“A boy comes to me with a spark of interest, I feed the spark and it becomes a flame. I feed the flame and it becomes a fire. I feed the fire and it becomes a roaring blaze.” — Cus D’Amato
Mike Tyson was a machine in the 1980s. He was literally the baddest man on the planet knocking out opponents in the squared circle left and right. A ferocious animal you wouldn’t have bet against if put into the ring with tiger.
Tyson’s rise to the top of the boxing world put him on an even keel with other sport celebrities of the decade. Joe Montana, Hulk Hogan, Magic Johnson, and Tyson were four of the most iconic sports celebrities of the time and people of a certain generation will fondly remember seeing images of the fighter on late-night sports shows or in Sports Illustrated.
“Iron” Mike’s popularity was so high that the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) worked hard to bring him into the sport of wrestling in some way. That finally occurred in 1998 after Tyson’s boxing career was on the decline.
The fighter also had his named attached to one of the best-ever Nintendo Entertainment System games, Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out! Yes, Tyson was on top of the world in the 1980s up to it unravelling with a 1990 loss in Tokyo to Buster Douglas and personal issues that resulted in prison time.
A troubled youth gets help
By the time Tyson had lost the WBA, WBC, IBF and lineal heavyweight titles to Douglas in February 1990, Tyson had spent over four years without his long-time mentor by his side. Constantine ‘Cus’ D’Amato had died in November 1985 leaving behind a long career in the sport as both a trainer and manager. His longest lasting mark, however, was the final man he turned into a champion, Tyson.
Prior to discovering the troubled youngster that was Tyson, D’Amato had had a run at the top of boxing mentoring the likes of Floyd Patterson and Jose Torres. The trainer and manager led both men to world titles, but by the time the 1980s dawned, D’Amato was on the downward plane of his career. D’Amato had relocated to Catskills, New York and lived mostly in obscurity in the town. He ran a boxing gym located above the local police station and like fate, it was there that D’Amato met Tyson.
According to the book IRON AMBITION: My Life with Cus D’Amato written by Mike Tyson and Larry Sloman, the fighter was confused about how D’Amato had wound up living in the Catskills. D’Amato was a legend but somehow had been exiled from the sport. His eye for a world-class boxer was so accurate that after watching Tyson spar for 10 minutes as a 13-year-old, the old trainer proclaimed that he would be a future world champion. Such was D’Amato’s eye for talent and ability to teach others to become the best boxers. Considering D’Amato was so good at spotting talent, it would leave many unaware that he was blind in one eye. The injury had occurred at the age of 12 when D’Amato got into a street fight with an adult man that left him permanently injured.
By the time the two met, D’Amato was in his 70s, yet he still knew that Tyson was the future of boxing. It makes it hard to ignore the part fate played between their meeting. Tyson was already a veteran of petty crime, detention centers, juvenile jails, and reform schools. In fact, it was while attending the Tryon School for Boys in upstate New York that the pair met.
Tyson was introduced to D’Amato by Tryon School for Boys guard, Bobby Stewart. The old guard had taken Tyson under his wing, transformed him from a misbehaving adolescent and into a youngster hungry to be a boxer. During Tyson’s sparring trial against Stewart, D’Amato watched over the pair lighting up with excitement.
That first meeting between Tyson and D’Amato was the foundation for the fighter’s career, and in many ways, created the success that would soon follow. Looking back on that first encounter, it was truly stranger than fiction. D’Amato was “washed up” while Tyson was nothing. Together they showed they were something.
The tools of the trade
D’Amato would eventually adopt Tyson and take him in. It wasn’t just about teaching Tyson how to be a pro boxer and champion, D’Amato’s discipline helped the fighter shake off the unstable world he had come from, making a more secure life.
Tyson’s body and technique went through rigorous training but D’Amato worked more than just the fighter’s physique. The old trainer focused on the boxer’s mind. After years of being in trouble with the law, having low self-esteem, and lashing out against others due to anger management issues, D’Amato had just as much work to do on Tyson’s mind as his physical appearance.
D’Amato would sit by Tyson’s bedside to teach him to build a championship mindset. Visualisation was a key tool but other areas that the boxer learned were setting goals, accepting that he had to improve on a near constant basis, and how to deal with failure. All three items were alien to Tyson and the environment he had come from.
In the gym, Tyson trained relentlessly, but D’Amato’s lessons didn’t stop there. The trainer focused on the mental side of being a boxer outside the gym making Tyson’s education 24-hours a day, seven-days a week.
Walking on eggshells
D’Amato died in 1985, just one year before Tyson became the youngest boxing world champion in history. Tyson’s first world title came just seven years after the two began working together and their lives intertwining.
In recent years, Tyson has opened up further about his former mentor, the man he dedicated that first world champions win against Trevor Berbick to. According to Tyson, D’Amato could make him feel two inches tall after criticising one of his fights.
The boxer was also often “walking on eggshells” when around the old man. D’Amato was a coach, trainer, and manager 24/7. He knew what it took to create a champion, yet at the same time, in his 70s, knew that time was running out to teach the young fighter.
Despite the hard discipline and the constant learning, their relationship was like father and son. It is a relationship that many fighters and trainers/managers have in the sport. A symbiotic relationship in which the two parties need each other.
While many kids and adults would find Tyson and D’Amato’s relationship to be strange, the context of it must be remember. They met in 1979 with Tyson coming out of juvenile detention and reform school. D’Amato was old-school, born in the 1930s, and had trained two world champions previously. It is a world alien to many people today.
Losing a mentor
It is an interesting question to ponder and there is no definitive answer, but would Tyson’s boxing career have ended differently had D’Amato not died in 1985? By the time the long-time trainer departed Earth, he had turned Tyson into a ruthless animal in the ring. Psychologically, Tyson was a killer capable of knocking out anyone and everyone.
However, after D’Amato’s death, Tyson’s career path took a different trajectory. Yes, he was still an unbelievable boxer and wins were racked up. However, it seemed that the issues from Tyson’s past were ready to crop back up at any time. Drinking, drugs, and a conviction to federal prison for rape occurred after losing to Douglas in 1990. After storming to the top of the mountain, Tyson’s decline couldn’t be slowed. The 1980s were the decade of Tyson and at the time, few would have expected the 1990s to see such as steep decline. Over the last three decades, Tyson has fought sobriety and himself.
At one time during his life, D’Amato was quoted as saying, “To see a man beaten not by a better opponent but by himself is a tragedy.” Those words would be incredible prophetic about Tyson’s career.
D’Amato was Tyson’s father figure. He taught him to box, sure, but their relationship was far more. The trainer built Tyson into a teenager that put his past behind him. Unfortunately, without D’Amato’s guidance, it was difficult for Tyson to stay on the straight and narrow. Meeting D’Amato was the beginning of Tyson’s life in boxing. D’Amato’s death was, in many ways, the end.
In 2017, while promoting IRON AMBITION: My Life with Cus D’Amato in an interview with NPR, Tyson was asked about his relationship with the trainer, manager, and father figure. “I was fortunate to meet that guy,” Tyson said. “We were two guys who were ‘nothing’ who became something.” His statement rings incredibly true. A “washed up” boxing trainer and kid just starting out in the sport. For a time, they conquered the world together.