Published: November 1, 2005
By Lisa Scott
On November 4th, it will have been 20 years since the death of legendary
trainer Cus D’Amato – a man who helped alter the future of the sport
and who developed some of the greatest fighters in history. Often referred
to as the Vince Lombardi of boxing, D’Amato achieved accolades for his
work with Floyd Patterson (at the time, the youngest heavyweight champ
at 21 years old after knocking out Archie Moore) and Jose Torres (who
beat Willie Pastrano in 1965 for his light heavyweight title). However,
D’Amato is best known as the savior of a 13 year old Brownsville, NY
street hoodlum and creator of the most destructive fighter the heavyweight
division has ever known – ‘Iron’ Mike Tyson; the youngest heavyweight
to be crowned champ at the delicate age of 20.
Born Constantine D’Amato on January 17, 1908 in the tough Classon Point
section of the Bronx in New York, he was one of eight children (all
brothers) whose parents arrived in America from Italy in 1899. Raised
during the Depression, in an all male environment (D’Amato’s mother
died when he was 4 yeas old), D’Amato wanted to be a boxer like his
older brother Jerry. With his brother’s gym bag slung over his shoulder,
D’Amato would accompany him to the gym (St. Nicks’ on 125th St.), absorbing
as much knowledge as he could. But those dreams of becoming a professional
prizefighter were derailed when at 12 years old, D’Amato engaged in
a street fight with an adult man, which resulted in permanent blindness
to D’Amato’s left eye.
Nevertheless, D’Amato remained active in boxing and in 1939, co-founded
the Gramercy Gym where he developed a stable of tough young boxers.
One of them being Rocky Graziano, a fighter D’Amato developed as an
amateur and expected to manage upon turning pro. However Graziano chose
to enlist another manager, as well as a silent partner who reportedly
had mob connections. The situation with Graziano was D’Amato’s first
taste of how bitter the sport could be and that ‘stealing’ fighters
was a frequent and customary practice.
Incidentally, Gramercy Gym has since been torn down to make way for
an appliance store. Yet in recognition of his achievements, the city
of New York honored D’Amato after his death with a street sign (Cus
D’Amato Way) at the gyms former location (14th street and Irving Place).
While D’Amato and his gym were gaining credibility, he was drafted into
the Army in 1942. Upon his return to civilian life in 1945, D’Amato
met Camille Ewald, a Ukrainian girl whose sister was married to D’Amato’s
older brother Rocco. Ewald became D’Amato’s devoted and lifelong companion
and eventually came to public attention as the woman who ran the huge
house in Catskill and who Tyson lovingly referred to as his ‘white mother.’
Since D’Amato and Ewald never married and D’Amato never fathered children,
they looked upon the young fighters living in their house as offspring.
Especially Tyson, whom they both legally adopted when he was 15. At
the age of 96, Ewald died in her sleep at home in 2001. She is buried
next to D’Amato in a cemetery in Catskill.
After fighting for his country in WWII, the advent of another war was
about to begin for D’Amato – a war with the International Boxing Club.
For 11 years (1952-1963), D’Amato fought a dangerous battle against
the IBC, an organization that gained strength in the late 1940’s by
monopolizing professional boxing within the United States. Fronted by
a legitimate businessman (Jim Norris, a multi millionaire who owned
the Detroit Red Wings, various stadiums and arenas as well as a substantial
amount of stock in Madison Square Garden), the IBC was actually controlled
by organized crime, namely by Frank ‘Blinky’ Palermo and Frankie Carbo
(a member of Murder, Inc., and a mobster who achieved widespread notoriety
as the underworld’s ‘Commissioner of Boxing’). One example of the deviance
committed by the IBC occurred in 1947, when Jake LaMotta was forced
to take a dive against Billy Fox in order to get a shot at the middleweight
title. LaMotta eventually got that shot two years later (against Marcel
By controlling the fighters and titles, the IBC was able to reap tremendous
benefits, especially when it came to the prestigious heavyweight title.
Thus, when D’Amato led Patterson to the heavyweight championship in
1956, D’Amato refused to deal with promoters affiliated with the IBC.
Having ‘The Champ’ (whom the public wanted to see) enabled him to call
the shots and work with legitimate promoters. It was a bold and daring
stance in an environment wrought with collusion and chicanery. But D’Amato’s
tenaciousness paid off and Patterson became the first fighter to earn
a million dollar purse. Eventually, the IBC was investigated by the
Senate (Estes) Keefauver Committee and the extent of the corruption
was revealed. The IBC was ruled a monopoly and forced to disband, and
Carbo was jailed for 25 years.
