The story of Mike Tyson's time in juvie and reform school, and how he ended up meeting Cus D'Amato, who proclaimed he would be the future heavyweight champion of the world.
The following is excerpted from IRON AMBITION: My Life with Cus D’Amato by Mike Tyson and Larry Sloman. Published by arrangement with Blue Rider Press, a member of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Tyrannic Literary Company LLC.
I don’t really understand how it all happened. How did Cus D’Amato, this legendary boxing manager and trainer who was in exile in upstate New York, watch me spar for less than ten minutes when I was thirteen years old and predict that I would be the youngest heavyweight champ ever?
Cus was one of the most unique men ever to walk the planet. He touched the lives of so many people and helped them become a better version of themselves. He took the weak and made them strong.
But before Cus, pigeons saved my life. I was a fat Poindexter when I was growing up. I was bullied every day until I was brought up onto a roof near where I lived and told to clean up the pigeon coops by the older, cooler guys who kept their birds there. It didn’t make sense to me. The birds were so small, so insignificant looking. Why would fly guys be so interested? But you could see by the smiles on their faces that these pigeons meant the world to them.
From being a pigeon gofer I got into a life of petty crime. I never hung out with anybody my own age. I was schooled by my older friends. Because I was smaller, they’d have me climb through windows and unlock the door so they could rob a house. I was like a professional student, soaking up all these street moves from these older guys.
As I got older, I got bigger but I still felt like that small four-eyed guy who got bullied all the time. I never thought I would be a fighter, but I used to hang out with my friend Wise who was an amateur boxer. Wise always used to do the Ali shuffle while he shadowboxed.
My first fight happened by accident. I had used some of my pilfering money to buy my own pigeons. I kept them in an abandoned building next to mine. This guy stole one of my birds and when I confronted him to get it back, he pulled it out of his coat and twisted its neck off and rubbed the blood on me. I was furious but I was scared to fight, until one of my friends egged me on. “You’ve got to fight him, Mike.” So I hit with a right and he went down and I was stunned. I didn’t know what to do. Then it dawned on me how cool Wise looked doing the Ali shuffle so I just started shuffling and everybody started clapping. My first taste of applause.
Fighting was big in my neighborhood. If you were a good fighter, you had respect. I was especially good at that sneaky sucker punch s--t. But I didn’t win all my fights. I got beat up a lot because I was fighting older men. I was eleven or twelve and I was fighting guys in their thirties because when I beat them in a dice game, they didn’t want to pay a little kid. Those men might have guns but I didn’t care. They knew I wasn’t a punk and they had to fight or pull out a gun and hit me with it.
With my petty criminal life, I was spending more and more time in Spofford. The actual name of the place was Bridges Juvenile Center, a rat-infested hellhole on Spofford Avenue in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx.
One of the times while I was in there, they were showing the movie The Greatest, a 1977 movie where Muhammad Ali plays himself. I liked Ali’s style then but I wasn’t a boxing fan at all. I used to love watching wrestlers like Bruno Sammartino and Killer Kowalski. The only time I saw an Ali fight was when he was fighting Leon Spinks for the second time. I loved Ali but I wasn’t a bit interested in the fight.
But watching his biopic in a room filled with hundreds of kids at Spofford was great. And when the movie was over, the lights came on, and, all of a sudden, Ali walked out on the stage and the place just exploded. Whoa. Ali started talking to us about being in detention and he was saying how he had been in jail and he had lost his mind. He was saying just beautiful, inspirational stuff. That speech was a game changer for me. It’s not that I wanted to become a boxer after hearing him. I just knew that I wanted to be famous. I wanted the feeling that when I walk in a room, people bow down and lose their f---ing minds. But I didn’t know what I was going to have to do for people to do that s--t.
I was always in trouble in Spofford. Our dorm was fighting with another dorm and I got caught with a knife. The CO who ran the place came in and read the report and then he told me to get up and take my punishment, ten hits in the head with a half pool stick.
A few days after that thrashing, my class worker came in and told me that I was being sent away to finish the last year of my sentence. They don’t tell you where you’re going so you can’t tell your peeps where you’ll be. The next morning two guards handcuffed me and put me in the back seat of a car and drove me upstate to Johnstown, New York. I was going to a place called Tryon but I had never heard of it.
The Tryon School for Boys was light years away from Spofford. It was in the woods an hour northwest of Albany. There was an indoor swimming pool, a nice gym and programs that included raising pheasants. Because they didn’t consider me a violent offender, I was initially placed in a cottage where I had my own room with no lock on the door.
