Mike Tyson's New Book Is A Memorial To The Man Who Made Him A Champion

May 30, 2017
Originally published on May 30, 2017 6:49 am

On a November night in 1986, a crowd gathered in Las Vegas for an event that was hyped as "Judgement Day." Muhammad Ali was there, along with celebrities Sylvester Stallone, Eddie Murphy and Rob Lowe. (Hey, it was the '80s.) At the center of it all was a boxing ring with a referee and two fighters: Mike Tyson and Trevor Berbick.

Tyson was 20 years old and hoping to become the youngest ever heavyweight champion. Today he says he never would have been in that ring if it weren't for trainer Constantine "Cus" D'Amato, a man Muhammad Ali once called "the bible of boxing." Tyson says D'Amato is the reason he had such a legendary career. He's also the reason NPR visited Tyson's home in Las Vegas.

We went through a couple of gates to get there, then his wife, Kiki, welcomed us and showed us to a casita near the pool. Mike Tyson came in slowly and stiffly — maybe a sign of all those years in the ring — wearing tight (read: hipster) jeans. He's smaller than you'd think, and trim, with delicate hands.

We're here to talk about Iron Ambition, Tyson's new book about his former trainer. Tyson writes that when he and D'Amato first met, D'Amato was considered washed up and Tyson hadn't even begun. He calls himself "a bad kid," in and out of reform schools, stealing, fighting. Then, in 1980, a reform school guard took Tyson to D'Amato's gym in Catskill, N.Y. After a few minutes in the ring, D'Amato proclaimed the kid would be a champ. So what did he see in Tyson?

"I have no idea," the boxer says. "I think about that myself. How did he know? Out of all the kids he's been around all his life, how'd he know I'm the guy that's gonna do it?"

At first, Tyson says he didn't buy it. But then he started training with D'Amato, and also started to believe. "We had a lot of dreams, hopes. ... Being champ of the world, that's all that we ever thought about."

Tyson compares their relationship to that of a father and son, and then he pauses. "You have to excuse me. Sometimes I get choked up." Is it because he misses his old trainer? "Yes."

But Tyson and D'Amato had a complicated relationship. The boxer writes that he didn't want to disappoint his trainer, so he threw himself into the role of "arrogant sociopath."

"I was a smaller guy," Tyson says. "I wasn't going to intimidate these fighters, so I really went all out on these guys. You understand when I say I went all out on people? I was arrogant; I looked down on people, other fighters. I said, 'No one's ever gonna beat me. I'm the greatest fighter in the world.' "

How did Tyson feel about the man D'Amato was turning him into? "I like that image of fighting," he says. "It took me a long way."

Tyson won that first championship, back in '86, but by then D'Amato was no longer at his side. The trainer died in 1985 at the age of 77, and after his death it seems like Tyson's life took a turn. There were more boxing wins, of course, but there was also drinking, drugs and a 1992 rape conviction.

In his book, Tyson writes, "Cus made me feel that hurting people was noble." That made us wonder about some of the lessons his old trainer taught him, so we ask him about the rape conviction. "I didn't ever rape that woman," Tyson says. "That's just something I got arrested for. ... They gave me opportunities to admit that I raped this person and let me go, but I would never do that. I couldn't live with myself doing that." (Tyson has long maintained his innocence.)

The boxer has made a new life for himself in Las Vegas. He says he doesn't do much of anything, and tries to stay away from people. "My life is my family life. I don't have no life outside of that. I don't have no night life, that's over."

How does he look back on his relationship with D'Amato? "I was fortunate to meet that guy," Tyson says. "We were two guys who were 'nothing' who became something."

Radio producer Danny Hajek, radio editor Shannon Rhoades and digital producer Nicole Cohen contributed to this report.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

On a November night back in 1986, a crowd was gathered in Las Vegas for an event that was hyped as Judgment Day. Muhammad Ali was there, celebrities too like Sylvester Stallone, Eddie Murphy, Rob Lowe. I mean, hey, it was the '80s, right? And at the center of all of this whistling, shouting activity was a boxing ring. In it, a referee pulled two men close.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REFEREE: Now listen. If you get in close and I tell you to break, just stop punching and step back clean. All right. Let's get it on. Come on.

GREENE: Mike Tyson was in that ring, 20 years old, hoping to become the youngest heavyweight champion.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: And let's watch how quick Tyson will jump on Trevor Berbick. His whole life has been for this night.

GREENE: But Tyson says he never would have been in that ring if it weren't for this guy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CUS D'AMATO: I'm not a creator. What I do is discover and uncover.

GREENE: That's the man Ali called the bible of boxing. Constantine D'Amato, the trainer everybody called Cus. Mike Tyson says D'Amato is the reason that he had such a legendary career. He's also the reason we have come to Las Vegas to Mike Tyson's home.

And no, it is nothing like you might be picturing it if you know the movie "The Hangover." Sure, we went through a couple of gates to get in here, but his wife Kiki welcomed us and showed us to a casita near the pool. Mike Tyson, no entourage. She came in slowly and stiffly. Maybe it was all those years in the ring.

MIKE TYSON: OK. Let's do this.