Soon after, D’Amato found his way to Rhinebeck, NY to train heavyweight
Buster Mathis. When his association with Mathis ended, D’Amato sold
his Gramercy Gym for $1 (yes, 1 dollar) to trainers Bob Jackson and
Al Gavin (the famed cut man who is recently deceased), and moved to
the economically depressed town of Catskill where he opened the Catskill
Boxing Club above a police station on Main St., in 1970. Because the
IBC was reputed to have mob connections, and some of the ‘people’ that
were ‘involved’ were still around… D’Amato chose to leave NYC. Of
his decision, D’Amato was quoted as saying: “I wasn’t paranoid.
I just assumed that they would hurt me if they could, and I acted accordingly.”
Ewald and D’Amato then bought an old 2 story, 13 room Victorian mansion.
The house is a few miles away from the gym and is situated on the beautifully
scenic Hudson River and located off a clandestine road where it’s secretly
tucked away at the end of a treacherously long, narrow and winding dirt
path. After Ewald’s death, the house was sold to a lawyer from NYC.
D’Amato’s intentions were simple – to help troubled and underprivileged
kids straighten out their lives through boxing. Among them was 19 year
old Kevin Rooney, a 1975 NY Golden Gloves champ and product of a broken,
alcoholic home in Staten Island. Rooney became a loyal and dedicated
student of D’Amato – who (after his death) passed the torch on to Rooney
and who later led Tyson to a championship. To this day, Rooney operates
the Catskill Boxing Club and carries on the D’Amato tradition of training
anyone who steps through the gym doors… for free.
By opening his home
to these kids, D’Amato hoped to not only develop a fighter, but a person
of character as well. All D’Amato asked for in return was for them to
contribute to the upkeep of the house. With D’Amato’s vast knowledge
of boxing and the financial backing of his good friends Bill Cayton
and Jim Jacobs (2 savvy businessmen and boxing enthusiasts), a great
collaborative effort was firmly in place in the quiet confines of Catskill,
Then late in October of 1985, a year before Tyson claimed the heavyweight
title from Trevor Berbick, D’Amato collapsed at a boxing convention
in Upstate NY. He was hospitalized in Albany and diagnosed with having
a rare form of pneumonia. At the behest of Jacobs, D’Amato was then
transferred to Mt. Sinai Hospital in NYC where Doctors induced coma
to combat his illness. Having never emerged from that coma, D’Amato
passed away on November 4, 1985 at the age of 77 of interstitial pulmonary
fibrosis. The pall bearers at D’Amato’s funeral included: Jim Jacobs,
Floyd Patterson, Jose Torres, Mike Tyson, Kevin Rooney and Jay Bright.
Fightnews wishes to remember D’Amato and his accomplishments in the
sport of boxing by speaking to two people who knew him best and who
remained loyal to his teachings: Kevin Rooney and Steve Lott. This is
what they had to say:
“I met Cus through a friend of mine, Brian Hamill. After I won
the Golden Gloves in 1975, some people approached me and wanted me to
turn pro. But Brian suggested that I call up Cus first. So I did. I
went up to Catskill and Cus was waiting for me at the train station.
Being that I had just won the Golden Gloves… I was a little cocky.
But I was never cocky with Cus. The minute I first met him, I remember
thinking to myself: ‘You know something, this is one old man I wouldn’t
want to mess with!’ Being the little punk that I was, I would think
anyone over 50 years old… I could take ’em.’ But Cus was 66 or 67
then, and you could sense that he had this power. He had a strength…
a vibe in him. He was definitely someone you couldn’t mess around with…
or you’d go down for the dirt nap. (Laughs) Anyway, I sparred with a
couple of his guys and we went back to his house to talk. He said that
if I wanted, I could come up there and live for free room and board.
All I had to do was train and do chores around the house. But, I had
a really good Federal job on Staten Island that would have turned into
a career. So, there I was – 19 years old with a big decision to make.
I thought: ‘I don’t want to be 35 years old and say I shoulda done this
or that.’ So I quit my job and moved into his house.
