Cus D'amato

updated 07/15/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/15/1985 01:00AM

The old man stood in the dressing room beneath the Albany Convention Center and watched his kid warm up, watched him wheel around the room in time with the music. Lovergirl, Square Biz, the pop-soul sound of Teena Marie was little more than white noise in the old man's head, which was teeming with other themes. At 6 feet and 212 pounds, the kid was an impressive physical specimen. Plus, as the veteran pugs liked to say, he carried a cure for insomnia in either hand. Still, the old man was worried about the fight. He was concerned that the opponent, one Hector Mercedes, was three inches shorter than his kid and that the public would perceive his fighter to be a bully. Above all, the old man was concerned that his kid stay within himself, that he demonstrate in this—his pro debut—how far he'd come toward mastering the mutiny of emotions that warred within him nearly five years ago, when as a virtual feral child he was plucked from the New York streets and deposited upstate in the Tryon School for boys, an anteroom to prison.

In a word, D'Amato was back. The man who outsmarted the boxing monopolists of the '50s to make Floyd Patterson king of the sport, the man Muhammad Ali asked to manage him, the man Norman Mailer called a student of Zen—the storied Cus D'Amato was back and maneuvering on the margin of boxing's Big Time after an absence from the major fight circuit of nearly 20 years. At 77, D'Amato announced that within two years he expected to match Mike Tyson, his 19-year-old ward, for all the marbles—meaning he was out to make his kid the youngest heavyweight champ in history.

For years D'Amato had been holed up, locked in a deep sleep, as far as much of the boxing world was concerned, in Rip Van Winkle country. He had been living in Catskill, N.Y. as guest of Camille Ewald, whose sister had been married to his older brother. He had the run of Camille's 14-room Victorian house, overlooking the Hudson, which, thanks to the largesse of fight-film entrepreneur Jimmy Jacobs, he had turned into a sort of year-round training camp. At any given moment there might be half a dozen fighters in residence, working under D'Amato's tutelage in a gym carved into the loft above the Catskill Police Station. D'Amato trained the local talent as well, but the best kids tended to be the ones sent to him for fine tuning or general overhaul by managers with a direct tap into the urban miasma.

Then, one evening in 1981, Bob Stewart, a former fighter who worked at the Tryon School, brought over a 14-year-old kid for the Master's look-see. "We deal in losers up here," says Stewart. "But Mike Tyson had something. In the back of my mind was the knowledge that Cus took in fighters, and maybe if I brought Mike down six or seven times, he'd take a liking to him. The first night we boxed three rounds. I had to fight my head off because Mike was charging me. Boom! I hit him in the second round and his nose was blown all over the place and Cus' trainer says, 'We better stop it at two.' But Mike says, 'No, I want to go three.' Here I am hoping that maybe after two or three months Cus will say something. But, no, this very first night what does Cus say? 'That's the heavyweight champion of the world. If he wants it, it's his.' "

With Mike, as with former light-heavyweight champ José Torres and Patterson before him, Cus was no mere trainer, but a teacher of the thoroughgoing sort that frequented the gymnasia of ancient Greece. Cus spent two hours a day working with him in the gym. He spent much of the waking portion of the remaining 22 teasing out his kid's inner man. Cus learned that Mike had grown up fatherless in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, robbing cars and stores, sometimes sleeping in abandoned buildings. He discovered that the kid extended unqualified love only to his pigeons, the "street rats" he caught in the park and cooped on the roof of a burned-out tenement. He discovered that the kid was mortified by not being able to read, that this was the source of his truancy. "My feeling is this," he told the boy. "There are no stupid people. There are only uninterested people." Cus got Mike private tutoring and gave him reading that would appeal to him—books about main eventers such as Joe Louis and Jack Dempsey, Napoleon and Alexander the Great. Cus discovered that Mike was not merely suspicious of white people, he was distrustful of everyone. "See," says D'Amato, "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 these layers."

Which is to say that early in their conversations the old man started talking to the boy about fear, coming at the topic from different angles. "Fear," he would say, "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 around you." And: "Imagine a deer crossing an open field. He's approaching the forest when his instinct tells him, 'Think! There may be a mountain lion in the tree.' The moment that happens, nature starts the survival process. Normally a deer can jump five or 10 feet. With adrenaline he can jump 15 or 20 feet. Fear, you see, is nature's way of preparing us for struggle. Without it, we'd die." And: "Any fighter who fought Muhammad Ali was intimidated by him. You see, Ali's secret weapon was a tremendous will to win, an ability to take his own fear and project it as an irresistible force, which immediately tended to inhibit the ability of his opponent to execute what he knew."

