Have you ever felt the fear of having a squadron of police pointing their guns at you, ready to put more holes in you than Swiss cheese if you make one wrong move? Or… been inside of a prison where the meanest and most powerful people there want to rape you just for the fun of it?
But the guy I’m gonna introduce you to today has. And he’s used what he learned in these, and many more hair-raising experiences to make the world a brighter, braver place to live for people like you and I.
His name is Teddy Atlas.
You may have seen him on TV before as the ringside commentator for ESPN “Friday Night Fights” or during the 2000 and 2004 Olympics as a NBC’S boxing analyst.
In his book, “ATLAS: From The Streets To The Ring: A son’s struggle to become a man” he recounts the fascinating lessons of how he overcame fear in his life and helped others do the same as a juvenile delinquent on the streets of Staten Island; as a boxer and Golden Gloves champion under the tutelage of famed trainer Cus D’ Amato; as a companion to the dangerous, unpredictable Sammy “the Bull” Gravano, up until the day Gravano turned rat and brought down crime boss John Gotti; and as a trainer of champions and contenders, among them fourteen-year old Mike Tyson and heavyweight Michael Moorer, whom he led to the crown with a win over Evander Holyfied.
This book taught me powerful lessons about overcoming fear that all of the Tony Robbins seminars I’ve been to and all the dozens of personal development books and audios I’ve read & listened to never really hammered home.
Maybe because it’s because they’re served up raw, real, and intelligently. This is the real dope that you won’t hear from a guy on stage dressed up in a shiny suit, shiny hair and shiny teeth who you can pretty much guarantee has never been in situations where he feared for his life… over and over and over again.
And today I’m gonna share some of my favorite truths from Teddy’s book with you, in his words, because he tells the stories so well.
Here we go…
“DON’T FUCKING MOVE! WE WILL SHOOT YOU IF YOU MOVE!”
As a kid, Teddy got involved with a rough crowd and as an 18 year old punk found himself sitting in a car with a friend he’d just robbed a gas station of few $20’s and then when the kid who was pumping their gas tried to stop them from leaving, Teddy pointed a gun at him and when the kid hit the dirt he shot it in the air just to make sure he didn’t try to hero up again.
Of course the kid called the cops and of course him and his friend were too stupid to get off the road so here’s what they ran into…
“Lined up in a phalanx on the street, maybe three hundred yards ahead, was a roadblock of ten police cars.
“Holy shit! John said in this high, terrified voice. “Oh fuck!”
The cops had their doors winged open, and they were crouched down with guns and rifles drawn. Over the PA they were shouting, “STOP THE VEHICLE!”
John slammed on the brakes. We skidded to a stop, the car fishtailing. By now there were cop cars behind us, too, the one that had been following us and some others.
“DON’T MOVE! PUT YOUR HANDS WHERE WE CAN SEE THEM!”
It was strange. I felt very calm. My thoughts were clear. I should have been like John, scared and shaky, but I wasn’t.
I had the gun in my waistband, and I knew what was going to happen. I started to think of where to put the gun, where to hide it.
These were seemingly rational thoughts, though in reality, given the danger, they were not. At first I thought I’d put the gun in the visor. I started to raise it, but I could actually hear the rustle of the cops’ guns and their uniforms; I could hear their nerves like strings being wound on a guitar.
Over the PA, one of them shouted, “DON’T FUCKING MOVE! WE WILL SHOOT IF YOU MOVE!”
John was saying, “Teddy, listen to them, for Chrissakes! Listen to them!” Something penetrated because I stopped moving my hands up. Instead, I bent forward and threw the gun under the seat, and again heard that rustle of movement and nervousness. It’s amazing they didn’t shoot.
I always tell fighters I train that motion relieves tension. If you don’t move, you go into this place where your muscles control you, instead of the other way around. And that’s what I was hearing. All this motion. The sound of cops trying not to go to that place.
In the next moment, they rushed the car. Hands reached in and pulled us out, throwing us to the ground.