“Cus was an honest person who never cared about money. If he had
it, he’d give it to you no matter what. That’s the kind of person he
was. He always told me that money meant nothing. Money is for giving
away. Cus always said: ‘If you have a friend, a real friend… someone
who will stand by you no matter what, AND someone you can TRUST… THAT’s
more valuable than money. Cus valued friendship above anything else.
“Back in the 1940’s, Cus kept the Gramercy Gym open 364 days a
year. On the 365th day, he would always give a Christmas party for all
the kids in the gym and would buy them presents. There’d be food and
drinks too. But one particular year, Cus was broke. He didn’t have a
dime in his pocket. He said ‘What am I gonna do?… I have to give the
kids a party.’ Just then, some person showed up and gave Cus $100. Cus
had loaned the guy the money and he came by to pay it back! Since he
was dead broke, Cus could’ve spent the money on other things for himself,
but he spent the money on a party for the kids.
“I remember when Cus would go to the fights, he put on his old
brown suit that was probably 20 years old, but it looked good on him!
He was a trainer, manager, savior of kids and a gentleman. And… a
DIGNIFIED gentleman at that. Even in an old suit, he looked classy.
“Cus grew up in the early 1900’s, during the depression. He said
it was wild during that time. Because people were out of work, they
were just hanging out on the street. They were out of work, had no money
and they were begging. Thousands of people! Back then, people more or
less did what they wanted and they’d get shot just for looking at someone
the wrong way. Especially by the cops! There were no rules. If you got
caught doing something, you’d have to fight your way out of it… or
get killed. People didn’t respect the cops and his brother Jerry was
known for beating them up! He was a boxer and Cus would follow him to
the gym and carry his gym bag. But one day, the cops got fed up with
Jerry and felt he was someone they had to eliminate. Jerry got smart
one time too many and they shot him dead. Left him in the gutter. Cus
was 17 years old when that happened and he witnessed the whole thing.
Jerry’s death affected Cus so much that he rarely talked about it. And
for Cus not to talk about something…. well.
“When Cus was 4 years old, his mother died. So he was raised by
his father who had an ice and coal business. The one thing Cus always
told me about his father… he always provided and there was always
food on the table. They always had a big meal for dinner, no matter
how hard times were. Him and his brothers always ate. In fact, Cus felt
it was better to have food than money. As long as your belly was full,
you could perform… so that you could earn a living.
“Cus cleaned up boxing and he never got any credit for it. He broke
the hold that the mob had on boxing, and there hasn’t even been a book
written on him about it! Back then it was like Caesar and Rome. The
mob controlled everything. You couldn’t do anything without talking
to them. But Cus had the brain and the balls to say, ‘Wait a minute,
this isn’t right!’ So, he took it upon himself to change things.
“Cus was a very smart man, even though he only made it to the 8th
grade. He educated himself at the NY Public Library over there on 42nd
St. He read about history, psychology and so many other subjects. Education
was a big thing for Cus. In fact, he TRICKED ME into going back to school.
He told me, ‘You know… it’s boring around here during the day. There’s
nothing to do. Maybe you should go to college. You can meet girls over
there!’ So, I went to college and got a 2 year degree in Social Science.
As for Mike Tyson, people have said that Cus didn’t care about Mike’s
education… that all he cared about was making him a champ. But that’s
all BULLSHIT! One day Mike got into some trouble in the lunchroom. Someone
antagonized him and he flipped over a table. He got suspended from school.
That’s when Cus hired a private tutor to work with him for 4-5 times
“Bobby Stewart was trained in the D’Amato style. So he brought
Tyson over from Tryon (school for boys) so that Cus could have a look
at him. Bobby and Mike sparred for 3 rounds. When the sparring was over,
Cus stood up and said ‘There’s the next heavyweight champion of the
world.’ I went over to Cus and said, ‘Cus, listen. You better check
this guys age out. He doesn’t look like he’s 13. He looks like he’s
18, 19 or 20!’ So Cus checked it out and found that Mike really was
13. Mike was so tough that Bobby had to work out in order to hang in
there with him.”
“When Cus went to the juvenile courts to tell them he would look
after Tyson, they more or less told Cus, ‘Yeah. O.K. Let’s see what
you can do with THIS guy. You took on Rooney, but THIS one is different.’
When Cus got Mike, he built up his self esteem. When Mike won the Golden
Gloves, he had huge banners put up on Main St. By doing that, Cus was
building confidence within Mike… saying: ‘You can be somebody!’
