Search

CONVERSATION PIECE: CUS D'AMATO: A VERY SIMPLE TIGER

April 21, 1958
April 21, 1958

Table of Contents
April 21, 1958

Table of Contents
Snow Patrol
Acknowledgments
Russian Wrestlers
Spectacle
Wonderful World Of Sport
Golf
Sporting Look
Travel
Canada Goose
Fitness
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over
Pat On The Back

CONVERSATION PIECE: CUS D'AMATO: A VERY SIMPLE TIGER

In a remarkably candid self-appraisal, Floyd Patterson's manager tells what it takes to rise up and defy an empire

A cherished legend in the Cus D'Amato family holds that an ancestor in the maternal line was one of Napoleon's captains. Something of the Napoleonic tradition survives in Cus. Judged by the severe test of achievement, he is a superb strategist. Nor is he afraid to fight an empire. A couple of years ago he challenged the International Boxing Club (James D. Norris, emperor) to a war that rages yet. His stratagems, and Floyd Patterson's ability, won the heavyweight championship of the world in record time.

This is an article from the April 21, 1958 issue Original Layout

Before his fighter won the title D'Amato was a very obscure fight manager indeed, one who had given most of his years in boxing to handling amateurs in small clubs, dreaming all the while, as managers do, that some day he would own a champion. (Now he dreams of owning three champions at once.) When he began his war on the IBC, D'Amato was so poor that he did not even have a room. He slept in his grimy gymnasium, a training school for any youngster who wanted to learn to box free. He was so poor, in fact, that when friends asked him for a loan he had to go out and borrow the money to lend them, a D'Amato conception of noblesse oblige. His sole weapon against the IBC has been Patterson, described early in the war as "just an overgrown middleweight," though very promising.

There was a time when D'Amato could not even get an interview with Emperor James to demand a fight for his boy. The palace guard barred him. Now Norris can't get an interview with D'Amato. Then Norris was at the very peak of his prestige, a figure to mention in the same gasp with giants like Mike Jacobs and Tex Rickard, though with Rocky Marciano retired Norris was to have nothing resembling a Joe Louis or a Jack Dempsey to exploit. What he was reduced to, actually, was Hurricane Jackson. Still, to be sure, he had a stranglehold—and he has kept it still—on boxing's major television and arena outlets.

By using finesse instead of the power of his monopoly position, Norris might then have had Floyd Patterson. D'Amato is not altogether an intractable man. He can sometimes be swayed by gentle persuasion. He cannot, however, be bullied around.

This was only two years ago. It was the poor but proud D'Amato of that recent time who forced Multimillionaire Norris to grant Floyd Patterson a shot at Jackson. Floyd's first victory over Jackson, won with a broken right hand, then made it impossible for Norris to deny Patterson a shot at Archie Moore and the heavyweight title.

D'Amato planned it that way, without subtlety or deviousness.

"One of the ways I buffalo people," he said recently on a slow stroll down Broadway, "is by being simple. They have this idea that everything I am planning and going to do is complicated. But I just go straight ahead. That fools them."

The D'Amato simplicity was best expressed when, asked how he could possibly hope to defeat Norris and his $200-odd million, he replied:

"I'll lick him with Floyd Patterson. Floyd is the best fighter in the world." He said that at a time when Patterson couldn't get a fight.

D'Amato is a man of medium height, carefully dressed according to his lights, with white hair close-cropped, a pugnacious chin, a strong nose and brown eyes that can look hard and mean when he is challenged. He strides directly to his objective. He minces neither his walk nor his words.

He minces no words in his current row with the IBC. D'Amato has always been extremely public in his declamations against the IBC. Early in the game, before Patterson won the title, the opinion around Stillman's Gym was that "Cus is crazy." By dropping his lance this Don Quixote from The Bronx could have made a quick and trouble-free fortune—he is still tens of thousands of dollars in debt and has no clear idea how much—but he refused to do so. The opinion that he is "crazy" prevails to a lesser degree today but it is modified by admiration for his courage. Nowadays the boys say that Cus has guts.

The guts must have been born in him, but they were developed, too, and by an upbringing that did not follow the precepts of modern child psychology. He was born some 50 years ago at 149th Street and Southern Boulevard, a then quasi-rural area of The Bronx that has bred many a tough guy. His father was Damiano D'Amato, who was "in the ice business," and his mother was Elizabeth Rosato.

"People wonder how I got this name Cus," he said once, when the subject of the frequent misspelling "Gus" came up. "I was named Costantino after my grandmother, Constance, on my mother's side. That was a custom, to name a child after somebody in the family. But my father didn't like my grandmother too well, so he always used to say I was named for the Emperor Constantine."

Costantino became shortened to Costa. With a Bronx accent, Costa sounds much like Custer. Custer became Cus.

"I had eight brothers," Cus said, "but only four of them are alive now. My brother Jerry—he's dead—was a featherweight fighter. His manager was Bob Melnick, who manages Tiger Jones, Larry Baker and that Yama Bahama now. My youngest brother, Nicholas, is a chiropractor. Nick had a few amateur fights. Then I had another brother, Tony, who had a few unofficial fights. Unofficial means he would fight under the name of one of the other brothers.

"I grew up in boxing. I could and should have boxed. But I had a street fight when I was a boy, just 12 years old. It was with a man, one of those men who push kids around because they know they can't push men around. He gave me a bad eye, my right eye. I was blind in it for years but I made the man run and I chased him.

"I developed a cataract in the eye and finally I went to a doctor and he told me not to have the operation, that the eye would heal itself. He had a theory that the body would cure itself of anything if it could only survive long enough—even cancer. In cancer, you see, the trouble is that the cancer kills the body before the body can kill the cancer. If you could live long enough the body would cure itself of cancer.

"Well, you know, he was right. It took 30 years but I am beginning to get my sight back. Now I can read with that eye, although I have to hold the print about five inches from it. But it's getting better all the time."

It is not ridiculous to suppose that if Cus should ever have a leg cut off he would try to grow a new one.

"I did a little boxing," he went on, "even with the bad eye, but you remember how they found out that Harry Greb had been fighting with a glass eye and the commissions began to give better physical examinations. So I could never have been a real fighter. But I used to train at St. Nick's because in those days the arenas were used as gymnasiums, too. I was always a good hitter."

He was able to take punishment, too. There can be no question that Damiano D'Amato loved his children and did his successful best to bring them up to be good citizens, but his method may shock you. Father D'Amato owned a bull whip, which is an extraordinary instrument. According to Bronx folklore, a bull whip is made of a rather special part of a bull's anatomy, though the dictionary does not support this definition. It is firmly believed, nevertheless, especially at Long Pond Inn, where Patterson does his training. A bull whip is displayed over the inn bar and sometimes is taken down by the bartender to be admired when ladies are not present. Flicking the whip one afternoon, Cus remembered his father.

"I had a habit of coming in late nights," he said, "and my father used to try to break me of it."

He told with reverent admiration of his father's efforts, night after night, the bull whip crashing across bare shoulders, the boy shuddering at bedside, waiting for the next stroke of the lash and refusing, after each stroke, to say he would not do it again.

"I was very stubborn," Cus said. "I would not give in."

The closest he ever came to quitting was once when, instead of taking a stroke with customary silence, he gasped out, "Maybe I won't do it again." That was too much for Papa D'Amato, who burst into tears. The two embraced each other and after that Cus really tried to be home in time for dinner. He speaks now with love and affection for the old man and feels that had it not been for this upbringing he would not today be able to stand up to his opposition.

"Nowadays I discipline myself," he reported, concluding this anecdote of his boyhood. "Whenever I do anything wrong I punish myself. I do this so I will learn that I can't get away with anything wrong."

Cus completed two years of Morris High School, The Bronx, then quit.

"I quit because I was bored," he decided, after thinking about it. "Also, I was too busy doing other things. I liked to hang around and read. [Mark Twain was a favorite of his boyhood.] I was—I guess you'd call me a gadgeteer. I liked to invent things—things that didn't require any technical training—but when I'd invent them I'd just put them aside. I never did anything to make money with them. One of the things I invented was a toy plane, one of those that fly around and do loops. I put a heavy metal cup in the nose of the plane and in this cup I put a firecracker. When the plane's nose hit the ground the firecracker would explode and the plane would go through loops and dives from the explosion. The explosion would throw it back into the air, you see."

