I spent most of the six weeks between my conviction for rape and sentencing traveling around the country romancing all of my various girlfriends. It was my way of saying good-bye to them. And when I wasn’t with them, I was fending off all the women who propositioned me. Everywhere I’d go, there were some women who would come up to me and say, “Come on, I’m not going to say that you raped me. You can come with me. I’ll let you film it.” I later realized that that was their way of saying “We know you didn’t do it.” But I didn’t take it that way. I’d strike back indignantly with a rude response. Although they were saying what they said out of support, I was in too much pain to realize it. I was an ignorant, mad, bitter guy who had a lot of growing up to do.
But some of my anger was understandable. I was a twenty-five-year-old kid facing sixty years in jail for a crime that I did not commit. Let me repeat here what I said before the grand jury, during the trial, at my sentencing, at my early-release hearing, after I got out of prison, and what I will continue to say until they put me in the ground. I did not rape Desiree Washington. She knows it, God knows it, and the consequences of her actions are something that she’s got to live with for the rest of her life.
My promoter, Don King, kept assuring me that I would walk from these charges. He told me he was working behind the scenes to make the case disappear. Plus, he had hired Vince Fuller, the best lawyer that a million-dollar fee could buy. Vince just happened to be Don’s tax attorney. And Don probably still owed him money. But I knew from the start that I’d get no justice. I wasn’t being tried in New York or Los Angeles; we were in Indianapolis, Indiana, historically one of the strongholds of the Ku Klux Klan. My judge, Patricia Gifford, was a former sex crimes prosecutor and was known as “the Hanging Judge.” I had been found guilty by a jury of my “peers,” only two of whom were black. Another black jury member had been excused by the judge after a fire in the hotel where the jurors were staying. She dismissed him because of his “state of mind.” Yeah, his state of mind was that he didn’t like the food he was being served.
But in my mind, I had no peers. I was the youngest heavyweight champion in the history of boxing. I was a titan, the reincarnation of Alexander the Great. My style was impetuous, my defenses were impregnable, and I was ferocious. It’s amazing how a low self-esteem and a huge ego can give you delusions of grandeur. But after the trial, this god among men had to get his black ass back in court for his sentencing.
But first I tried some divine intervention. Calvin, my close friend from Chicago, told me about some hoodoo woman who could cast a spell to keep me out of jail.
“You piss in a jar, then put five hundred-dollar bills in there, then put the jar under your bed for three days and then bring it to her and she’ll pray over it for you,” Calvin told me.
“So the clairvoyant broad is gonna take the pissy pile of hundreds out of the jar, rinse them off, and then go shopping. If somebody gave you a hundred-dollar bill they pissed on, would you care?” I asked Calvin. I had a reputation for throwing around money but that was too much even for me.
Then some friends tried to set me up with a voodoo priest. But they brought around this guy who had a suit on. The guy didn’t even look like a drugstore voodoo guy. This asshole needed to be in the swamp; he needed to have on a dashiki. I knew that guy had nothing. He didn’t even have a ceremony planned. He just wrote some shit on a piece of paper and tried to sell me on some bullshit I didn’t do. He wanted me to wash in some weird oil and pray and drink some special water. But I was drinking goddamn Hennessy. I wasn’t going to water down my Hennessy.
So I settled on getting a Santeria priest to do some witch doctor shit. We went to the courthouse one night with a pigeon and an egg. I dropped the egg on the ground as the bird was released and I yelled, “We’re free!” A few days later, I put on my gray pin-striped suit and went to court.
After the verdict had been delivered, my defense team had put together a presentence memorandum on my behalf. It was an impressive document. Dr. Jerome Miller, the clinical director of the Augustus Institute in Virginia and one of the nation’s leading experts on adult sex offenders, had examined me and concluded that I was “a sensitive and thoughtful young man with problems more the result of developmental deficits than of pathology.” With regular psychotherapy, he was convinced that my long-term prognosis would be quite good. He concluded, “A term in prison will delay the process further and more likely set it back. I would strongly recommend that other options with both deterrent and treatment potential be considered.” Of course, the probation officers who put together their sentencing document left that last paragraph out of their summary. But they were eager to include the prosecution’s opinion, “An assessment of this offense and this offender leads the chief investigator of this case, an experienced sex crimes detective, to conclude that the defendant is inclined to commit a similar offense in the future.”
My lawyers prepared an appendix that contained forty-eight testimonials to my character from such diverse people as my high school principal, my social worker in upstate New York, Sugar Ray Robinson’s widow, my adoptive mother, Camille, my boxing hypnotherapist, and six of my girlfriends (and their mothers), who all wrote moving accounts of how I had been a perfect gentleman with them. One of my first girlfriends from Catskill even wrote the judge, “I waited three years before having sexual intercourse with Mr. Tyson and not once did he force me into anything. That is the reason I love him, because he loves and respects women.”
But of course, Don being Don, he had to go and overdo it. King had the Reverend William F. Crockett, the Imperial First Ceremonial Master of the Ancient Egyptian Arabic Order Nobles Mystic Shrine of North and South America, write a letter on my behalf. The Reverend wrote, “I beseech you to spare him incarceration. Though I have not spoken to Mike since the day of his trial, my information is that he no longer uses profanity or vulgarity, reads the Bible daily, prays and trains.” Of course, that was all bullshit. He didn’t even know me.
Then there was Don’s personal heartfelt letter to the judge. You would have thought that I had come up with a cure for cancer, had a plan for peace in the Middle East, and nursed sick kittens back to health. He talked about my work with the Make-A-Wish Foundation visiting with sick kids. He informed Judge Gifford that every Thanksgiving we gave away forty thousand turkeys to the needy and the hungry. He recounted the time we met with Simon Wiesenthal and I was so moved that I donated a large sum of money to help him hunt down Nazi war criminals. I guess Don forgot that the Klan hated Jews as much as they hated blacks.
This went on for eight pages, with Don waxing eloquently about me. “It is highly unusual for a person his age to be concerned about his fellow man, let alone with the deep sense of commitment and dedication that he possesses. These are God-like qualities, noble qualities of loving, giving and unselfishness. He is a child of God: one of the most gentle, sensitive, caring, loving, and understanding persons that I have ever met in my twenty years’ experience with boxers.” Shit, Don should have delivered the closing arguments instead of my lawyer. But John Solberg, Don’s public relations man, cut right to the chase in his letter to Judge Gifford. “Mike Tyson is not a scumbag,” he wrote.
I might not have been a scumbag, but I was an arrogant prick. I was so arrogant in the courtroom during the trial that there was no way they were going to give me a break. Even in my moment of doom, I was not a humble person. All those things they wrote about in that report—giving people money and turkeys, taking care of people, looking out for the weak and the infirm—I did all those things because I wanted to be that humble person, not because I was that person. I wanted so desperately to be humble but there wasn’t a humble bone in my body.
So, armed with all my character testimonials, we appeared in Judge Patricia Gifford’s court on March 26, 1992, for my sentencing. Witnesses were permitted and Vince Fuller began the process by calling to the stand Lloyd Bridges, the executive director of the Riverside Residential Center in Indianapolis. My defense team was arguing that instead of jail time, my sentence should be suspended and I should serve my probation term at a halfway house where I could combine personal therapy with community service. Bridges, an ordained minister, ran just such a program and he testified that I would certainly be a prime candidate for his facility.
But the assistant prosecutor got Bridges to reveal that there had been four escapes recently from his halfway house. And when she got the minister to admit that he had interviewed me in my mansion in Ohio and that we had paid for his airfare, that idea was dead in the water. So now it was only a matter of how much time the Hanging Judge would give me.
Fuller approached the bench. It was time for him to weave his million-dollar magic. Instead, I got his usual two-bit bullshit. “Tyson came in with a lot of excess baggage. The press has vilified him. Not a day goes by that the press doesn’t bring up his faults. This is not the Tyson I know. The Tyson I know is a sensitive, thoughtful, caring man. He may be terrifying in the ring, but that ends when he leaves the ring.” Now, this was nowhere near Don King hyperbole, but it wasn’t bad. Except that Fuller had just spent the whole trial portraying me as a savage animal, a crude bore, bent solely on sexual satisfaction.
Then Fuller changed the subject to my poverty-stricken childhood and my adoption by the legendary boxing trainer Cus D’Amato.
“But there is some tragedy in this,” he intoned. “D’Amato only focused on boxing. Tyson, the man, was secondary to Cus D’Amato’s quest for Tyson’s boxing greatness.” Camille, who was Cus’s companion for many years, was outraged at his statement. It was like Fuller was pissing on the grave of Cus, my mentor. Fuller went on and on, but he was as disjointed as he had been for the entire trial.
Now it was my time to address the court. I got up and stood behind the podium. I really hadn’t been prepared properly and I didn’t even have any notes. But I did have that stupid voodoo guy’s piece of paper in my hand. And I knew one thing—I wasn’t going to apologize for what went on in my hotel room that night. I apologized to the press, the court, and the other contestants of the Miss Black America pageant, where I met Desiree, but not for my actions in my room.
“My conduct was kind of crass. I agree with that. I didn’t rape anyone. I didn’t attempt to rape anyone. I’m sorry.” Then I looked back at Greg Garrison, the prosecutor, or persecutor in my case.
“My personal life has been incarcerated. I’ve been hurt. This was all one big dream. I didn’t come here to beg you for mercy, ma’am. I expect the worst. I’ve been crucified. I’ve been humiliated worldwide. I’ve been humiliated socially. I’m just happy for all my support. I’m prepared to deal with whatever you give me.”
I sat back down behind the defense table and the judge asked me a few questions about being a role model for kids. “I was never taught how to handle my celebrity status. I don’t tell kids it’s right to be Mike Tyson. Parents serve as better role models.”
Now the prosecution had their say. Instead of the redneck Garrison, who argued against me during the trial, his boss, Jeffrey Modisett, the Marion County prosecutor, stepped up. He went on for ten minutes saying that males with money and fame shouldn’t get special privileges. Then he read from a letter from Desiree Washington. “In the early morning hours of July 19, 1991, an attack on both my body and my mind occurred. I was physically defeated to the point that my innermost person was taken away. In the place of what has been me for eighteen years is now a cold and empty feeling. I am not able to comment on what my future will be. I can only say that each day after being raped has been a struggle to learn to trust again, to smile the way I did and to find the Desiree Lynn Washington who was stolen from me and those who loved me on July 19, 1991. On those occasions when I became angry about the pain that my attacker caused me, God granted me the wisdom to see that he was psychologically ill. Although some days I cry when I see the pain in my own eyes, I am also able to pity my attacker. It has been and still is my wish that he be rehabilitated.”
Modisett put the letter down. “From the date of his conviction, Tyson still doesn’t get it. The world is watching now to see if there is one system of justice. It is his responsibility to admit his problem. Heal this sick man. Mike Tyson, the rapist, needs to be off the streets.” And then he recommended I do eight to ten years of healing behind bars.
It was Jim Voyles’s turn to speak on my behalf. Voyles was the local attorney hired by Fuller to act as local counsel. He was a great guy, compassionate, smart, and funny. He was the only attorney from my side that I related to. Besides all that, he was a friend of Judge Gifford’s and a down-home guy who could appeal to the Indianapolis jury. “Let’s go with this guy,” I told Don at the beginning of my trial. Voyles would have gotten me some play. But Don and Fuller made a fool out of him. They didn’t let him do anything. They shut him down. Jim was frustrated too. He described his role to one friend as “one of the world’s highest-paid pencil carriers.” But now he was finally arguing in court. He spoke passionately for rehabilitation instead of incarceration but it fell on deaf ears. Judge Gifford was ready to make her decision.
She began by complimenting me on my community work and my treatment of children and my “sharing” of “assets.” But then she went into a rant about “date rape,” saying it was a term she detested. “We have managed to imply that it is all right to proceed to do what you want to do if you know or are dating a woman. The law is very clear in its definition of rape. It never mentions anything about whether the defendant and victim are related. The ‘date,’ in date rape, does not lessen the fact that it is still rape.”
My mind was wandering during this lecture. It really had nothing to do with me. We weren’t on a date; it was, as the great comedian Bill Bellamy would say, a booty call. Enough said. But then I snapped back to attention.
“I feel he is at risk to do it again because of his attitude,” the judge said and stared at me. “You had no prior record. You have been given many gifts. But you have stumbled.” She paused.
“On count one, I sentence you to ten years,” she said.
“Fucking bitch,” I mumbled under my breath. I started to feel numb. That was the rape count. Shit, maybe I should have drank that special voodoo water, I thought.
“On count two, I sentence you to ten years.” Don King and my friends in the courtroom audibly gasped. That count was for using my fingers. Five years for each finger. “On count three, I sentence you to ten years.” That was for using my tongue. For twenty minutes. It was probably a world record, the longest cunnilingus performed during a rape.
