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Making Mike Tyson: Lessons from Master Cus D’Amato

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

At 12 years old Cus D’Amato took part in a street fight with an adult man. After the ferocious fight ended, Cus became blind in one eye. This fight would change his life forever. From that moment on Cus had a choice. He could either wallow in his self-pity at the thought of living the rest of his days as a disabled member of society with only one eye OR he could use this terrible event as a motivation to achieve something bigger than himself. Luckily the same tenacious attitude that forced him to not run away from fighting an adult propelled him to dominate the world of boxing. Cus would never box in his life, as one eye wasn’t enough to let him last too long in the ring. Instead, he would use his natural gifts of intelligence and wisdom to find, train and create three of the greatest super-heavyweight champions of all-time!

Cus trained fighters at his famed Gramercy Gym on East 14th street in Catskills, New York. Back in Cus’ day, you had to pass through this unnaturally heavy door with old paint and a purposely misspelled sign that said ‘Gramercy Gym’ and if you managed to pry that door open it lead you to a long darkly lit stairway climbing into who knows where. If you ventured up that path, you’d find yourself up against another even heavier door. Lot’s of tough street kids would find this sanctuary but fail that first test of opening those doors adventuring into Cus’ intimidatingly great unknown.  If a kid did manage to open that second door, they would find a school of hard work, discipline, grit, and perseverance and enough physical and mental education to make an impressive fighter if you manage to make it out alive.

In his interviews, Cus made many a reference to that famed Catskill Gym door entrance. 

“First thing I want to know about a kid, is whether he can open that door. Then when he walks in, I look at him, try to see what he’s seeing. Most of them stand at the door. They see guys skipping rope, shadowboxing, hitting the bags. Most of all, they see guys in the ring. Fighting. And then they have to decide. Do they want this or not? If they want it, they stay, they ask someone what they should do. Most of them are shy for some reason. Almost all fighters. They whisper. You tell them to come back, and you’ll see what can be done. They have to spend at least one night dealing with FEAR. If they come back the second time, then maybe you have a fighter.”


Mike Tyson: He just met me, I’m a just a little kid he says, you’re gonna be the world champ!
Mike Tyson: (starts to cry)
Interviewer: Are you okay?
Mike Tyson:How can I ever do an interview about him and I can’t stop crying?
Mike Tyson: Yeah, how’d this guy know… How did he know I was the ONE?!
Interviewer: Well you were a specimen…
Mike Tyson: It takes more than that… To be a fighter…

Mike during a recent ESPN interview

Cus D’Amato died in 1985 at the age of 77, a year before his greatest pupil, Mike Tyson would be crowned the youngest and arguably most dominant Heavyweight Champion the world has ever seen.  The Genesis of any greatness starts with a spark. But without guidance, motivation and an unbreakable mindset, the path to greatness and the path to mediocrity differ but only slightly.  As Cus D’Amato showed through the decades, it didn’t matter who came through those heavy metal doors. Without that burning desire and innate hunger, it didn’t matter how much natural talent and physical prowess you had. Without that mental determination, you would never even scratch the surface of becoming a great fighter. Cus knew that in order for his new pupil to become a great fighter he needed to master the most important muscle in the body. The mind. Cus took Iron Mike into his home at a young age and used to sit by his bedside and teach Mike the lessons of championship mindset. Lessons of visualization, Affirmations, Repetitions, acceptance of failure, embracing fear, setting goals and being open to constant and never-ending improvement and learning.

Cus D’Amato:  Visualization
With the help of Cus, Mike would use a nightly visualization technique. Before going to sleep every night Cus would come to Mike’s bedside and help him to visualize himself as an elusive, powerful, heavyweight champ that moved faster than a lightweight and hit harder than any heavyweight in boxing history. Iron Mike would fall asleep with visualizations and dreams that he was unstoppable, and he would wake up the next morning wanting to make sure that these dreams would, in fact, become a reality. Cus had Tyson visualize himself as the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, a generational fighter that would become the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time, even better than Muhammad Ali! Cus turned Tyson’s brain into a virtual reality movie. Cus was training Tyson 24 hours a day, punishing his body and testing his limits during the day, but then honing that mental resiliency in his dreams while he was sleeping. A training schedule of 24 hours a day will be enough to give anyone an advantage over their opponents. 

