) living in Brooklyn, Cus became Tyson’s legal guardian.
Some fighters can be obnoxious bullies outside the ring. But every fighter Cus ever trained was a considerate gentleman. And under Cus’s tutelage, Tyson, too, began to feel free to display playfulness and even tenderness. He returned to an old hobby he’d had in Brooklyn — collecting pigeons. Tyson now spends hours training and playing with his collection of 100 pigeons. The birds give him peace, and are his second favorite form of recreation.
His favorite relaxation — also a solitary pursuit — is studying old boxing movies on a big screen in his bedroom. His co-managers, Jim Jacobs and Bill Cayton, own the world’s largest collection of boxing films and tapes — about 26,000. Their company, Big Fights Inc., is a $20 million corporation that sells the rights to show these films. So Tyson has access to his own vast film archive of past champions. He has become an authentic historian and scholar of the sweet science.
When I asked Tyson about the champions of the past he most admired and identified with, I got answers that were surprising and revealing. I had anticipated his identification with pure punchers like Liston and Foreman, but he dismissed them as “just ponderous guys without too much brains.”
His favorite fighter, he said, was Rocky Marciano. “He broke their will,” Tyson said with reverence. “He was constantly coming in. But he swayed low, so the punches hit him on the shoulder. He didn’t get hit as much as people think he did. And we have in common fighting guys with longer reach.”
The second champion Tyson mentioned was Tony Canzoneri, the clever-aggressive, five-four, two-time lightweight champion during the 1930s. “Canzoneri had incredible guts and desire,” Tyson said. “And he was so smart.”
“And I love Henry Armstrong,” Tyson volunteered. “You know, Cus thought he was the best boxer who ever lived.”
Six days after Tyson was a pallbearer at Cus D’Amato’s funeral, he was scheduled to fight Eddie Richardson in Houston, Texas, for $2500. Jim Jacobs, Tyson ‘s co-manager with Bill Cayton, contemplated calling the fight off when he saw how “traumatized” Tyson had been by the death of D’Amato. But Tyson wanted to go through with the fight; whatever grief and loss he felt, he would not let it interfere with Cus’s radical plan of fighting every 10 days to acquire experience and confidence. When boxing writers in Houston asked him if he was emotionally prepared to fight so soon after Cus’s burial, Tyson told them: “I have certain objectives, and I’m going to fulfill them.” Jim Jacobs never saw him so ”resolute and determined.”
Cus had been telling the boxing community for years that Tyson was going to be “the youngest heavyweight champion in history,” and Tyson wants to make Cus a prophet. Under Cus’s direction, Floyd Patterson became champion at 21 years and nine months, and Tyson, not yet 20, has set his mind to break that record, even though it places him under the pressure of an artificial timetable.
At this infant stage of Tyson’s career, there are naturally unanswered questions about what hidden weaknesses might lurk beneath his growing aura of invincibility. Other fighters have looked like unbeatable monsters, only to have tiny flaws exposed and broken open under pressure from great rivals in big fights. Muhammad Ali unmasked George Foreman’s lack of stamina and mechanistic inability to adjust his tactics and style. Larry Holmes revealed Gerry Cooney’s lack of confidence in his own endurance, and his demoralization when someone took his best shot and was still standing. Sugar Ray Leonard found weakness in Thomas Hearns’s chin, and ignorance of how to clinch when dazed.
So in Texas, the herd of boxing writers seized upon Tyson’s height and reach as the potential flaw in this jewel. Tyson, at five-eleven and a half, is short when compared to Foreman, Ali, or Holmes. Since Jack Johnson won the heavyweight title in 1908, only two heavyweight champions have been under six feet — Rocky Marciano and Joe Frazier. And Tyson’s reach is not nearly as long as future rivals like Pinklon Thomas, Tyrell Biggs, Tim Witherspoon, Greg Page, Carl Williams, Gerry Cooney, or Michael Spinks. And his opponent in Houston was Eddie Richardson, who is six feet six inches tall, with a reach advantage of about nine inches.
“Are you too short to be a heavyweight?” the skeptical writers kept asking Tyson before the fight.
“None of my past opponents say that,” was Tyson’s standard reply.
Richardson was an adequate journeyman fighter — he had 12 wins and two losses going into the bout, with eight knockouts. Tyson had won all his 11 fights by knockouts.
The fight in Houston lasted 77 seconds. The first punch Tyson threw — a freight-train overhand right — knocked Richardson down. He got up, but Tyson, advancing in crouch, hit him with a left hook so fast that Richardson never saw it coming. Richardson seemed to be lifted off the canvas by the force of the blow, and fell backwards like a sawed-down tree. He was counted out.
In the dressing room, before the local writers could formulate their questions, a pumped-up Tyson asked: “Do you still think I’m too short?” When an interviewer asked Tyson what lessons he had learned from D’Amato, he answered: “To face your problems.”
Several viewings of the tape of this fight, and the tape of Tyson’s one-round knockout in September of the six foot four Donnie Long, suggest the simple essence of Tyson’s distinction. He punches harder than anybody else. It was this raw natural power that Cus D’Amato saw when Tyson was 13 years old and still in a prison for adolescents. D’Amato merely concentrated and refined this power by teaching Tyson to punch in a shorter arc, improve his timing and hand speed, and develop a left hook that is just as powerful as his right. D’Amato discovered Tyson, but he didn’t invent him.
Tyson’s victims all say afterward that they have never been hit so hard. Donnie Long, who had never been knocked out before, said Tyson’s punch “felt like a blackjack.” Sterling Benjamin, who succumbed in 54 seconds, said it felt “like a sledgehammer hit me.” He was put down by a left hook to the liver — Tyson’s punch “nobody can take.”
John Condon is the head of Madison Square Garden’s boxing department. He has been around fighters for 30 years. He told me: “I have never seen anybody punch like Tyson. Not Marciano, not Liston. Nobody. He would knock out Gerry Cooney today in one round. His trouble will be no one is going to want to fight him.”
Nobody can give a professional fighter this magnitude of punching authority. It comes from nature’s chemistry of leverage, upper-body strength, timing, and quickness of hand that prevents the opponent from preparing his nervous system for the impact. Professionals get knocked out by the punch they don’t see coming.
One-punch destroyers have come in all shapes and physiques. A surprising number of legendary hitters have been tall and thin: Ray Robinson, Sandy Saddler, Bob Foster, Thomas Hearns, Carlos Zarate, and Alexis Arguello. An equal number have been compact, strong, and stocky: Stanley Ketchel, Joe Frazier, Archie Moore, Sonny Liston, Wilfredo Gomez, and Rocky Marciano.
Whatever the secret formula is, Tyson was born with it. But a punch by itself is no guarantee of success or greatness. It must exist in combination with other qualities “character,” defense, and intelligence. And there must not be that small vulnerability that some future foe will find and exploit in a contest the whole world is watching.
Perhaps the most common unseen vulnerability in young prospects is the inability to take a punch. This quality cannot be taught, and it cannot be known until it is tested in an actual fight. Cus thought the ability to take a punch was a reflection of character and will. Other trainers believe the ability to relax in the ring and the thickness of the neck as a shock absorber are also factors in avoiding being knocked out. This capacity to survive the other man’s best blow was one of the dimensions that made Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Rocky Marciano, Harry Greb, Henry Armstrong, Carmen Basilio, Sandy Saddler, and Sugar Ray Leonard boxing immortals. Tyson told me: ”I know I can take a great punch, but I don’t want to have to prove it.”
Tyson’s extraordinary 19-and-a-half-inch neck is a good indication he can probably take a great punch. But he was once tested in this regard, in his toughest amateur fight.
This involuntary experiment occurred in the heavyweight finals of the Empire State Games in April of 1984, just before the Olympic trials. Tyson, then not yet 18, was fighting Winston Bent, the reigning New York City Golden Gloves champion.
During an exchange in the second round, Bent jolted Tyson with a right hand to the temple. Tyson punched back with fury. He did not go down. He did not retreat. And in the next round he knocked Bent out. It was an example of what Cus D’ Amato meant when he talked about “character” in a fighter.
On November 22 — nine days after his knockout in Texas — Tyson was in the ring again. The· location was Albany, and his opponent was Conroy Nelson, six foot five inches, and with a professional record of 19 wins and five losses. He had a 10-inch reach advantage.