“The sentences will run concurrently,” she continued. “I fine you the maximum of thirty thousand dollars. I suspend four of those years and place you on probation for four years. During that time you will enter into a psychoanalytic program with Dr. Jerome Miller and perform one hundred hours of community work involving youth delinquency.”
Now Fuller jumped up and argued that I should be allowed to be free on bail while Alan Dershowitz, the celebrated defense attorney, prepared my appeal. Dershowitz was there in the courtroom, observing the sentencing. After Fuller finished his plea, Garrison, the redneck cowboy, took the floor. A lot of people would later claim that I was a victim of racism. But I think guys like Modisett and Garrison were just in it for the shine more than anything else. They didn’t really care about the ultimate legal outcome; they were just consumed with getting their names in the papers and being big shots.
So Garrison got up and claimed I was a “guilty, violent rapist who may repeat. If you fail to remove the defendant, you depreciate the seriousness of the crime, demean the quality of law enforcement, expose other innocent persons, and allow a guilty man to continue his lifestyle.”
Judge Gifford agreed. No bail. Which meant that I was heading straight to prison. Gifford was about to gavel the proceedings to an end when there was a commotion in the courtroom. Dershowitz had bolted up, gathered his briefcase, and loudly rushed out of the courtroom, muttering, “I’m off to see that justice is done.” There was some confusion but then the judge banged her gavel on her table. That was it. The county sheriff came over to take me into custody. I stood up, removed my watch, took off my belt and handed them, along with my wallet, to Fuller. Two of my female friends in the first row of spectators were crying uncontrollably. “We love you, Mike,” they sobbed. Camille got up and made her way to our defense table. We hugged good-bye. Then Jim Voyles and I were led out of the courtroom through the back door by the sheriff.
They took me downstairs to the booking station. I was searched, fingerprinted, and processed through. There was a mob of reporters waiting outside, surrounding the car that would take me to prison.
“When we leave, remember to keep your coat over your handcuffs,” Voyles advised me. Was he for real? Slowly the numbness was leaving me and my rage was kicking in. I should be ashamed to be shown with handcuffs? That’s my badge of honor. If I hide the cuffs, then I’m a bitch. Jim thought that hiding my cuffs would stop me from experiencing shame, but that would have been the shame. I had to be seen with that steel on me. Fuck everybody else, the people who understand, they have got to see me with that steel on. I was going to warrior school.
We exited the courthouse and made our way to the car, and I proudly held my cuffs up high. And I smirked as if to say, “Do you believe this shit?” That picture of me made the front page of newspapers around the world. I got into the police car and Jim squeezed next to me in the backseat.
“Well, farm boy, it’s just you and me,” I joked.
They took us to a diagnostic center to determine what level prison I would be sent to. They stripped me naked, made me bend down and did a cavity search. Then they gave me some pajama-type shit and some slippers. And they shipped me off to the Indiana Youth Center in Plainfield, a facility for level-two and -three offenders. By the time I got to my final destination, I was consumed with rage. I was going to show these motherfuckers how to do time. My way. It’s funny, but it took me a long time to realize that that little white woman judge who sent me to prison just might have saved my life.
We were beefing with these guys called the Puma Boys. It was 1976 and I lived in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and these guys were from my neighborhood. At that time I was running with a Rutland Road crew called The Cats, a bunch of Caribbean guys from nearby Crown Heights. We were a burglary team and some of our gangster friends had an altercation with the Puma Boys, so we were going to the park to back them up. We normally didn’t deal with guns, but these were our friends so we stole a bunch of shit: some pistols, a .357 Magnum, and a long M1 rifle with a bayonet attached from World War I. You never knew what you’d find when you broke into people’s houses.
So we’re walking through the streets holding our guns and nobody runs up on us, no cops are around to stop us. We didn’t even have a bag to put the big rifle in, so we just took turns carrying it every few blocks.
“Yo, there he goes!” my friend Haitian Ron said. “The guy with the red Pumas and the red mock neck.” Ron had spotted the guy we were after. When we started running, the huge crowd in the park opened up like Moses parting the Red Sea. It was a good thing they did, because, boom, one of my friends opened fire. Everybody scrambled when they heard the gun.
We kept walking, and I realized that some of the Puma Boys had taken cover between the parked cars in the street. I had the M1 rifle and I turned around quickly to see this big guy with his pistol pointed towards me.
“What the fuck are you doing here?” he said to me. It was my older brother, Rodney. “Get the fuck out of here.”
I just kept walking and left the park and went home. I was ten years old.
• • •
I often say that I was the bad seed in the family, but when I think about it, I was really a meek kid for most of my childhood. I was born in Cumberland Hospital in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn, New York, on June 30, 1966. My earliest memories were of being in the hospital—I was always sick with lung problems. One time, to get some attention, I put my thumb in some Drano and then put it in my mouth. They rushed me to the hospital. I remember my godmother gave me a toy gun while I was there, but I think I broke it right away.
I don’t know much about my family background. My mother, Lorna Mae, was a New Yorker but she was born down south in Virginia. My brother once went down to visit the area where my mother grew up and he said there was nothing but trailer parks there. So I’m really a trailer park nigga. My grandmother Bertha and my great-aunt used to work for this white lady back in the thirties at a time when most whites wouldn’t have blacks working for them, and Bertha and her sister were so appreciative that they both named their daughters Lorna after the white lady. Then Bertha used the money from her job to send her kids to college.
I may have gotten the family knockout gene from my grandma. My mother’s cousin Lorna told me that the husband of the family Bertha worked for kept beating on his wife, and Bertha didn’t like it. And she was a big woman.
“Don’t you put your hands on her,” she told him.
He took it as a joke, and she threw a punch and knocked him on his ass. The next day he saw Bertha and said, “Well, how are you doing, Miss Price?” He stopped hitting on his wife and became a different man.
Everybody liked my mom. When I was born, she was working as a prison matron at the Women’s House of Detention in Manhattan, but she was studying to be a teacher. She had completed three years of college when she met my dad. He got sick so she had to drop out of school to care for him. For a person that well educated, she didn’t have very good taste in men.
I don’t know much about my father’s family. In fact, I didn’t really know my father much at all. Or the man I was told was my father. On my birth certificate it said my father was Percel Tyson. The only problem was that my brother, my sister, and I never met this guy.
We were all told that our biological father was Jimmy “Curlee” Kirkpatrick Jr. But he was barely in the picture. As time went on I heard rumors that Curlee was a pimp and that he used to extort ladies. Then, all of a sudden, he started calling himself a deacon in the church. That’s why every time I hear someone referring to themselves as reverend, I say “Reverend-slash-Pimp.” When you really think about it, these religious guys have the charisma of a pimp. They can get anybody in the church to do whatever they want. So to me it’s always “Yeah, Bishop-slash-Pimp,” “Reverend Ike-slash-Pimp.”
Curlee would drive over to where we stayed, periodically. He and my mother never spoke to each other, he’d just beep the horn and we’d just go down and meet him. The kids would pile into his Cadillac and we thought we were going on an excursion to Coney Island or Brighton Beach, but he’d just drive around for a few minutes, pull back up to our apartment building, give us some money, give my sister a kiss, and shake me and my brother’s hands and that was it. Maybe I’d see him in another year.
My first neighborhood was Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn. It was a decent working-class neighborhood then. Everybody knew one another. Things were pretty normal, but they weren’t calm. Every Friday and Saturday, it was like Vegas in the house. My mom would have a card party and invite all her girlfriends, many of whom were in the vice business. She would send her boyfriend Eddie to buy a case of liquor and they’d water it down and sell shots. Every fourth hand of cards the winner had to throw into the pot so the house made money. My mom would cook some wings. My brother remembers that, besides the hookers, there’d be gangsters, detectives. The whole gamut was there.
When my mother had some money, she’d splurge. She was a great facilitator and she’d always have her girlfriends over and a bunch of men too. Everybody would be drinking, drinking, drinking. She didn’t smoke marijuana but all her friends did, so she’d supply them with the drugs. She just smoked cigarettes, Kool 100’s. My mother’s friends were prostitutes, or at least women who would sleep with men for money. No high-level or even street-level stuff. They would drop off their kids at our house before they went to meet their men. When they’d come to pick up their kids, they might have blood on their clothes, so my mom would help them clean up. I came home one day and there was a white baby in the house. What the fuck is this shit? I thought. But that’s just what my life was like.
My brother Rodney was five years older than I was so we didn’t have much in common. He’s a weird dude. We’re black guys from the ghetto and he was like a scientist—he had all these test tubes, was always experimenting. He even had coin collections. I was, like, “White people do this stuff.”
He once went to the chemistry lab at Pratt Institute, a nearby college, and got some chemicals to do an experiment. A few days later when he went out, I snuck into his room, started adding water to his test tubes, and I blew out the whole back window and started a fire in his room. He had to put a lock on his door after that.
I fought with him a lot, but it was just typical brother stuff. Except for the day that I cut him with a razor. He had beaten me up for some reason and then he had gone to sleep. My sister, Denise, and I were watching one of those doctor-type soap operas and they were doing an operation. “We could do that and Rodney could be the patient. I can be the doctor and you can be the nurse,” I told my sister. So we rolled up his sleeve and got to work on his left arm. “Scalpel,” I said, and my sister handed me a razor. I cut him a bit and he started bleeding. “We need the alcohol, nurse,” I said, and she passed it to me and I poured it onto his cuts. He woke up screaming and yelling and chased us around the house. I hid behind my mom. He still has those slices to this day.
We had some good times together too. Once, my brother and I were walking down Atlantic Avenue and he said, “Let’s go to the doughnut factory.” He had stolen some doughnuts from that place before and I guess he wanted to show me he could do it again. So we walked by and the gate was open. He went in and got a few boxes of doughnuts, but something happened and the gate closed and he was stuck in there and the security guards started coming. So he handed me the doughnuts and I ran home with them. My sister and I were sitting on our stoop and cramming down those doughnuts and our faces were white with the powder. Our mom was standing next to us, talking to her neighbor.
“My son aced the test to get into Brooklyn Tech,” she boasted to her friend. “He is such a remarkable student, he’s the best pupil in his class.”
Just then a cop car drove up and Rodney was in it. They were going to drop him off at home, but he heard our mother bragging about what a good son he was and he told the cops to keep going. They took him straight to Spofford, a juvenile detention center. My sister and I happily finished off those doughnuts.
I spent most of my time with my sister Denise. She was two years older than me and she was beloved by everybody in the neighborhood. If she was your friend, she was your best friend. But if she was your enemy, go across the street. We made mud pies; we watched wrestling and karate movies and went to the store with our mother. It was a nice existence, but then when I was just seven years old, our world got turned upside down.
There was a recession and my mom lost her job and we got evicted out of our nice apartment in Bed-Stuy. They came and took all our furniture and put it outside on the sidewalk. The three of us kids had to sit down on it and protect it so that nobody took it while my mother went to find a spot for us to stay. I was sitting there, and some kids from the neighborhood came up and said, “Mike, why is your furniture out here, Mike?” We just told them we were moving. Then some neighbors saw us out there and brought some plates of food down for us.
We wound up in Brownsville. You could totally feel the difference. The people were louder, more aggressive. It was a very horrific, tough, and gruesome kind of place. My mother wasn’t used to hanging around those particular types of aggressive black people and she appeared to be intimidated, and so were my brother and sister and me. Everything was hostile, there was never a subtle moment there. Cops were always driving by with their sirens on; ambulances always coming to pick up somebody; guns always going off, people getting stabbed, windows being broken. One day my brother and I even got robbed right in front of our apartment building. We used to watch these guys shooting it out with one another. It was like something out of an old Edward G. Robinson movie. We would watch and say, “Wow, this is happening in real life.”
The whole neighborhood was also a hotbed of lust. A lot of people there seemed to be uninhibited. It wasn’t uncommon to hear people talking on the street: “Suck my dick,” “Eat my pussy.” It was a different kind of environment from my old neighborhood. One day a guy pulled me off the street, took me into an abandoned building, and tried to molest me. I never really felt safe on those streets. After a while, we weren’t even safe in our apartment. My mom’s parties ended when we got to Brownsville. My mother made some friends, but she wasn’t in the mix like she was in Bed-Stuy. So she started drinking heavily. She never got another job, and I remember waiting in these long lines with my mother down at the welfare center. We’d wait and wait for hours and then we’d be right up front, and it was five o’clock and they’d close the fucking shit on you, just like in the movies.
We kept getting evicted in Brownsville too. That happened quite a few times. Every now and then we’d get a decent spot, crashing for a short time with some friends or a boyfriend of my mother’s. But for the most part, each time we moved, the conditions got worse—from being poor to being serious poor to being fucked-up poor. Eventually we lived in condemned buildings, with no heat, no water, maybe some electricity. In the wintertime all four of us slept in the same bed to keep warm. We’d stay there until a guy would come and kick us out. My mother would do whatever she had to do to keep a roof over our heads. That often meant sleeping with someone that she really didn’t care for. That was just the way it was.
