WHY Mike Tyson Still Believes in Boxing

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Mike Tyson leans back against the ropes. The 57-year-old many consider the last of the legendary heavyweight champs stands in a boxing ring, wearing white New Balance sneakers, a black t-shirt, black short shorts, and a black-and-white skullcap that reads “Be Real.” He studies former UFC heavyweight champ Francis Ngannou, who throws a jab-cross combo again and again into the right hand and the gut of a heavily padded Dewey Cooper, Ngannou’s long-time trainer. “Throw it straight,” Tyson says, softly but forcefully. Iron Mike is a head shorter than the 6’4” mixed martial artist they call Predator, but when he steps forward and hits Cooper with his own cross, the pop echos through the cavernous room. Dozens of reporters have come to a loading dock, 15 minutes from the Las Vegas Strip, which has been converted into a boxing gym. One shouts Tyson a question about Ngannou’s progress. “He’s better now than he was last week,” Tyson answers. Ngannou throws the combo again, his right hand crashing towards Cooper’s liver. Tyson nods. “Yeah, that’s the one.”

In January, Ngannou exited the UFC amidst a contract dispute, becoming the first reigning champ to leave the organization in almost 20 years. Later this month, the 37-year-old will enter the ring for his debut boxing match: a 10-round bout against WBC Heavyweight Champion Tyson Fury in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. A crossover promotion like this one—or its 2017 predecessor between Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor—was always sure to draw attention. Certainly, a slice of fight fans love a tactical battle, but the public desires spectacle most of all. The combat sports world’s story this last decade has centered on boxing’s fall and the UFC’s rise, but Ngannou says he’ll earn more in one event—$10 million, at least according to a Fury quote at a prefight presser—than he did in years in the octagon. And the Cameroonian fighter with a superhero build arrived with an ace up his sleeve. “I’ve been in touch with Mike Tyson the past four years since the first time that I met him on his podcast,” Ngannou tells me. “I asked him: when I fight Tyson Fury, would he be in my corner? And he said yes.”

Tyson the Trainer is an irresistible image. The great ones rarely coach (part of the reason Deion Sanders has become a sensation in Colorado), and Tyson, specifically, seems an unlikely guide. “That was always a riddle to me: why are these guys that are great not great coaches?” says Cooper, who’s been friends with Tyson since the mid-90s and helped get his pal onboard. He thinks there’s a simple reason that you don’t see GOATs grab clipboards: “I’m just giving you the honest fact: it boils down to being lazy and selfish and not wanting to release all that information they have inside. That’s what it boils down to. Don’t die with that! Let them secrets go.”

But Gary Smith, the former Sports Illustrated writer who penned the most famous Tyson profile back in 1988, thinks it’s deeper than that. “Those kind of guys have this burning compulsion to dominate. To conquer. It’s just a different proposition altogether to show up each day and spend seven hours teaching the minutiae of a craft,” Smith says. “For Tyson, it was like a life-and-death scenario every time he stepped into the ring. How do you package that and put it into somebody else?”

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For Smith, the secret to Tyson’s success was his ability to bring all his childhood fear and pain into the ring with him. “Everything from his past was present tense,” Smith says. “He was bringing with him all these nights in the middle of Brownsville where you either can get killed or have to kill at a moment’s notice. And that’s what he was reliving, essentially, when he stepped between the ropes. He’d turn that fear into a rage and project it onto somebody else.”

When I tell him about Tyson’s transition from pupil to teacher, Smith is intrigued. But he wonders whether it’s possible for Tyson to teach another fighter “to turn PTSD into a wrecking ball” in such a short time. “If you’d asked Tyson years ago, he would be like, ‘A coach? Me a fucking coach? Are you fucking crazy?’” Smith says. “But I’m sure Tyson, in some regards, considers that Cus saved his life. So that position of the coach would be way more than someone who’s helping you with an athletic dream. It’s somebody who’s a life rescuer.”

Cus is Cus D’Amato, who brought a 14-year-old Mike Tyson from Brooklyn to the Catskills and started to build him into the heavyweight champ. The unlikely pairing—a boxing lifer in exile upstate and a violent kid with a deadly right hand—turned the wayward teen into The Baddest Man on the Planet.

It was, for Tyson, as strange as it sounds. “Listen though: the first day I met him he said I was gonna be champion of the world. Crazy, right? Crazy! The first day we met he said, ‘You’re gonna be the youngest heavyweight champion of the world,’” Tyson tells me. “I looked at this white man and was like, ‘Are you trying to do some shit?’ Who the fuck is this weird white boy who say I’m a god and all this shit, you know?” Tyson laughs, clapping his hands and stomping as he does. “And he was right!” Tyson’s bet is that he can do something similar for Francis Ngannou.

D’Amato discovered Tyson when he was unformed clay; it’ll be a different challenge for Tyson to shape Ngannou. And as I speak with Tyson, the contours of his role remain fluid. In August, he was announced as Ngannou’s trainer; but as we speak in September, Tyson rejects the framing. “I’m not a trainer. I’m a coach. A trainer can be bought by anybody. ‘Train this guy. Hey, train this guy,’” Tyson says. “I’m a coach. I’m loyal to my guy. When he gets beat up, I feel the punches. When he’s hitting, knocking out a motherfucker, I feel the victory applause.” Tyson’s team later explains that though Tyson doesn’t have an official title, “he’s been a mentor to Francis throughout the training process, popping in and out of training sessions as time permits for several weeks.”