Cus D’Amato: Affirmations
It became a form of self-help hypnosis before bedtime every night. Affirmations, like the visualizations before, were the other part of the reprogramming techniques Cus made Tyson internalize.  Tyson would repeat various affirmations that were tied to his visualized goals. Even when he woke up and was training in the gym, Cus would repeat the same affirmations to Tyson. They would both repeat to each other phrases about being the best, being unbeatable, being the most unbelievable heavyweight boxer that this world had ever seen.  Over the course of a few years, these affirmations were ingrained into Tyson’s head as fact. He had set in his mind a prophecy that he was meant to fulfill. He told himself that he was the chosen one.

Cus D’Amato: Repetitions
A big part of Iron Mike’s training was repetitions. Cus wanted Mike not to think when he was in the Ring. Instincts were built through repetition. To be the champ, Mike needed to move without the delay of thought or indecision. He needed the connection between his mind and body to be fluid and faster than the speed of light and the only way he could learn that was through intense training sessions where Tyson would repeatedly hit the same spot on the bag and do the same combos until it became as a habitual as walking.  Mike Tyson turned his body and mind into the perfect weapon through monotonous repetitions.

Cus D’Amato on Failure
In his early amateur fights, Cus wanted his young gladiator to make mistakes often and early. He wanted to test out the resilience and ability to accept mistakes as part of the process. After all of his mistake-filled amateur fights, Tyson and D’Amato would go over all of his errors, both physically and mentally and then do what they could to correct them in the gym and in the classroom the next day. Cus wanted Tyson to see every experience, whether it was in the Ring or in his daily life as a learning experience. Cus told the champ that to be the best he needed to understand that the best lessons always came from being defeated, that’s where champions were forged.

Heroes and cowards feel exactly the same fear. Heroes just react differently. Cus D’Amato

Cus D’Amato on Goals

Cus taught Mike all about the importance of goal setting and measurement. If you don’t know where you’re going, then you’ll never be able to get anywhere. So Tyson set countless goals on the regular, and he worked his ass off and grinded every day in the gym so that he could realize every single one of those goals. His first major goal was to become the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world by winning all three belts. On March 7, 1987, at the tender young age of 20, Iron Mike Tyson made Cus D’Amato proud. Not only was he the youngest, but Tyson was the first heavyweight boxer to simultaneously hold the WBA, WBC and IBF championship belts.  After winning and dominating all his opponents in the 80s, Tyson must’ve got bored as he set other more leisurely goals like owning his own pet Tiger.

No matter what anyone says, no matter the excuse or explanation, whatever a person does in the end is what he intended to do all along. Cus D’Amato

Cus on CANI (Constant and Never-ending improvement)
Cus instilled in Tyson a love of reading. This thirst for knowledge has remained unquenched to this day.  He encouraged this schoolboy mentality always, and he made sure that he provided Tyson with all the historical and biographical books that he could find. Cus knew that the learned man is the one without fear. He knew that Tyson’s greatest fear was that of the unknown, so as long as Tyson knew that there were answers to every unknown question that he had as long as he knew where to look, Tyson was well on his way to becoming the strongest most psychologically powerful boxer in the ring no matter what opponent he faced. Tyson credited the books Cus provided with helping him understand the way people think and thus, helping him to psyche out every single one of his opponents before they even stepped in the Ring! Tyson said that one of his favorite historical figures was Alexander the Great, and at the end of the day, thanks to the intense all around, foundational training instilled by the late Cus D’Amato, Mike Tyson was able to become The ‘Alexander the Great’ of his generation in the Boxing Ring.

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. If you don’t learn to control it, it’ll destroy you and everything around you. Cus D’Amato

Cus D’Amato with his Champs: Mike Tyson,  Jose Torres and Floyd Patterson (1980s) 

To see a man beaten not by a better opponent but by himself is a tragedy. Cus D’Amato