She’d never take us to a homeless shelter, so we’d just move into another abandoned building. It was so traumatic, but what could you do? This is what I hate about myself, what I learned from my mother—there was nothing you wouldn’t do to survive.
One of my earliest memories is of welfare workers coming into the apartment to look for men under the bed. In the summertime, we’d go get the free lunches and free breakfasts. I’d tell them, “I got nine brothers and sisters,” so they’d pack more. I’d feel like I just went to war and got a bounty. I was so proud that I got food for the house. Can you imagine that bullshit? I’d open the refrigerator and see the baloney sandwich and the orange and the little carton of milk. Twenty of them. I’d invite people over. “Do you need something to eat, brother? Are you hungry? We have food.” We were acting like we paid for this with hard-earned money. It was a free lunch.
I was a momma’s boy when I was young. I always slept with my mother. My sister and brother had their own rooms, but I slept with my mother until I was fifteen. One time, my mother slept with a man while I was in the bed with her. She probably thought I was asleep. I’m sure it had an impact on me, but that’s just how it was. I got booted to the couch when her boyfriend Eddie Gillison came into the picture. They had a really dysfunctional love affair. I guess that’s why my own relationships were so strange. They’d drink, fight, and fuck, break up, then drink, fight, and fuck some more. They were truly in love, even if it was a really sick love.
Eddie was a short, compact guy from South Carolina who was a worker at an industrial Laundromat factory. He didn’t get too far in school, and by the time my brother and sister got to fourth grade, he really couldn’t help them with their homework. Eddie was a controlling guy, but my mother was a very controlling woman, so all hell would break loose on a routine basis. There was always some kind of fight, and the cops would come, and they’d go, “Hey, buddy, walk around the block.” Sometimes we’d all get in on the fighting. One day my mother and Eddie were having a bad argument and they got physical. I jumped in between them trying to defend my mom and I was trying to restrain him and, whop, he slugged me in my stomach and I went down. I was, like, Oh, man, I can’t believe this shit. I was just a little kid! That’s why I’ve never put my hands on any of my kids. I don’t want them thinking I’m a monster when they get old. But back then, beating on a kid was just the way it was. Nobody cared. Now it’s murder, you go to jail.
Eddie and my mother fought over anything—other men or women, money, control. Eddie was no angel. When my mother had female friends over and they’d all get drunk and she’d pass out, he’d fuck her friends. And then they’d fight. There was really some barbaric stuff, going at each other with weapons and cursing, “You motherfucker, fuck you” and “You nigga, suck my . . .” We’d be screaming, “Mommy, stop, no!” Once, when I was seven years old, they were fighting and Eddie punched her and knocked her gold tooth out. My mother started boiling up a large pot of water. She told my brother and sister to get under the quilt, but I was so mesmerized watching my wrestling program on the TV that I didn’t hear her. My mother was so slick, she walked by and nothing happened, then she came back into the room and by then my sister and brother were prepared, they were hiding under the quilt. Eddie was sitting right next to me, and the next thing I heard was this boom and the pot with the boiling water hit Eddie in the head. A little bit of the water splashed on me. It felt like it weighed a ton.
“Aaggghhh!” Eddie ran screaming out the door into the hallway. I ran right after him. He turned around and grabbed me. “Oh, baby, baby, that bitch got you too?” he said. “Yeah, the bitch got me, ah, ah, the bitch got me!” We brought him back in the room and took his shirt off, and his neck and his back and the side of his face were covered in blistery bubbles. He looked like a reptile. So we put him on the floor in front of the little window air conditioner, and my sister sat down next to him. She took a lighter and sterilized the end of a needle and then burst the blisters, one by one. My sister and I were both crying, and I gave him a quarter to cheer him up.
When I think about it, I always thought of my mother as the victim in most situations, and Eddie did beat on her. I’m sure the lady lib would think that her reaction was great, but I thought, How could you do that to somebody who is supposed to be your boyfriend? It made me realize that my mother was no Mother Teresa. She did some serious stuff and he still stayed with her. In fact, he went to the store to buy her some liquor after she burned him. So you see, he rewarded her for it. That’s why I was so sexually dysfunctional.
That is the kind of life I grew up in. People in love cracking their heads and bleeding like dogs. They love each other but they’re stabbing each other. Holy shit, I was scared to death of my family in the house. I’m growing up around tough women, women who fight men. So I didn’t think fighting a woman was taboo because the women I knew would kill you. You had to fight them, because if you didn’t, they’d slice you or shoot you. Or else they’d bring some men to take advantage of you and beat you up, because they thought you were a punk.
If I was scared to be in the house, I was also scared to go outside. By then, I was going to public school and that was a nightmare. I was a pudgy kid, very shy, almost effeminate shy, and I spoke with a lisp. The kids used to call me “Little Fairy Boy” because I was always hanging out with my sister, but my mother had told me that I had to stay around Denise because she was older than me and had to watch me. They also called me “Dirty Ike” or “Dirty Motherfucker” because I didn’t know about hygiene back then. We didn’t have hot water to shower in, and if the gas wasn’t on, we couldn’t even boil water. My mother tried to teach me about it, but I still didn’t do a very good job. She used to take soap and fill a bucket up with hot water and wash me. But when you’re a young kid, you don’t care about hygiene. Eventually I’d learn it in the streets from the older kids. They told me about Brut and Paco Rabanne and Pierre Cardin.
My school was right around the corner from our apartment, but sometimes my mother would be passed out from drinking the night before and wouldn’t walk me to school. It was then that the kids would always hit me and kick me. They were, like, “Get the fuck out of here, nigga, you, like, nasty motherfucker.” I would constantly get abused. They’d punch me in the face and I would run. We would go to school and these people would pick on us, then we would go home and they’d pull out guns and rob us for whatever little change we had. That was hard-core, young kids robbing us right in our own apartment building.
Having to wear glasses in the first grade was a real turning point in my life. My mother had me tested and it turned out I was nearsighted, so she made me get glasses. They were so bad. One day I was leaving school at lunchtime to go home, and I had some meatballs from the cafeteria wrapped up in the aluminum to keep them hot. This guy came up to me and said, “Hey, you got any money?” I said, “No.” He started picking my pockets and searching me, and he tried to take my fucking meatballs. I was resisting, going, “No, no, no!” I would let the bullies take my money, but I never let them take my food. I was hunched over like a human shield, protecting my meatballs. So he started hitting me in the head and then took my glasses and put them down the gas tank of a truck. I ran home, but he didn’t get my meatballs. I should have clobbered those guys, but I was so scared because those guys were so brazen and bold that I just figured they must know something I didn’t. “Don’t beat me up, leave me alone, stop!” I’d say. I still feel like a coward to this day because of that bullying. That’s a wild feeling, being that helpless. You never ever forget that feeling. The day that guy took my glasses and put them in that gas tank was the last day I went to school. That was the end of my formal education. I was seven years old and I just never went back to class.
After that, I would go to school to eat breakfast and then leave. I’d walk around the block for a couple of hours. Then I’d go back for lunch and leave. When school was out, I’d go home. One day during the spring of 1974, three guys came towards me on the street and started patting my pockets. “Got any money?” they asked. I told them no. They said, “All the money we find, we keep.” So they started turning my pockets out but I didn’t have anything. Then they said, “Where are you going? Do you want to fly with us?”
“What’s that?” I said.
So we walked over to the school, and they had me climb the fence and throw some plastic milk crates over to them. We started walking a few blocks and then they told me to go into an abandoned building.
“Whoa, I don’t know,” I hesitated. I was one wimpy little guy against three. But we walked in and then they said, “Go to the roof, Shorty.” I didn’t know if they were going to kill me. We climbed up to the roof and I saw a little box with some pigeons in it. These guys were building a pigeon coop. So I became their little gofer, their smuck-slave. Soon I found out that when the birds flew, they often landed on some other roof, because they were lazy and in bad condition. I’d have to go downstairs, see which roof they landed on, figure out a way into that building and then go up on that roof and scare the birds off. All day I chased the birds, but I thought that was pretty fun. I liked being around the birds. I even liked going to the pet store to buy their seed. And these guys were tough guys and they kind of liked me for being their gofer. My whole life I had felt like a misfit, but here on the roof I felt like I was home. This was what I was supposed to do.
The next morning I went back to the building. They were on the roof and saw me coming and started throwing bricks at me. “Motherfucker, what are you doing over here? You trying to steal our fucking birds?” one of the guys said. Whoa, I thought this was my new home.
“No, no, no,” I said. “I just wanted to know if you guys need me to go to the store for you or chase your birds.”
“Are you serious?” he said. “Get up here, Shorty.” And they sent me to the store to buy them cigarettes. They were a bunch of ruthless street guys, but I didn’t mind helping them because the birds enthralled me. It was really cool to see a couple of hundred pigeons flying around in circles in the sky and then coming back down to a roof.
Flying pigeons was a big sport in Brooklyn. Everyone from Mafia dons to little ghetto kids did it. It’s unexplainable; it just gets in your blood. I learned how to handle them, learned the characteristics of them. Then it became something that I became somewhat of a master of, and I took pride in being so good at it. Everybody would let their pigeons fly at the same time, and the name of the game was to try and catch the other guys’ pigeons. It was like racing horses. Once it’s in your blood, you never stop. Wherever I lived from that day on, I always built me a coop and had pigeons.
One day we were on the roof dealing with the pigeons and an older guy came up. His name was Barkim and he was a friend of one of these guys’ brothers. When he realized his friend wasn’t there, he told us to tell him to meet him at a jam at the rec center in our neighborhood that night. The jams were like teenage dances, except this was no Archie and Veronica shit. At night they even changed the name of the place from the rec center to The Sagittarius. All the players and hustlers would go there, the neighborhood guys who robbed houses, pickpocketed, snatched chains, and perpetrated credit card fraud. It was a den of iniquity.
So that night I went to the center. I was seven years old, and I didn’t know anything about dressing up. I didn’t know you were supposed to go home and take a shower and change your clothes and dress to impress and then go to the club. That’s what the other guys who were handling pigeons did. But I went straight to the center from the pigeon coops, wearing the same stinky clothes with all this bird shit on me. I thought the guys would be there and they’d accept me as one of their own, because I was chasing these fucking birds off of these buildings for them. But I walked in and those guys went, “What’s that smell? Look at this dirty, stinking motherfucker.” The whole place started laughing and teasing me. I didn’t know what to do; it was such a traumatizing experience, everybody picking on me. I was crying, but I was laughing too because I wanted to fit in. I guess Barkim saw the way I was dressed and took pity on me. He came up to me and said, “Yo, Shorty. Get the fuck out of here. Meet me back at the roof eight in the morning tomorrow.”
The next morning I was there right on time. Barkim came up and started lecturing me. “You can’t be going out looking like a motherfucking bum in the street. What the fuck are you doing, man? We’re moneymakers.” He was talking fast and I was trying to comprehend each word. “We’re gonna get money out here, Shorty. Are you ready?”
I went with him and we started breaking into people’s houses. He told me to go through the windows that were too small for him to fit through, and I went in and opened the door for him. Once we were inside, he went through people’s drawers, he broke open the safe, he was just really wiping them out. We got stereos, eight-tracks, jewelry, guns, cash money. After the robberies, he took me to Delancey Street in the city and bought me some nice clothes and sneakers and a sheepskin coat. That night he took me to a jam and a lot of the same people who laughed at me at the other jam were there. I had on my new coat and leather pants. Nobody even recognized me; it was like I was a different person. It was incredible.
Barkim was the guy who introduced me into the life of crime. Before that, I never stole anything. Not a loaf of bread, not a piece of candy, nothing. I had no antisocial tendencies. I didn’t have the nerve. But Barkim explained to me that if you always looked good, people would treat you with respect. If you had the newest fashion, the finest stuff, you were a cool dude. You’d have status.
Barkim took me to a roller-skating rink on Utica Avenue where I met these guys who were called the Rutland Road Crew. They were young, maybe twelve years old, but they dressed like grown men. Trench coats, alligator shoes, rabbit furs, Stetsons with the big brims. They had on designer clothes from Sergio Valente, Jordache, Pierre Cardin. I was impressed. Barkim told me how they did it—these guys were pickpockets, chain snatchers, and robbers. They were just babies. They’re in public school and they’ve got watches and rings and necklaces. They’re driving mopeds. People called them thugs but we called them money niggas. That shit was crazy.
Barkim started introducing me to people on the street as his “son.” He was only a few years older than me but it was street terminology that warned people not to disrespect me. It meant: “This is my son in the streets, we’re family, we rob and steal. This is my little moneymaker. Don’t fuck with this nigga.” People that respected him had to respect me now. He taught me which people to look out for, which people I couldn’t trust because they would take my shit right from me. My life reminded me of Oliver Twist, with the older guy Fagin teaching all this stuff. He bought me a lot of clothes, but he never gave me a lot of money. He’d make a couple of thousand from robbing and he’d give me two hundred. But at eight years old, two hundred was a lot of money. Sometimes he’d take out a piece of jewelry that we stole and let me borrow it for a few days.
