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Tyson Will Have D’Amato’s Shadow in Corner Tonight

Times Staff Writer

There was a day, believe it, when boxing was even more politic than now. How else to explain the curious circumstances that prevented Cus D’Amato from supervising the pending championship of his protege, Jose Torres?

But it is true. To secure the bid, a fight with Willie Pastrano, the longtime trainer was forced, for reasons too poorly explained to get into, to surrender his young talent to a Brooklyn real estate man. For absolutely no recompense.

All the same, Torres insisted that D’Amato, disenfranchised or not, be at ringside to call his numbers, the shorthand instructions the trainer used to yell during work on “Willy,” more or less a bayonet bag dissected and numbered according to internal organs.

D’Amato, practically a qualified internist, was strangely attracted to the fighter’s liver and kidneys.

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Mort Sharnik, the CBS boxing consultant and something of a D’Amato historian, recalls the night: a disembodied voice somewhere beyond the corner sounding out Social Security numbers, and Torres reacting with a calm dispatch that eventually separated Pastrano from his light-heavyweight title.

“It was the 6-7-8 that did it,” Sharnik said.

Tonight, another of D’Amato’s proteges, celebrated man-child Mike Tyson, stands on the edge of greatness. Just 20, his shortness exaggerated by his muscled thickness, his potential for violence emphasized by his new-wave looks, Tyson stands to become the youngest heavyweight champion ever if he beats Trevor Berbick, the World Boxing Council titlist.

But some wonder whether Tyson, the knockout attraction who has been charged with saving a floundering division, isn’t about to repeat history as much as to make it. Or perhaps just celebrate a certain neglected history, at that.

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Wasn’t Floyd Patterson, who won the crown at 21 in 1956, the last wunderkind of the ring, a D’Amato champion, too? Interesting.

Isn’t Tyson, saved from an urban and moral decay by the rusticated D’Amato seven years ago, just another testament to the great trainer’s teaching, only some of which had to do with boxing? Just another troubled youth, like Patterson and like the deaf fighters D’Amato tended to gather before him--he was called Dummy D’Amato for years--plucked from an eventual despair and situated squarely and successfully in a ring?

There are those, Tyson included, who will strain to hear that disembodied voice in the fighter’s chilled silence between rounds. Dead for a year and a month, D’Amato calls the shots still.

There is a tendency to belabor the point, to say that just as Tyson means to flatten Berbick, he means to erect a monument to his teacher and his surrogate father. It tends to obscure Tyson’s own remarkable abilities, the shocking power that has caused 15 first-round knockouts in his string of 27 victories.

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It tends to obscure his singular charisma, a personality that is entirely confined to the ring. Soft-spoken outside the ring, almost to a fault, he is nevertheless a galvanizing presence within.

He will not recite poetry like the last powerful ring personality, Muhammad Ali, or otherwise entertain with a cheerful arrogance. Yet, in 20 months of professional boxing, he has become the sport’s featured attraction, enough to make the heavyweight tournament, of which this is Bout 5 in an eight-bout series, big box office.

Explains co-manager Jimmy Jacobs, a ring historian in general, a D’Amato disciple in particular: “Mike has something known as the Joe Louis Syndrome. His opponents, like Joe’s, no matter how talented and for a reason that is not quite evident, are terrified. How do I know that? Because they don’t fight properly against Mike. They are never the same.

“Louis never tried to put the bull on you. It was that aura of invincibility, a chemistry, a you-can’t-beat-me look. It’s the same. When Mike is in the ring, people know they don’t dare look away. Something very bad can happen very quickly.”

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So far, that has been true enough. Jacobs, with a ring shrewdness possible only after total immersion in the sport--he is the leading fight film collector in the world--has rushed Tyson through an impressive career of knockouts. Jacobs has had his detractors, those who said Tyson would burn out fighting twice a month or that he would fail to learn enough against a string of setups. For sure, though, Berbick, underdog or not, is a quantum step up in class for Tyson.

Yet, Jacobs only refers people to the ancients, when men like Louis fought often, acquiring their skills bit by bit, unhurried by the demands made by the quick turnover at the top. Is it worse to fight often for contention, or infrequently for titles as today’s lackluster crop of champions have?

Anyway, this peculiar career path, like everything else about Tyson, is the way D’Amato wanted it. D’Amato’s spirit still rules the career of Tyson and probably always will. So, let’s belabor the point.

Those who knew D’Amato best say the similarities between him and his fighter are eerie. Though of different races and ages, Sharnik says they looked enough alike to inspire thoughts of mysticism. Even Tyson’s punkish haircut reminds Sharnik of D’Amato’s “high sidewalls.” Both featured thick necks and blockish looks.

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“The first time I saw (Tyson), I was transfixed,” Sharnik said. “But, more than that, he sounds like (D’Amato). “The phrasing, the meter is all Cus. It’s as if he absorbed D’Amato.”

And Tyson, drilled ever since D’Amato took him into his Catskills home seven years ago, even says the same things. HBO broadcaster Larry Merchant, despairing, once said you might as well be talking to D’Amato as Tyson.

Well, why not. Tyson, of a broken home, came to D’Amato at the age of 13. At first, he was only a hopeful boxer. But later, as his urban suspicions were put to rest in the homey atmosphere of Camille Ewald’s house, shared with D’Amato, he became family. Eventually, D’Amato even became his legal guardian.

