In March 1985, Mike Tyson won his first professional fight en route to becoming the youngest heavyweight champion in boxing history. Thirty-five years later, unbeknownst to many, the Catskill gym that launched his career is still functioning; but it’s not what it was during Tyson’s days there with legendary Hall of Fame trainer Cus D’Amato.
Bobby Stewart, the man who introduced Tyson to D’Amato, vividly remembers the 1980 encounter at the town gym, known to everyone as Cus’s gym.
Stewart, a former light heavyweight Golden Gloves champ, was a counselor at the former Tryon School for Boys in Fulton County, which Tyson was sent to from the mean streets of Brooklyn. He knew D’Amato through boxing circles and, more importantly, had first-hand knowledge of D’Amato’s ability to help young men.
“I learned more about life from Cus in one week than I learned during the first 21 years of my life,” Stewart says. “He cared about people, not just as fighters. That’s why I took Tyson down there.”
D’Amato wanted to see what Tyson could do, so he had Stewart spar three rounds with him, one of many history-making moments at the gym, located on the third floor of Catskill Village Hall.
Tyson, at 13, was already bigger, stronger and more powerful than most men.
“I looked over at Cus; I never saw him so excited,” recalls Stewart, who now lives in Fonda, NY, about 30 miles west of Schenectady. “As he was taking my gloves off I said, ‘What do you think?’”
“What do I think?” D’Amato exclaimed. “Barring outside distractions, he will be the youngest heavyweight champion ever.”
That prophesy was fulfilled on Nov. 22, 1986 when the 20-year-old Tyson beat Trevor Berbick in a one-sided bout that didn’t last two rounds. Tyson’s meteoric rise through the heavyweight ranks began 35 years ago this month when he made his pro debut on March 6, 1985 at the Empire State Plaza Convention Center in Albany.
The outcome, predictably, was a first-round TKO of Hector Mercedes, the first of 44 knockouts that made Tyson one of the most electrifying athletes on the planet.
Cus D’Amato Gym looks almost the same as the day Tyson first laced up his gloves there. It’s a veritable boxing museum with hundreds of yellowed newspaper clippings and old black-and-white photos adorning its walls, chronicling not only Tyson’s career, but that of many other fighters D’Amato mentored.
Equipment they used is still in place — a regulation-size ring, protective gear, heavy bags, speed bags, jump ropes and an incline board for doing the countless sit-ups needed to absorb an opponent’s best body blows.
“When you open that door and flip that light on, you know you’re in a gym,” says Vincent Seeley, Catskill Village Board president. “It’s not like Snap Fitness. The smell of it, the feel of it, it’s so great up there.”
Aspiring boxers occasionally use the facility, but there’s no ongoing program for youth or adults. So keeping the doors open and D’Amato’s memory alive is a tough fight for those who looked up to and loved him.
Kyle Lyles, a Catskill High School classmate and good friend of Tyson’s, is the gym’s unofficial manager. “Tomorrow, if you brought 10 boxers in here, we could have this up and running like a regular gym again,” he said.
If nothing else, he believes the site has tremendous tourism potential.
“It’s frustrating because people come through town all the time wanting to do a tour here,” he says. “It’s an iconic gym. It should be an historic landmark. It should be put on the map. But there’s nothing set up, no hours to do that.”
People from around the world contact Seeley regularly about visiting the gym. Some are boxing enthusiasts just passing through the area. Others are avid fans who want to include the D’Amato Gym on a tour of other places such as Gleason’s Gym in New York City and the Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota.
Seeley says he’d like to establish regular hours such as one Saturday afternoon per month for tours. But finding volunteers who understand and are able to share D’Amato’s legacy isn’t easy.
This is one loss the boxing world can’t afford, Stewart says.
“Cus was a genius,” he says. “I still think about things every day that he taught me.”