I took my criminality to another level with the Rutland Road Crew. They were mostly Caribbean guys from Crown Heights. Barkim knew the older set, The Cats. I started hanging out with the RRC, their junior division. I got involved in their little house-robbing heists. We’d go to school, eat breakfast, and then we’d get on the bus and train and start robbing during school hours. That was the beginning of me feeling like I belonged. We were all equal as long as we put in our share of the robbing proceeds.
Some people might read some of the things I’m talking about and judge me as an adult, call me a criminal, but I did these things over thirty-five years ago. I was a little kid looking for love and acceptance and the streets were where I found it. It was the only education I had, and these guys were my teachers. Even the older gangsters said, “You shouldn’t do this. Go to school,” but I didn’t want to listen to them, even though they had respect in the street. They were telling us to stay in school at the same time they were out there robbing. All the guys respected me because I was a little moneymaker. I’d break off some for my friends who needed a little cash. I’d buy us all liquor and food. I started buying pigeons. If you had good birds, people respected you. Plus, it was a rush to steal things and then go out and buy clothes. I saw how everybody treated me when I came around and I was dressed up nice with my shearling coat and my Pumas. I had a ski suit, with the yellow goggles, and I’d never been to a ski slope in my life. I couldn’t even spell fucking Adidas but I knew how they made me feel.
One of the Rutland guys taught me how to pick locks. If you get a key that fits the hole, you just keep playing the key and it wears down the cylinder and you can open the door. I was, like, “Fuck!” Man, when we opened some of those doors, you’d see silverware, jewelry, guns, stacks of money. We were so happy we were crying and laughing at the same time. We couldn’t get it all. You couldn’t walk down the street with that shit, so we just filled up our schoolbags with as much stolen goods we could stuff in them.
One day my friend Curtis and I were robbing a house. The people who lived there were from the Caribbean and so was Curtis. I was in this pitch-black house and I heard “Who’s that? Is that you, honey?” I thought it was Curtis playing around, trying to scare me. So I said, “I’m trying to find a gun and the money. Look for the safe, all right?” “What, baby?” I realized then that it wasn’t Curtis talking. It was the guy who lived there who was lying on the couch. I rushed to the door. “Curtis, this shit don’t look right. Let’s get out of here, somebody is in here,” I said. But Curtis was a perfectionist. Curtis wanted to lock the door instead of just running away. I ran the fuck out. The owner opened the door and smashed Curtis in the head and knocked him out cold. I thought he was dead. It wasn’t until a year later that I saw him again. He was alive, but his face was all shattered, he got hit that hard. Yup, it was the hard-knock life for us.
When we stole silverware or jewelry, we’d go to Sal’s, a store on Utica and Sterling.
I was a baby, but they knew me from coming in with older guys. The guys at the store knew I was coming in with stolen stuff, but I knew they couldn’t beat me because I knew what shit cost back then. I knew what I wanted.
Sometimes we’d be in the streets and if it was noon and we saw a school, we’d just go into the school, go to the cafeteria, grab a tray, get in line, and start eating. We might see someone we’d want to rob, someone who had their school ring around their neck. So we’d finish the food, put the tray back, get by the door, grab the ring, and run out.
We always wanted to look nice on the streets because normally if you’re a little black kid out in the city looking bummy and dirty, people harass you. So we looked nice and nonthreatening. We had the school backpacks and little happy glasses and the Catholic school look with nice pants and white shirts, the whole school outfit.
After about a year, I started doing burglaries by myself. It was pretty lucrative, but hanging in the street and jostling was more exciting than robbing houses. You’d grab some ladies’ jewelry and cops would chase you, or what we called heroes would try to come in and rescue the day. It was more risk-taking for less money but we loved the thrill. You normally had to have a partner to be a successful jostler. Sometimes it wouldn’t even be planned, but you’d see someone you knew, so you teamed up.
Sometimes you’d find that you had competition for jostling. You’d get on a bus and there might be someone already on the bus waiting to pickpocket some people. But you might be more obvious. That was called “waking the bus.” The bus was quiet before you got on, but now that you’ve come aboard, the bus driver makes an announcement. “Ladies and gentlemen, there are some young men who just got on the bus. Watch your pockets. They will attempt to steal from you.” So you get off at the next stop, but the quiet jostler gets off and comes after you.
“Motherfucker, you woke the bus up!” he’ll scream. And if he’s an older guy, he might start beating on your ass and taking your money or the jewelry that you stole.
People didn’t like to go pickpocketing with me because I wasn’t as patient or as good as they were. I was never smooth, like, “I’m going to play this nigga, I’m going to do this, right up and close in person.” I was much better at blindsiding people.
Any strong guy could blindside someone. But the trick was to be cunning and outsmart them. Most people would think, They’re onto me, I’m going to walk away. But not me. A lady might have her hand on her wallet all day, and we’d be watching, watching, and she never takes her hand out of her pocket. And we’d follow her and then move away but we’d have one little kid still watching her. And she’d let down her defenses for a few seconds and go do something and he’d get it. Then he’d be gone. And before we got out, we’d hear a gut-wrenching scream, “Aaaaahh, my money, my money!” It was crazy. We didn’t give a fuck.
The most primitive move was to snatch somebody’s gold chain. I used to do that on the subway. I’d sit by the window. That was when you could open the windows on subway cars. I’d pull a few windows down, and then the car would stop and new people would come on and sit by the window. I would get out and as soon as the train slowly started moving, I’d reach in and snatch their chains. They’d scream and look at me, but they couldn’t get off the train. I’d fix the clasp, hold the chain for a couple of days, look good and sport it, and then I’d sell it before the older guys took it from me.
Even though I was starting to look the role, I never could get on with the girls back then. I liked girls, but I didn’t know how to tell them I liked them at that age. One time, I was watching these girls jump rope, and I liked them and I wanted to jump rope with them, so I started teasing them and, out of nowhere, these girls in the fifth grade started beating the shit out of me. I was playing with them, but they were serious and I was just taken by surprise. I got serious about fighting back too late. By then, somebody came and broke it up and they’d gotten the best of me. I didn’t want to fight them.
It was no surprise to my mother and my sister that I was robbing and doing antisocial things to bring money in. They saw my nice clothes, and I’d bring them food—pizza and Burger King and McDonald’s. My mother knew I was up to no good, but by that time she knew it was too late. The streets had me. She thought that I was a criminal and I would die or never turn out to be shit. She’d probably seen it before, kids like me being like that. I would steal anything from anybody. I didn’t have any boundaries.
My mother would prefer to beg. She embarrassed me a bit, because she was too honest. She was always asking for money; that’s just the way she was. I gave my sister a lot of money for the house to help my mom out. Sometimes I’d give my mother a hundred bucks and she wouldn’t pay me back. She didn’t respect me like that. I’d say, “You owe me some money, Ma.” And she’d just say, “You owe me your life, boy. I’m not paying you back.”
The big kids in the neighborhood knew I was stealing, so they would take my money and my jewelry and my shoes, and I would be afraid to tell my mother. I didn’t know what to do. They’d beat me up and steal my birds, and they knew that they could get away with bullying me. Barkim didn’t teach me how to fight. He just taught me how to dress in nice clothes and wash my ass. Normally when someone was screaming at me in the street or chasing me, I would just drop my stuff and run. So now I was getting bullied again but I was more of a mark.
Growing up, I always wanted to be the center of attention. I wanted to be the guy talking shit: “I’m the baddest motherfucker out here,” “I got the best birds.” I wanted to be that street guy, the fly slick-talking guy, but I was just too shy and awkward. When I tried to talk that way, somebody would hit me in the head and say, “Shut the fuck up, nigga.” But I got a taste of what it was like to bask in the adulation of an audience when I got into my first street fight.
One day I went into this neighborhood in Crown Heights and I robbed a house with this older guy. We found $2,200 in cash and he cut me in for $600. So I went to a pet store and bought a hundred bucks’ worth of birds. They put them in a crate for me, and the owner helped me get them on the subway. When I got off, I had somebody from my neighborhood help me drag the crate to the condemned building where I was hiding my pigeons. But this guy went and told some kids in the neighborhood that I had all these birds. So a guy named Gary Flowers and some friends of his came and started to rob me. My mother saw them messing with the birds and told me, and I ran out into the street and confronted them. They saw me coming and stopped grabbing the birds, but this guy Gary still had one of them under his coat. By then, a large crowd gathered around us.
“Give me my bird back,” I protested.
Gary pulled the bird out from under his coat.
“You want the bird? You want the fucking bird?” he said. Then he just twisted the bird’s head off and threw it at me, smearing the blood all over my face and shirt.
“Fight him, Mike,” one of my friends urged. “Don’t be afraid, just fight him.”
I had always been too scared to fight anyone before. But there used to be an older guy in the neighborhood named Wise, who had been a Police Athletic League boxer. He used to smoke weed with us, and when he’d get high, he would start shadowboxing. I would watch him and he would say, “Come on, let’s go,” but I would never even slapbox with him. But I remembered his style.
So I decided. “Fuck it.” My friends were shocked. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I threw some wild punches and one connected and Gary went down. Wise would skip while he was shadowboxing, so after I dropped Gary, my stupid ass started skipping. It just seemed like the fly thing to do. I had practically the whole block watching my gloryful moment. Everybody started whooping and applauding me. It was an incredible feeling even though my heart was beating out of my chest.
“This nigga is skipping, man,” one guy laughed. I was trying to do the Ali shuffle, to no avail. But I felt good about standing up for myself and I liked the rush of everybody applauding me and slapping fives. I guess underneath that shyness, I was always an explosive, entertaining guy.
I started getting a whole new level of respect on the streets. Instead of “Can Mike play with us?” people would ask my mother, “Can Mike Tyson play with us?” Other guys would bring their guys around to fight me and they’d bet money on the outcome. Now I had another source of income. They’d come from other neighborhoods. I would win a lot too. Even if I lost, the guys who beat me would say, “Fuck! You’re only eleven?” That’s how everybody started knowing me in Brooklyn. I had a reputation that I would fight anyone—grown men, anybody. But we didn’t follow the Marquis of Queensberry rules in the street. If you kicked someone’s ass it didn’t necessarily mean it was over. If he couldn’t beat you in the fight, he’d take another route, and sometimes he’d come back with some of his friends and they’d beat me up with bats.
I began to exact some revenge for the beatings I had taken from bullies. I’d be walking with some friends and I might see one of the guys who beat me up and bullied me years earlier. He might have gone into a store shopping and I would drag his ass out of the store and start pummeling him. I didn’t even tell my friends why, I’d just say, “I hate that motherfucker over there,” and they’d jump in too and rip his fucking clothes and beat his fucking ass. That guy who took my glasses and threw them away? I beat him in the streets like a fucking dog for humiliating me. He may have forgotten about it but I never did.
With this newfound confidence in my ability to stand up for myself, my criminality escalated. I became more and more brazen. I even began to steal in my own neighborhood. I thought that was what people did. I didn’t understand the rules of the streets. I thought everybody was fair game because I sure seemed to be fair game to everybody else. I didn’t know that there were certain people you just don’t fuck with.
I lived in a tenement building and I would rob everybody who lived in my building. They never realized that I was the thief. Some of these people were my mother’s friends. They’d cash their welfare checks and maybe buy some liquor, and they would visit my mom, drink some liquor, and have some fun. I’d go into my room and go up the fire escape and break into their apartment and rob everything from their place. Then when the lady would go upstairs, she’d discover it and run back screaming, “Lorna, Lorna, they got everything. They got the babies’ food, they got everything!”
After they left, my mother would come into my room.
“I know you did something, didn’t you, boy? What did you do?”
I’d say, “Mom, it’s not me. Look around,” because I would take the food and stuff and leave it on the roof and my friends and I would get it later.
“How could I have done anything? I was in the room right here, I didn’t go anywhere.”
“Well, if you didn’t do it, I’ll bet you know who did it, you thief,” my mother would scream. “You’re nothing but a thief. I’ve never stole nothing in my life. I don’t know where you come from, you thief.”
Oh, God. Can you imagine hearing that shit from your own mother? My family had no hope for me, no hope. They thought my life would be a life of crime. Nobody else in my family ever did stuff like that. My sister would constantly be telling me, “What kind of bird don’t fly? Jailbird! Jailbird!”
I was with my mother one time visiting her friend Via. Via’s husband was one of those big-money showing-off guys. He went to sleep and I took his wallet out of his pocket and took his money. When he woke up, he beat Via up real bad because he thought she had stole the cash. Everybody in the neighborhood started hating my guts. And if they didn’t hate me, they were jealous of me. Even the players. I had nerve.
It felt incredible. I didn’t care if I grabbed somebody’s chain and dragged them down the stairs with their head bouncing, boom, boom, boom. Do I care? No, I need that chain. I didn’t know anything about compassion. Why should I? No one ever showed me any compassion. The only compassion I had was when somebody shot or stabbed one of my friends during a robbery. Then I was sad.
