“Iron Ambition” – Mike Tyson and Cus D’Amato: Book Review by Thomas Hauser

TYSON AND D’AMATO — Few fighters have captured the public imagination the way that Mike Tyson did. The primary architect of “Iron Mike” as the world saw him was Cus D’Amato.

Four years ago, Tyson co-authored an autobiography entitled Undisputed Truth with Larry Sloman. Now Tyson and Sloman have reunited to write Iron Ambition (Blue Rider Press), a biography of D’Amato as viewed through the prism of his relationship with Tyson.

The origins of the Tyson-D’Amato relationship are well known. Simply stated, in Mike’s words, “I was a bad kid. Went to institutions. Then I met an old guy who trained fighters. And this guy gave me the blueprint for the rest of my life.”

D’Amato was a great trainer, a master motivator who understood the mechanics of boxing and could teach a man to fight. Again, in Tyson’s words, “For Cus, boxing was a metaphor for living. He took the weak and made them strong.”

In 1980, on one of Tyson’s early visits to D’Amato’s home in Catskill, Cus told him, “You know, I’ve been waiting for you. I’ve been thinking about you since 1969 [when Jose Torres, one of D’Amato’s champions, retired]. If you meditate long enough on something, you get a picture. And the picture told me that I would make another champion. I conjured you up with my mind, and now you’re finally here.”

But life with D’Amato was complicated.

“Everybody thinks I’m up there with this old sweet white Italian guy,” Tyson recalls. “Cus was a vicious cantankerous beast. He was just a bunch of rage. He was always plotting revenge. That’s what I was about, getting him back on top. All of it came out of vindictiveness and bitterness. I was too young at that time. I didn’t understand the nuances. But now I know what was going on. If he could get into any kind of position with leverage, he’d like to hurt his enemies. Cus was very vindictive. He was always in a state of confrontation. He couldn’t live without enemies. If he didn’t have enemies, he would make one. That’s what I came out of. Cus had so many legitimate enemies that he got paranoid that everybody was his enemy. He had a few guns in the house. If we were on the road for a fight, he’d sleep with a knife by his side. In the house, Cus’s bedroom was off limits. He had it rigged up with a matchbox that would fall on the floor if someone opened the door.”

D’Amato quickly established a psychological hold over Tyson. When Mike was thirteen, Cus told him, “Listen to me, boy. People of royal descent will know your name. The whole world will know who you are. Your family name will reign.”

Tyson recounts D’Amato “putting gasoline on a raging fire that was consuming me.” He recalls looking at an old copy of The Ring record book that Cus gave him like he was “looking at a Penthouse magazine.” Falling under D’Amato’s influence, he watched the first Leonard-Duran fight on television and, “Everything just clicked. I finally understood fighting. People were applauding and going crazy, and my dick got hard.”

“Cus wanted the meanest fighter God ever created,” Tyson says. “Someone who scared the life out of people before they even entered the ring. Every day, Cus would tell me I’m the most fierce ferocious fighter the world has known. I used to love it when he said stuff like, ‘You remind me of a modern-day Jack Dempsey, you’re just so ferocious.’ When people began to describe me as a savage, I’d get an erection.”

“Cus made me feel that hurting people was noble,” Tyson continues. “He showed me the difference between fear and intimidation. Being intimidated prevents you from performing at the highest level you’re capable of. Fear can help you ascend to great heights. When you get hit, that’s when you gotta be calmest. When you’re not being hurt is when boxing becomes fun.”

There were times when life with D’Amato was hard beyond the normal demands of boxing.

“Cus believed that, if you didn’t take all his shit, you were a bad person . . . Cus would tell me, ‘Don’t thank me. This is who you are. I’m just bringing it out of you. I’ve done nothing.’ And then he’d turn around and say, ‘There’s no way to accomplish this without my direction. You have to listen to me.’ . . . Cus wanted to make you better. But in order to make you better, he had to break you. That’s a bad process. Sometimes you break people and you can’t put them back together.”

Yet through it all, Tyson recalls, “I was truly a young man on a tunnel-vision mission. I never felt such a glorious feeling. He made me feel like I was somebody, that I mattered. I held Cus in such high esteem, like a god. And I was like his slave. If he told me to kill somebody, I would kill them. I’m serious. I was a sick fuck. I think about this a lot. It’s this old washed-up dude and this fucking slum dweller. This dude is telling me shit and I’m believing it. I think I’m invincible. Cus had me thinking I’m this invincible fucking monster from another galaxy. He thought so highly of me as a fighter, it was like he was worshipping me. And I started worshipping myself. At sixteen years old, I believed that all the heroes and gods of war – Achilles, Ares, all these gods and all the old fighters – were watching me and I had to represent them. I had to be blood-thirsty and gut-wrenching. We were fighting for immortality. Nothing else mattered than being worshipped by the entire world.”