Now, we fast forward the Teddy’s trip to one of the toughest prisons in the United States where he’s to serve his time for this armed robbery & attempted murder charge and how he had to use fear as his ally…
I guess I thought about a lot of things on that bus ride to Rikers.
I knew my father was a proud man. He wasn’t going to show that he was bothered by what I was going through. In his eyes, I had done what I had done and should be accountable. On some level, even though I was only 18 years old, I understood that.
Still, it was nearly impossible not to wish that I had a family that loved me the way I’d seen families love each other in the movies. I had to keep reminding myself that I didn’t have that.
Not because I was on this bus going to Rikers, but because I didn’t have it, period.
The kid in front of me started singing that Lou Rawls song that was on the radio at the time, “I’ll See You When I Get There.” It had always been a happy, upbeat song. Suddenly it was something else entirely.
I said I might have to run all the way
Because the bus might be slow today
I’ve been thinking about you all day long
And I just can’t wait to get home
The trip to Rikers seemed to take hours, and yet once we were on the bridge to the island, water on each side of us, it was ending much too quickly.
On the other side of the bridge, we went through the gates, and drove past a number of buildings to the youth facility (known as Youth Educational Facility), where we began the first step of a long processing routine in which we were shuttled from one station to another like cattle.
Finally I got stripped down and had my ass cheeks spread and searched, then was handed a set of plain blue clothes and was taken to my cell. That’s when the cold reality of where I was hit full force, walking past all those other cells, hearing the shit they were yelling at me.
I was scared. Nothing makes you feel more alone than prison. At the same time, I realized that as much as I didn’t want to be there, I had to be sure I recognized that I was there. That it was real. To think or act otherwise was dangerous.
It’s funny what the mind can do, though. I mean, once they put me in this five-by-eight-foot cell, with a barred window the size of a postage stamp, I realized that if I stretched up and craned my neck, I could see and hear the planes taking off and landing at LaGuardia Airport.
It’s almost cruel that they put a prison right next to an airport that way.
Watching those planes, I began to imagine that I was on one of them. I actually made a deal with whoever, with God, I guess, that if I could be on one of those planes that I would accept that the plane was going to crash.
I would take the chance.
At first I thought I was the only one having thoughts like that. I thought it was a form of weakness. But then I thought, If I’m having the thoughts, other people must be, too. I couldn’t be the only one. It was a revelation.
In the mess hall, in the yard, these guys would try not to let on that they had been having these thoughts, the same way that fighters try not to let on that they’re having thoughts that scare them.
Of course, everyone has them. When I came to realize that, it helped me put my fears into perspective. It’s one of the things that I’ve used ever since, and that’s helped me to become a good trainer.
Rikers Island had a reputation for being a rough place, and it was.
Any place where kids spit razor blades out of their mouths to cut you is not a real great place. These other prisons, like Attica and Sing Sing, were tough, but the youth facility at Rikers was more dangerous because it was all young kids who were angry and lost, and not – even in criminal ways – directed yet.
They were dangerous the way I was dangerous. They didn’t know why they were so full of anger, so full of hatred. They were still groping, trying to eliminate certain fractured feelings in themselves in whatever way they could; whereas the older guys in those other places had a better sense of themselves, were more practical, knew how to do their time.
Older guys didn’t need to stab you to show they weren’t afraid. A kid in Rikers might stab you just to avoid facing something he might be feeling.
Early on, I made it clear that I would stand up for myself
This guy who was six feet and a mean-looking motherfucker came up to me in the rec area and let me know he wanted my sneakers. I can’t remember exactly how he phrased it, but I knew what he was asking and what it meant…
What happens next? CLIFF HANGER!
I’ve hit my time limit for how long I’m going to spend on this piece today. But I’ve not left you with out some valuable perspectives on ways you can shift your thinking about what you fear. So come back and see me for Part 2 and I’ll finish the story and tie all the lessons together.
Note Taking Nerd #2