But you still fucking do it. You think they’re not going to kill you; that it can’t happen to you. I just couldn’t stop. I knew there was a chance I would get killed but I didn’t care. I didn’t think I would live to see sixteen anyway so why not go hard? My brother Rodney told someone recently that he thought I was the most courageous guy he knew. But I didn’t consider myself courageous. I had brave friends, friends who would get shot over their jewelry or watches or motorcycles. They weren’t giving it up when people robbed them. Those guys had the most respect in the neighborhood. I don’t know if I had courage, but I witnessed courage. I always thought that I was much more crazy than courageous. I was shooting at people out in the open while my mother looked out the window. I was brainless. Rodney was thinking it was courage but it was a lack of brainpower. I was an extremist.
Everyone I knew was in the life. Even the guys who had jobs were hustling on the side. They sold dope or were robbing. It was like a cyborg world where the cops were the bad guys and the robbers and the hustlers were the good guys. If you didn’t hurt nobody, nobody would have talked to you. You would be labeled as square. If you did bad, you were all right. Somebody bothered you, they’d come fight for you. They’d know you were one of the guys. I was so awesome, all these sleazy, smiley scumbags knew my name.
• • •
Then things started to escalate. I began to come into intimate contact with the police. Getting shot at in Brownsville was no big deal. You’d be in the alley gambling, and some guys would come running in shooting at the other guys. You never knew when the shit was going to go down. Other gangs would drive through on their motorcycles and, boom, boom, they’d take a shot at you. We knew where each crew would hang out, so we knew not to go certain places.
But it’s something else when the cops start shooting at you. One day a few of us were walking past the jewelry store on Amboy Street and we saw the jeweler carrying a box. I snatched the box and we started running. We got close to our block and we heard car tires screech, and some undercover cops ran out of the car and, boom, boom, they started shooting at us. I ran into an abandoned building that we hung out in and I knew I was free. I knew that building like the back of my hand. I knew how to go into the walls or go to the roof and go through a hole and be in the rafters above the ceiling. So I did that. I got on top of the ceiling and looked through the hole and I could see anyone walking on the floor below.
I saw the cops enter the building. They started walking across the floor, guns drawn, and one of them went right through a hole in the floor.
“Holy shit, these fucking kids are busting my balls bringing me into this building,” he said. “I’m going to kill these fucking bastards.”
I’d be listening to these white cops talking and laughing to myself. The building was too fucked up for the cops to go up to another floor because the steps were falling apart. But there was a chance that they might look up and see me hiding in the rafters and shoot my ass. I thought about jumping to the next roof because that was my building, but it was a ten-foot jump.
So I made my way to the roof and my friend who lived in my building was on his roof. I was on my knees because I didn’t want to stand up and let the cops outside see me, but my friend was giving me the blow-by-blow.
“Just chill out, Mike. They came out of the building. But they’re still looking for you. There’s a bunch of cop cars down there,” he reported.
I was waiting up on that roof for what seemed like an eternity.
“They’re down, Mike. They’re down,” my friend finally said.
So I went down but waited inside a little longer. My friends were looking around the block, making sure the cops weren’t hiding there.
“Just wait some more, Mike,” my friend said. Finally he told me I could go out. I was blessed to make it out of that situation. The jewelry box we stole had all these expensive watches, medallions, bracelets, diamonds, rubies. It took us two weeks to get rid of all that shit. We had to go sell some there, then go to a different part of town to sell some other pieces.
With all the jostling I did, it’s somewhat ironic that my first arrest was over a stolen credit card. I was ten years old. I obviously was too young-looking to have a card, so I’d get some older guy to go into the store and I’d tell him to buy this and this and that and buy something for himself. Then we’d sell the card to another older guy.
But one time we were in a store on Belmont Avenue, a local store, and we tried to use the card. We were dressed clean but we just didn’t look old enough to have a credit card. We picked out all these clothes and sneakers and brought them to the counter and gave the cashier the card. She excused herself for a second and made a call. Next thing we knew, she had cut the card in half and in seconds the cops came in and arrested us.
They took me to the local precinct. My mother didn’t have a phone, so they picked her up and brought her to the station. She came in yelling at me and proceeded to beat the shit out of me right there. By the time I was twelve, this started to be a common occurrence. I’d have to go to court for these arrests, but I wasn’t going to jail because I was a minor.
I used to hate when my mother would get to the precinct and beat my ass. Afterwards, her and her friends would get drunk and she’d talk about how she beat the shit out of me. I’d be curled up in the corner trying to shield myself, and she’d attack me. That was some traumatizing shit. To this day I glance at the corners of any room I’m in and I have to look away because it reminds me of all the beatings my mother gave me. I’d be curled up in the corner, trying to shield myself, and she’d attack me. She didn’t think nothing of beating me in a grocery store, in the street, in front of my schoolmates, or in the courtroom. The police certainly didn’t care. One time they were supposed to write up a report on me and my mother stormed in and beat my ass so bad they didn’t even write me up.
She even beat me up when I was in the right sometimes. Once, when I was eleven, I was shooting dice on the corner. I was up against a guy who was about eighteen. I had a hot hand that day and my friends were betting on the side that I’d hit my numbers. I got down $200, but I hit my number six straight times. I had won $600 of his money.
“Shoot one more time. Shoot for my watch,” he said.
Boom, I hit my 4-5-6.
“That’s the name of the game,” I said. “Gimme the watch.”
“As a matter of fact, I ain’t giving you nothing,” he said and he tried to snatch the money I won from him. I started biting him. I hit him with a rock and we started brawling. Some of my mother’s friends saw the commotion and ran to our apartment.
“Your son is fighting with a grown man,” one of them said.
My mother came storming over. All the other grown men there were letting us fight because they wanted their money. If this guy didn’t pay, nobody else was going to. So I was in the middle of fighting this guy when my mother jumped on me, grabbed my hands, smacked me, and threw me down.
“What are you fighting this man for?” she yelled. “What did you do to this man? I’m sorry, sir,” she said to him.
“He tried to take back his money,” I protested.
My mother took my money and gave it to the man and smacked my face.
“I’m sorry, sir,” she said.
“I’m going to kill you, motherfucker,” I yelled as she pulled me away.
I deserved every beating I got. I just wanted to be one of the cool kids, the kid in the street who had jewelry on and money in their pockets, the older kids, the fifteen-year-olds who had girlfriends. I wasn’t really into girls that much then but I liked having the clothes and getting all the attention.
By then, my mother was giving up on me. She was well known in the neighborhood and knew how to speak eloquently when she needed to. Her other children had the capacity to learn to get along with others, but then there was me. I was the only one who couldn’t read and write. I couldn’t grasp that stuff.
“Why can’t you do this?” she’d say to me. “What’s wrong with you?”
She must have thought I was retarded. She had taken me to all these places on Lee Avenue when I was a baby and I’d undergo psychological evaluations. When I was young, I’d talk out loud to myself. I guess that wasn’t normal in the ’70s.
Once I got into the court system, I had to go to court-mandated special ed crazy schools. Special ed was like jail. They kept you locked up until it was time to go home. They’d bus in all the antisocial kids and the fucking nuts. You were supposed to do whatever they told you to do but I’d get up and fight with people, spit in people’s faces. They gave us tokens to go back and forth to school, and I’d rob the kids for their tokens and gamble with them. I’d even rob the teachers and come to school the next day wearing the new shit I bought with their money. I did a lot of bad shit.
They said I was hyperactive so they started giving me Thorazine. They skipped the Ritalin and went straight to the big T; that’s what they gave little bad black motherfuckers in the ’70s. Thorazine was a trip. I’d be sitting there looking at something but I couldn’t move, couldn’t do nothing. Everything was cool; I could hear everything, but I was just zonked out, I was a zombie. I didn’t ask for food, they just brought out the food at the right time. They would ask, “Do you need to go to the bathroom?” And I would say, “Oh, yes I do.” I didn’t even know when I got to go to the bathroom.
When I took that shit, they sent me home from school. I’d stay in the house chilling, watching Rocky and His Friends. My mother thought something was wrong with her baby, but I was just a bad-assed fucking kid. They misdiagnosed me, probably fucked me up a little, but I never took it personally when people misdiagnosed me. I always thought that bad stuff happened to me because something was wrong with me.
Besides the zombies and the crazy kids, they sent the criminals to the special ed schools. Now all the criminals from different neighborhoods got to know each other. We’d go to Times Square to jostle and we’d see all the guys from our school, all dressed up in sheepskins and fancy clothes, money in our pocket, doing the same thing. I was in Times Square in 1977 just hanging out when I saw some guys from the old neighborhood in Bed-Stuy. We were talking and the next thing I knew one of them snatched the purse of this prostitute. She was furious and threw a cup of hot coffee at my face. The cops started coming towards us and my friend Bub and I took off. We ran into an XXX-rated theater to hide but the hooker came in shortly after with the cops.
“That’s them,” she pointed to Bub and I.
“Me? I didn’t do shit,” I protested, but the cops paraded us out and put us in the backseat of their car.
But this crazy lady wasn’t finished. She reached in through the back window and scratched my face with her long hooker nails.
They drove us to the midtown precinct. As we pulled away from Times Square, I saw my friends from Bed-Stuy, the ones who did all this shit, watching from the street. I had been arrested many times so I was used to the formation. But they looked at my rap sheet and I just had too many arrests, so I was going straight to Spofford.
Spofford was a juvenile detention center located in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx. I had heard horror stories about Spofford—people being beaten up by other inmates or by the staff—so I wasn’t too thrilled to be going there. They issued me some clothes and gave me a cell by myself and I went to sleep. In the morning, I was terrified. I had no idea what was going to go down in that place. But when I went to the cafeteria for breakfast, it was like a class reunion. I immediately saw my friend Curtis, the guy that I had robbed the house with who got clobbered by the owner. Then I start seeing all my old partners.
“Chill,” I said to myself. “All your boys are here.”
After that first time, I was going in and out of Spofford like it was nothing. Spofford became like a time-share for me. During one of my visits there we were all brought to the assembly room where we watched a movie called The Greatest, about Muhammad Ali. When it was over, we all applauded and were shocked when Ali himself walked out onto the stage. He looked larger than life. He didn’t have to even open his mouth—as soon as I saw him walk out, I thought, I want to be that guy. He talked to us and it was inspirational. I had no idea what I was doing with my life, but I knew that I wanted to be like him. It’s funny, people don’t use that terminology anymore. If they see a great fight, they may say, “I want to be a boxer.” But nobody says, “I want to be like him.” There are not many Alis. Right then I decided I wanted to be great. I didn’t know what it was I’d do but I decided that I wanted people to look at me like I was on show, the same way they did to Ali.
Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t get out of Spofford and do a three-sixty. I was still a little sewer rat. My situation at home was deteriorating. After all those arrests and special schools and medications, my mother had no hope for me at all. But she had never had any hope for me, going back to my infancy. I just know that one of those medical people, some racist asshole, some guy who said that I was fucked up and developmentally retarded, stole my mother’s hope for me right then and there. And they stole any love or security I might have had.
I never saw my mother happy with me or proud of me doing something. I never got a chance to talk to her or know her. Professionally that would have no effect on me, but emotional and psychologically, it was crushing. I would be with my friends and I’d see their mothers kiss them. I never had that. You’d think that if she let me sleep in her bed until I was fifteen, she would have liked me, but she was drunk all the time.
Since I was now in the correctional system, the authorities decided to send me to group homes to get straightened out. They would take a bunch of kids who were down, abused, bad, psycho kids and throw them together in some home where the government paid people to take us in. The whole thing was a hustle. I would never last more than two days. I’d just run away. One time, I was in a group home in Brentwood, Long Island. I called home and bitched and moaned to my mother that I didn’t have any weed there, so she made Rodney buy me some and deliver it to me. She was always a facilitator.
Eventually I was sent to Mount Loretto, a facility in Staten Island, but nothing could change me. Now I was pickpocketing guys on the Staten Island ferry. You never know who you’re pickpocketing. Sometimes you pickpocket the wrong guy, a bad motherfucker, and he wants his money back. He just starts clocking everyone.
“Who took my motherfucking money?” he screamed.
He started beating on everyone around him, the whole ferry had to jump on the motherfucker. My friend was the one who jostled him, and he kicked my friend in the ass but he didn’t know he had gotten the perpetrator. We got off the boat and were all laughing ’cause we got the money. Even my friend was laughing through his tears because he was still in pain. That guy would have thrown us off the boat if he knew we had his money. I get scared now just thinking about the kind of life I was living then. Oh, God, he would have killed us, he was just that fucking fierce.
I was released from the juvie facility on Staten Island at the beginning of 1978, and I went back to Brownsville. I kept hearing that a lot of my friends were getting killed over ridiculous things like jewelry or a couple of hundred dollars. I was getting a little worried but I never stopped robbing and stealing. I watched the guys I looked up to, the older guys, I watched them rise, but I saw their bumps in the road too. I watched them get beat mercilessly because they were always hustling people. But still they never stopped, it was in their blood.