I immediately began acting out, attacking kids, attacking guards, attacking everyone. I began to get a rep. Mike Tyson – the psycho crazy guy, the sick f--- who would walk up and punch you in the face or throw hot water on you. The final straw came when a kid passed me in the hall as I was walking into one of my classes and he tried to snatch my hat and I pulled it back. I had to wait forty-five minutes for the class to be over and all I could think about was what I was going to do to this guy. When the class was over, I found the guy and beat his ass.
That was it for my freedom. Two guards came and got me and escorted me to the lockdown cottage, where the bad-asses go. For me it was a badge of honor.
I was in isolation but there was a tiny window in the door and I’d hear some inmates walking by. “Hey, what’s going on out there?” I yelled. One of the guys told me that they had just finished sparring with Mr. Stewart, one of the guards. I had heard about Bobby Stewart. He had a boxing program and everyone who was in it was always laughing and happy. I decided I wanted to get in on that program.
Every time the staff came to check on me, I just begged to see Mr. Stewart. Then they’d pick up a phone and call Stewart. “He’s completely calm. He’s polite. He ate and asked to clean up. All he wants to do is talk to you,” they told him. Eventually Stewart came to my room. He smashed the door open and ran into the room.
“What do you want with me?” he yelled.
Just writing that sentence still gives me a chill to this day.
“I want to be a fighter,” I said.
“So do the rest of the guys,” he barked. “If they were fighters they wouldn’t be here in the first place. They’d be out in the street, going to school, getting a job. We deal with losers here.”
“All I want to do is be a fighter. I’ll do anything you ask me to do,” I said.
Mr. Stewart kept screaming at me and then he changed his tone.
“Alright, look it, let’s see your behavior change. Let’s see you go to your classes with no incidents. Let’s see a month of good behavior and we’ll see what happens.”
Later Stewart told me that he’d been working there for ten years and he had never seen anybody as insecure as me when I came in. He said that he could see me stealing a pocketbook if no one was looking but he couldn’t see me confronting someone. I couldn’t even look him in the eye when he barged into my room. For all my street bravado, I was really a shy kid. I was really just a follower, not a leader. All I knew back then was how to cheat, steal, rob and lie.
Stewart would check the daily logs to see if I was behaving myself. He saw that not only was I doing everything I was supposed to do but I was actually asking the staff if there was extra work I could do.
Mr. Stewart started reading my files and he saw a notation that said I was borderline retarded. He went to the staff psychologist and said, “What is this?” She told him that I was intellectually handicapped. “How do they determine that?” he asked. “Well, they give him tests.” “Tests! He can’t read and write properly. How can you determine he’s retarded? I’ve seen this kid for a while now, he’s smart. He just doesn’t know how to read or write. I can’t read or write that good but I’m not retarded!” The psychologist started waffling and Stewart lost his cool and told her that she was retarded. He got written up for that.
So I kept behaving and getting good reports and Mr. Stewart seemed impressed. I know he was impressed when he came into the weight room one day. I was about to use the Universal bench press machine.
“What are you doing?” he said to me. “You’ve got 250 pounds on that machine.”
“The other guys said I can’t do this,” I said.
“Don’t you do it! Take the weight off and start with 135 pounds,” he said.
He turned his back on me and when he looked back I was pressing the 250 pounds, ten times – without warming up. I was so f---ing strong back then. I guess my feat got back to his boss because when Stewart finally decided he would let me spar with him, his boss was worried.
“Jesus, I know you’re in good shape, but this kid is stronger than all of us put together. You be careful,” he told Bobby. “The staff can’t be seen getting beat up by the kids.”
I was so excited the day we sparred for the first time. We started boxing and I thought I was doing well because he was covering up and I was getting some punches in. Suddenly he came out of a clinch and the motherf---er hit me in the stomach and I went down. I had never felt pain like that before in my life. I felt like I was ready to throw up everything I had eaten for the last two years. I got right up but I couldn’t breathe.
“Walk it off,” he barked. “Walk it off.” I got my air back and we started boxing again. When we finished, I asked him if he could teach me how to punch a guy in the stomach like that. That was going to be my robbing punch.
Even though he had manhandled me like that, I never quit. The whole dorm, most of the staff, they’d all come out to watch us box. I was so happy to be getting attention. I wanted people to look at me and adore me but then I got mad when they did! I was so crazy then.
Once he saw that I kept coming back even though he was beating my ass, he started to teach me. Mr. Stewart would stand there and throw punches at me and I’d move then we’d reverse it. I’d never had any goals in my life except for robbing but Bobby gave me something to focus on. I turned the same desire I had for robbing into fighting. I know that Stewart was impressed with my work ethic and he had a good feeling that what we were doing was going to help me outside of the ring.
