Just about everyone knows who Mike Tyson is. Undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. Prodigious, powerful boxer who won 50 of his 58 fights — 44 by knockout.
Lesser known is how Tyson became one of the fiercest fighters of all time.
The absolutely improbable tale began when a troubled young kid met a cantankerous old trainer at a small boxing gym in the sleepy town of Catskill, New York.
Cus D’Amato would change the whole trajectory of Tyson’s life, teaching him everything he knew about success in and out of the ring, before dying just a year before his protege became the youngest heavyweight champion of the world at the age of 20.
How did this hard-boiled trainer turn a kid who’d been abandoned by his parents, mercilessly bullied, and imprisoned for dozens of crimes, into a pedigree pugilist? How did he take an unfocused, insecure, lost young man and turn him into a champion who lived to train, fought with an unconquerable spirit, and positively lusted after victory?
Cus did it by teaching Tyson the way of the warrior monk — the art of focus and ferocity. In this short and punchy book, we uncover the five universally-applicable strategic principles of Cus’ philosophy. Included are details on:
- The contents of Cus’s library, and the books he gave Tyson to read
- Tyson’s training routine
- The mental affirmations and tactics Cus shared with Tyson to strengthen his mind
- Cus’s approach to making fear your friend instead of your foe
No matter what kind of fight you’re in, the savage wisdom of one of boxing’s greatest minds will help you come out the victor.
The contents of this new book aren’t available anywhere on artofmanliness.com. The only way to access it is through purchasing on Amazon (in Kindle format) or from our store (in PDF format) for $5.99.
For a preview, enjoy this free excerpt:
Preface to The Warrior Monk Philosophy of Trainer Cus D’Amato
Cus D’Amato 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. And he took a fat, frightened thirteen-year-old and made him into a guy who can’t walk the streets because I’m the most recognizable face on the planet. —Mike Tyson, Iron Ambition: My Life With Cus D’Amato
Not everybody becomes champion, but if you apply the same principles and techniques that I will teach you, you’ll become successful no matter what the endeavor. My objective is to develop the person’s character so that they have the ability to transcend and succeed, no matter where they’ve come from or no matter how difficult the task. —Cus D’Amato
On the face of it, the teenager sparring in the ring didn’t have much to recommend him. The kid had heart but he was short, chubby, and a rank beginner at boxing. Yet after only ten minutes, the trainer watching him outside the ropes had made up his mind: “That is the heavyweight champion of the world and possibly the universe.”
The kid was Mike Tyson; the manager Constantine “Cus” D’Amato. And the moment marked the beginning of arguably the greatest boxer/trainer combination in history.
In some ways, the pair were a true odd couple. Tyson was an adolescent black kid; Cus was an old white Italian guy who’d already been around for seven decades.
But in many other ways, the two shared much in common.
Already a seasoned criminal at 13, Tyson first met D’Amato on a visit from a state reformatory, where he was doing time for the 38th crime he’d committed since first being arrested for stealing at the age of ten. Despite his tough guy exterior, and his penchant for acting out, Tyson was incredibly shy, insecure, and emotionally wounded. As a child he had been mercilessly bullied and beaten up by other kids on the streets of the notorious Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, and had found no solace from the torment at home; abandoned by his father, his single mother was an abusive alcoholic who dismissed her son as retarded and irredeemable.
A pugnacious, hard-boiled boxing trainer, Cus had also grown up poor in a bad neighborhood of Brooklyn and been bullied by his peers. His mother had passed away when he was five, and his father, who raised him with strict discipline and severe beatings, died when Cus was still a young man. While his father had possessed a stern disposition, he had also been selfless and service-oriented, and Cus followed in his footsteps, becoming a tireless advocate for the underdog and champion of the little guy. If someone in his neighborhood had a problem, of any kind, Cus was the guy who would fix it. He’d freely give away his money to anyone in need, and mentored many wayward kids, often using boxing as a way to channel their miscreant energy into a positive pursuit.
Cus’s own career as an amateur boxer was cut short by an eye injury, but he became an exceptional trainer and manager, overseeing the rise of two world champions in the 1950s and 60s. But his Quixotic fight against the mafia and corrupt promotional bodies to clean up the sport had left him isolated from its inner circles. He had spent the last couple decades living a quiet life in Upstate New York, training kids and amateurs in a small dank boxing gym above the Catskill police station.
Besides the commonalities in their backgrounds, Tyson and Cus were alike in another crucial way: while both had been written off, both yearned to do something more with their lives—to succeed, to be famous, to win glory. As boys, both had felt that there was something different about themselves, that they were destined to do something great. At the time of their first meeting, Tyson wasn’t yet sure where destiny was calling, but knew he wanted to escape the streets that were sucking his peers towards jail, and the grave. Cus knew exactly what he wanted: to train one last world champion. As Tyson puts it in Iron Ambition, this improbable partnership, “this old washed-up dude and this young street urchin,” would fulfill each other’s desires in an extraordinary way.
