Zen and the Art of Boxing

Leslie Parke, "Punch", oil on canvas

                               Leslie Parke, “Punch”, oil on canvas


Legendary boxing trainer, Cus d’Amato’s favorite book was Zen and the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel. It was given to him by Norman Mailer. He immediately incorporated what he learned from it into his teaching without mentioning either Zen or archery.

There was one young fighter in Cus’ gym who Cus referred to as “the master” — and it wasn’t Mike Tyson. This kid always knew where the other fighter was, and Cus said that if you can see where a punch is coming from, it won’t knock you out. Watching this kid move deftly about the ring, you sensed that Cus’ assessment was right.

Cus also believed that a “master” no matter what their discipline, could teach you effectively. And Cus was willing to learn from anyone if he felt this about them.

One day a man came to his gym — I am not sure if he came on his own or if someone brought him. Allegedly, he had been able to increase the speed of even the dullest race horse. Cus asked him how he did it. Evidently, he studied, the movements of the best race horses in slow motion and broke the movements down into their component parts. He then slowed the whole process down to a walk. He worked with his horse to imitate these movements at a very slow pace. Once he the horse could imitate them perfectly at the slowest pace, be increased the pace ever so slightly. He repeated this until the horse was at full speed and racing well beyond his original capacity.

Cus thought about this and figured out how he might apply it to his fighters. He took a mattress and wrapped it around a pole. Then he put numbers on the mattress where a fighter would land each punch. So for example, a jab was number one and placed where the face would be, upper-cut – two and at the chin, heart punch, liver punch, etc. I believe he marked 7 spots on the mattress. Then Cus recorded himself calling out these numbers in various combinations to make a three punch combination– VERY SLOWLY. He would do this for three minutes, the length of a round. A fighter would then very slowly land all these punches in the correct manner with Cus watching. Once he had mastered it through endless repetition, he would move on to the next level.

With each level, Cus increased the speed and also increased the number of punches in the combination. The highest level was so fast you could hardly distinguish the numbers that he called and the combination included seven punches all over the body. Each time the sequence of the combination changed so that it would not be predictable.

Early in Tyson’s career, he was known for the speed of his combinations. Well, now you know why. If you go back and look at these fights, you can sometimes hear numbers being called out either from the corner or the audience — those were coming from other fighters from the gym.