“Because no one could hang with Mike in the gym… sparring-wise,
Jimmy and Bill had to hire sparring partners for Mike. So… one day,
this guy comes into the gym. He’s 6’4″. The bell rings for the
first round and Mike goes out there ripping shots. The guy is moving
around and boxing a little bit. Then Mike nails him. The guy… now
this is a PAID sparring partner… it’s his first day… he throws up
his hands like, ‘I surrender!’. He hops out of the ring, takes his gloves
off, grabs his gym bag and walks right out the front door. He said ‘That’s
enough… I’m not sparring with THIS guy! I’m not getting paid enough!’
He doesn’t even ATTEMPT to get paid for anything! I look at Cus and
Cus looks at me. We just shrugged our shoulders and laughed. We never
saw the guy again.
“There was another sparring partner. I forget what his name was.
But it was a Saturday night and he goes out into town to have a few
beers. Now… Cus would let you go out. But he would tell you to be
home by 10 or 11 o’clock. After that, he would lock the house down.
But THIS guy… he comes home at 3-4 in the morning. He’s banging on
the door and the windows, trying to get in. Cus comes down with a RIFLE!
The guy is still on the porch, banging on the door. Cus points the rifle
at him and says ‘You better get out of here, or I’ll kill you.’ So the
guy took off and went into the carriage house (which was another building
on the estate) and fell asleep in there. The next morning… he was
gone. Long gone.
“Before he died, Cus told Jimmy: ‘Make sure Mike will always have
money.’ So Bill and Jimmy set up a tax free account that enabled Mike
to get $250,000 a year… tax free… for the rest of his LIFE! So if
Mike lived to be 100, he still would have gotten $250,000 a year…
TAX FREE! But, Don King made him turn in that policy to pay for the
lawyers who represented him in that bogus rape trial! A rape trial where
Mike had a TAX LAWYER to defend him! You don’t hire a TAX lawyer for
a rape case… you hire a RAPE lawyer. Hell, I could have defended Mike
and gotten him off!”
“Cus was a fighter all the way up until the end. Even though he
was in a coma, he was shaking his head ‘No.’ Like he was telling the
Doctors, ‘No, don’t give me that… Don’t put that in me… Leave me
alone!’ A few days later, Cus died.
(camp coordinator for Mike Tyson):
“Cus tried to rise to a very high level of thinking power in each
of the disciplines of boxing: Teaching and Managing. In the teaching
area, which he studied intensively, Cus knew there was the psychological
aspect and how important the emotional status of a fighter was. He knew
fighters were not robots, but were humans and they had fear and doubts
like anyone else.
“Which brings to the subject of head movement. The slipping, weaving
and punching from angles. The effect of that is, when an opponent throws
a punch, the D’Amato fighter slips it and counters while the opponent
is still open. After that happens a few times, psychologically… the
opponent says ‘What the hell is happening?… This hasn’t happened to
me in the gym or in other fights before.’ Then suddenly, the opponent
stops throwing punches. No one knows why, not the trainers nor the people
watching the fight. ‘The opponent begins to think, ‘I can’t hit this
guy… If I can’t hit him, then I can’t win.’ Psychologically, he throws
in the towel. So, it’s more than just head and body movement. It’s psychological.
“If you go to any gym in the world, you’ll see a trainer standing
next to his fighter… who is hitting the heavy bag hard and with tremendous
combinations. He looks good doing it, but the kid never moves his head.
They shadow box – never moving their heads. Trainers nowadays don’t
use those types of training methods. They just tell the kid to go in
their and fight. That’s why fights are so boring today. The fighters
know that when they get into the ring… they’re gonna get hit. So,
they just peck and peck and peck. In their heart, they KNOW they don’t
have any defense. So what happens is, they take a position opposite
each other… just out of contact range. That’s why fans say ‘C’mon,
lets see some action!’ Fighters don’t want to get into contact range,
nor do they want to initiate, because the moment they do, they get hit.
Once in a while you get a tough son-of-a-gun who doesn’t care about
getting hit and he comes in. He’s an exciting fighter. But the object
in boxing is to be able to hit your opponent without getting hit yourself.
Of course the kids today are tough. They’re courageous and they’re disciplined,
but they’re not being shown how to move their heads. Cus’ style was
distinctive. When you see a kid, with his hands up, chin down, slipping
and weaving… you say, ‘That’s the Cus D’Amato style!’ With any other
trainer, the fighters all look the same.
