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Learning from Mike Tyson

By Cliff Montgomery,
Mike Tyson flew in and out of juvenile detention centers during his youth. But at an early age Bobby Stewart, a New York social worker and boxing fan, discovered Tyson's raw boxing ability. Stewart guided Mike to a beloved trainer of champions, Constantine "Cus" D'Amato.

D'Amato had helped create two champs: the legendary Floyd Patterson and light-heavyweight Jose Torres. When D'Amato saw the 13-year-old Tyson spar for the first time, he stated: "That's the future heavyweight champion of the world."

Bringing Tyson to New York's Catskill Mountains, D'Amato nurtured Tyson in and out of the ring. Cus eventually became Tyson's stepfather and legal guardian. D'Amato was the driving force during the early stages of Tyson's amateur and pro career, teaching the youngster all about the sport which he loved and to which he had devoted his life.

Tyson was not tall for a heavyweight, standing only 5ft 10 in, but at his height he weighed a strong 220lb. D'Amato taught Mike to incessantly bob and weave his opponents, presenting an ever-moving and difficult target to taller, larger heavyweights. Tyson mastered a fine array of hooks and uppercuts which he could throw from a variety of angles. His main assets were his hand speed, enabling him to deliver punches in rapid combinations, and the terrific power of his punching. His ruthlessness in finishing off a wounded opponent was unsurpassed.

Young Mike in fact was not a bully by nature, and indeed throughout his life was to display glimpses of surprising sensitivity. His voice was quiet, unaggressive and possessed a slight lisp; but there were always indications of inner demons lurking below that surface, such as when he alienated several outside boxing by saying of a punch which broke an opponent's nose: "I catch them there because I'm trying to push the nose bone into the brain."

In this instance however Tyson was simply stating a technique central to especially powerful hitting: Don't just hit where the opponent is, but try to drive your fist at least 3-6 inches beyond the point of contact. What Mike has clearly never understood is how to turn off such primal ideas and impulses when they're not desired.

Another central tenant of the early Tyson style: Don't punch with just the arm, but with the entire body. The key to real punching power is incorporating the entire body into a single striking movement. The blow should always be both fast and fluid. The central player in a power punch is not actually the arm, but the trunk of the puncher's body. The legs should spring the body mass, and the punch, forward--but not so far that it forces the fighter to lose his balance, something we often see in the degenerated technique of the later Tyson.

In terms of punching power, Tyson tended to follow a general equation:

Speed + power + directed body mass=success.

During the height of his career between the mid-80s and the mid-90s, Mike Tyson was simply the most feared fighter the sport of boxing had seen since Sonny Liston, another man with a troubled past.

At 20 Tyson won the WBC title belt, one of the three recognized belts signifying the heavyweight championship. He became undisputed heavyweight champion just after reaching his 21st birthday, winning all 3 belts.

Tyson loved to watch old boxing films, and became knowledgeable about boxing history and his possible place in it. The films suggested to Tyson and his team the idea that Mike should enter the ring in a plain black garb, like the old champions, setting himself apart from the modern trend of show-biz entrances and creating for himself the image of the no-frills destroyer.

He had an awesome physique, including a phenomenal neck of 19 " inches, as thick and strong as some men's thighs. He entered the ring robeless, wearing simple black shorts and black boxing boots, and with an executioner's air of purposeful intent that carried an eerie menace, fueled in part by the myth of his early invincibility.

Many of his opponents were therefore beaten by fear before a single punch was ever thrown. Only a strong-willed few managed to still be on their feet at the final bell, often by simply subduing any violent feelings of their own in favor of self-preservation.

But as the 1990s began, everything began going horribly wrong. He lost his title to apparent ill-match Buster Douglas in 1990, giving the world the biggest shock in boxing history; he was charged and convicted of rape; he returned to the ring after a four-year absence; regained a world title, only to scandalously bite off part of Evander Holyfield's ear during a contest, forcing a ban from boxing for a year.

It was the beginning of a personal and professional decay. And it is quite a shame.

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