In addition to being a boy inventor Cus recalls that he was something of a precocious youth counselor.

"Boys get into trouble," Cus said of this phase of his boyhood one afternoon at a friend's apartment, "and when they did in our neighborhood they would come to me for advice. Even older kids would come to me. I would say what to do. After a while my friends brought their friends and it got to be quite a thing."

Not only would Cus refuse money for his counsel, he refused to take up any kind of gainful employment. His father, who had laid aside the bull whip when Cus came into his teens, urged him to work. Cus was opposed to the idea.

"The things I liked to do didn't cost money," he said, as if that explained why a young man should neither go to school nor work. There was more to it, of course. The D'Amato pride is a fierce pride. It holds that for a D'Amato to work for another is degrading. It holds, furthermore, that to work solely for money, even if self-employed, is degrading. For a long time Cus had a kind of amnesia about a period in his youth when he actually did work for someone else. Sometimes, therefore, he has said that he never held a job in his life. But one day, in a taxi, the recollection flooded back to him.

"You know, I did hold one job," he said suddenly. "I just remembered. It was when I was 17. My father used to talk to me. He would tell me that I should get a job because some day I might need the experience. Finally, he ordered me to look for a job."

Risking psychic trauma, young Cus agreed to look.

"One thing I would not do was lie to my father," he went on. "So when I went to an icebox factory and asked
for a job and they turned me down I was overjoyed. I would go there every week and they would turn me down every week. That way I could truthfully tell my father I was looking for work and at the same time I didn't have to work.

"But they fooled me. Finally they told me they would hire me because I was so persistent about it.

"They put me on an assembly line and I was so mad about working that I worked twice as hard as anybody. I was really teed off. One day I looked up and noticed the superintendent and the foreman watching me. I threw down my tools.

" 'I will not be watched!' I told them. They went away, but after that they began to take a personal interest in me. The superintendent would take me on tours of the factory and explain things, how they worked and what they were trying to do.

"He told me, 'Some day you will have my job.' I guess he was really interested in me, but I didn't understand it or appreciate it at the time. By this time they had made me an assistant foreman and I would explain to the carpenter how I thought we could lick this or that problem, and he would turn the idea in and get credit for it. I never let anybody know that the ideas were really mine, but one day a Negro who was working on one of my ideas suddenly put down his tools and said to the foreman: 'I don't care if you fire me. He [the carpenter] didn't come up with this idea. He [D'Amato] did.' After that the carpenter was my enemy.

"I had been made assistant foreman over a department that employed ex-convicts. None of them like the idea of being bossed by a 17-year-old. So we had fights."

The fights were brutal affairs, sometimes involving the use of two-by-fours. Cus would take on as many of the gang as wanted to fight him and, as he recalls it, in blind rage defeat them. He has little control over his temper, even now, and admits that it is a liability in business dealings. But he did not desire such control then. He would have taken no pride in it. He believes that a man must act courageously always. His way of controlling fear in those days was to destroy it with rage.

"Believe me," he once said, "I would not want to die. But I would not be afraid to die for a principle." This remark came up during a discussion of his war with the IBC and reports that mobsters were about to intervene against him.

Sometimes when he has been in serious danger, he said, the thought has flashed through his mind, "Now is the time to die!"

"It's like a voice in my brain. What it means is that I'll die rather than give up. It's a funny thing, but when I was in the Army [in World War II] I used to have another expression that would pop into my mind every time I saluted. It was, 'I will execute any command!' I guess I had the snappiest salute in the Army. I was determined to be the best soldier ever. I toughened myself by sleeping on the floor instead of in a cot."

Later, he was to sleep on the floor of his gym office, quite as a matter of course. He could not then afford a room.

Cus never got to see action because of his bad eye. He remained an MP throughout his three years of service.

Memories of his father crop up repeatedly in his conversation, and he suddenly remembered that his father, too, had been willing to die for a principle.

"One time some tough guys were threatening my father. They wanted something, I don't know what, and he wouldn't give in. They had knives. My father said to them, 'You could cut me up in little pieces and I wouldn't give in!' I remembered it years later when some tough guys came up to my gym and wanted to steal a fighter from me. I didn't give in either. It's wonderful the way the human mind works."

