Ever wonder what a fighter feels like leading up to a fight? Legendary boxing trainer Cus D’amato tells a story in the book “The Black Lights” that sums it up nicely for any young up and coming fighter who feels fear before a big fight. D’amato was most famous for training and helping raise Mike Tyson.
“I remember the first time I got involved in what I call a waiting fight,” D’Amato reminisces. “In the neighborhood in which I lived, which was a pretty tough neighborhood, you got involved in fights all the time. Whenever you got angry, you fought or you lost respect. Under those conditions you didn’t think about being frightened. You replaced fear with anger. But it’s different when you have the experience of waiting, an experience I had once. I lived in an Italian neighborhood, and a few blocks away there was an Irish neighborhood. I never used to have trouble with the Irish; I got along with everybody. But then the neighborhoods had some trouble, and both sides said, ‘You bring a guy and we’ll bring a guy, and they’ll fight it out. Instead of both gangs fighting, we’ll have two guys representing the neighborhoods.’ I was 16,” D’Amato continues, “and the Italian guys chose me. I wasn’t mad at the Irish, I wasn’t mad at anybody. But three days ahead of time I knew I had to fight this big Irish guy at nine o’clock on Saturday night. So comes the night of the fight, I didn’t want to fight because this guy never did anything to me, but I got no choice. All the Italian guys and I go over to the street between the neighborhoods, and wait under a big street light. We got there, maybe five minutes to nine, with eighty or ninety guys, and the Irish must have had a hundred but their fighter hadn’t shown yet. I sat down on the curb, and I was thinking to myself. ‘How the hell did I get into this mess?’ To tell the truth, I was scared. All my life, when I got mad I’d fought. I was fighting grown men when I was fourteen, but now I’m saying, ‘Jesus Christ, what’s the matter with me? I got to be crazy to do this. The next time some guys try to get me to fight, I’ll fight them first; I got nothing against these Irish fellows.'” D’Amato’s eyes grow larger, his face more animated, as his tale progresses. “Anyway, I’m sitting there, really sweating. I reached up, felt the sweat on my forehead, and figured it was blood, but it was only sweat. Nine o’clock comes and the Irish guy isn’t there. Quarter after nine, the Irish guy isn’t there. Nine-thirty, I’m still waiting, and all the time the waiting is getting worse because this guy is gonna be there, and I’m gonna have to fight him. Finally, at ten o’clock, one of his buddies comes and says the Irish guy is scared. He ain’t showing. It was the happiest moment of my life.”
Fighters are the most exposed athletes in the world. During a fight, the crowd observes every twitch and movement. Still, spectators rarely see fear in a quality fighter. “That,” says D’Amato, “is because the fighter has mastered his emotions to the extent that he can conceal and control them.” But whatever a fighter says, the fear is there. It never goes away. He just learns to live with it. “And the truth is,” D’Amato continues, “fear is an aspect to a fighter. It makes him move faster, be quicker and more alert. Heroes and cowards feel exactly the same fear. Heroes just react to it differently. On the morning of a fight, a boxer wakes up and says, ‘How can I fight? I didn’t sleep at all last night.’ What he has to realize is, the other guy didn’t sleep either. Later, as the fighter walks toward the ring, his feet want to walk in the opposite direction. He’s asking himself how he got into this mess. He climbs the stairs into the ring, and it’s like going to the guillotine. Maybe he looks at the other fighter, and sees by the way he’s loosening up that his opponent is experienced, strong, very confident. Then when the opponent takes off his robe, he’s got big bulging muscles. What the fighter has to realize,” concludes D’Amato, “is that he’s got exactly the same effect on his opponent, only he doesn’t know it. And when the bell rings, instead of facing a monster built up by the imagination, he’s simply up against another fighter.”