“And, Cus created the ‘number system.’ In every sport, there is
a science involved. There are plays like they have in football and basketball.
In baseball, the coaches use sign language to communicate to his players.
Cus said, ‘There should be that type of system in boxing… I’ll put
together a number system so my fighters can learn to throw combinations
by numbers, and immediately at ringside, they can be called upon.’ It’s
not only LEARNING about technique, its also about HOW to use the technique
and WHEN to use the technique.
“As for the managing side, what Cus did for Floyd Patterson, by
pulling him out of the IBC tournaments in the mid 50’s, was a tremendous
move. After beating Archie Moore for the championship, Cus had Floyd
fight (Ingemar) Johanssen instead of the IBC’s contenders. Had Floyd
fought their contenders, he never would have made the millions that
he did fighting Johanssen at the Polo Grounds. So, the combination of
teaching and the gymnastics of the business – those were the blueprints
that made Cus different from everyone else. To this day, Cus’ methods
aren’t understood by other trainers… except of course Kevin Rooney.
Other trainers have no idea what Cus was talking about, nor do they
even know that these psychological principles exist.
“Before the Ali-Foreman fight in Zaire, Ali came to Jim Jacobs’
apartment to watch some films of Foreman. And, Cus was there. After
they finished watching the films, Ali asked Cus ‘What do you think?’
Cus said, ‘You’ve gotta go out there and hit Foreman with your best
shot… right away. He’s under the impression that you can’t punch!
You’ve gotta show him, right off the bat that you CAN punch. That’s
it. You don’t have to do it for the rest of the round.’ Sure enough,
that’s what Ali does and he surprises Foreman with it. That was the
moment that Ali gained the psychological edge.
“If Cus had
not moved up to Catskill and remained in NYC or opened a gym in Brooklyn
where kids could train for free, he would have created 20 world champions.”
Cus D’Amato’s words of wisdom:
“They say I ‘mold’ a fighter, but no. I help him mold himself.
I bring out with him qualities that he has buried deep down, that many
times he doesn’t know he has. My job is to discover and uncover, bring
’em to the surface slowly or quickly, dependin’ on how much dirt is
layin’ on top of ’em. When I bring ’em to the surface, I not only become
fully and completely aware of ’em, but the fighter does too.”
“The first lesson I teach these kids before I teach them to box
is a lesson about Fear, about what Fear is and why we have it. Fear
is like a fire. If you control it, as we do when we heat our houses,
it is a friend. When you don’t, it consumes you and everything you do
and everything around you.”
“I am a professional. My commitment demands of me… my pride.
Everybody sets his own limitations on himself. I set no limitations
on myself, except to do the job that I commit myself to do.”
“I deal in minds and emotions.”
“There is no such thing as a natural puncher. There is a natural
aptitude for punching and that is different. Nobody is born the best.
You have to practice and train to become the best.”
“A boy comes to me with a spark of interest and it becomes a flame.
I feed the flame and it becomes a fire. I feed the fire and it becomes
a roaring blaze.”
“Mike’s (Tyson) punch is like an atomic bomb in that it is relative
to nature. Both have no value unless you have a means of conveying it
to the target. He is boxing-smart.”
“When a fighter no longer wants to fight, he finds a convenient
corner to lie down in. It’s all psychological.”
“Any kid coming here (Gramercy Gym) for the first time who thinks
he wants to be a fighter, and who makes the climb up those dark stairs,
has it 50% licked, because he’s licking fear.”
“People who are born round don’t die square.”
“No matter what anyone says, no matter the excuse or explanation,
whatever a person does in the end is what he intended to do all along.”
“Heroes and cowards feel exactly the same fear. Heroes just react
to it differently.”
“There are no stupid people. There are only uninterested people.”
“People, especially if they come up in a rough area, have to go
through a number of experiences in life that are intimidating and embarrassing.
These experiences form layer upon layer over their capabilities and
talents. So your job as a teacher is to peel off those layers.”
“People talk about boxing as a ‘brutal’ sport. If fighters got
hit as often as people think, they’d all quit.”
“With fear, a man becomes emotionally tired and when he is afraid,
he has no faith in himself.”
“I believe nature’s a lot smarter than anyone thinks. During the
course of a man’s life he develops a lot of pleasures and people he
cares about. Then nature takes them away one by one. It’s her way of
preparing you for death.”
See this forum thread for more Cus D’Amato quotes.
A special picture tribute to the greatest trainer/manager who ever lived: