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He demands that a little girl give him her lunch. She refuses. He snatches her eyeglasses and lays them on the bumper of a truck heading out of state. His mother pays for the glasses and cries. Look at me, Michael. Explain to me. He can beat and rob a man twice his size, pass the night inside the skulls with the ghosts and rats, but he can't look his mother in the eye.
"I did evil things," he says. "But my heart was always pure."
Just now, in the middle of the night, a hand touched his shoulder. A dream with cold fingers. His eyes open. No dream—a big, round, white face in the dark just above him. "Do you remember everything I told you today?" it whispers. "Mike, you have to remember...."
The old man is dying, he can feel it. A world champion will keep him alive. What a strange dream life is that it has brought a black juvenile delinquent and an old Italian man together in a Victorian house on the Hudson River, each looking for a reason to live.
They had put Lorna Tyson's son in a series of juvenile detention centers in Brooklyn, then moved him to a reform school upstate. He was 12. His body and anger were a man's. Sometimes it took three men to subdue him. One of the counselors at the school was a former boxer, and Mike began learning to be brutal in a scientific way. The counselor brought him to the attention of the old boxing man in Catskill, N.Y., named Cus D'Amato.
Now Cus is Mike's legal guardian. "A job delivering newspapers?" the old man roars when the 14-year-old wants to make some pocket money. "You don't need a job, you're going to be the heavyweight champion of the world!"
For hours and hours Cus talks, driving home the lesson Mike had begun to grasp in Brownsville. Control your fear and you are free. He who has the strongest will, who best controls his fear—he is freest of all. Night after night Mike watches films of former champions' fights, leafs through scrapbooks of their clippings, stares up at pictures of them that he has taped to the ceiling and the headboard of his bed, installs them in his empty sky as gods. He falls asleep mumbling, "I'm going to be great, I'm going to be a champion." Then he feels the old man touch his shoulder in the night, review the lesson, press the commandment deeper, deeper into his subconscious.
The first 13 years of his life, when he saw white people, they were usually in blue uniforms or in courtrooms. Now he's living in the same house with them. Now they're telling him to get up and run, go to school, respect the teacher, study. To be free, you have to be a slave? Sometimes he'll suddenly disappear, turn up back on the streets of Brownsville, mug or beat someone just to remember how it feels. "Whenever he was hurt, he ran" Camille Ewald, the woman who owns the house where he and Cus live, will recall years later. A week amid skulls always makes him run back to the house upstate. The freedom of Brownsville smells too much like death.
Sometimes, at the public school he now attends in Catskill, the other kids slur him. Sometimes he only thinks they do. He goes crazy when it happens. The file of incidents becomes too thick, the school expels him. Now he's scared. He's a 16-year-old lying in bed staring up at the pictures of his gods on the ceiling, the ladder he is building toward them about to collapse into the rubble of his past. He gets up and goes to the gym.
Teddy Atlas, the young man Cus depends on to do the physical training, orders Mike out of the gym for two weeks as punishment. The old man flinches. "This boy," he growls, "is a special case." He gets him a tutor, takes him right back to the gym. Eventually Atlas will depart. "As far as guidance in the ring, everything was perfect," Atlas will say years later. "We had him in a time capsule up there in Catskill, we stacked the deck for him to become a champion without any outside influences. But I thought there were compromises being made as far as his guidance as a human being. Put up a house too fast, it can come back to haunt you when a strong wind comes along."