Iron Ambition is really two books presented to the reader in alternating chapters. The first book is Tyson’s recounting of his life with D’Amato. The second is a recounting of Cus’s life separate and apart from Mike and, to a degree, how D’Amato’s pre-Tyson experiences shaped his relationship with Tyson. Both narratives are presented in Tyson’s voice, although the second narrative appears to be largely the product of exhaustive research by Sloman.

Sloman writes smoothly. His research on D’Amato’s relationship with organized crime is presented largely from Cus’s point of view. Much is made of D’Amato’s adversarial relationship with James Norris, Truman Gibson, and the International Boxing Club. But as Tyson and Sloman acknowledge, Cus was also comfortable in the presence of Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno (who began his career with Lucky Luciano and later became a Genovese family underboss). Sloman and Tyson, to their credit, acknowledge that relationship and quote D’Amato as telling writer Paul Zuckerman in the early 1980s, “I wasn’t fighting the mob. I was fighting the IBC. I’d rather you wrote that. I don’t want to challenge these people. I got along. I never challenged them.”

There’s a poignant recounting of Tyson’s last conversation with D’Amato, which took place in Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York on November 3, 1985, one day before Cus died.

“Cus was open to facing his own mortality,” Tyson explains. “He would always say, ‘God, I wish I had more time with you. I thought Cus would always be around. I never thought he would die. But he always told me that he wasn’t going to work my corner. He wanted Kevin [Rooney] and [cutman] Matt Baranski to be there. He didn’t want me to come back to the corner one day and he wouldn’t be there.”

D’Amato died at age 77, three days after Tyson’s eleventh professional fight.

“When Cus died, I lost my spirit,” Tyson acknowledges. “I don’t think I ever did get over his death. I felt cheated by destiny when he died. With Cus gone, the punches seemed to hurt me more. When Cus died, I started hitting the bottle more. I’ve been an alcoholic my whole life. I think I’m a drug addict, a cool drug kid. But I’m a fucking sloppy drunk. I drank when I was nine years old in Brownsville and I drank beer when I was doing amateur tournaments. With Cus gone, I began to drink more.”

Jimmy Jacobs, who had lived with D’Amato for a decade and (with the financial backing of Bill Cayton) subsidized D’Amato’s boxing venture in Catskill, tried to fill the void left by Cus’s death. But despite Mike’s fondness for Jim, that was impossible.

On November 22, 1986, Tyson demolished Trevor Berbick to claim the WBC heavyweight throne.

“Plotting and scheming with Cus was the best time of my life,” Tyson recounts. “Our goal was all about barbarian success and superiority and then, boom, it was there and he wasn’t. Now I’m twenty and famous all over the world. You walk outside and you’ve got a thousand crazed fans within a one-block radius. But I’m just a trained monkey. By the time I won the belt, I was a wrecked soul. I was lost because I didn’t have Cus. All I knew was winning the belt for Cus. That was our goal. We were going to do this or else we were going to die. That was the payoff for all that sacrifice, suffering, dedication.”

Then, on March 23, 1988, two days after Tyson knocked out Tony Tubbs, Jacobs died at age 58. In Mike’s next bout, he demolished Michael Spinks. But things in the ring deteriorated after that, culminating in Tyson’s February 11, 1990, knockout loss at the hands of Buster Douglas.

“People always say that, if Cus had lived longer, he would have worked on my character,” Tyson states. “Fuck my character. You know what my character would have been? Putting people in comas and, at the end of the day, saying yes to Cus’s decisions.”

Iron Ambition is the most complete portrait of Cus D’Amato that boxing fans are likely to see for a long time. But like its subject, the book has flaws.

Too often, things D’Amato said that are demonstrably false are treated as true. For example; one factor adding to D’Amato’s certainty that Tyson would be heavyweight champion of the world someday was the astrological phenomenon that – in Tyson’s words – “I passed Cus’s test. I’m a Cancer. Every heavyweight champion was born under only three signs, and Cancer was one of them.”

But that’s simply wrong. The heavyweight champions from John L. Sullivan through Muhammad Ali were born under nine different astrological signs.

