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My Life As a Young Thug

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So one weekend in March 1980, Bobby and I drove to Catskill, New York. Cus’s gym was a converted meeting hall that was above the town police station. Cus looked exactly like what you’d envision a hard-boiled boxing trainer to look like—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.

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,” said Teddy Atlas, another trainer.

“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. 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 13 years old. And then he told me what my future would be. “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 started going out to Cus’s house every weekend to work out. 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.

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. 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.

“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.”

I was only 14, 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.

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.


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