The Felice Brothers, “Cus’s Catskill Gym”


On “Cus’s Catskill Gym” from 2011’s Celebration, Florida, folk-rockers The Felice Brothers log their entry in a long line of boxing songs, like Bruce Springsteen’s “The Hitter,” Bob Dylan’s “Who Killed Davey Moore” and “Hurricane,” and Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer.”

The song is a dark, minor key rocker with a plodding, Neil Young Rust Never Sleeps-era hard rock guitar riff. Ian Felice, the band’s primary songwriter, sets the scene at his own high school, incidentally the same high school Mike Tyson attended.

In Felice’s ballad of “Iron Mike,” the real-life story of Cus D’Amato unfolds, the boxing manager and trainer who became Mike Tyson’s legal guardian. The song is written in the voice of Kevin Rooney, D’Amato’s protege, who went on to take Tyson to the heavyweight championship after D’Amato’s death. D’Amato and Rooney both taught the “peek-a-boo” approach style of boxing, which D’Amato is credited with inventing.

The song is darker and weirder than the boxing songs that precede it. After a spooky spoken word intro setting the scene in June, 1986, the song plays heavily with dynamics, the stops and starts mimicking the momentum of an actual fight. Electronic-sounding drum hits thud during the song’s sparse “Iron Mike” section.

After two minutes, the action mellows to a lo-fi acoustic interlude that sounds like it might have been recorded on a laptop microphone. “Stay away from Don King,” the song warns, foreshadowing Tyson’s future troubles with the the boxing promoter.

The song’s “burn down old Cus’s gym” chant and singalong “la la la” chorus turn the song into a finale of horn calls and gang vocals.

In a recent interview with American Songwriter, Ian Felice explains the complicated personal origin of “Cus’s Catskill Gym.”

“I went to the same high school Mike Tyson went to. I would drive to school everyday, and there would be a big billboard that would say, ‘Welcome to the home of Mike Tyson’ with Mike Tyson’s face on it. You would get a Social Studies book, and Mike Tyson’s name would be in it, because you had to sign your name every time you got it. The trainer that I’m talking about, Kevin Rooney, was a character from that town too. He was kind of a weird guy, and I wrote it from his perspective. It became something I had to get off my consciousness, honestly. So I wrote a song about it.”

“Cus’s Catskill Gym”

June, 1986
Place Catskill, New York
Went to the gym but I couldn’t get in
Cus D’Amato taught him to fight
He’s a hell of a fighter
Iron Mike
Iron Mike

Well my fighters call me Mr. Rooney
And holler at me peek-a-boo
Could’ve got you with Cus but they’ll never get us
No disrespect, Mike
Cus is gone
It’s time we go for the title
Iron Mike
Iron Mike

Stay away from Don King
Stay away from Don King
Stay away from Don King
Stay away
Stay away

Burn down old Vegas strip, burn down
Burn down old Cus’ Gym, burn down

Day-time TV court dates and bankruptcy
Circle you through a maze of Pay-per-view

Burn down old Vegas strip, burn down
Burn down old Cus’ Gym, burn down

You still gotta fight so burn on Kid Dynamite
Oh, Iron Mike burn on

Sha la la la lah
la la la lah

Written by Ian Felice