Mike Tyson – The Art of Psychological Warfare

“I look at boxing as 90% psychological… the physical side has very little to do with it, if anything” – those are the words of Tyson in “Sporting Heroes” (2014).

You probably view boxing as a very physical sport.

According to Tyson his success “had nothing to do with boxing, it was all psychological”.

Through interviews and his autobiography, Tyson revealed how he mastered the art of psychological warfare and reached legendary status.


What is psychological warfare?

The art of mastering your own thoughts. To win the war against your own mind. There is an African proverb “If there is no enemy within, the enemies outside cannot hurt you”. The Tyson story is a perfect illustration of this.

Enter Cus D’Amato

Cus D’Amato was the man responsible for moulding Mike into the fighter that he became. When Mike met Cus at the age of 13, Cus began to fill his head with philosophy:

“I don’t care how big or strong you are, if you don’t have the spiritual warrior in you, you’ll never be a fighter”.

Controlling fear

Cut would speak to Mike about fear: “Your mind is not your friend Mike, I hope you know that. You have to fight with your mind, control it”.

Mike was taught that before a fight, his mind would create imaginations that his opponent looks bigger than him and more confident.

“But when the bell rings, and you come into contact with each other, suddenly your opponent seems like everybody else, because now your imagination has dissipated. The fight itself is the only reality that matters. You have to learn to impose your will and take control over that reality”.

Most boxing coaches tell their fighters not to have fear.

Steve Lott, a close friend to Mike and Cus, said “what they don’t understand is no matter what they tell their fighter, they will always have fear”.

Tyson worked hard on using his fear against his opponents.

Cus had a deep understanding of the importance of psychology

Practicing the law of attraction

At the age of just 14 Mike became a true believer in Cus’s philosophy. He knew that if he wanted to become heavyweight champion of the world, he had to start living the life of one.

“Always training, thinking like a Roman gladiator, being in a perpetual state of war in your mind, yet on the outside seeming calm and relaxed”.

Mike was practicing the law of attraction without even knowing it.

To increase Mike’s focus, D’Amato would teach him to clear his mind of all distracting thoughts through Zen, a type of Buddhism.

Self affirmations

Cus had Mike repeating the words “The best fighter in the world. Nobody can beat me” over and over again.

Mike was given a mission by Cus, to become the youngest heavyweight champion of all time. “This is no joke, this isn’t fighting for trophies this is fighting for destiny” said Mike.

Completely focused on manifesting his own destiny

These teachings were designed for one purpose:

“My life depended on succeeding, otherwise I would just be a piece of shit” – Tyson

“I was so focused I would even sleep with my boxing gloves on sometimes”.

“I wanted glory and I wanted it over their blood”.

At night Cus would come into Tyson’s bedroom while Mike was in bed and repeat his teachings to really sink them in.

Mike with Cus
Mike with Cus

Building self-belief to a massive level

D’Amato built Mike’s confidence and ego until it was towering above all opposition.

“You’re so superior to those people. They can never do what you are capable of doing”. ”

You could conquer any world”. “You are a colossus among men”.

Cus was removing all self-doubts from Mike’s mind and building his self-image to grandeur.

Mike said that he would read books about history’s greatest warriors; Gengis Khan, Alexander The Great, Achilles. He would regard himself as being just like them. He said this was the only way to become great.

You have to believe you’re greater than you actually are. “Fake it till’ you make it”.

“I could take on Achilles or Alexander the Great. Being that person I’m invincible. But being Mike Tyson the tough kid from Brooklyn, I’m just a black guy that’s going to get beat”.

The idea of believing you’re the best is used by champions across many sports.

But Mike was extreme: “I wanted to be Achilles right then”.

Looking back at those days, he now declares that he was a “sick megalomaniac”.


Using intimidation to weaken opponents

Under Cus’s orders, Mike began to play the part of a mean guy even in his amateur bouts. “Cus wanted the meanest fighter God ever created”.

If an opponent came to shake his hand before a bout, he was taught to ignore it. He would scowl at people as they walked by.

“I learned to project my fear on them”. Looking back on that, Mike says “Intimidation is an art” “Intimidation is the most magnanimous factor in life”.

When intimidated “a guy is no longer able to perform to the high level that he’s normally capable of” – Mike Tyson

Teddy Atlas was his coach in his early amateur days. At at the Junior Olympics in Denver he observed Mike’s demeanour and said:

“He’s not a soldier. He’s the Trojan horse. He’s the guy who knows how to sneak into these guys’ consciousness to completely strip them of any chance they could have of performing”.

