Cus D’Amato’s Methods
Las Vegas, Nevada. 7 March 1987
As for Tyson: unlike Dempsey, Marciano, and Frazier, those famously aggressive fighters to whom he is often compared, Tyson is not a reckless boxer; he is not willing, as so many boxer-fighters are, to take four or five punches in order to throw a punch of his own. His training is defensive and cautious –hence the peek-a-boo stance, a Cus D’Amato signature: for is not boxing primarily the art of self-defense? of hitting your man, and scoring points, without being hit in return? For two years, which must have been very long years, D’Amato trained Tyson to bob, weave, slip punches from sparring partners without throwing a single punch in response — a conditioning that has made Tyson an anomaly in the ring. His reputation is for power, speed, and aggression, but his defensive skills are as remarkable, if less dramatic.
BLOOD SEASON: MIKE TYSON AND THE WORLD OF BOXING by Phil Berger
Whatever Atlas did with Tyson, it was by D’Amato’s methods. For instance, when D’Amato had been with Jose Torres, he had developed a punching instrument known as the Willie Bag, after Willie Pastrano, from whom Torres would win the light heavyweight title. Willie was made of five mattresses wrapped about a frame. On the exterior of the front mattress was a rough-hewn sketch of a man, with his body demarcated by numbers that served as targets for particular punches. #1 was a left hook to the jaw; #2 a right hook to the jaw; #3 a left uppercut; #4 a right uppercut; #5 a left hook to the body; #6 a right hook to the body; #7 a jab to the head; and #8 a jab to the body.
D’Amato had created Willie to encourage his fighters to punch in rapid combination and had made tape recordings, in his voice, of varying sequences of numbers. When the fighter stepped up to Willie, he would respond to his master’s voice by delivering the mandated combination punches.
For Tyson, there was also the sand-filled “slip” bag, a teardrop-shaped black bag about the size of a fist that would swing from a length of rope as the fighter stood directly in its path. To avoid being hit, Tyson was taught to move his head from side to side and dip down, the prescriptive maneuvers for avoiding actual punches. Through his work on Willie and the slip bag, and through sparring, Tyson was acquiring the means to activate his power without its backfiring on him.
Quotes by Cus D’Amato from TysonTalk:
“Boxing is entertainment, so to be successful a fighter must not only win but he must win in an exciting manner. He must throw punches with bad intentions.” [Heller, 13]
“People who are born round don’t die square.” [Heller, 19]
“There are very few new things in this world, very few. That’s why people that are young, if they’re smart, try to profit from the experience of an older guy so they won’t have to go through all the pain and suffering. But a certain amount of pain and suffer is good, because it makes a person think they’ve learned.” [Heller, 25]
“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.” [Heller, 63]
“There is no such thing as a natural puncher. There is a natural aptitude for punching and that is different. Nobody is born the best. You have to practice and train to become the best.” [Heller, 96
Cus D’Amato on how the most important lessons were not learned in the gym, but were learned at the dinner table:
“I never teach until I’ve spoken to the fighter. I have to first determine his emotional state, get his background, to find out what I have to do, how many layers I have to keep peeling off so that I get to the core of the person so that he can recognize, as well as I, what is there.” [Heller, 60]
On how the recognition and acknowledgement of fear is the crucial lesson he taught and was ignored by other trainers:
“Fear is the greatest obstacle to learning in any area, but particularly in boxing. For example, boxing is something you learn through repetition. You do it over and over and suddenly you’ve got it. …However, in the course of trying to learn, if you get hit and get hurt, this makes you cautious, and when you’re cautious you can’t repeat it, and when you can’t repeat it, it’s going to delay the learning process…When they…come up to the gym and say I want to be a fighter, the first thing I’d do was talk to them about fear…I would always use…the same example of the deer crossing an open field and upon approaching the clearing suddenly instinct tells him danger is there, and nature begins the survival process, which involves the body releasing adrenalin into the bloodstream, causing the heart to beat faster and enabling the deer to perform extraordinarily feats of agility and strength…It enables the deer to get out of range of the danger, helps him escape to the safety of the forest across the clearing…an example in which fear is your friend.
The thing a kid in the street fears the most is to be called yellow or chicken, and sometimes a kid will do the most stupid, wild, crazy things just to hide how scared he is. I often tell them that while fear is such an obnoxious thing, an embarrassing thing…nevertheless it is your friend, because anytime anyone saves your life perhaps a dozen times a day, no matter what how obnoxious he is, you’ve got to look upon him as a friend, and this is what fear is…Since nature gave us fear in order to help us survive, we cannot look upon it as an enemy. Just think how many times a day a person would die if he had no fear. He’d walk in front of cars, he’d die a dozen times a day. Fear is a protective mechanism….By talking to the fighters about fear I cut the learning time maybe as much as half, sometimes more, depending on the individual.” [Heller, 60]
About the importance of psychological elements in boxing:
“The next thing I do, I get them in excellent condition….Knowing how the mind is and the tricks it plays on a person and how an individual will always look to avoid a confrontation with something that is intimidating, I remove all possible excuses they’re going to have before they get in there. By getting them in excellent condition, they can’t say when they get tired that they’re not in shape. When they’re in excellent shape I put them into the ring to box for the first time, usually with an experience fighter who won’t take advantage of them. When the novice throws punches and nothing happens, and his opponent keeps coming at him…the new fighter becomes panicky. When he gets panicky he wants to quit, but he can’t quit because his whole psychology from the time he’s first been in the streets is to condemn a person who’s yellow. So what does he do? He gets tired. This is what happens to fighters in the ring. They get tired. This is what happens to fighters in the ring. They get tired, because they’re getting afraid….Now that he gets tired, people can’t call him yellow. He’s just too “tired” to go on. But let that same fighter strike back wildly with a visible effect on the opponent and suddenly that tired, exhausted guy becomes a tiger….It’s a psychological fatigue, that’s all it is. But people in boxing don’t understand that.” [Heller, 61]
D’Amato on his methods evolved and used over the years and used for tutoring Tyson:
“I tell them the first time they’re going to fight, the night before they probably won’t sleep. I can’t offer them any consolidation other than the fact that the other guy went through the same thing, and when they get down to the fight and enter the dressing-room, especially if they’re in an amateur fight, the room is full of possible opponents, because they don’t know who they’re going to fight, and everybody looks calm, confident and smiling and all the new boy is aware of is that terrible thump in his chest, and he’s intimidated by their attitude and their confidence. What he doesn’t realize is that they look at him and they see the same thing in him as he sees in them, because by an exercise of discipline he also puts on a superficial appearance of confidence…We go on now into the ring. Half the time they’re walking when they go down to the ring as though they’re going to the gallows. So when they climb those stairs, I never call a fighter yellow. Knowing what he goes through, the very act of climbing into that ring stamps him a person of courage and discipline.” [Heller, 67]
“So now they get into the ring…The other guy probably looks bigger, and stronger and better conditioned and real muscular and when he start to loosen up he looks more experienced. This is the novice fighter’s mind and imagination exaggerating everything, which is what the mind does. Nothing is ever as bad as the imagination makes it, not even death. A person doesn’t realize what’s making him nervous unless he understands why he’s getting scared, which is the natural, normal thing. When he understands it he accepts it as such. Then it doesn’t become as intimidating, which is the reason why I take the boy step by step until actually the bell rings to fight. I take them that way so that hopefully by the time they get to fight they’ve experienced these different feelings which are often intimidating by themselves. “Cus said it was going to be like this,” so that they don’t feel they are inferior or less prepared than their opponent.” [Heller, 67]
“Now, when they go in and face the opponent and the bell rings, for the first time…they’re facing reality, and suddenly a relative calmness comes over them. Relative. They’re still scared but it isn’t that terrible intimidating unknown thing….But the moment the blows start to be thrown, the effort to throw punches has begun, he gets calm, because now this is something he’s been prepared to cope with….However, I should add that at no time does fear disappear. It’s just as bad in the hundredth fight as it was in the first, except by the time he reaches a hundred fights or long before that he’s developed enough discipline where he can learn to live with it, which is the object, to learn to live with it…” [Heller, 67]
“Every fighter that ever lived had fear. A boy comes to me and tells me that he’s not afraid, if I believed him I’d say he’s a liar or there’s something wrong with him. I’d send him to a doctor to find out what the hell’s the matter with him, because this is not a normal reaction. The fighter that’s gone into the ring and hasn’t experienced fear is either a liar or a psychopath…” [Heller, 67]
On the importance of will:
