Fitness Technique

Forging ‘Iron’ Mike Tyson

Mike Tyson
Action Images/Chris Dean
As feared as he was dangerous, ‘Iron’ Mike Tyson tore through the heavyweight division like a tornado in the 1980s. Fighting Fit spoke exclusively to the man himself and his former trainer Teddy Atlas

MIKE TYSON REVEALS HIS KNOCKOUT SECRETS

I was so raw, just gutter intelligence. Then I met this man Cus [D’Amato] and he informed me, he taught me how to read, how to write, how to sign my name. He prepared me for the world I would enter. Cus prepared me for most of my life. He said, ‘Acting is boxing’ and ‘life is acting’.

Some of it is natural aptitude but great punching has to do with speed and leverage. Speed kills and normally the punches that knock a guy out and disable him are the punches he doesn’t see. Cus said I was naturally fast but right before I met Cus there was a gentleman named Bobby Stewart – a protégé of Cus – who taught me to punch and box. And Cus thought a great deal of me and all due respect, when he first saw me – I must have been 13, 14 – he said, “We’re going to put you in the local tournaments, the regional tournaments, then the nationals, then the box-offs, then you’re going to go to the Olympics, you’re going to win the Olympics, be the heavyweight champion, you’re going to have a million dollars before your first pro fight.”

He set all these fucking goals for me the first day he saw me. And I didn’t know what was going on, these guys had brought me back from the detention centre, they made me feel all special and stuff and Cus made it seem like I was going to get rich and famous and it was going to be easy; he never said one inch about it being hard… and it was hard!

It’s about punching as hard as you can and as fast as you can, and moving your head. You’ve got to have a rapid session. I always liked the fixed bag work, because you could hit it as hard as you wanted with no recoil.

You visualise your opponent every day; you go to sleep thinking about them. At least I did. Once I found out who I was fighting, my whole life was consumed with him.

The hardest puncher is not necessarily the best fighter and the name of the game is to be the best fighter. There’s hard punchers born every day but not great fighters. Great fighters can handle great punchers. But you improve your punching when you improve your confidence and put yourself in the right positions. And not being afraid to throw the punches – throw the punches with bad intentions. Throw them fast so the guy can’t anticipate it or see it. Have them preoccupied. The only time fighters are special is when they have the desire to be special. You can take a human being and you take all the qualities of success and give it to him – the looks, the power, the big cock, the beautiful body, a great mind but the one thing – you take away
confidence, and send them out into the world. They’re going to fail. Let’s turn it around: let’s take away all those qualities and put them out there fat and ugly or feeble and skinny but with confidence; they will succeed.

Mike Tyson

Confidence applied properly will surpass a genius. There’s nothing as important in success as confidence.

My secret was intimidation. Some guys I missed and they fell down and passed out. That was one of Cus’ things. One day I was at an amateur tournament with Cus. Somebody came over, shook my hand and said, “That was a good fight’, and was giving me compliments. Cus came over and said, ‘Do you know him?” I said no and Cus went over to the other guy and said, “This is my fighter, don’t you ever say anything to him again”. And that’s how I lived ever since I was an amateur. If somebody came to shake my hand, I wouldn’t shake it, I’d just look at them, wouldn’t talk to them. That stuck around since I turned pro because Cus told me not to talk to anybody no more. You could say, “He was lucky because he intimidated the guy so he could not be at his best”. I remember Napoleon and another guy were talking about an ancient general and the other guy – maybe it was Wellington, said, “That guy was just lucky”. And Napoleon said, ‘Greatness masters the artistry of luck’. It’s who I am, it all comes in one. My skill, my
intimidation, it’s all one art, it comes together. It means success, I win, I’m victorious. And the end justifies the means.

There’s no use having a big punch if you can’t land it. My biggest asset was actually my elusiveness. You have to work the defence and offence simultaneously, when you’re moving your head, your hitting and moving. It’s about repetition in the gym.

There’s some people out there that are not animals as fighters but they can handle animals. If you didn’t call me an animal in my prime, I would be insulted. I had an insatiable desire to succeed. Wanting it the most. Sacrifice, to have discipline at a young age. I asked Cus, “What is discipline?” Cus said, “It’s doing what you hate to do but you do it like you love it.” So whatever I hated to do, I did it like I loved it. I hated cleaning up the house, cleaning the gym – I did it like I loved it. If I hated running, I ran like I loved it. If I hated boxing a certain guy, I boxed him like I wanted to kill him. That’s just the way I was raised – to deprive myself of pleasure in order to succeed.

My best punch… Francois Botha, remember that right hand? Perfectly timed, leverage. I thought I missed; I didn’t even feel the punch. That’s when it’s perfect, when you don’t feel it. When you hit a golf ball or a baseball so smooth you think you missed it but you hit a home run.

I derived the most pleasure from reaching towards history, to know that one day people will talk about me in a barber shop or a hundred years from now people will say, ‘Hell, you remember that Tyson guy?’ Like we do now about Jack Johnson and John L Sullivan and Harry Greb and all those guys. People don’t remember the best fighters, they remember the most exciting fighters. A lot of things come into your legacy – I’d like mine to be: a young kid who so desperately wanted to be the best.

TEDDY ATLAS

The top trainer explains how he helped Cus D’Amato to harness Tyson’s natural power and taught the young prodigy to use it in the right way at the perfect time:

I first met Tyson when he was 12 and I worked with him for the first five years, every day. I could tell you how I made Tyson a great puncher and make myself sound so good but the truth is obviously you can improve in areas – you can improve technique, to make guys more accurate, teach guys timing so they can catch guys cleaner and be as effective as possible – but to be a great puncher, you’re born to be that, you’re not made a great puncher and if any trainers out there want to say they made their guy a great puncher I would dare to say they’re bullshit artists and their ego should be checked a little bit. Good trainers improve fighters, they even make fighters, but they don’t create punchers and Tyson was born to punch; quite often he did things wrong which is what happens when you get these prodigies in those kind of areas – they can do things wrong and they still do them well, do them at an exceptional level. He was off the wrong foot, squared up when he would punch sometimes, be out of position but he was always able to generate power. We then taught him how to best use that power, in the following ways.

Bad Intentions

The one thing he was taught, we worked very hard on teaching him shoulder snap, we put a lot of emphasis on snapping that shoulder in a
ferocious, explosive way, exploding it forward. And the mindset, the intent, was also developed from teaching and us lecturing him about the need to throw punches with bad intentions, wanting to do damage when you punch. The intention from the beginning has to be to generate as ferocious an explosion as possible. We would do different drills where technique would make it more possible to make the punch effective.

Defence

We worked very hard at developing the technique to give him opportunities to detonate his punches, to be in position to make a guy miss and be as effective as possible. We worked very hard on working his defence where it could set up his offence and put him in as many positions as possible to exploit his power. We would teach him to slip punches, just enough, no excess – by half an inch – where the second he made the punch miss, bang, he’s in position to throw the punch back so the guy would have very little time to react, very little time to recover; you would have that window of opportunity to have a jump on the guy and catch him in some cases where he didn’t see the punch.

Mike Tyson

Timing

If he noticed the guy was throwing a slow jab, we would work on him timing the right hand as the guy was throwing the jab. What it took to do that was not just good physical abilities and reflexes but mental control, mental discipline, emotional discipline, where you couldn’t be worried about getting hit with the punch. As the jab’s coming, if you’re worried about the jab hitting you, you hesitate and you don’t get it off. So you have to be able to control that fear and be completely committed to the exercise, to the opportunity, to that moment. As the jab was coming, you noticed it was coming a little slower than it should, you were able to put yourself close enough so at the same exact time that jab started you would throw the right hand. As he was jabbing, he wouldn’t see the right hand crossing over his jab and it would land on the chin clean. A lot of times, if you did it perfectly, there was a blindspot. Kind of like when [Muhammad] Ali knocked out [Sonny] Liston the second time. A lot of people said it was a phantom punch, but if you watch it you’ll see that Ali timed that punch, that right hand, perfectly over the jab of Liston, that was coming a little slowly. And at a certain perfect arc, the right hand was actually blinded from the view of Liston by his own arm. It’s kind of like a blindspot when you’re driving a car and you look in the mirrors and you don’t see a car and you’re about to switch lanes; your instinct tells you and your good habits tell you that you should turn your head and look just to make sure, and sure enough there’s a car right there and you would have hit that car because there was a blindspot.

So, yes, it was about timing, but it was also about being calm; being in complete, utter control of yourself, where you weren’t concerned about the punch hitting you but were only focused on what you had to do and what the mechanics of it had to be.

Then we did things like if the guy threw a wide punch, he had options: you could block the punch, you see it coming; you could weave the punch – which Tyson did pretty well; but also you could just step in, if you had control over yourself, you could step in with the right hand as you saw that wide left hook coming instead of blocking it, you could hit him in between the punch. You step inside and make an instantaneous decision to throw that right hand inside his hook, and he never sees it coming.

The understanding of these options and teaching of these techniques was almost as important as having the power. The power comes first because you have to have the power but then we were setting up in positions to unleash and exploit this power the best way it could be done, and
the package altogether made this guy who was obviously a dangerous puncher.

Ambidexterity

Another thing that made him dangerous and effective was… a lot of guys, like Earnie Shavers, he could knock a wall down with the right hand but he couldn’t knock a wall down with the left hand. Tyson was like a Mickey Mantle, a great switch-hitter, he could bat from either side of the plate.

He could bang with the right and the left, equally as well, and that’s what allowed us to put him in more and more positions because then you can teach him techniques on both sides and that made him much more difficult to deal with.

The Drill

We took a heavy bag, wrapped a mattress from a cot around it, then taped that up and put some canvas around it before taping it to the wall. This bag, we called it ‘the Willie’. Cus first came up with the idea of it when Jose Torres was getting ready to fight Willie Pastrano for the light-heavyweight title, back in the ‘50s. So we had this bag up against the wall and one of the benefits is that when you’re hitting something that’s stationary you develop more power than if you hit something that’s moving. You can tee off on it, set yourself and you can punch at it in repetition without having to wait for it to get back into position. And when it’s not giving – it’s not swinging – you can really build the muscles that are necessary to generate power, for obvious reasons. It’s cushioned so you don’t hurt your hand but you can punch through all the way to the centre of that cushion, but when the bag
is swinging you never get the opportunity to generate that kind of effort, because the bag is fleeting away from you.

Another characteristic of this device was we would put numbers on it from one to seven and every number designated an area in the body and a certain punch. So we would call out the numbers – we actually had tape recordings – and therefore you could also develop combination punching, specific combinations that we felt were most effective.

Mike Tyson
USA Today Sports

And that’s one of the things that made Tyson so effective: his combinations. They were hard, they were fast and he got in position to create openings so there were real clean shots available to him, but they were educated combinations, smart combinations that would create opportunities. You know, one downstairs, one up the middle, one around the side, different areas and that made sense. The combinations would be called out in sequence on the recording and after you throw the combinations – with power, speed and accuracy – you would be memorising these sequences, the direction and the area where these punches had to go.

It was a very good exercise. It allowed him to develop his power, develop his confidence and an automatic recall of these combinations, a reflexive action where these combinations would become automatic – the direction and placement of them – by doing it over and over again. Along with the responsibility of throwing the combination there would have to be a defensive response after the combination. So you would call out a combination – ‘7, 3, 2, 1’ bang – so he would throw the punches then he would have to make the appropriate defensive move after that. When you did that, you would avoid what the guy was throwing back at you and now you would have another opportunity for more clean offence.

SIGNATURE COMBINATION

I remember the day I taught him the first signature punch. I took it from Roberto Duran – you take things from people and you add your own little touch to it. Duran used to be pretty good on the inside; if you covered up, he would create an opening. We would always preach to Tyson: don’t wait for openings, create the openings. It’s a great combination and it was Tyson’s signature combination. And it was no mistake. We were using what we knew we had to its best. We knew we had a short guy so we used it to our advantage, taught him how to slip punches, get inside. We knew he had short arms – we got him inside where we knew those short arms would be an advantage because they would not have to travel far and can get into the openings. You put him in a position where he can best use his attributes,
not where those attributes become a liability
:

The set-up
If the guy is covered up a little bit, he puts the earmuffs on, he’s got his hands up, his elbows in, you would just shift on your leg left or right – we did it on both sides – shift on the right side on your knee a little bit, shift your upper body over a little bit, outside his elbow.

The body shot
Then throw a snapping punch, a right hand, outside the elbow to the body. Shift your upper body over, get in position where you’re defensively safe, outside his elbow and outside the radius of his punch and you’re in a position where there’s an exposed area now. You’re also in a good position where you can let your upper body really get involved in the punch. So you throw that first punch around the elbow – you’ve shifted, compensated for that change in position, you’ve pivoted on your left foot, you’ve been able to give yourself another six inches without losing your balance – and obviously you jolt the guy, you affect the guy and it makes him move out to that side a little bit.

The uppercut
Then there’s just the slightest opening up the middle and right from that position – still low, with your legs under you where you can really use them for the power now, to really catapult that punch – you explode a right uppercut right up the middle.

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