2017, Penguin, 465 pages
When Cus D’Amato first saw thirteen-year-old Mike Tyson spar in the ring, he proclaimed, “That’s the heavyweight champion of the world.” D’Amato, a boxing legend who had previously managed the careers of world champions Floyd Patterson and José Torres, would go on to train the young boxer and raise him as a son. D’Amato died a year before Tyson became the youngest heavyweight champion in history.
In Tyson’s bestselling memoir Undisputed Truth, he recounted the role D’Amato played in his formulative years, adopting him at age sixteen after his mother died and shaping him both physically and mentally after Tyson had spent years living in fear and poverty. In Iron Ambition, Tyson elaborates on the life lessons that D’Amato passed down to him and reflects on how the trainer’s words of wisdom continue to resonate with him outside the ring. The book also chronicles D’Amato’s courageous fight against the mobsters who controlled boxing, revealing more than we’ve ever known about this singular cultural figure.
Mike Tyson is the former undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, and the first boxer ever to hold the three biggest belts in prizefighting–the WBC, WBA, and IBF world heavyweight titles-simultaneously. Tysons’ enduring appeal has launched him into a career in entertainment: he was a standout in the films The Hangover and The Hangover Part II, and recently he has earned tremendous acclaim for his one-man show Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth. Tyson has launched a clothing company, Roots of Fights, and Tyrrhanic Productions, which currently has several film projects in development. In 2011 he was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame. He lives in Las Vegas with his wife, Kiki, and their children.
Larry “Ratso” Sloman is best known as Howard Stern’s collaborator on Private Parts and Miss America. Sloman’s recent collaborations include Mysterious Stranger, with magician David Blaine; Scar Tissue, the memoir of Red Hot Chili Peppers lead singer Anthony Kiedis; and Undisputed Truth with Mike Tyson. His biography The Secret Life of Houdini is soon to be a major motion picture for Lionsgate.
This book inspires. The book talks about boxing. Talks a lot about boxing. Talks a lot about D’Amato’s all-in fight against the corrupt mobsters who ran the IBC. But it’s not a boxing book. It’s a self-help book. And it’s the kind of self-help book people who don’t like self-help books will like. It’s about an old guy whose developed a specialized martial art: the peekaboo style. He’s got one goal: train world champions. The fundamentals of his peekaboo style aren’t physical, they’re mental. He believes in character. Character makes the difference in the ring. His training techniques are unorthodox. He would put his fighters under hypnosis, and whisper to them, “When you hit, hit with bad intentions.” He would have his fighters recite, twenty times, at morning and at night, a simple mantra daily: “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.” He would tell his fighters that they were God’s most ferocious creations. He would tell his fighters that the memory of the boxing idols of that day would all be forgotten in the future, unless one of his fighters would say, in the future, “I learned this punch from Jack Dempsey or so and so.” He would take in street kids with absolutely no confidence, and instil in them the self-confidence of the gods. He was Cus D’Amato, and his protege was Iron Mike Tyson.
My mind is divided on self-help. Obviously it works. That I don’t doubt. The problem is the people who invest themselves into self-help seem to become themselves self-help coaches. They’re like tinker toys, each winding one another up. They don’t seem to do things other than train one another. But this book is awesome in that D’Amato is into self-help and he does things. He produced three champs: Floyd Patterson, José Torres, and Mike Tyson. He took fighters with low self-confidence–especially Floyd Patterson and Mike Tyson, who had no self-confidence–and convinced them they could be world champions. In the book, Tyson spends pages marvelling how D’Amato’s techniques raised his confidence so high that he thought he was a god. To this day, Tyson struggles because D’Amato raised his self-esteem too high. If that’s not testimonial to D’Amato’s system of character building, then I don’t know what is.
The book is filled with examples of D’Amato and his “mind over matter” philosophy. I’m not much into hocus-pocus, but if it helps you succeed, then it is good. Here’s a short passage that gave me the chills. I wonder if everyone gets these moments or these moments only come to the happy few?
Cus was a believer in destiny. Even as a young boy, he felt that he’d be famous someday; he always had a feeling that “there was something different” about him. I had the same exact feeling. So it felt right that I would move in with Cus and Camille. Cus was so happy. I couldn’t understand why this white man was so happy about me. He would look at me and laugh hysterically. Then he’d get on the phone and tell people, “Lightning has struck me twice. I have another heavyweight champion. He’s only thirteen.”
One of the first nights that I stayed over at the house on one of the home visits, Cus took me into the living room, where we could talk alone. “You know I’ve been waiting for you,” he told me. “I’ve been thinking about you since 1969. 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.”