The venue was a music tent, sold out with 3000 people plus 400 standees on a cold, rainy night. They’d all come to see Tyson, who has become a hero in the Albany-Troy-Schnectady area. (The television networks are now considering showing Tyson for the first time in February, and staging the fight in the Albany area so there will be an enthusiastic live crowd rather than the usual indifferent gamblers and tourists who attend the fights staged in the Atlantic City and Nevada casino hotels.)
The second Tyson departed his trailer dressing room — wearing no socks and no robe; as is his tradition — the crowd started screaming. And Tyson, who learned from Cus there is an entertainment and personality aspect to boxing, smiled and interacted with his fans.
At the opening bell Tyson sprang to the attack, immediately imposing his will and energy level on his opponent. Nelson retreated and covered his head with his gloves. Tyson stepped to the side and went to the body with supersonic hooks to the liver and kidney.
George Foreman at 26 did not have enough poise, flexibility, or intelligence to do this with Muhammad Ali in Zaire. Foreman kept trying to punch through Ali’s parrying gloves, and hit him in his bobbing and twisting head, instead of his stationary body. Foreman kept missing, got frustrated and exhausted, and Ali knocked him out. But Tyson, at 19, had the wisdom and patience to feast on Nelson’s exposed ribs until his hands came down, his breath came in gasps, and his legs lost their spring.
Twenty seconds into the second round Tyson hit Nelson with one short, perfectly timed left hook that smashed the bridge of Nelson’s nose into pieces. Nelson went down, managed to get to one knee at the count of nine, and then with his fearful eyes and tentative body language, signaled the referee that he didn’t wish to continue.
As soon as the bout was over a 10-year-old kid named Tony, who trained with Cus, jumped into the ring, and held up a homemade sign that said: GOODEN IS DR. K — BUT TYSON IS DR. KO.
Afterward, in the trailer, with a trace of irritation, Tyson answered unusually silly questions from some of the local press. One scribe asked about a local politician who wanted to shut down Cus’s Catskill gym because it was “dirty.” Tyson and Kevin Rooney said they never heard of the crazy idea.
Another reporter asked Tyson if he expected to win all his fights by knockouts. “That’s not possible,” Tyson the Historian replied. “Joe Louis didn’t knock out every opponent. Schmeling didn’t either. Nobody can.”
After the local press left, I followed José Torres behind a curtain, where he embraced Tyson. Tyson whispered, “Cus would have been proud.”
The following morning, Tyson told Camille: “It was just like Cus was there. Everything he taught me came back to me.”
Boxing is now in a phase of transition. The Age of Muhammad Ali is over. Marvin Hagler is so magnificent he has run out of relevant competition. Boxing is at such a low ebb that Gerry Cooney, who has never beaten a legitimate contender under 35 years old, is being considered for a heavyweight title fight when his only credential is his white skin.
But about to dance on stage is the next generation of Mark Breland, Pernell Whitaker, and Mike Tyson. If boxing is going to be cleansed of its monopolistic manipulations and counterfeit crowns, it will occur when these three rising stars with honest managers become free and independent champions, liberated from phony rating organizations and option contracts to promoters.
So watch Mike Tyson, Cus’s kid from Brooklyn, this Friday night at the Felt Forum. He has overcome every adversity to redeem a wayward life and become a role model to a lost generation of the ghetto.
But while watching him, remember he is just 19. Inside his man’s body are teenage emotions and inexperience. He has been a professional boxer less than nine months. He has never gone more than four rounds outside the gym. He has never gone 10 rounds, much less the championship 15.
There will be more tests to find hidden flaws in Tyson. We haven’t seen what will happen the first time some freak just shrugs off his punch. We don’t know how Tyson will handle the money and celebrity that are about to crash into his orderly, ritualized life.
The Tyson we will see Friday night is not yet Muhammad Ali, or Joe Frazier, or Rocky Marciano. But at 19 he is more advanced than they were at 19. And 12 or 15 months from now, Mike Tyson could become the youngest heavyweight champion in history. Just as Cus D’Amato and his extended family knew years ago.