Tyson tells me he has a plan for Ngannou in the ring and is schooling him in how to box a taller opponent—a task that the 5’10” Tyson knows better than most. But more than that, Tyson is trying to pass along the wisdom of his mentor. “I learned this from Cus: there’s nothing wrong with being afraid of somebody. Just never be intimidated,” he says. “I explained to [Ngannou]: the fear is his friend.”

Ngannou is an underdog—so much so that Fury has already announced his next fight, a title defense against Oleksandr Usyk set for just two months after this bout. (In betting terms, Fury is a prohibitive -1100 favorite—meaning you’d need to wager $1100 on him to win just $100.) The feared Tyson never knew the underdog role, but he has told Ngannou to relish the doubt. “It’s extreme freedom having nothing to lose. Not worried about getting humiliated, embarrassed. Because they’re anticipating that anyway,” he says. “But go out there and do it. Don’t try to do it. Do it. And see what happens.”


Tyson’s own trainer preached a mindset that’d be understood today as New Age, or even Influencer Age, with a splash of destruction. The program that built Kid Dynamite was grueling: run, train, spar, study old boxing films, and absorb the Tao of Cus (which included manifesting, positive affirmations, and daydreaming). The trainer would whisper to a sleeping Tyson to strengthen his subconscious and would look his pupil straight in the eyes and say, “‘I summoned you,’” Tyson tells me. “That’s the kind of world he was in. Where nothing happens coincidentally.”

Mike Tywon







Tyson lives in that spirit world, too. He believes what D’Amato told him: that he was put on this Earth for a reason. “How could you not? How could you think a guy like me from Brownsville, from the sewage system, how could I get here and talk to you?” he asks. “You would be somebody I would eat in the street! How would I get here and you’re interviewing me? What the hell?” He slaps his knee as punctuation.

“Listen! No, listen!” he continues. “It was ordained. It was the way it was supposed to be. The ordeals, the people dying; it’s just the way it was supposed to be.”

The number one lesson Tyson is preaching to Ngannou? Your mind is the muscle you need to build to be a champ. “You build it by fantasizing. Daydreaming. That’s working the muscle. People think daydreaming’s a waste of time, but it’s making the muscle stronger,” Tyson says. “Even from negativity, it’s getting stronger. Stronger for revenge.” Tyson spent six years studying with D’Amato; the trainer died twelve months before his pupil became the youngest heavyweight champ in history. “Listen: my mentor’s a master,” Tyson says in his raspy whisper. He taps his head. “He was doing this manifestation stuff in the ‘40s. He’s a master. He’s a special man.”

If D’Amato hadn’t summoned him and brought him to the old Victorian upstate, Tyson’s not sure he would’ve made it to 18. Once D’Amato left him, the champ seemed to court death again. The fighter whose past is perpetually present tense can’t believe he’s lived this long. But he’s here, now, on a folding chair in a tiny carpeted office in a makeshift gym. Soon, he’ll hop on a flight to Saudi Arabia and help Ngannou prepare to fight Fury.

“It feels incredibly lucky,” Tyson tells me. “We can’t anticipate our next breath, but life is great. Even at its worst, it’s great. You know?” He sucks air in through his nose. “Just being able to breathe, and nothing else, that’s still incredible.” He sucks in again, harder this time. “I don’t want to die. Even if I don’t have nothing, I don’t wanna die.” Tyson smiles. “It’s beautiful.”

Ngannou says he understands Tyson, even when others don’t. Their early lives couldn’t have been more different: While D’Amato found Tyson when he was barely a teenager, Ngannou didn’t even enter a boxing gym until the age of 22. At 26, he left Cameroon and began a harrowing journey from Nigeria to Niger to Algeria to Morocco. He crossed the Sahara Desert on foot and smuggled into the back of a truck. He rode a raft into Spanish waters. Eventually, he made his way to Paris and started training in MMA. “It’s not the places that make life difficult; it’s the environment, it’s the life situation,” Ngannou tells me. “I think everybody everywhere has a difficulty. And even if heaven exists, I think there are some people in heaven that struggle.”

In Ngannou, Tyson has found a receptive pupil. “Affirmations. Manifestation. If you believe in something, you work your way towards that direction, toward your dreams, and then you do everything that it takes,” Ngannou says. “You’re gonna meet obstacles, speed bumps, roadblocks, storms. You’re going to meet them along the way. And they’re gonna shake you sometimes, take you down a little bit, but you’re gonna stand up and keep going until you get there.”

Tyson was the youngest champ in history; Ngannou is attempting to upset Fury at an age when most boxers have already retired. But even as he approaches 40, Ngannou is still built like a linebacker. As they talk to each other in the ring, Iron Mike’s head is beside Ngannou’s mountainous traps. “Age is a number. It’s not about age,” Ngannou says, reminding me that people already thought he was too old when he started his MMA career. “And I made it here.”

Mike Tyson still believes in boxing. He was raised by D’Amato to worship the champs: Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano and Roberto Duran. He still peppers mentions of old fighters throughout his conversations as if everyone remembers them the way he does. The oft-reported demise of the sport has not dampened his faith. “Hey, listen: the heavyweight champion of the world is just as known in his time as the president of his time,” he tells me. “And that’s just what it is.”

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