A few months before I turned 13, 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.
The fact that they were sending me up to the state reformatory was not cool. I was with the big boys now. I got in trouble right away. 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 45 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 45 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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 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. 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.
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.”