D’Amato reminds me of a character in an Ibsen play, Solness in The Master Builder. He too, practised this visualization technique to become the master builder. So, there are others out there who feel the pull of destiny. A curious, driving call full of power and powerlessness at the same time. The fire burns into you, but at the same time you are thrall and a pawn to this destiny that looms over you.
Why do we do this, the endless hours of training? Cus too, has an answer. We do it for immortality, to be remembered in a song for the future generations. I feel sometimes D’Amato should have been an ancient Greek, living in the times of Homer. The ancients also recognized this justification. They built pyramids so that they would be remembered. They fought the Trojan War for ten years so that it could be a song for the future generations to epic singers to sing. Today, if you want to be remembered, there’s something wrong with you. You need to be humble. You need to blend in. Don’t go for a home run when you can get away with a hit. D’Amato sets today’s values on their head. Aim for one thing with all your being, he says:
I used to ask Cus, “What does it mean being the greatest fighter of all time? Most of those guys are all dead.” “Listen, they’re dead, but we’re talking about them now, this is all about immortality.” That fucked me up. It changed the whole game. I just thought it would be about riches, the big cars, the big mansions he used to point out to me. But now he was taking it to a whole other level. He got me hooked with the riches, but now he suddenly said, “You’re going to be a god.” This was the real deal, and the real deal fucked me up real good. Then he said, “Forget the money.” Once he told me that shit, it blew my mind. He was talking immortality and I’m figuring out what that is.
And here’s D’Amato on having a purpose in life. People today, I think, value living for the sake of living. But D’Amato offers another view: it’s not about life, but about life’s purpose. Purpose is so concentrated a force that when it’s not met, the dead will come back:
Then Cus told me that he was dying from pneumonia. I started getting angry. We had so much together. I’m a little street kid with this old guy who’s in exile and we’d talk about these grandiose dreams and making money and buying mansions and how there was nobody in the world who could touch us. They couldn’t do anything but gawk at us. We were the most magnificent gift boxing had ever witnessed. And now it was over before we had reached our ultimate mission. I couldn’t go on with it without Cus.
“If you die, I’m not going to fight anymore,” I said, sobbing. Cus looked angry. “Now listen, if you quit fighting, then you’re going to find out if people can come back from the dead, because I will come back and I will haunt you for the rest of your life. You have to fight.”
On the way to the goal, fighters encounter obstacles. Life gets in the way. Injuries get in the way. Doubt gets in the way. Fatigue gets in the way. D’Amato had a solution. If you don’t go all the way, you’ll never know how close you were. To keep his fighters focused, he had this John Greanleaf Whittier poem posted in the very spot where he would work the fighters the hardest:
When things go wrong, as they sometimes will,
When the road you’re trudging seems all uphill,
When the funds are low and the debts are high,
And you want to smile, but you have to sigh,
When care is pressing you down a bit,
Rest, if you must, but don’t you quit.
Life is queer with its twists and turns,
As every one of us sometimes learns,
And many a failure turns about,
When he might have won had he stuck it out;
Don’t give up though the pace seems slow–
You may succeed with another blow.
Often the goal is nearer than,
It seems to a faint and faltering man,
Often the struggler has given up,
When he might have captured the victor’s cup,
And he learned too late when the night slipped down,
How close he was to the golden crown.
Success is failure turned inside out–
The silver tint of the clouds of doubt,
And you never can tell how close you are,
It may be near when it seems so far,
So stick to the fight when you’re the hardest hit–
It’s when things seem worst that you must not quit.
Iron Ambition is a fantastic and rich read for a variety of reasons. If you’re a fan of Tyson, you’ll want to learn about his trainer and manager. If you’re a fan of boxing history, you’ll want to read about D’Amato’s dangerous fight against the corrupt IBC. If you’re driven and laser-focused on goals, you’ll want the secrets of D’Amato’s techniques which gave his fighters the psychological edge. From Cus D’Amato you will learn that it is okay to want it all. It is okay to spend your life in dogged pursuit of one purpose. It is okay to sacrifice everything that stands in your way. It is not a crime to want glory and immortality.
Cus D’Amato was born in the 20th century, but he was really born out of his time. His values and beliefs resonate more closely with the ancient Greek and Romans who believed that it is not our peers who will judge us. It is eternity who will judge us. Why is it that way? It is that way because we have the spark to be great, to be the greatest. And when you have the spark to be the greatest, you comport yourself and live life as though eternity were watching every step you take. This book teaches you that greatness is not a crime and dares you to be more.
Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.