More significantly, there are places where Tyson goes over the line in ascribing powers to D’Amato and others. At one point, he describes a man who can take the sights off a BB gun, put a piece of tissue over the hole in the center of a metal washer, throw the washer in the air, and shoot a BB through the center of the washer. “But the amazing thing,” Tyson claims, “was that he could teach anyone to do this within an hour and they’d never miss.”

How was this possible? According to Tyson, the man was “training the unconscious mind of his pupils similar to how a Zen monk taught archery.”

Tyson also talks about D’Amato developing a system that allowed Jose Torres to throw “a six-punch combination in two-fifths of a second.”

Forgive me, but that’s nonsense.

There’s a sanitized recounting of sexual goings-on in Catskill and elsewhere.

There’s very little in Iron Ambition about Teddy Atlas, who assisted D’Amato in training Tyson until an explosive falling out.

Steve Lott worked with Bill Cayton and Jim Jacobs for well over a decade, was in Tyson’s corner for virtually all of Mike’s fights through Tyson-Spinks, and shared an apartment with Tyson for several years. But there’s no mention of the role that Lott played in Tyson’s life.

In the end, readers of Iron Ambition are left with the question of what D’Amato would have thought about the way Tyson squandered his ring talent. Tyson, for his part, now sees things differently from the way D’Amato saw them.

“What was in my mind,” Tyson asks, “that made me work so hard and think that I’d cut off a hand for that cheap tin piece-of-shit belt? I loved going through life with Cus then, but it’s not like I don’t have any resentments now. Why did I have to work so fucking hard that I have arthritis throughout my body. Now I can’t walk without pain. I can still work out but I’m a wreck. I broke bones all over my body. I’ll probably be crippled later in life. I can’t remember shit sometimes. All from fighting for that belt. Cus believed in dying in the ring, dying on your shield. But I realize now, nothing is more important than life. There is no trophy; there is no glory, more important than life and the people you love. I’d be the first to want to die with honor in the ring back then, but not now. That is a sucker’s game. And I was probably the biggest sucker who ever came into this game.”

And one final note . . .

In 1983, I decided to write a book about the sport and business of boxing: The Black Lights. The first two people I interviewed for the book were Bill Cayton and Jim Jacobs.

“If you’re going to write a book about boxing,” Bill told me, “you have to talk with Cus D’Amato.” Bill and Jim also told me about a young man named Mike Tyson who was living with Cus. Mike was seventeen years old at the time. He was going to be the greatest heavyweight champion ever, they said. But more important, under Cus’s tutelage, Mike had become a model citizen.

Bill and Jim arranged for me to spend a weekend in Catskill. I stayed in the house with Cus, Camille Ewald, and the young men Cus was working with, including Tyson. I’ll recount my memories of that weekend another time. But I do want to share some thoughts now about Bill Cayton.

At one time, Cayton owned the copyright on the largest collection of fight films in history. His film collection made him a rich man. In 1999, he sold his film library to ESPN and further solidified his personal fortune. Along the way, he helped guide Tyson to stardom as Mike’s manager and generated an enormous amount of money for fighters like Wilfred Benitez, Edwin Rosario, Vinny Pazienza, Tommy Morrison, and Michael Grant.

Cayton is trashed repeatedly and bitterly in Iron Ambition. The details of his business relationship with Jim Jacobs are inaccurately reported. He’s given no credit for having devised the marketing strategy that helped propel Tyson to superstardom.

Bill could be egotistical and condescending. He was also brilliant and honest. There came a time after Jacobs’s death when Tyson was lured away from Cayton and fell under the spell of Don King and then Shelly Finkel. Bill was hurt by Tyson’s defection. But he refused to blame Mike.

In a way, the situation was analogous to Floyd Patterson’s betrayal of D’Amato. Cus guided Patterson to the heavyweight championship of the world. Then Floyd dumped him. Reflecting on what happened afterward, Tyson declares, “The one person who betrayed Cus the worst always got a pass from him. Cus never said anything derogatory about him. He always defended him. Cus said only beautiful things about him. I was jealous of Patterson. Cus loved him so much. Then I realized that the reason Cus always stayed loyal to Floyd, despite all of Floyd’s treacherous acts, was that Floyd gave Cus his championship. He gave him that feeling that Cus always wanted. So Cus was indebted to him.”

In a similar way, Cayton felt indebted to Tyson.

The way people are remembered is important. Bill died in 2003 and is no longer here to defend himself. But this doesn’t mean that Mike Tyson’s attacks on his character should go unrebutted. Bill did right by Mike Tyson.

Check out more boxing news on video at The Boxing Channel.


Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at thauser@rcn.com. His most recent book – There Will Always Be Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism.


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