The neighborhood was getting more and more ominous and I was getting more and more hated. I was just eleven years old, but sometimes I’d walk through the neighborhood, minding my own business and a landlord or owner of a store would see me walking by and would pick up a rock or something and throw it at me.
“Motherfucking little thieving bastard,” they’d yell.
They’d see me in my nice clothes and they just knew that I was the nigga stealing from them. I was walking past a building one time and I stopped to talk to a friend and this guy Nicky came out with a shotgun and his friend had a pistol. His friend pulled out his pistol and Nicky put the shotgun over my penis.
“Listen, little nigga, if I hear you’ve been going up on that motherfucking roof again, I’ll fuck you up. If I ever see you in this neighborhood again, I am going to blow your balls off,” he said.
I didn’t even know who the fuck this guy was, but he evidently knew who I was. Can you believe I was just so used to people coming up to me and stepping to me like that?
A few months before I turned thirteen, I got arrested again for possession of stolen property. They had exhausted all the places in the New York City vicinity to keep me. I don’t know what kind of scientific diagnostic tests they used, but they decided to send me to the Tryon School for Boys, an upstate New York facility for juvenile offenders about an hour northwest of Albany.
My mother was happy that I was going upstate. By then, a lot of grown men had started coming to the house looking for me.
“Your brother is a dirty motherfucker. I’m going to kill your brother,” they’d tell my sister.
“He’s just a kid,” she’d say. “It’s not like he took your wife or something.”
Imagine that, grown men coming to your house looking for you, and you’re twelve years old. Ain’t that some shit? Can you blame my mother for giving up all hope for me?
The fact that they were sending me up to the state reformatory was not cool. I was with the big boys now. They were more hard-core than the guys at Spofford. But Tryon wasn’t a bad place. There were a lot of cottages there, and you could walk outside, play basketball, walk to the gym. But I got in trouble right away. I was just angry all the time. I had a bad attitude. I’d be confrontational and let everyone know that I was from Brooklyn and I didn’t fuck around with any bullshit.
I was going to one of my classes one day when this guy walked by me in the hall. He was acting all tough, like he was a killer, and when he passed by, he saw that I was holding my hat in my hand. So he started pulling on it and kept walking. I didn’t know him, but he disrespected me. I sat in the class for the next whole forty-five minutes thinking about how I was going to kill this guy for tugging on my hat. When the class was over, I walked out and saw him and his friends at the door.
That’s your man, Mike, I thought. I walked up to him and he had his hands in his pockets, looking at me as if he had no worries in the world; like I forgot that he had pulled my hat forty-five minutes ago. So I attacked him rather ferociously.
They handcuffed me and sent me to Elmwood, which was a lockdown cottage for the incorrigible kids. Elmwood was creepy. They had big tough-ass redneck staff members over there. Every time you saw somebody from there, they were walking in handcuffs with two people escorting them.
On the weekends, all the kids from Elmwood who earned credits would go away for a few hours and then come back with broken noses, cracked teeth, busted mouths, bruised ribs—they were all jacked up. I just thought they were getting beat up by the staff, because back then nobody would call the Health Department or Social Services if the staff were hurting the kids. But the more I talked to these hurt guys, the more I realized they were happy.
“Yeah, man, we almost got him, we almost got him,” they laughed. I had no idea what they were talking about and then they told me. They were boxing Mr. Stewart, one of the counselors. Bobby Stewart was a tough Irish guy, around 170 pounds, who had been a professional boxer. He was a national amateur champ. When I was in the hole, staff members told me there was an ex–boxing champ teaching kids how to box. The staff members that told me about him were very nice to me and I wanted to meet him because I thought he’d be nice too.
I was in my room one night when there was a loud, intimidating knock on the door. I opened the door and it was Mr. Stewart.
“Hey, asshole, I heard you want to talk to me,” he growled.
“I want to be a fighter,” I said.
“So do the rest of the guys. But they don’t have the balls to work to be a fighter,” he said. “Maybe if you straighten up your act and stop being such an asshole and show some respect around here, I’ll work with you.”
So I really started to apply myself. I think I’m the stupidest guy in the world when it comes to scholastics, but I got my honor-roll star and I said “Yes, sir” and “No, ma’am” to everyone, just being a model citizen so I could go over to fight with Stewart. It took me a month, but I finally earned enough credits to go. All the other kids came to watch to see if I could kick his ass. I was supremely confident that I was going to demolish him and that everyone would suck up to me.
I immediately started flailing and throwing a bunch of punches and he covered up. I’m punching him and slugging him and then suddenly he slips by me and goes boom and hits me right in the stomach.
“Boosh. Uggghhh, uggghhh.” I threw up everything I had eaten for the last two years. What the fuck was that? I was thinking. I didn’t know anything about boxing then. Now I know that if you get hit in the stomach, you’re just going to lose your breath for a couple of seconds, but it comes back. I didn’t know that then. I really thought that I wouldn’t be able to ever breathe again and I’d die. I was trying desperately to breathe but all I could do was throw up. It was just horrible shit.
“Get up, walk it off,” he barked.
After everyone left, I approached him real humble. “Excuse me, sir, can you teach me how to do that?” I asked. I’m thinking that when I go back to Brownsville and hit a motherfucker in the stomach like that, he’s going to go down and I’m going to go in his pockets. That’s where my mind was at back then. He must have seen something in me that he liked, because after our second session he said to me, “Would you like to do this for real?” So we started training regularly. And after our workouts, I’d go back to my room and shadowbox all night long. I started to get a lot better. I didn’t know it at the time, but during one of our sparring sessions I hit Bobby with a jab and broke his nose and almost knocked him down. He had the next week off, so he just let it heal at home.
After a few months of workouts, I called my mother and put Bobby on the phone with her. “Tell her, tell her,” I said. I wanted him to tell her how good I was doing. I just wanted her to know I could do something. I figured she might believe me if a white person was telling her it. But she just told him that she had trouble believing that I had changed. She just thought I was incorrigible.
Shortly after that Bobby came to me with an idea. “I want to bring you to see this legendary boxing trainer Cus D’Amato. He can take you to the next level.”
“What the heck is going on here?” I asked. I didn’t trust anybody but Bobby Stewart at that particular time. Now he was going to transfer me over to another person?
“Just trust this man,” he told me.
So one weekend in March of 1980, Bobby and I drove to Catskill, New York. Cus’s gym was a converted meeting hall that was above the town police station. There were no windows so they had some old-fashioned lamps to provide light. I noticed there were posters on the walls and clippings of some of the local boys who were doing well.
Cus looked exactly like what you’d envision a hard-boiled boxing trainer to look like. He was short and stout with a bald head and you could see that he was strong. He even talked tough and he was dead serious; there wasn’t a happy muscle in his face.
“How you doin’, I’m Cus,” he introduced himself. He had a strong Bronx accent. He was with a younger trainer named Teddy Atlas.
Bobby and I got in the ring and started sparring. I started out strong, really knocking Bobby around the ring. We would usually do three rounds, but in the middle of the second round Bobby hit me in the nose with a couple of rights and I started bleeding. It didn’t really hurt but the blood was all over my face.
“That’s enough,” Atlas said.
“But, sir, please let me finish this round and go one more round. That’s what we normally do,” I pleaded. I wanted to impress Cus.
I guess I had. When we got out of the ring, Cus’s first words to Bobby were, “That’s the heavyweight champion of the world.”
Right after that sparring session, we went to Cus’s house for lunch. He lived in a big white Victorian house on ten acres. You could see the Hudson River from the porch. There were towering maple trees and large rosebushes on the side of the house. I had never seen a house like that in my life.
We sat down and Cus told me he couldn’t believe I was only thirteen years old. And then he told me what my future would be. He had seen me spar for not even six minutes, but he said it in a way that was like law.
“You looked splendid,” he said. “You’re a great fighter.” It was compliment after compliment. “If you listen to me, I can make you the youngest heavyweight champion of all time.”
Fuck, how could he know that shit? I thought he was a pervert. In the world I came from, people do shit like that when they want to perv out on you. I didn’t know what to say. I had never heard anyone say nice things about me before. I wanted to stay around this old guy because I liked the way he made me feel. I’d later realize that this was Cus’s psychology. You give a weak man some strength and he becomes addicted.
I was excited on the ride back to Tryon. I was sitting with a bunch of Cus’s roses in my lap. I had never seen roses in person before, only on television, but I wanted some because they looked so exquisite. I wanted to have something nice to take back with me so I asked him if I could take some. Between the smell of the roses and Cus’s words ringing in my ears, I felt good, like my whole world had changed. In that one moment, I knew I was going to be somebody.
“I think he likes you,” Bobby said. “If you’re not a prick and an asshole, this will go well.” I could tell Bobby was happy for me.
I got back to my cottage and put the roses in water. Cus had given me a huge boxing encyclopedia to look at and I didn’t sleep that whole night, I just read the whole book. I read about Benny Leonard and Harry Greb and Jack Johnson. I got turned out real bad. I wanted to be like those guys; they looked like they had no rules. They worked hard, but on their downtime they just lounged and people came to them like they were gods.
I started going out to Cus’s house every weekend to work out. I’d work with Teddy in the gym and then I’d stay over at Cus’s house. There were a few other fighters living there with Cus and his companion, a sweet Ukrainian lady named Camille Ewald. When I first got to the house, I would steal money from Teddy’s wallet. Hey, that shit doesn’t go away just because you got some good shit going on. I had to get money for weed. I would hear Teddy tell Cus, “It has to be him.”
“It’s not him,” Cus said.
I was excited about the boxing, but I became certain that boxing was what I wanted to do with my life after I watched the first Leonard-Duran fight on TV at Cus’s house one weekend. Wow, that fight turned me out, it was so exciting. They were both so stylish and deadly, throwing punches so fast. It looked choreographed, like the two of them were acting. I was just amazed. I’ve never felt that feeling again.
When I first started going to Cus’s, he didn’t even let me box. After I finished my workout with Teddy, Cus would sit down with me and we’d talk. He’d talk about my feelings and emotions and about the psychology of boxing. He wanted to reach me at the root. We talked a lot about the spiritual aspects of the game. “If you don’t have the spiritual warrior in you, you’ll never be a fighter. I don’t care how big or strong you are,” he told me. We talked about pretty abstract concepts, but he was getting through to me. Cus knew how to talk my language. He had grown up in tough neighborhoods and he had been a street kid too.
The first thing Cus talked about was fear and how to overcome it.
“Fear is the greatest obstacle to learning. But fear is your best friend. Fear is like fire. If you learn to control it, you let it work for you. If you don’t learn to control it, it’ll destroy you and everything around you. Like a snowball on a hill, you can pick it up and throw it or do anything you want with it before it starts rolling down, but once it rolls down and gets so big, it’ll crush you to death. So one must never allow fear to develop and build up without having control over it, because if you don’t you won’t be able to achieve your objective or save your life.
“Consider a deer crossing an open field. On approaching the forest, suddenly instinct tells it there’s danger there, might be a mountain lion there. Once this happens nature begins its survival function where the adrenal glands inject into the bloodstream, causes the heart to beat faster, which in turn enables the body to perform extraordinary feats of agility and strength. Where normally the deer can leap fifteen feet, the adrenaline enables the first leap to be forty or fifty feet, enough to escape from the present danger. The human being is no different. When confronted with a situation of fear of getting hurt or intimidation, the adrenaline speeds up the heart. Under the influence of adrenal glands people can perform extraordinary feats of strength.
“You think you know the difference between a hero and a coward, Mike? Well, there is no difference between a hero and a coward in what they feel. It’s what they do that makes them different. The hero and the coward feel exactly the same but you have to have the discipline to do what a hero does and to keep yourself from doing what the coward does.
“Your mind is not your friend, Mike. I hope you know that. You have to fight with your mind, control it, put it in its place. You have to control your emotions. Fatigue in the ring is ninety percent psychological. It’s just the excuse of a man who wants to quit. The night before a fight, you won’t sleep. Don’t worry, the other guy didn’t either. You’ll go to the weigh-in, he’ll look much bigger than you and calmer, like ice, but he’s burning up with fear inside. Your imagination is going to credit him with abilities he doesn’t have. Remember, motion relieves tension. The moment the bell rings, and you come in contact with each other, suddenly your opponent seems like everybody else, because now your imagination has dissipated. The fight itself is the only reality that matters. You have to learn to impose your will and take control over that reality.”
I could listen to Cus for hours. And I did. Cus talked to me about the importance of acting intuitively and impersonally and in a relaxed manner so as to keep all my emotions and feelings from blocking what I intuitively knew. He told me that he was talking about that once with the great writer Norman Mailer.
