Book Name – Iron Ambition: My Life with Cus D’Amato
Author – Mike Tyson & Larry Sloman
Publisher – Blue Rider Press
Pages – 480 pages
Price – Rs 952
In 1979, a detention centre guard in upstate New York brought a precocious but delinquent 13-year-old kid to a septuagenarian boxing trainer in Catskill. “Barring the outside distractions,” he told the guard after watching the teenager spar for just 10 minutes, “that is the heavyweight champion of the world, and possibly the universe.” Seven years later, Constantine ‘Cus’ D’Amato’s prophecy came true when Mike Tyson splayed WBC champion Trevor Berbick on the canvas in just two minutes 35 seconds, to become the youngest man to have a heavyweight championship belt around his waist.
In his latest book Iron Ambition, the boxer-turned-actor narrates the story of Cus, the man who saved Tyson from a gloomy future and, possibly, an early death, in the mean streets of Brownsville.
Tyson also wrote about their relationship in his 2013 autobiography Undisputed Truth. But the intriguing Cus, a second generation white Italian immigrant who not only trained Tyson at his gym but also adopted this black kid from the ’hood, deserved a deeper exploration. Consequently, Tyson and co-author Larry ‘Ratso’ Sloman teamed up to give us what is at once an authentic and personal sketch of an extraordinary man and a mini history of boxing in America. Tyson also digs deep within to show us a delicate side of his own personality — of an insecure, emotional kid raised by a single mom, desperately in need of a father figure. It was a deeply symbiotic relationship as Cus himself didn’t have any children.
Initially, Tyson, who suffered from low self-esteem, says he was suspicious of Cus.
“Cus immediately realized that I had been… by years of being bullied… so he began to work on building up my ego,” Tyson writes. “‘You’ve got to believe in yourself,’ he’d tell me… ‘Look in the mirror and see how handsome you are. Look at your powerful hands.’”
Cus D’Amato believed that tough boxers came from tough neighbourhoods. A violent childhood and prejudice were other things he shared in common with Tyson. His father had migrated from Italy to America in the 1890s and Cus was born in 1908. At that time, anti-Italianism in certain parts of the US was prevalent. Lynchings were not uncommon and Teddy Roosevelt, in fact, once said “they were a rather good thing”.
Cus knew hardcore violence well — his brother was shot dead, and he lost an eye in a streetfight. It meant he could never box professionally, but that only fuelled his passion for producing world champions. In Tyson, therefore, as in Floyd Patterson and Jose Torres before him, Cus perhaps saw a reflection of himself. A man of courage and conviction, Cus stood up against the mob and monopoly of the International Boxing Club in the 1950s. His fight even led to his managerial license being revoked in 1959. It bankrupted but didn’t break him.
The last chapters where Tyson comes back to Cus’s story through his own experiences — that’s where the book really shines. Cus wasn’t always a motivator, but he seemed to play good cop bad cop well with Tyson: gushing about his ward in front of others, but sometimes overly panning him in private. Tyson, who needed Cus’s praise and affirmation, says the duality often left him messed up in the head.
The book’s emotional core comes forth towards the end when Cus passes away just as Tyson’s pro career takes off. It leaves the boxer hollow and he teeters on the edge. One year after Cus’s death, Tyson realises the dream — which was always more his mentor’s than his.
One of the greatest heavyweights of all time, Tyson is also seen as an unfulfilled potential inside the ring. His legacy has been as much about his achievements and ferocious style as the controversies that followed him — including his rape conviction and biting off Evander Holyfield’s ear during a bout. The book makes you wonder if things could have been different had Cus been around to guide him. Tyson offers an answer.
“We would have monopolised the boxing business…(the shocking upset to) Buster Douglas? Never would have happened.”