“When two men are fighting, what makes you’re watching is more a contest of wills than of skills, with the stronger will usually overcoming skill. The skill will prevail only when it is so superior to the other man’s skill that the will is not tested….As times as you see a fellow get tired in the course of a fight, note that he gets tired when pressure builds up, after he gets hurt or he’s been in some kind of doubtful situation, not being able to control the situation. That’s when he starts getting tired. That’s why when two good fighters get to fight, they’re head to head, so to speak, they won’t give an inch and they’re using all their skills and ability, until maybe about the seventh or eight or ninth round, one fighter start to visibly weaken. It only means he’s reached a point where he no longer can stand the pressure. He’s now become dominated, because when two people fight it’s very much like two armies. They seek to impose their will on one another.” [Heller, 76]
On how Mike gave him reason to live:
“I often say to Mike, “You know, I owe you a lot,” and he doesn’t know what I mean….If he weren’t here, I probably wouldn’t be alive today….Nature is smarter than people think. Little by little we lose our friends that we care about and little by little we lose our interest until finally we say what the devil am I doing around here if I have no reason to go on? You get used to everything. Even the idea of dying is something a person gets used too, and he accepts it. I believe that people die because they no longer want to live, they have no motivation to stay alive. But I have a reason with Mike here, and he gives me the motivation. I will stay alive and I will watch him become a success, because I will not leave until that happens, because when I leave he not only will know how to fight, he’ll be able to take care of himself. I don’t succeed when I make a guy become Champion of the World. I succeed when I make that fellow become Champion of the World and independent of me…” [Heller, 86]
On being a professional:
“I believe a man is a professional when he can do what needs to be done no matter how he feels within. An amateur is an amateur in his attitude emotionally. A professional is an professional in the way he thinks and feels and in his ability to execute inder the most trying conditions. The ability to do what needs to be done regardless of the pressure and do it with poise, with no reflection of his inner feeling or conflict if it exists, is what makes a professional. It has nothing to do with their knowledge. I’ll show you many amateurs with far superior knowledge and ability than top professionals.” [Heller, 97]
“When you get hit that’s when you’ve got to be calm. A professional fighter has to learn how to hit and not get hit, and at the same time be exciting. That’s what professional boxing is about. You’ve got to be clever, you’ve got to be smart, and not get hit, and when you’re able to do this, you’re a fighter.” [Heller, 97]
“If you can hit your opponent with two punches, you don’t hit him with one. Get off with some bad intentions in there. Believe in yourself. A guy can feel it if you don’t believe in yourself. Set your mind to make yourself do it.” [Heller, 97]
On the hero and the coward:
“I tell my kids, what is the difference between a hero and a coward? What is the difference between being yellow and being brave? No difference. Only what you do. They both feel the same. They both fear dying and getting hurt. The man who is yellow refuses to face up to what he’s got to face. The hero is more disciplined and he fights those feelings off and he does what he has to do. But they both feel the same, the hero and the coward. People who watch you judge you on what you do, not how you fee.” [Heller, 97]
On Mike’s progress in the short time:
“The boy can do everything a champion is required to do, and if he does everything that he’s capable of doing, I tell you he may go down as one of the greatest fighters of all time…as a professional my judgment of a fighter are detached. I never allow my personal feelings to get involved, no matter how much affection I may have for him, and I can honestly say I have a very deep affection for him, and an admiration, having watched him come from where he was to what he is, because I know what it takes to do what he’s done and what he’s doing. I feel I was a part of it. It’s almost like watching yourself. You never know how much you contributed to it, but the result is there and you like to think you had something to do with it.” [Heller, 98]
On his dream of a heavyweight champion at the top:
“Many people who have been around boxing all those years never had a champion, certainly a heavyweight champion….For that to happen in one’s lifetime is so improbable. I got Floyd Patterson, then, here, at the age of 76, I was fortunate to come in contact with this young man who has, in my opinion, all the requirements to be a champion that I believe he’s going to be, maybe the best that ever lived.” [Heller, 110]
“Boxing is a contest of character and ingenuity. The boxer with more will, determination, desire, and intelligence is always the one who comes out the victor.” [Fire, 36].
Talking to the thirteen year old Mike about fear:
“Boxing is a sport of self-control. You must understand fear so you can manipulate it. Fear is like fire. You can make it work for you: it can warm you in the winter, cook your food when you’re hungry, give you light when you are in the dark, and produce energy. Let it go out of control and it can hurt you, even kill you….Fear is a friend of exceptional people.” [Fire 50]