“Cus, you don’t know it but you practice Zen,” Mailer had told Cus, and then he gave him a book called Zen in the Art of Archery. Cus used to read that book to me. He told me that he had actually experienced the ultimate in emotional detachment in his first fight. He was training in a gym in the city because he wanted to be a professional fighter. He had been hitting the heavy bag for a week or two when the manager asked him if he wanted to box with someone. He got in the ring and his heart was beating like a drum, and the bell rang and the other guy charged him and he got knocked around. His nose was swollen, his eye was shut, he was bleeding. The guy asked him if he wanted to go a second round and Cus said he’d try. He went out there and suddenly his mind became detached from his body. He was watching himself from afar. The punches that hit him felt like they were coming from a distance. He was more aware of them than feeling them.
Cus told me that to be a great fighter you had to get out of your head. He would have me sit down and he’d say, “Transcend. Focus. Relax until you see yourself looking at yourself. Tell me when you get there.” That was very important for me. I’m way too emotional in general. Later on I realized that if I didn’t separate from my feelings inside the ring, I would be sunk. I might hit a guy with a hard punch and then get scared if he didn’t go down.
Cus took this out-of-body experience one step further. He would separate his mind from his body and then visualize the future. “Everything gets calm and I’m outside watching myself,” he told me. “It’s me, but it’s not me, as if my mind and my body aren’t connected, but they are connected. I get a picture in my mind, what it’s going to be. I can actually see the picture, like a screen. I can take a fighter who is just beginning and I can see exactly how he will respond. When that happens, I can watch a guy fight and I know everything there is to know about this guy, I can actually see the wheels in his head. It’s as if I’m that guy, I’m inside him.”
He even claimed that he could control events using his mind. Cus trained Rocky Graziano when he was an amateur. One time, Cus was in Rocky’s corner and Rocky was taking a beating. After being knocked down twice, Rocky came back to the corner and wanted to quit. But Cus pushed him out for the next round, and before Rocky could quit, Cus used his mind to will Rocky’s arm to throw a punch and it connected and the guy went down and the ref stopped the fight. This was the heavy dude who was training me.
Cus was a strong believer that in your mind you had to be the entity that you wanted to be. If you wanted to be heavyweight champion of the world, you had to start living the life of a heavyweight champion. I was only fourteen, but I was a true believer in Cus’s philosophy. Always training, thinking like a Roman gladiator, being in a perpetual state of war in your mind, yet on the outside seeming calm and relaxed. He was practicing and teaching me the law of attraction without even knowing it.
Cus was also big on affirmations. He had a book called Self Mastery Through Conscious Autosuggestion by a French pharmacist/psychologist named Emile Coué. Coué would tell his patients to repeat to themselves, “Every day in every way, I am getting better and better” over and over again. Cus had a bad cataract in one eye, and he would repeat that phrase and he claimed the phrase had made it better.
Cus had us modify the affirmations for our own situation. So he had me saying, “The best fighter in the world. Nobody can beat me. The best fighter in the world. Nobody can beat me” over and over again all day. I loved doing that, I loved hearing myself talk about myself.
The goal of all these techniques was to build confidence in the fighter. Confidence was everything. But in order to possess that confidence, you had to test yourself and put yourself on the line. It doesn’t come from osmosis, out of the air. It comes from consistently going over the visualization in your mind to help you develop the confidence that you want to possess.
Cus laid all this out for me in the first few weeks that we were together. He gave me the whole plan. He gave me a mission. I was going to be the youngest heavyweight champion of all time. I didn’t know it then, but after one of our first long talks, Cus confided in Camille. “Camille, this is the one I’ve been waiting for all my life.”
I was getting close to being paroled back to Brooklyn when Bobby Stewart came to see me one day.
“I don’t want you to go back to Brooklyn. I’m afraid you may do something stupid and get killed or get your ass locked up again. Do you want to move in with Cus?”
I didn’t want to go back either. I was looking for change in my life. Plus, I liked the way those people talked and made me feel good, made me feel like I was part of society. So I talked to my mother about staying up there with Cus.
“Ma, I want to go up there and train. I want to be a fighter. I can be the best fighter in the world.” Cus had my mind so fucked up. That’s all he talked to me about, how great I could become, how to improve myself, day by day, in every way. All that self-help shit.
My mom felt bad about me leaving, but she signed the permission papers. Maybe she thought she’d failed as a mother.
So I moved in with Cus and Camille and the other fighters in the house. I got to know more and more about Cus because we’d have these long talks after I trained. He was so happy when I told him my hard-luck stories about my life. He would light up like a Christmas tree. “Tell me more,” he’d say. I was the perfect guy for his mission—broken home, unloved, destitute. I was hard and strong and sneaky, but I was still a blank chalkboard. Cus wanted me to embrace my shortcomings. He didn’t make me feel ashamed or inferior because of my upbringing. He loved the fact that I had great enthusiasm. “Enthusiasm”—Cus taught me that word.
Cus could relate to me because he’d had a hard life too. His mother died at a very early age. He’d lost his vision in one eye in a street fight when he was a little kid. His father died in his arms when he was a young man. A cop had murdered his favorite brother.
Cus really only worked a nine-to-five job for one year in his life. And then he left because he got into fights with his coworkers. But he spent a lot of time helping out the people in his neighborhood, solving their problems almost like an unofficial social worker. He derived a lot of pleasure out of assisting other people. Cus helped weed out political corruption in his neighborhood when La Guardia was running for mayor of New York City as a reformer. He did it by standing up to one of the corrupt guys who had pulled a gun on him. He was fearless.
He was also bitter.
“I stood up for the little guy all my life,” Cus said. “Lot of my troubles came from standing up for the underdog. Some of the people that I did things for didn’t deserve it. Very few people are worth saving.”
Cus was totally color-blind. His father’s best friend was black. When he was in the army, stationed in the South, he had a boxing team. When they traveled, no hotel would take his black fighters so he slept with them in parks.
He was also a big-time socialist. He was in love with Che and Fidel and the Rosenbergs. He’d tell me about the Rosenberg case and I’d tease him.
“Come on, Cus. That ain’t right. They were guilty,” I said.
“Oh, yeah,” he’d roar. “You’re talking now but when they bring slavery back you’re not going to be able to say who was guilty or not. They’re planning to bring it back too, all right?”
His biggest enemy was Ronald Reagan. Reagan would come on the TV and Cus would scream at the top of his lungs, “LIAR. LIAR. LIAR. LIAR!!!” Cus was a maniac. He would always be talking about who needed to die. “A man dies by the way he lives,” he’d tell me.
One day Cus said, “When you make a lot of money, you could really help everybody you ever cared about. You could help the black churches.” He thought the black churches were the best grassroots social net for black people. He loved the Reverend Martin Luther King. Cus was always into helping people and that was how he gave all his money away.
“Money is something to throw off the back of trains,” he’d tell me. “Money means security, and to me security means death, so I never cared about money. To me all the things that I value I couldn’t buy for money. I was never impressed with money. Too many of the wrong people have a lot of money so the association is not good. The truth was, I wasn’t careless about money. I gave money to people in trouble. I don’t consider that wasting it.”
He also didn’t believe in paying taxes to a right-wing government. He declared bankruptcy when he owed $200,000 to the IRS.
How Cus got into boxing was itself a mystery. Out of nowhere he popped up and said, “I’m a boxing trainer.” Nobody had ever heard of him. He didn’t know anything about contracts or fighters, but he claimed to be a manager. He wound up managing and training a promising young heavyweight named Floyd Patterson who was also a poor kid who grew up in Brooklyn. At the time, boxing was ruled by a group called the IBC, the International Boxing Club, owned by rich entrepreneurs who had a stranglehold on the promotion of championship bouts. But Cus guided Floyd to the championship, and then he went after the IBC. Which meant he was going up against the mob, because Frankie Carbo, a soldier in the Lucchese family, was in bed with the IBC. Cus helped break the back of the IBC, and Carbo wound up in jail for conspiracy, extortion, and unlicensed management.
But Cus’s heart was broken when Roy Cohn, a right-wing attorney, stole Patterson away from him by wooing the newly converted Catholic boxer with a meeting with New York’s Cardinal Spellman. Cus never set foot inside a Catholic church again. He got increasingly paranoid after that. He claimed that someone tried to push him in front of a subway car. He stopped going to bars because he was afraid someone would spike his drink. He actually sewed shut the pockets of his coat jackets so no one could drop drugs into them to set him up. Finally he moved upstate to Catskill.
He was even paranoid in the house. Nobody was allowed into his room, and he would rig up some matches in his door so he could see if anyone had gone in while he was away. If he’d see me anywhere near his room, he’d say, “What are you doing up there?”
“I live up here, Cus. I live here,” I’d answer.
One time, me and Tom Patti and Frankie, two other boxers who were living at the house, went out. Cus didn’t trust anyone with keys, because we might lose them and then some stranger would have access to the house. When we came home and knocked on the door, there was no answer. I looked in the window and Cus had fallen asleep in his favorite plush chair with the TV blasting because he was half deaf. Tom figured that the time to knock was when the show went to commercial and there were a couple seconds of silence. So at exactly that moment we all banged on the window and yelled, “Cus!! Cus!!” In one-thousandth of a second, Cus did a one-eighty, dropped down, bent over at the waist, with his left hand bracing himself, ready to pop up with the right hand to knock the intruder out. We were all on the floor, laughing hysterically.
Another time, one of the sparring partners who was staying there snuck out during the night to go to town. Tom and I woke up early in the morning and we were going downstairs to get breakfast. We looked in the living room and Cus was on the floor doing an army crawl with his rifle in his hand. The guy had come home and knocked on the window and Cus probably thought it was some IBC guy after him. Tom and I stepped over him and walked into the kitchen to get some cereal.
I could go on and on with Cus stories. He was that unique and colorful a cat. But the best description of Cus I’ve ever heard was in an interview that the great writer Gay Talese gave to Paul Zuckerman, a young man who was researching a book about Cus.
“He was a Roman warrior two thousand years too late. Warriors like war, need war, that’s the atmosphere in which they feel most at home. In times of peace, they are restless and useless men they think. They like to stir up a lot. Cus, like Patton, felt alive when there was confusion, intrigue, a sense of impending battle. He felt most engaged with himself then, his nerve endings, his brainpower was most alive and he felt most fulfilled when he was in a state of agitation. And if it wasn’t there, he had to create or heighten it. If it was simmering, he had to turn up the flames to feel fully alive. It gave him a high. He was an activist, he needed action.”
Cus was a general and I was his soldier. And we were ready to go to war.
• • •
I was this useless Thorazined-out nigga who was diagnosed as retarded and this old white guy gets ahold of me and gives me an ego. Cus once said to me, “Mike, if you were sitting down with a psychiatrist and they asked you, ‘Are you hearing voices?’ You’re going to say no, but the voices are telling you to say no, aren’t they?” Cus was such a deep guy. No one ever made me more conscious of being a black man. He was so cold hard, giving it to me like a bitter black man would. “They think they’re better than you, Mike,” he’d say. If he saw somebody with a Fiat or a Rolls-Royce, he’d look at me and say, “You could get that. That’s not the hardest thing in the world to do, getting wealthy. You’re so superior to those people. They can never do what you are capable of doing. You got it in you. You think I would tell you this if you didn’t have it in you? I could probably make you a better fighter but I couldn’t make you champion.”
Whoa. I always thought I was shit. My mother had told me I was crap. Nobody had ever said anything good about me. And here’s this dude saying, “I bet you if you try, you could win an Oscar. You’d be just as good an actor as you’d be a boxer. You want to be a race-car driver? I bet you’d be the best race-car driver in the world; you’re smarter and tougher than those guys. You could conquer any world. Don’t use that word ‘can’t.’ You can’t say ‘can’t.’”
When I got discouraged, as I often did, Cus would massage my mind with thoughts of an exotic world with great treasures. Everything he said was foreign to me, but I liked the sound of it.
“All you have to do is listen to me,” he’d say. “People of royal descent will know your name. Do you hear what I’m saying to you, boy? The whole world will know who you are. Your family name will reign. People will respect your mother, your family, your children. When you enter a room, people will stand up and give you an ovation.”
Cus wouldn’t let me fail. When I felt like quitting and I got discouraged, he just kept on inspiring me. Cus would always say, “My job is to peel off layers and layers of damages that are inhibiting your true ability to grow and fulfill your potential.” He was peeling me and it hurt! I was screaming, “Leave me alone. Aarrgghh!” He tortured my mind. He’d see me sparring with an older guy and it was in my mind that I was tired and I wasn’t punching back at the guy, the guy was just bullying me, and Cus would talk to me about that, make me confront my fears. He was a perfectionist. I’d be hitting the heavy bag with combinations and Cus would be standing there, watching.
“It’s good. It’s good. But it’s not poifect,” he’d say in his thick Bronx accent.
Cus wanted the meanest fighter that God ever created, someone who scared the life out of people before they even entered the ring. He trained me to be totally ferocious, in the ring and out. At the time, I needed that. I was so insecure, so afraid. I was so traumatized from people picking on me when I was younger. I just hated the humiliation of being bullied. That feeling sticks with you for the rest of your life. It’s just such a bad, hopeless feeling. That’s why I always projected to the world that I was a mean, ferocious motherfucker. But Cus gave me confidence so that I didn’t have to worry about being bullied ever again. I knew nobody was ever going to fuck with me physically.
