My Life As a Young Thug

Photo: From left, Peter Hapak; Courtesy of Steve Lott

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 II. 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.”

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.

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 toward 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 10 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. 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. My mom would cook some wings. My brother remembers that besides the hookers, there’d be gangsters, detectives. The whole gamut was there.

When I was just 7 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 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.

We wound up in Brownsville. You could totally feel the difference. It was a very horrific, tough, and gruesome kind of place. 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. 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.”

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.

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. 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. 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 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 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. That was the last day I went to school. I was 7 years old, and I just never went back to class.

Mike Tyson, age 14. Photo: Lori Grinker/Contact Press Images

One day during the spring of 1974, three guys came toward 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. 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 schmuck-slave.

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.

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. 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. 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 didn’t know you were supposed to go home and take a shower. 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 accept me as one of their own, because I was chasing these fucking birds off 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.

Barkim started introducing me to people on the street as his “son.” 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.” He bought me a lot of clothes, but he never gave me a lot of money. He’d make a couple thousand from robbing and he’d give me $200.

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 35 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.

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 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.

Tyson in training.Photo: Lori Grinker/Contact Press Images

“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.

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. I would win a lot too. Even if I lost, the guys who beat me would say, “Fuck! You’re only 11?” 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 Marquess 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.

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 toward 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.

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. 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. “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.

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 15, she would have liked me, but she was drunk all the time.

Tyson at Cus D’Amato’s table in Catskill.Photo: Lori Grinker/Contact Press Images

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.”

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.

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.

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 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.”

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. 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.

A lot of people assume that Muhammad 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. 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.

I think both Cus and I realized that we were in a race with time. Cus was in his seventies. 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 60 years, and I’ve never seen anybody with the kind of interest you have. You’re always talking about fighting.”

All this talk about dedication and discipline and hard work wasn’t enough to keep me from going back to Brooklyn and doing my jostling and robbing. I was playing two heads of the same coin. I’d be up in Catskill and be the choirboy and then I’d go down to Brooklyn and be the devil. Thank God that I never got arrested for anything. That would have broken Cus’s heart.

I don’t think that Cus, who’d worked with Floyd Patterson, Rocky Graziano, and Jose Torres, thought that in a thousand years he’d get another champion, although he hoped he would. Then I show up there knowing nothing, a blank chalkboard. Cus was happy. I couldn’t understand why this white man was so happy about me. He would look at me and just laugh hysterically. He’d get on the phone and tell people, “Lightning has struck me twice. I have another heavyweight champion.” I have no idea how, but somehow he saw it in me.

Reprinted from Undisputed Truth, by Mike Tyson with Larry Sloman, to be published by Blue Rider Press, a member of Penguin Random House LLC on November 12, 2013. Copyright © 2013 by Tyrannic Literary Company LLC.

My Life As a Young Thug