While Cus D’Amato poured his boxing knowledge into Mike Tyson and built his confidence, he was also hyper-critical of his protégé – and one of these moments led Tyson to finding the ferocious attitude that he’d carry into the ring as a professional.
D’Amato once told him out of the blue: “Man, I wish you had a body like Mike Weaver or Ken Norton, because then you would be real intimidating. You’d have an ominous aura. They don’t have the temperament but they have the physique of an intimidating man. You could paralyse the other boxers with fear just by the way you look.”
The fighter admits he got ‘choked up’ at the harsh comparison to two muscular heavyweights but hid his emotions and became determined to build an intimidating presence all of his own.
Tyson responded: “’Don’t worry Cus… You watch. One day the whole world is going to be afraid of me. When they mention my name, they’ll sweat blood, Cus.’
“That was the day I turned into Iron Mike; I became that guy 100 per cent. Even though I had been winning almost every one of my fights in an exciting fashion, I wasn’t completely emotionally invested in being the savage that Cus wanted me to be. After that talk of being too small, I became that savage.”
To this day, Tyson feels a deep loyalty and a debt of gratitude to his first real father figure. But the pair had a complex dynamic. Tyson understood that Cus’s devotion to him was purely because of what he could become as a boxer. As he once put it: “If I failed, Cus would get rid of me” – and Tyson once described their relationship as like a soldier and his general.
D’Amato was an uncompromising figure who stood up to the mob influence in boxing. But he was, as even Tyson admits, a bitter individual who didn’t have ‘a happy muscle in his face’.
When Tyson was asked in a TV interview long after his retirement whether he feared or loved D’Amato, he answered simply: “Both.”
“I was petrified when I was alone with him.”
One often-asked question is what Tyson could have become had D’Amato lived longer? The romantic notion being that he might have avoided the clutches of Don King and the career decline that began as early as age 23 with his shock loss to James ‘Buster’ Douglas.
“I was lost,” Tyson later reflected. “By the time I won the belt I was truly a wrecked soul because I didn’t have any guidance. I didn’t have Cus.”