Emulating great fighters from the past

Mike studied great fighters from the past and copied literally everything they did.

He became a walking encyclopaedia of boxing history. In “Sporting Heroes” Mike said:

“Most of my comments that I said was comments made by other boxers that I read when I was a kid… I didn’t really know how to be a person myself”.

“I watched how they shook hands, how they held their cigarette, everything”. “I morphed myself into their lives”.

He copied the haircut of Jack Dempsey and posed like Jack Johnson.

After a fight he even quoted Apocalypse from X Men “How dare they challenge me with their primitive skills, they’re just as good as dead”.

Mike was so indulged in this role that he never actually developed his own true identity.

To the public, this was his identity. Which was exactly what he wanted because it scared the shit out of his opponents.

Tyson sporting a Jack Dempsey haircut. Jack Dempsey was the most iconic boxer before Ali, known for his ferocity
Tyson sporting a Jack Dempsey haircut. Jack Dempsey was the most iconic boxer before Ali and was known for his ferocity. A young Tyson idolised Dempsey


Adding further to Mike’s psychological weaponry, Cus took him to a hypnotist. His therapy included:

“You are the world’s greatest fighter… this is what you were actually born to do. Your jab is like a weapon. You throw punches that are ferocious, with bad intentions. You are a scourge from God. The world will know your name from now until the eons of oblivion”.

The result was super-natural confidence and God-like authority in the ring.

There was no way another fighter entered that ring against him with as much purpose and self belief.


Using a fighting style that creates fear and excitement

Teddy Atlas said that when people saw Tyson fighting the way he does, he did indeed look like an animal. But in reality, all he was doing was executing what he was taught very effectively.

In his prime, he was never angry in the ring. He was calm and relaxed. The perception of him being an animal was crafted by Cus D’Amato:

 “Boxing is entertainment, so to be successful a fighter must not only win, but he must do so in an exciting manner”

The plan worked as his opponents were often scared to death of him, and the public’s excitement amplified this.

Mike always electrified the crowd
Mike always electrified the crowd

His style embodied his psychology: “I wanted to break their will”.

Tyson admitted “I beat most of my opponents before the fight even started”.

Teddy Atlas stated:

“Tyson never vanquished anyone. They vanquished themselves”.


All that training carried him right to his life goal: he became heavyweight champion of the world aged just 20 years old.

From that point on he said “Now I was free” and he didn’t have the same desire to fight anymore.

His fall from grace followed swiftly.

Tyson’s weakness – opponents who don’t fall

James Tillis, Mitch Green, and James Smith all survived Tyson and fought back.

Tyson found out that he couldn’t knock them out and began to box them less aggressively, showing signs of discouragement.

Teddy Atlas commented that in the Smith fight Tyson “entered a silent agreement” with Smith during clinches, whereby they mutually agreed “you don’t punch me and I won’t punch you”, in a bid to reach the end of the fight without suffering too much.

1987: Tyson vs James 'Bonecrusher' Smith. Standing at 6
1987: Tyson vs James ‘Bonecrusher’ Smith.  Smith was the first man to take Tyson 12 rounds

Emotions taking over: when Tyson lost the war against his own mind

It was the infamous rematch with Holyfield in 1997 where his weakness was completely exposed. Tyson was disqualified for biting a piece of Holyfield’s ear off. For 17 years after the bite, it was unclear exactly why Mike did this.

In the “Sporting Heroes” interview Tyson revealed the real reason:  Mike was being a “spoilt brat”.

He was so used to being better than everyone, he couldn’t take someone else being better than him.

“I was pissed off that he was better than me that night”

Biting Holyfield’s ear was an easy way out of a tough fight. His mind wanted to quit, and he gave into it.

Teddy Atlas actually predicted that Mike would foul his way out of the fight with Holyfield.

To this day, Atlas says “Tyson was a phoney” because Mike never had it within him to beat someone who was truly testing him.

Mike was psychologically defeated; thus letting his emotions get the better of him, something which Cus had worked so hard to prevent
Mike let his emotions get the better of him, something which Cus had worked so hard to prevent

Master you mind – master your life

The world remembers Tyson as simply a powerful, angry brawler.

Well now you know that this is in fact a massive injustice to what he really was. In Mike’s words:

“Everybody thinks this is a tough man’s sport, this is a thinking man’s sport. A tough man is going to get hurt real bad in this sport”.

“The purpose of your body is to carry your mind and when you get to that level of fighting, only the smartest fighters win” – Tyson

We can all learn from Tyson’s success; the art of psychological warfare can be applied to every walk of life.

An intense regiment of self help, education and dedication to your craft can take you to the top.

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