The ‘Willie bag,’ stained by the dark leather of thousands of gloves and strangled by duct tape haphazardly wrapped around a thick, vertical, blue metal structure, remains one of Cus D’Amato’s training staples. The numbers are still there, just visible: 1. Left hook, 2. Right hook, 3. Left uppercut, and so on.
D’Amato’s gym in the Catskills, New York, isn’t quite the hub for professional fighters that it used to be – in fact, it’s far from it. But the methods of training instilled by the fabled great continue for those boxing enthusiasts that do dribble through the doors. Wooden boards pop up at almost dangerous angles, the very same boards that a 13-year old Mike Tyson would use to relentlessly strengthen his abs. Stories of the troubled Brownsville teenager would keep us reading for pages, but he’s far from the mountains now. And so, the dust has gathered.
It isn’t Tyson, or D’Amato’s other great champions Floyd Patterson or Jose Torres, that bob-and-weave, thundering ferocious combinations to the sound of their teacher’s voice. It is Feifilimia, or ‘Fei’ Faiva (5-0-1, 3KOs), a 19-year old woman born in American Samoa, but recently living in New York, just minutes from the gym. Listening to her ear-splitting punches without sight of her stature leads you down a very different mental path. She hits like a truck yet stands just 5-feet 2-inches, greeting you with a gentle smile.
“I’m reading a book at the moment, it’s called ‘Thanks for the feedback.’ I’m learning how to take certain feedback constructively; I’m learning how to respond to certain types of feedback and to ensure I benefit from them,” explains Faiva, when asked how she’s been spending her downtime. She is calm, relaxed and well spoken, talking about her dogs and how they occupy any additional space in a busy schedule. These last few weeks have been tricky, though, due to an apparent conflict between previous and current management.
“As of right now, I’m trying to get my training situation resolved. I haven’t been able to train with the trainer that I’d want because there’s certain things on the business side that aren’t quite working out. I’m still going to be fighting out of the same gym in Catskills, Cus D’Amato Boxing Gym; still gonna have the same trainer, so, nothing really is going to change. My former manager was the person who overlooked and oversaw the gym. When I left him and signed with a different manager, [now] we sort of have a business relationship. I’d have to pay, and the going rate here for a pro is $100 [per day], or $45 per hour. I can’t afford that.”
The teenager has been introduced to boxing’s darker business shade much sooner than anticipated. Her last fight – and only fight of this year – was in August, as she outpointed Elizabeth Tuani over four rounds. Before that? Faiva’s first five contests were staged in less than three months, between September and December 2020.
For a young woman that doesn’t currently work in order to focus on her career between the ropes, activity will be key moving forward. But her introduction to boxing was unusual, and coincidentally featured Mike Tyson, appearing unknowingly as a co-lead. When her family moved from the tiny territory in the South Pacific Ocean, Faiva was just nine-years old, and they settled firstly in Arkansas, moving to the United States to be nearer to her mother’s specialist doctor, she remembers hazily. After their first three years in the South, it was on to Memphis, Tennessee, and a pair of boxing gloves picked up with nervous intrigue from a small plot of land in their neighbourhood.
“Outside of the apartment that we were living in at the time, there was this bunch of guys that were walking by,” explained the prospect dubbed ‘Lady Tyson.’ “I knew of them because I was friends with their sisters, but one of them asked me if I wanted to put some gloves on. They had two pairs of gloves and he asked, did I wanna try and fight? It wasn’t a fight where I hated this person, I didn’t know much about them. At that time, we were boxing on a patch of grass, it wasn’t on concrete or cement, and I just remember the other person said, ‘Start.’”
“I remember going through these punches, going forward, and the first thing that came to brain was: ‘Just go after him!’ So, I did, and I can feel these punches [landing] on my head, but then I feel contact while I’m getting hit and I’m also hitting him back at the same time. He started making distance, moving away from me, and he ended up running away saying, ‘I’m done, I don’t want any more.’”
“Later on, when my grandfather heard about this, he initially felt worried for me, and proud of me as well. It prompted him to talk about Mike Tyson, and I got to see a different side of him. I never knew that he’d heard of any fighters. We came to this point in the conversation where he got excited, he said I could become a champion, and that [Tyson] was the fighter he’d admired the most.” That was it; the seed was planted.
As her grandfather enquired about Tyson further, Faiva dug deeper, researching the heavyweight icon’s recent activity, and training facilities, updating her grandfather, and letting him know that yes, Mike Tyson was still very much alive, and that there were gyms dedicated to training fighters the way he’d been taught by D’Amato all those years ago. One such gym was close to Faiva’s Memphis family home, eventually leading her to the Catskill Mountains.
“I knew immediately [this was my style]. I was bamboozled just looking at how Mike fought. His style, the way the guy fought, I was very fascinated by it all. I met him, and I was totally nervous! I didn’t even know how to respond to him. That was my reaction when he was walking around the gym; he was just intently looking at everything, these newspaper articles that are taped to the wall. I was thinking, ‘What is he observing?’ Literally everything on the wall is about him, so what is it? I was wondering what was on his mind, you know…”
The suggestion that those clippings on the wall, those framed artifacts of a different time, may have transported Tyson back to his youth seemed to resonate with Faiva. She is at the beginning of what will be an incredibly tough journey, while standing opposite, is one of the sport’s greatest ever megastars – but they started in the same place. They understand what it’s like to punch those mattresses with marker pen numbers scrawled as makeshift body parts, and to see dust escape for breath from the ring apron with every fleeting hop, skip and jump.
This isn’t doing things the easy way, by any measure; it wasn’t then, it isn’t now. The tired look of the Cus D’Amato Boxing Gym reflects the work that’s been put in over decades – it doesn’t stop here.
Faiva has broad goals and speaks repeatedly of legacy. Watching her highlights on YouTube and on her social media platforms, it’s very clear that she possesses spite and the natural aggression to suit D’Amato’s peek-a-boo style, though sounding level-headed and shy at times. Women’s boxing is a far shallower expedition, and roads to the top can be hastened with political shortcuts. But that’s not what she wants.
“I want to feel like I actually deserve credit for my accomplishments. I know that the only way I can truly do that is not just to fight the big names, but to beat them in a fan-friendly way. That is my vision. The first thing that comes to mind, is that I want people to say that I was a bad ass. A bad ass. And that I fought every top dog at 130, and that I sure did put on a show. From time-to-time, I have these moments after practise where I just sit down on a bench and just observe my own surroundings. Suddenly, this thought [would come into my head], I’d reflect, like, ‘Can you believe this?’ I’m here, he sat on the same bench that I’m sitting on. Nothing has really changed in the gym.”
“Boxing is not all physical. There’s a huge mental aspect to this game, definitely. I don’t worry about that because I’m mentally prepared. Whatever happens, I’m prepared to accept it. I won’t just accept a bad situation; I will try to strive for change. I’ve noticed the type of career that I want to create for myself, and I want that.”