“All people are afraid. Being afraid is a very healthy normal thing. If an individual is not afraid I would have to send him to a psychiatrist to find out what was wrong. Nature gave us fear in order to survive and of course fear is our best friend. Without fear we would all die. We would do something foolish or stupid, which would cause our death or make us crippled. Fear is something that has to be controlled… So, once you control fear like fire you can make it work for you… The fighter who controls his fear can now function in a manner over and beyond anything he was capable of before. Fear is your friend…”
- Cus D’Amato
Constantine “Cus” D’Amato was a legend in the boxing community.
Even if he had never discovered Mike Tyson this would be true. His work with Tyson, however, cemented that legacy and turned him into a broader cultural figure.
Born in the Bronx in 1908, D’Amato opened the Empire Sporting Club at the Gramercy Gym in New York City, at the age of 22. His goal was simple – to train and turn young boxers into champions. He had such great love and dedication for his work that he actually lived in the gym for a time.
Through his guidance, Floyd Patterson won Olympic gold in 1952 in Helsinki, and then became heavyweight champion in 1956. Winning the title at the age of 21, Patterson was the youngest heavyweight champion up to that time.
D’Amato then guided Jose Torres to the Light Heavyweight title in 1965. Both boxers were eventually elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
Such feats, on their own, would have earned D’Amato a place in boxing lore. The best, however, was yet to come, the denouement of which D’Amato would unfortunately not live to see.
After Torres’ career ended, D’Amato kept working, but lacked any champions. Working in obscurity, D’Amato was always looking for young talent that he could mold into his next champion. During the1970’s, he moved to upstate New York, and founded the Catskill Boxing Club.
Enter Mike Tyson.
Tyson, who grew up in difficult conditions in Brooklyn, was a resident of a nearby reform school. By the time of his 13th birthday, he had been arrested 38 times. D’Amato began training him when he was still a young teenager, becoming a father figure to Tyson and forming an extremely close and tight bond with the young man. In fact, the relationship was so close that D’Amato adopted Tyson when Tyson’s mother died.
Tyson gives D’Amato the credit for being his father figure, building his confidence, and changing the trajectory of his life.
By then an old man, Tyson gave D’Amato a reason to live. Here’s how D’Amato put it: “Nature’s a lot brighter than what people think. Little by little, we lose our friends that we care about, and little by little, we lose our interests til’ finally we say ‘well what the hell am I doing around here,’ we have no reason to go on. But I have a reason with Mike here.”
D’Amato gave Tyson a sense of belonging and discipline for the first time in his young life, and in exchange, Tyson gave D’Amato a renewed sense of purpose in the twilight of his life.
D’Amato died on November 4, 1985 at the age of 77 from complications of pneumonia. By this time, Tyson had begun his rise to superstardom.
Little more than a year after D’Amato’s death, in November 1986, Tyson defeated Trevor Berbick by 2nd round TKO to capture the WBC heavyweight championship. He was 20 years old, besting Floyd Patterson’s record as the youngest ever heavyweight champion.
Tyson went on to dominate boxing in a way never seen before and he captured the world’s attention as a cultural icon.
We know his life then fell apart through poor decision-making, especially allowing into his life certain individuals who only saw dollar signs and didn’t have his best interest at heart. Many observers believe Tyson’s life would have taken a different turn had D’Amato still been around to continue guiding him as a tough but loving father.
D’Amato certainly had a passion for boxing and an eye for developing talent. These qualities, however, are not what make him stand out to me. Instead, it is his recognition of the need to develop a proper mindset for success that sets him apart. D’Amato made his fighters believe in themselves, which made them better in and out of the ring.
I began this piece with a long quote from D’Amato about fear and the need to control it. Fear is a natural feeling for anyone in difficult situations, particularly in a boxing ring where a single punch could kill or maim a boxer.
D’Amato recognized and made his fighters believe that they can and must control this very natural feeling. He recognized the human condition, and knew that fear could never be completely eliminated, but it could be harnessed, controlled, and overcome, and used to the fighter’s advantage.
For D’Amato, training the mind was just as important as training the body. That’s how champions are made.
D’Amato knew that our own worst enemy is often ourselves. He said, “To see a man beaten, not by a better opponent, but by himself, is a tragedy.”
Many men are engaged in various self-improvement efforts, whether physical, mental, or spiritual. In each of these domains, the first thing that has to be mastered is our minds and mindset. Without the proper mindset, we will fail at whatever task we are undertaking. Take for example, a person who is overweight and wants to start working out and eating right. Both of those are, in and of themselves, easy. The resources exist, often free of charge, that could help anyone achieve their goals. Then why doesn’t everyone succeed?
The answer is simple.
It is not our bodies that create failure, but our minds. Without the proper motivation and the right response to adversity, success becomes impossible to accomplish.
D’Amato personifies the virtue of proper mindset in our actions. Read and re-read the above quote about fear and apply it to all negative feelings. Embrace these negative feelings, control them, and turn them to your advantage.
It would have been interesting to see what the trajectory of Mike Tyson’s life and career would have taken if D’Amato had lived another 20 years. I’m willing to bet it would have turned out much differently simply because D’Amato would have ensured his mind stayed focused on the task at hand.
As you engage in important self-improvement activities, think of D’Amato and always keep an eye on your mindset. Remember that the only person who can beat you is you.
By Chris D.
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