It’s hard to deny the element of fate in the unbelievably serendipitous forces that brought Tyson and D’Amato together.
Tyson had landed at Tryon School for Boys in Upstate New York after being bounced from other correctional facilities for repeated offenses. Yet the new location did nothing to quell his misbehavior . . . until he met one of the counselors there, Bobby Stewart. Stewart was a former fighter and practiced boxing with boys who were interested in learning the sport. Tyson was keenly so, and begged Stewart to teach him too, but the counselor made the young man promise to go straight first. When Tyson did a one-eighty overnight, and began keeping all the rules and making an effort in his classes, Stewart kept his part of the bargain and started showing the eager kid the ropes. He soon became incredibly impressed not only with Tyson’s natural skill, but his work ethic; after they trained together from 9:30 to 11pm, the nascent fighter would continue to shadowbox by himself in the dark of his dorm room until three in the morning. As this counselor, who happened to be a former boxer, happened to know Cus D’Amato, who also happened to be living in Upstate New York, he decided to take this kid, who he happened to meet at the reformatory, up to meet him.
Something was destined not only in how Tyson and Cus ultimately connected, but in the fact that Cus was probably the only trainer in the world who could have turned Tyson into a world-class fighter. Tyson had the physical potential for which any trainer would kill, but his internal game was a mess, and only Cus had the toolbox to address it.
Cus knew absolutely everything about the sweet science; Muhammad Ali called him “the bible of boxing” and “the best boxing teacher in the world.”
But Cus’s knowledge of the sport went well beyond its mechanics. He was one of the first trainers to really focus on boxing’s psychological aspects, which Cus believed amounted to as much as 75% of the sport. Will, he thought, could often beat skill.
Cus, who Tyson called a “manic genius,” had developed incisive principles for controlling and directing one’s mind and emotions in ways that led to success both in and out of the ring. “The psychology of fighting was in Cus’s bone marrow,” Tyson recalls. “I couldn’t get enough of him. I absorbed this old bald-headed man.”
For a kid who had never had emotional security, never had a context that could help him make sense of what was going on inside himself, Cus provided a map. As Tyson, who moved in with Cus soon after their meeting, remembers, “He’d talk to me about my feelings and then he’d tell me why I was feeling that way. Cus wanted to reach me at the root. It wasn’t just about the physical aspects of boxing; it was getting at the mental side—why a fighter got bubble guts, why our minds play tricks on us so that something seems more difficult than it is.”
For a young man who was wholly lacking in self-confidence and suffered a deeply-set inferiority complex, Cus worked to “peel back his layers,” finding Tyson’s better qualities, and introducing them to him. Cus taught Tyson how to make his fear work for, instead of against him, and how to channel his emotions towards a positive goal. He taught him he could improve himself every single day. And he boosted the young man’s ego, built up his self-esteem, even to grand proportions. As Tyson recalls, Cus “always dropped [such] charged words” as he trained him: “Love yourself, look in the mirror, shadowbox, and look at your work. It’s magnificent, what you’re doing, it’s never been done in the annals of fight history.”
Cus, who became Mike’s legal guardian after his mother died when he was 16, completely turned Tyson around—gave him care, structure, a vision for his life. “Plotting and scheming with Cus,” the fighter remembers, “was the best time of my life.”
Unfortunately, the education Cus gave Tyson ended before it was complete; after working for years to bring his fighter to the precipice of greatness, D’Amato died (penniless) just 12 months before his protégé became the youngest heavyweight champion of the world at the age of 20.
To pull Tyson out of his hole, Cus had sought to raise his esteem to epic proportions, but as Tyson himself observes, his trainer never had a chance to then bring that ego back down to earth. Arguably, if Cus had lived, he might have checked the excesses that Tyson fell into after his death. But it’s even more likely, that if Cus hadn’t died, Tyson never would have fallen into those problems in the first place. When Cus passed away, Tyson lost far more than his trainer and manager; he lost the only real friend, mentor, and father figure he’d ever really known. Tyson’s grief over the loss of the man he considered a father was profound, and continues to this day; even as a 50-something, the fighter still cries when he talks about Cus.
If much of Tyson’s acting out in the years after winning his first championship title can be chalked up to the grief and disorientation of trying to navigate the world of boxing and celebrity without his mentor, the fact that he nonetheless continued to beat opponent after opponent was due to Cus’s enduring influence. In an interview before winning his first title against Trevor Berbick, Tyson said of Cus, “I believe when someone dies, he dies—that’s it. But I’ll take everything he taught me in there, all the lessons, all the principles.” Cus’s legacy didn’t expire with him; the principles he ingrained into Tyson allowed him to continue to rise and win.
Even if Cus didn’t get the chance to teach the champ everything he needed to know about being a good man, he undeniably gave him a pedigree education in being good at being a man. As Tyson puts it, “Our goal was all about barbarian success and superiority.”
The irony of achieving that kind of “barbarian” success, was that it required living the life of a disciplined monk.
Buy the whole book to learn the secrets Cus D’Amato used to turn Mike Tyson into a world champion: