LAS VEGAS — 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.
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.
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.
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."
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.