I was so excited that I put him on the phone with my mother one of the times that I was allowed to call her. He told her how much progress I had been making and that if I could continue doing good, I could make something out of myself. She just laughed and thanked him. I had never given her any reason to be hopeful about me.
Mr. Stewart was excited by my progress but he began to worry about what would happen to me when I was released. He knew that if I went back to Brooklyn I might fall back into a criminal mindset. He thought about finding a gym down there for me to work out of but then he had another idea.
One day, after we sparred, he sat me down.
“Listen man, my wife is mad. I’m coming home with a broken nose and black eyes. I can’t box with you no more, but I’m going to take you somewhere where they’re going to take you to the next level. Do you think you want to do that? Because I believe when you get out of here, you’re going to get killed or locked up again.”
“No,” I protested. “I don’t want to go. I want to stay here with you.”
“I want you to work with Cus D’Amato. He’s a famous trainer. He took Floyd Patterson to the heavyweight title. He made Jose Torres into a light heavyweight champ. He takes kids in if they behave and work hard. Maybe you could stay at his house with him.”
Before Bobby called Cus, he showed me a few moves that were meant to impress the old trainer. One was a diagonal side step that enabled me to swing coming out of the corner. I practiced that and got really good at it. Then Stewart called Cus and asked him if he’d take a look at me.
“Absolutely,” Cus said. “If you think he’s got potential then bring him down tomorrow.”
On the way there, Stewart tried to tamp down my expectations.
“Cus may not even like you the first time, I don’t know,” he said. “But, maybe he’ll say we can come back. If he does, then we’ll work harder and then we’ll come back and come back until he sees we can do it.”
Cus’s gym was on top of the police station in Catskill. Inside it was old and musky and there was a small ring. There were also a lot of weather-beaten newspaper clips on the wall. There were a few older white guys there along with a younger guy named Teddy Atlas who was assisting Cus. I was introduced to Cus and in a second I could see that he was totally in control of everything there. He just sucked up all the air in the room. He shook my hand and there wasn’t a trace of a smile on his face. He showed no emotions.
Right away Teddy Atlas took one look at me and said, “We’ve got nobody to box with him.” Stewart said that he was going to box me and we got in the ring. I was really good that first round, pressing Mr. Stewart and banging away at him. We did that spin out move that we had been practicing and I looked over and saw Cus smile for the first time. “Wow! Wow!” he said. “That’s beautiful.”
I kept pressing Stewart in the second round and he got me with a couple of shots and my nose started bleeding profusely. It looked a lot worse than it felt and Atlas jumped into the ring.
“All right Bobby. We’ve seen enough,” he said.
“No, no,” I protested. “Mr. Stewart says we don’t quit. If we start, we have to go three rounds.”
Bobby looked over at Cus and he said it was like watching a movie. Cus’s face turned red and he looked over at his friends who were there and everyone was smiling. Bobby later told me it was like Cus’s body had miraculously transformed. “His whole face lit up. You ever see a guy that gets scared and his hair stands up? Well, Cus had no hair but that’s what it reminded me of. His eyes opened wide and it was like ‘I have life again.’”
Cus let us go a third round and I did pretty good. Teddy took my gloves off and Cus started helping Mr. Stewart with his gloves.
I saw them talking but I couldn’t make out what they were saying. I couldn’t get a read from looking at Cus’s face. He was impassive.
On the way to our car I was almost bursting with anticipation.
“Can I come back? How did he think I did?” I peppered Bobby.
Bobby pushed me. “Guess what he said?”
“He said I can’t come back?” I said. I was such a low esteem schmuck.
“No! He said, ‘Bobby, barring outside distractions, that is the heavyweight champion of the world and possibly the Universe.’ But only if you continue to work like you’ve been working.”
I pushed him back. “Come on,” I said. And then I started crying.
“I’m telling you, that’s what he thinks of you,” Bobby said. “See, you’re not a scumbag. You’re not a loser. He said all that about you the first time he saw you. Do you realize what that means? But you can screw it up in one second. You’ve gotta work.”
“I’m ready,” I said through my tears. “I’m ready to work.”
On the ride back to Tryon, I just knew I was going to be a success. Even though I talk negative and project myself as a bum, my inner core thinks I’m a God and I know I’m going to be successful. Every time I say ‘I’m a piece of s--t’ or ‘I want to kill myself’, that’s all confusing the enemy. Everything I say is for a reason; to confuse the enemy. That’s a concept that I would soon learn from Cus.