When Mike first came to Cus and Camille, his promise was obvious only at ringside. Otherwise, says Camille, "He was sloppy, rude, wild." He seldom spoke at the dinner table and spent most of his time in his room. Then, bit by bit, he let Cus and Camille into his life. Recently he bought Cus a Father's Day card. Mike, whose natural mother is dead, also brought home a friend and introduced him to Camille, saying, "I want you to meet my mother." Camille laughs at the memory. "I thought that kid's eyes would pop from his head when he saw my white skin."

Cus had no choice but to turn Mike into a money fighter. In three years he won every major amateur tournament in America, losing only in the Olympic Box-off to subsequent gold medalist Henry Tillman, who spent much of the fight in thoughtful retreat. All told, Mike had just 25 amateur fights. His talent had outstripped his experience and, perhaps, D'Amato worried, his development as a human being.

Constantine "Cus" D'Amato is that wonder in the fight game, a student of the inner man, a self-created Freudian in a profession overrun with dim behaviorists. The seventh of eight sons of an Italian immigrant who delivered ice in a horse-drawn wagon, he rose to maturity in the tumultuous Frog Hollow section of the Bronx—an area that also gave rise to Dutch Schultz and other leading men whose pictures hung in the post office. Decades later, when a couple of mugs climbed the stairs of his 14th Street gym and tried to steal a fighter from him, D'Amato found himself saying, "You can do anything you want. Cut me up into little pieces. I won't give in!" He realized afterward that he'd heard his father use that precise language 30 years earlier on a pair of toughs who wanted in on his ice business.

It seems strange that D'Amato himself never boxed, but there is a reason. At 12 he had a street fight with a man—"one of those men who push kids around because they know they can't push men around." It left him virtually blind in one eye. There is another reason. In his youth, D'Amato confides, he had "what you might call a religious interest." It had grown out of a preoccupation with death, one that found him observing funeral processions with a longing to trade places with the fellow in the box. D'Amato declines to speculate upon the roots of this preoccupation—whether it issued from the fact that his mother died when he was 4 or that three of his seven brothers had gone the same way by the time he came along. Did he ever think about joining the priesthood? "Yes," he answers, his white brow arching in surprise. "How did you know that?"

It's written all over him. It is there in the precocious acts of self-denial. At 16, D'Amato went four days without eating—this, he says, so no one could ever intimidate him with threats of starvation. Later, drafted into the Army during World War II, he would shave only with cold water, stand at attention for hours on end, sleep on the barracks floor. It's there too in the acts of self-mortification, the monkish proofs that the spirit is superior to the flesh. "I had a habit of coming in late at night," he remembers, "and my father used to try to break me of it." Damiano D'Amato used a bullwhip on his seventh son, crashed it down on the boy's bare shoulders even as he lay shuddering but unrepentant beside his bed. Cus, who reveres his father—"He was like granite"—and who has a way of locating the sweet spot in adversity, says the beatings only did him good. "I didn't have a regard for getting hit the way other people did."

The priestly aspect is there as well in the young D'Amato's rejection of the world of getting and spending. Cus would not work for anybody, especially not for money. Nor would he waste his time in high school, which he quit in his second year when he discovered it was interfering with his education. The latter consisted largely of lying under trees "just thinking about things" and reading. (Mark Twain was an early favorite; Cus later dipped into Clarence Darrow, Bertrand Russell—even Einstein—to see what all the fuss was about.) Otherwise he hung around the gyms where his brothers trained or assisted his friends and neighbors as a sort of folk-lawyer paladin—helping them deal, say, with insurance companies reluctant to make good on claims or with two-bit shysters who'd taken fees but provided no services. D'Amato would accept no cash for these offices. But he would, if the offer were made according to an unspoken protocol, accept expenses or a quid pro quo. It was in this manner that Cus obtained the Gramercy Gym. Learning that a childhood friend wanted to get into the gas station business, Cus had gone down to city hall, where he looked over maps and discovered that Bruckner Boulevard was about to be cut through the Bronx. The friend ended up building five stations along the route, making a fortune in the process. "Not long after that I happened to mention to somebody else that I was looking to open a gym," Cus remembers. "Well, this fellow I'd helped found out about it and asked if he could stake me. It sounds crazy, but that's the way we operated in those days, one fellow helping another."

A third-floor walk-up on 14th Street, above a dime-a-dance hall, the Gramercy was something more than a gym. It was Cus D'Amato's laboratory. All those years that Cus had seemed to be wandering fancy-free through the Bronx, he had actually been developing novel ideas about the Manly Art. He was still experimenting in 1949, when a group of men headed by James D. Norris Jr., a Chicago millionaire, paid Joe Louis $150,000 to retire and simultaneously signed the top four heavyweight contenders to exclusive contracts. The International Boxing Club moved systematically through professional boxing, buying up talent in each division, until it controlled virtually every fighter, every arena and all the TV revenues. It was a seemingly foolproof scheme that erased managers from the fight-game picture. At least that was the idea—only Norris and Co. had failed to take into account an obscure manager-trainer from New York whose sole address was a gym on 14th Street, where he slept alone each night with a ferocious police dog. "I couldn't fight them myself," says D'Amato, who had been spoiling for a showdown with the IBC and had been training for it, in a sense, his entire life. "I had to wait for a fighter to fight them with, a kid who was not only good but loyal. If he was good but not loyal, it wouldn't help me. I couldn't expose myself, because they were going to get to my fighter, pay him off or do something to get him to leave me."

In 1952 Floyd Patterson won the gold medal in the Helsinki Olympics. On his return to the U.S., D'Amato met him at the airport accompanied by a pack of newsmen. He announced to the world that the 17-year-old Patterson, a mere middleweight, was turning professional with the object of becoming heavyweight champion of the world. D'Amato had been working with Patterson since Floyd was 14 and recently out of the Wiltwyck School for Boys, a school for disturbed children in Esopus, N.Y. He had taught Patterson to hold his gloves inordinately high—in a style the IBC would lamely deride as the "peekaboo"—while his elbows guarded his ribs from body blows. Thus armored and slipping and weaving in the manner D'Amato rehearsed in the gym, Patterson could punch largely without fear of being punched, and could therefore take on the appearance of a crowd-pleasing go-for-broke slugger.

But there was more to the making of Floyd Patterson than technique. "The only thing Patterson showed at the beginning," Cus remembers, "was that he was game and determined. I knew he was a good kid. I waited. I watched him, studied him, until I learned his character and personality." Patterson was dominated by an inferiority complex. He was so introverted and sensitive that mere conversation seemed to leave him covered with fingerprints. D'Amato's tactic was not to criticize or lecture or even talk to Floyd directly, but to speak to some third person within Patterson's earshot. He would converse with this person about the uses of fear and intimidation, about the deer approaching the forest. But the performance did not end there. D'Amato would carry himself in a self-assured way, be expansive in company. Normally casual, he became an elegant dresser, donning a homburg hat, a blue serge suit, a pearl gray overcoat. His purpose? To convey to Patterson that he had nothing to be ashamed of, that he was someone of importance, top of the mark. "Floyd would watch me and never let on that he was watching me," Cus remembers. "But I knew."

Meanwhile D'Amato was watching too—for his chance. In 1956 he managed to match his fighter with Hurricane Jackson, the IBC's No. 1 contender. When Patterson won a decision over Jackson, the IBC had no choice but to match Cus' kid with the venerable Archie Moore, whom Floyd subdued with a leaping left hook in the fifth round. With that victory D'Amato drove the IBC to its knees. He went on to bury it by never letting his kid fight for an IBC-controlled promoter—this despite threatening phone calls in the middle of the night, despite regular abuse in the dailies from sportswriters on the IBC pad. Eventually the IBC was declared a monopoly and dismantled by the government.

Back in Albany, Mike Tyson's fight with Hector Mercedes was all over by 1:47 of the first round.

"The term is quick, not easy," D'Amato told a ringside reporter. "This fellow Mercedes came to fight."

"Mike is an irresistible force," said Jimmy Jacobs, who co-manages Tyson. "He's the most aggressive talent to come along since Joe Frazier."

Privately Jacobs and D'Amato were less sanguine. The fight, short as it was, told little about Mike that Cus did not already know. With the bell it was as if Mike had been released from a cage. He went after Mercedes with a fury that had everyone at ringside gasping, backing him up from the outset, battering him with either hand, finally forcing Mercedes to call it a night with a left hook to the body that cut his legs out from under him.

"We're going to have this problem with Mike, getting him opponents," Jacobs said to D'Amato.

"Yes, I know that," said Cus.

On the way back to the dressing room, D'Amato was waylaid by a reporter who asked the inevitable question: How did it feel being back after nearly 20 years? D'Amato objected. He hadn't been away. The reporter tried again. What difference had Mike Tyson made in his life? "He's meant everything," said the old man. "If it weren't for him, I probably wouldn't be living today. See, I believe nature's a lot smarter than anybody 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, I didn't have the pleasures any longer. My friends were gone, I didn't hear things, I didn't see things clearly, except in memory. The last time I had an erection was 15 years ago. So I said I must be getting ready to die. Then Mike came along. The fact that he is here and is doing what he is doing gives me the motivation to stay alive. Because I believe a person dies when he no longer wants to live. He finds a convenient disease, just like a fighter, when he no longer wants to fight, finds a convenient corner to lie down in. It's like boxing. It's all psychological."

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