D’Amato, though he had just one good eye, had quite a vision. He told the teen-ager he would be champion one day. He told Sharnik so as well. He told everybody that.

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But as with all his fighters, D’Amato was molding more than just a boxer. He had long since retired to the Catskills, away from boxing’s hurly-burly. He was no longer interested in the building of champions.

Yet, he never lost his curiosity into the human spirit, his rehabilitative bent. Tyson, whose crimes of youth remain unnumbered and unspecified to this day, was thus an attractive prospect, coming fresh out of reform school and into his gym.

Possibly, D’Amato’s most important teachings were of a general and philosophical kind; there is no difference between a hero and a coward except that a hero acts. That kind of thing.

But most of us will see D’Amato’s teachings revealed in the ring, in a more concrete way. Sometimes, in fact, it is as if D’Amato is still pulling the strings. Tyson will be circling the ring and then suddenly, as if reminded by a gruff inner voice, pull his gloves to his face in the peek-a-boo style favored by his trainer and popularized by Patterson.

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But his whole ring philosophy is evidence of a prior master.

Explains Jacobs, a man who lived with D’Amato himself for 10 years and who funded the camp that made Tyson’s discovery possible: “What Cus taught him was a pure ethic in answering the bell, to cause heavy damage and to be exciting. Cus didn’t believe there was an exhilaration in the division the last five-six years, not since Muhammad Ali, whom Cus adored. Mike has picked up the gauntlet.”

And so you see this monumental puncher practice the ethic: “Put yourself in jeopardy by getting close, dare him to put his arms out. Be exciting but be elusive.”

Jacobs continues: “When Mike was even 13, Cus was explaining that the objective was not to get hit.”

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So, all that will be revealed in tonight’s violence is a product of D’Amato’s teachings. But be forewarned that Tyson is more than D’Amato’s remote-controlled device of destruction, operated from beyond. Presumably, he contains the wonderful integrity and quirkiness of his mentor as well.

Friends don’t know what first to recall about D’Amato.

Times columnist Jim Murray, though admiring, recalls a comic paranoia. Murray rode with D’Amato and his fighter to the Olympic Auditorium the day of the fight years ago. The driver was lost, and D’Amato, ever suspicious, refused Murray’s directions. It was part and parcel of his general reluctance to accept authority or otherwise trust Establishment, though taken to an extreme.

Sharnik can recall a time when D’Amato, on the outs with the powers, as usual, was having a hard time moving a fighter. The fighter wanted another manager, and D’Amato agreed. The only hangup was that the new manager figured that D’Amato deserved at least $10,000 for the contract. D’Amato refused. How about at least $5,000, just out of fairness. D’Amato refused.

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According to Sharnik, he said: “No, take the fighter, but do right by him or you’ll have to deal with me.”

That, and other incidents, belie the idea that D’Amato took too much interest in his fighters, or rather too much pride in what he could do for them. Sometimes, possibly with Patterson, it seemed that D’Amato loomed larger than his fighter. Just as now it is impossible to discuss Tyson without invoking D’Amato’s legend.

In fact, D’Amato only wished to take them so far, to a state of independence. Winning a title, he always said, would be Tyson’s achievement. Having made him independent was his own--just as D’Amato’s greatest glory was not in Patterson’s winning the title but in seeing him stand tall, chest out, after he had defeated a hometown fighter in Canada. The abuse rained down on him. And Patterson, once such damaged goods that he had whiled away his youth just riding the subways, was, in D’Amato’s proud description, “noble,” standing tall in the center of the ring as others fled.

There is D’Amato’s playfulness as well, and some see that mirrored in the young man.

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One of Sharnik’s favorite stories involves a fishing trip on Lake Mead. Sharnik waited in D’Amato’s room while the trainer pulled on his pants and was amazed to see the older man leap into them with both legs.

“Why don’t you put them on one leg at a time,” Sharnik suggested.

D’Amato, peering at him with his bad eye--he believed whole-heartedly in the regeneration of tissue--said, “I don’t want anyone to say D’Amato puts his pants on one leg at a time, like everybody else.”

Once on the lake, Sharnik was further surprised to see that D’Amato had brought along a copy of Thoreau’s “Walden.”

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“The man is a genius,” D’Amato raved. “What beauty.”

D’Amato, ever sensitive, then leaned over the boat and addressed the creatures below: “Hey, fishies down there. It’s D’Amato up here and Cus is gonna get you.”

He then heaved an anchor into the water, to make sure they got the point. He was, evidently, a lot of things to a lot of people. And remains so. Tonight is Tyson’s chance to achieve at least his championship, if not quite his independence.

It seems unlikely that anyone ever is entirely independent of so strong a personality as D’Amato, and Tyson, just 20, should be wary of shucking so impressive an influence in any event. There is still more for him to learn, and D’Amato, gone or not, still seems to be teaching, through legend and disciples.

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“I once asked Cus what he wanted out of life, what it was all about,” Sharnik said. “He said, ‘I just want to make a small scratch on this big rock.’ ” Sharnik then referred to the reformed violence of Tyson. “This is his scratch.”


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