Cus was much more than a boxing trainer. He instilled so many values in me. He was like some guru, always saying things that would make me think.
“No matter what anyone says, no matter the excuse or explanation, whatever a person does in the end is what he intended to do all along.”
Or, “I’m not a creator. What I do is discover and uncover. My job is to take the spark and fan it. Feed the fire until it becomes a roaring blaze.”
He could impart wisdom in the most mundane situations. Camille was very big on the boys doing their chores around the house. I hated doing chores; I was so focused on my boxing. One day Cus came to me. “You know, Camille really wants you to do your chores. I could care less if you did, but you should do them because it will make you a better boxer.”
“How’s taking out the trash going to make me a better boxer?” I scoffed.
“Because doing something you hate to do like you love it is good conditioning for someone aspiring towards greatness.”
After that, Camille never had to remind me to do my chores again.
One day Cus called me into the room where he was sitting.
“Are you scared of white people?” he said out of the blue. “Are you one of those kinds? You scared of mustaches and beards? I’ve been around black fighters who were scared to hit white people. You better not be one of them.”
It was funny. I had Cus in my face telling me not to be intimidated, but I was intimidated by the way he was telling me not to be intimidated.
Cus was always dead serious, never smiling. He didn’t treat me like a teenager. He always made me feel like we had a mission to accomplish. Training day in and day out, thinking about one fucking thing. He gave me a purpose. I had never had that feeling in my life before except when I was thinking about stealing.
Every once in a while, things would happen that made our goal seem much more tangible. One time, Wilfred Benitez came to train at Catskill. I was overwhelmed. I was a groupie. I had seen him fight on television and he was something to watch. It was like he had radar, he’d punch people with his eyes closed. Truly a master. And he brought his championship belt with him. Tom Patti, one of Cus’s other boxers, was there with me. Benitez pulled out this little case, and the belt was inside and he let me touch it. It was like looking at the Holy Grail.
“Man, Tommy, look at this, it’s the belt, man,” I said. “I gotta get one of these now. I’m going to train so hard. If I win this, I’m never going to take the belt off.”
I was so happy to be in Benitez’s presence. He inspired me, made me want to become more committed and dedicated.
Thanks to Cus, I also got to talk to Ali. In October of 1980, we all drove up to Albany to watch the closed-circuit broadcast of Ali trying to win back his title from Larry Holmes. Ali got the shit kicked out of him. Cus was mad as a motherfucker; I’d never seen him that angry before. After the fight, he was poker-faced because he had to give interviews and shake people’s hands, but once we got in the car, we could feel that negative energy. We didn’t say a word for the whole forty-five-minute drive home.
The next morning, Ali’s aide Gene Kilroy put Ali on the phone with Cus.
“How did you let that bum beat you? He’s a bum, Muhammad, he’s a bum. No, he’s a bum. Don’t tell me that, he’s a bum. Why did you let that bum hit you like that?”
I was listening to Cus talk and every time he said the word “bum” it was cutting right through me. I started crying. That was a bad day in my life.
Then Cus did a head trip on me.
“I have a young black kid with me. He’s just a boy, but he’s going to be the heavyweight champion of the world. His name is Mike Tyson. Talk to him for me, please, Muhammad. I want you to tell him to listen to me.”
Cus handed me the phone.
“I’m sorry for what happened to you,” I said. I was a little dickhead.
“I was sick,” Ali told me. “I took some medicine and it made me weak and that’s how Holmes beat me. I’m going to get well and come back and beat Holmes.”
“Don’t worry, champ,” I said. “When I get big, I’m going to get him for you.”
A lot of people assume that Ali was my favorite boxer. But I have to say it was Roberto Duran. I always looked at Ali as being handsome and articulate. And I was short and ugly and I had a speech impediment. When I saw Duran fight, he was just a street guy. He’d say stuff to his opponents like, “Suck my fucking dick, you motherfucker. Next time you’re going to the fucking morgue.” After he beat Sugar Ray Leonard in that first fight, he went over to where Wilfred Benitez was sitting and he said, “Fuck you. You don’t have the heart or the balls to fight me.”
Man, this guy is me, I thought. That was what I wanted to do. He was not ashamed of being who he was. I related to him as a human being. As my career progressed and people started praising me for being a savage, I knew that being called an animal was the highest praise I could receive from someone. When I’d go back to the city, I would go to Victor’s Café because I heard Duran hung out there. I’d go and sit at a table by myself and look at the pictures of Duran hanging on the wall. I was living out my dreams.
I was sad when Duran quit during the No Más rematch with Leonard. Cus and I watched that fight in Albany and I was so mad that I cried. But Cus had called it. “He’s not going to do it a second time,” he predicted.
• • •
By the time I had moved in with Cus, I was already into the flow of his repertoire. He began to train me hard every day. I never had the privilege of enjoying boxing as a sport or as something to do for fun. Cus was an extremist but I was just as extreme. I wanted to be Achilles right then. I’m the kind of guy they make fun of. “Don’t give the nigga a rope, he’ll want to be a cowboy.” I was the kid who had no hope. But if you give me a glimmer of hope, you’re in trouble. I take it to the moon.
Cus normally had to wake the fighters up in the morning, but when he’d get up to do it, I had already come back from running. Cus would usually set the table for breakfast, but I started doing it after my run. He’d get mad. “Who made up my table?” he’d bark. He was upset that I showed more dedication than he did. Then Cus would cook me my breakfast. He’d throw in a whole slab of bacon, twenty or so strips, into the frying pan and then he’d cook the eggs in that bacon grease. I didn’t drink coffee so I’d have tea. He did that every morning even if he was angry with me.
I think both of us realized that we were in a race with time. Cus was in his seventies, he was no spring chicken, so he would constantly be shoving all this knowledge into me. Shove, shove, shove all this shit in. If you keep shoving it in, you learn it, unless you’re an idiot. I became very adept at boxing but my maturity, my thinking ability as a human being didn’t catch up with my boxing ability. It wasn’t like I was going to go to school and they were building my character to make me a good, productive member of society. No, I was doing this to become heavyweight champion of the world. Cus was aware of that. “God, I wish I had more time with you,” he said. But then he would say, “I’ve been in the fight game for sixty years and I’ve never seen anybody with the kind of interest you have. You’re always talking about fighting.”
I was an extremist. If we got snowed in, Cus trained me in the house. At night, I’d stay up for hours in my room shadowboxing. My life depended on succeeding. If I didn’t, I would just be a useless piece of shit. Plus, I was doing it for Cus too. He had a tough life with a lot of disappointments. So I was here to defend this old Italian man’s ego and pride. Who the fuck did I think I was?
When I wasn’t training, I was watching old fight films for at least ten hours a day. That was my treat on the weekend. I’d watch them alone upstairs, all night long. I’d crank up the volume and the sound would travel through the old house. Then Cus would come up. “What the hell are you doing?”
“Just watching the films,” I said.
“Hey, you gotta go to bed. People want to sleep,” he said. Then he’d walk down the stairs and I’d hear him muttering, “I never met a kid like this. Watching the films all night, waking up the whole damned house.”
Sometimes we’d watch the fight films together and Cus would give me tips on how I could beat Dempsey and Jeffries and Louis.
I was so focused sometimes that I’d actually go to sleep with my gloves on. I was an animal, dreaming about Mike Tyson being a big-time fighter. I sacrificed everything for that goal. No women, no food. I had an eating disorder; I was addicted to food then. And I was going through puberty. I was getting acne, my hormones were raging, all I wanted to do was eat ice cream but I couldn’t lose sight of the goal. I’d talk to Cus about girls and he’d pooh-pooh me, telling me that I was going to have all the women I ever wanted. One time, I was morose.
“Cus, I ain’t never going to have a girl, huh?”
Cus sent someone out and they came back with one of those miniature baseball bats and he presented it to me.
“You’re going to have so many girls that you’ll need this to beat them off you.”
So all I did was jerk off and train, jerk off and train. I thought that after I became champion, I could get as much money and women as I’d need.
In the gym, Cus had some very unusual and unorthodox techniques. Some people laughed at the style he taught, but it was because they didn’t really understand it. They called it the peek-a-boo style. It was very defense-oriented. You’d keep both your hands in front of your face, almost like you were turtling. Your hands and your elbows move with you, so when the guy throws the punch, you block it as you’re coming forward, and then you counter.
Cus’s offense started with a good defense. He thought it was of paramount importance for his fighter not to get hit. To learn to slip punches, he used a slipbag, a canvas bag filled with sand, wrapped around a rope. You had to slip around it by moving your head to avoid it hitting you. I got really good at that.
Then he used something called the Willie, named after the fighter Willie Pastrano. It was a mattress covered in canvas and wrapped around a frame. On the exterior was a sketch of a torso. The body was divided into different zones and each zone had a number associated with it. The odd numbers were left-hand punches, the even numbers were the right-hand ones. Then Cus would play a cassette tape of him calling out the various sequences of numbers. So you’d hear “five, four” and immediately throw a left hook to the body and a right uppercut to the chin. The idea was that the more you repeated these actions in response to numbers they’d become instinctual and robotic and you wouldn’t have to consciously think about them. After a while, you could throw punches with your eyes closed.
Cus thought that fighters got hit by right hands because they were stationary and had their gloves too low. So he taught me to weave in a U-shape, not just up and down. He had me on the move constantly, sideways and then forward, sideways and forward. When you were punching, Cus believed that you got the maximum effect from your punches when you made two punches sound like one. The closest you could get to that sound, the higher percentage that barrage would result in a knockout.
Even though he emphasized defense, Cus knew that defensive fighters could be boring.
“Boxing is entertainment, so to be successful a fighter must not only win, but he must win in an exciting manner. He must throw punches with bad intentions,” Cus would always say. He wanted me to be an aggressive counterpuncher, forcing my opponents to punch or run. Cus was always trying to manipulate the opponent in the ring. If you kept eluding their punches, they would get frustrated and lose their confidence. And then they were sunk. Slip the punch and counter. Move and hit at the same time. Force the issue. He thought short punches could be harder than long punches. He thought that punching hard had nothing to do with anything physical, it was all emotional. Controlled emotion.
Cus hired the best sparring partners to teach me. My favorite was Marvin Stinson. I believe he was a former Olympian. He had been Holmes’s top sparring partner and then Cus brought him in to work with me. He was an awesome mentor to me, teaching me about movement and throwing punches. When he was finished the first time he came up to spar, he pulled me aside and gave me his running gloves because it was so cold out in the morning when I’d run. He saw that I didn’t have any.
My sparring sessions were like all-out war. Before we fought, Cus would take me aside. “You don’t take it easy, you go out there and do your best,” he said. “You do everything you learned and you do it all full speed. I want you to break these guys’ ribs.”
Break their ribs? Sparring? He wanted to get me prepared for the guys I’d fight and he certainly wanted me to break the ribs of my opponents in an actual fight. When Cus found a good sparring partner for me, he treated them special because he knew that they gave me good workouts. He always paid the sparring partners top dollar. But that didn’t insure that they would stay. Often a guy would come up anticipating sparring for three weeks. But after his first session, we’d go back to the house and he’d be gone. They were so disgusted with getting the shit kicked out of them, they didn’t even bother to get their stuff. When that would happen, Tom and I made a beeline for their room and rummaged through their clothes and shoes and jewelry. If we were lucky, we’d find a stash of weed or at least a pair of shoes that fit.
Sometimes Cus would bring up established fighters to spar with me. When I was sixteen, he brought Frank Bruno to Catskill. Bruno was twenty-two at the time. We sparred for two rounds. Before I’d spar with an established fighter, Cus would take them aside.
“Listen, he’s just a boy but don’t take it easy on him. I’m informing you now, do your best,” he said.
“Okay, Cus,” they would say. “I’ll work with the kid.”
“Hey, do you hear me? Don’t work with him. Do your best.”
We fought to hurt people; we didn’t fight just to win. We talked for hours about hurting people. This is what Cus instilled in me. “You’ll be sending a message to the champ, Mike,” Cus would tell me. “He’ll be watching you.” But we would also be sending a resounding message to the trainers, the managers, the promoters, and the whole boxing establishment. Cus was back.
Besides watching old fight films, I devoured everything I could read on these great fighters. Soon after I moved in with Cus, I was reading the boxing encyclopedia and I started laughing reading about a champion who only held his title for a year. Cus looked at me with his cold piercing eyes and said, “A one-year championship is worth more than a lifetime of obscurity.”
When I started studying the lives of the great old boxers, I saw a lot of similarity to what Cus was preaching. They were all mean motherfuckers. Dempsey, Mickey Walker, even Joe Louis was mean, even though Louis was an introvert. I trained myself to be wicked. I used to walk to school, snapping at everybody. Deep down, I knew I had to be like that because if I failed, Cus would get rid of me and I would starve to death.