GREENE: Tyson is smaller than you might think, trim with delicate hands. He was wearing tight - OK, hipster-like jeans I'd say. And what we're doing here is talking about his new book about his former trainer, Cus D'Amato. It's called "Iron Ambition."

When Mike Tyson and Cus first met, the trainer was considered washed up. Tyson hadn't even begun yet, a bad kid he calls himself, in and out of reform schools, stealing, fighting. It was 1980, a reform school guard took Tyson to Cus's gym in Catskill, N.Y. After a few minutes in the ring, Cus proclaimed this kid would be a champ.

What do you think he saw in you? Because you...

TYSON: Hey, listen. I have no idea. I think about that myself. What did - how did he know? Of all the kids he's been around all his life, how he know I'm the guy that's going to do it?

GREENE: That must feel good for a kid like you, who...

TYSON: Well, I didn't believe it because this didn't know me. This guy is weird. He doesn't know what he's talking about. And I guess he was right.

GREENE: Well, so you start training with him, and now you're in upstate New York with this old white guy. Tell me about that experience. What are some of your memories?

TYSON: It was good because we had a lot of dreams, hopes.

GREENE: Like what? What were you thinking about?

TYSON: Being champ of the world. That's all that we ever thought about.

GREENE: It almost sounds like he was putting on to you his own dreams somehow, like it...

TYSON: Yeah, maybe. Well, look. You have a father, right? So when your father tells you to do something, you did it, right? That's what it was like.

GREENE: My father never told me I was going to be champion of the world.

TYSON: Well, whatever it was, it was different. You'll have to excuse me sometimes. I get choked up.

GREENE: No, take your time.

TYSON: I'm fine.

GREENE: What is the emotion? Is it missing him, or?

TYSON: Yes.

GREENE: Their relationship, though, was complicated.

You wrote that you - in order to not disappoint him, you threw yourself into the role of arrogant sociopath. Those are strong words.

TYSON: Yeah. You have to look at it this way. I was a smaller guy. I wasn't going to intimidate these fighters. I really wasn't. All I...

GREENE: An arrogant...

TYSON: You understand what I said? I went all out on people. I was arrogant. I looked down on people, the other fighters. I said no one's going to ever beat me. I'm the greatest fighter in the world.

GREENE: And so did you like the man he was making you become?

TYSON: Hey, I like the image of fighting, and it took me a long way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #2: Tyson is everything that people could have hoped for in that round. There's another big shot by Tyson. Berbick in a heap of trouble. Down he goes.

GREENE: When Mike Tyson won that first championship back in 1986, Cus D'Amato was no longer by his side.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TYSON: I'd like to dedicate my fight to my great guardian, Cus D'Amato. And I'm sure he's up there. He's looking. And he's talking to all the great fighters, saying his boy did it.

GREENE: But after Cus's death, it seemed like Mike Tyson's life took a turn. There were more boxing victories, of course, but there was also drinking, drugs and a 1992 rape conviction. And you wonder about some of the lessons his old trainer taught him. As Tyson wrote in his book, quote, "Cus made me feel that hurting people was noble."

When I read that he made you feel like hurting people was noble, I realized I had to do something that I really didn't want to do because I don't feel like I'd be doing my job if you and I were sitting here and I didn't bring up the rape conviction. Was that an instance where you regret how you treated someone?

TYSON: I didn't never rape that woman. That's just something I got arrested for, but I ain't never rape that woman.

GREENE: And I know you've maintained your innocence, but what do you tell people who - that's the first thing that comes to mind when they think of Mike Tyson?

TYSON: You know, it's funny, nobody tell me anything but you. Do you feel you're being a man or you're being tough telling me that, or do you feel like you're being a reporter? How you - just let me know how do you feel that you're doing - where you're coming from doing this.

GREENE: I feel like I'm doing my job. Like, I...

TYSON: This happened 25 years ago, if not more, and you still convicting me?

GREENE: I'm not convicting you.

TYSON: Yeah, 'cause you're still bringing it up.

GREENE: You have the right to answer any way you want. I guess I just - you reflecting on your life, it felt like I had to give you the chance to address this.

TYSON: Thank you for doing that. And I never did rape that person. They gave me opportunities to just admit that I raped this person and let me go, but I would never do that. I couldn't live with myself doing that.

GREENE: As we're sitting here today, it's so tranquil here, you know, meeting your wife and knowing how much you love your kids and seeing this place. What drives you today, like, what inspires you?

TYSON: It's living my life healthy, respectable, staying away from most people. I don't do much of anything. My life is my family life. I don't have no life outside of that. I have no nightlife. That's over.

GREENE: What do you think about when you look at boxers today? Like is your relationship with Cus something that you would tell a young boxer? Like, this is the trainer. This is the man you should be looking for. This is the relationship you should be looking for.

TYSON: No, 'cause it's just - it's some - I don't know. Some people are not as fortunate as I was. I was fortunate to meet that guy. Like, we were two guys who were, quote, unquote, "nothing" who became something.

GREENE: You said that rise is a once in a lifetime thing.

TYSON: I don't know but for me it is.

GREENE: Mike Tyson. Iron Mike. His new book is called "Iron Ambition: My Life With Cus D'Amato." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.