Anyone meeting Mike Tyson for the first time is likely to be slightly numbed by the sight of that great wide cliff of a back merging into the monolithic slab of neck and skull and by recalled images of the comic-book devastation he has wreaked on a long list of resigned victims, flattening some abruptly at his feet and causing others to levitate briefly before sprawling in dishevelment yards across the ring. But the most lasting impression may well be left by something else—by the high seriousness, the almost religious solemnity, that envelops Tyson during working hours.
It is the distancing severity of his concentration at training, as much as the mature and calculating intensity of the poker-faced violence he brings to his fights, that makes one wonder with a mild shiver of awe what manner of 20-year-old stands before one.
Of course part of the answer is that he is a lad laden with philosophical freight from another, longer life and, apparently, nourished by the surviving force of a dead man's nature. But, as the source of that nourishment, the late Cus D'Amato, surely would have acknowledged, a fighter needs more than strength and wisdom from beyond the grave when he steps onto the bright, cramped plateau of a prizefight ring.
Tyson himself has no illusions about the availability of ghostly assistance this Saturday night at the Las Vegas Hilton, where he means to punch the World Boxing Council heavyweight title away from Trevor Berbick and thus fulfill D'Amato's prediction that he will become the youngest-ever heavyweight champion. "I believe when someone dies, he dies—that's it," the challenger said in his quiet, light voice a few days ago. No, Cus will not be with him when he goes in against Berbick. "But I'll take everything he taught me in there, all the lessons, all the principles," Tyson says.
That rational appreciation of his inheritance would have pleased D'Amato. It may also go some way toward diluting the concern of those who have been asking if Tyson's boxing career (and indeed his life) could be distorted by its being seen as essentially a tribute to the extraordinary mentor, who died of pneumonia at the age of 77 in a Manhattan hospital a year ago this month.
The critics are jolted when the vigorous men now guiding Tyson's career concede happily that Cus is still calling the shots. There can be no question about the power of D'Amato's personality and no doubt that it found the perfect raw material for its molding influence in Tyson, who was snatched as a fatherless 13-year-old from a downward spiral of delinquency in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn and guided toward the vastly different school of hard knocks run by the old guru in the village of Catskill in upstate New York.
"I look at Mike now, and I don't see the influence of Cus—I see Cus," says Jose Torres, former light heavyweight champion, current commissioner of boxing for New York State and himself a distinguished graduate of the D'Amato academy. "Forget about the difference in color and size, and how very young Mike is. When I see him, I feel as if I'm looking at Cus right there in front of me."
The first sight of Tyson on television produced the same eerie echoes of recognition in Mort Sharnik, boxing consultant for CBS. "Cus had been calling me, telling me about this kid, and then when I saw him, I couldn't believe it," Sharnik says. "He really did look and sound like Cus, from that high-sidewalls haircut to the way he smiled and how he expressed himself, carefully spacing out his words. It was uncanny."
Maybe there should have been less astonishment. D'Amato's mind and spirit were as original and compelling as any that ever sought expression in the strange milieu of the fight game. He left an indelible imprint on lives he touched far less intimately than Tyson's, to whom he became far more than a legal guardian and boxing coach in the years before he died. Conversations with those who knew D'Amato tend to develop into small exercises in canonization, and because some of the eulogizing voices belong to men who fought under his management, the testimony carries unique conviction in a world where exploitation is a cherished tradition.
"When I quit boxing in 1969, I counted up how much money I had made, and it was close to one million dollars," Torres remembers. "Then I checked how much Cus had taken for his cut, and it came to zero. He never took one cent. In fact he doubled the purse for my first couple of fights out of his own pocket." Yet Torres insists that financial integrity was by no means the most significant justification for the profound gratitude with which he, Mike Tyson and so many others honor D'Amato's memory.