It is wonderful the way Cus D'Amato's mind works. His present financial position, which is approximately that of a poverty-stricken millionaire, sometimes gives him brief pause. But his credit is extensive.

"I always spent my time doing favors for people," he tried to explain once while picking up the check at a drugstore lunch counter. He does not commonly frequent the better sporting restaurants. "That is why I have so many friends. When I need help, they help me. I don't know how much I owe, maybe $20,000 or $25,000. I'll just have to ask them how much it is."

From the time I was in my teens I was always helping people. Once I didn't eat for three days in order to save up money to go to New Jersey to help a friend who was in trouble. The mother-in-law and father-in-law of this friend had been swindled. I came into it because they had paid a lawyer money to get a title to their property. They had paid the money but they couldn't get the title. I went to see the lawyer and he made me, just a young kid, wait three hours. Finally, I guess he decided that he couldn't get rid of me and he saw me. He explained that an action was pending which held up the title. I told him 'You violated the law in taking their money. I'm going to the district attorney Monday morning.' On Monday morning they had their check back from the lawyers.

"I spent all my time doing things like this. That's why I didn't have time to get married. I was too busy and, besides, to get married you should have something steady coming in. I used to say, 'When I want to work I can go out and make a lot of money. I could make $100,000 fast if I wanted to. Why waste time working?' "

One afternoon at Cus's gym a little Puerto Rican boy, perhaps 11 years old, was working out. He was moving his head rhythmically from side to side, learning to slip punches with the aid of a device that Cus's chiropractor brother had invented. It may not be described fully here because it is a trade secret, but the general idea is that if you don't slip properly you automatically get clunked on the head by a sandbag. You soon learn to slip properly. Cus spoke encouragingly to the boy in limited Spanish. He also knows the deaf-mute language.

"I managed quite a few dummies in the amateurs," he explained. "I can talk it better than most of them but I don't read it so well. I can read lips a little. Sometimes in a fight I can look across the ring between rounds and figure out what the opposition is telling the other fighter if they don't all have their backs turned to me.

"These dummies are very good fighters because they get their information about what is going on only through their eyes, and this builds up in them, believe me, an amazing ability to see. The ability to see is a fighter's biggest asset. The dummies see so much better that they are able to interpret things and respond to them instantly—those little signs that a punch is going to be thrown. They are very hard to hit. I had one deaf-mute that nobody could hit. They learn to slip punches better than anybody.

"Only once in my life did I have a fighter who didn't know fear, as I thought at the time. Later I decided that maybe he couldn't feel pain. He was the first dummy I ever managed. I found out about him when I put him in a six-rounder. He was taking a terrible beating on the side of his head. After the fourth round I told him I wanted to stop the fight, he was taking such a beating. He looked at me in amazement. When the bell rang for the fifth he slipped under my arm like an eel. I couldn't stop him, and the fight went on. He went on getting a beating. As soon as they announced the other guy had won my dummy dashed down to the dressing room. I knew what he was going to do. He was going to look in a mirror. I ran after him and, sure enough, the first thing he did was look in the mirror. He was amazed.

"I knew then that he would never be a fighter because he did not know fear. A fighter has to know fear."

D'Amato learned fear very early.

"Imagination!" he burst out once, on the road to Patterson's training camp at Greenwood Lake, N.Y. "There is nothing like imagination. There is nothing so bad. You suffer more imagining something is going to happen than when you meet the real thing. Nothing is so bad as what you imagine it's going to be. When I was a kid there was a story around the neighborhood that there was this Gorilla Man who would jump out on people in lonely places. Some crazy guy.

"I had to go through this empty lot to get home. It was after dark, and suddenly, in the path ahead of me, I saw this thing. It looked like a giant with his arms spread out ready to spring on me. I was afraid and I turned back. I was just a kid at the time.

"But then I decided I would have to go ahead because if I didn't I would never be able to go through that field again. And it turned out that the Gorilla Man was just a tree they had cut down and the branches made it look like somebody ready to pounce. So ever after, whenever I've been afraid of anything, I've said to myself, 'Oh, it's nothing but another tree in the path.' "

Ignore the unknowable, Cus recommends, but recognize that fear of real hazards is a useful quality. One night, after the fights at St. Nick's, he got high on this theme again.

"Very few people set out to be professional boxers except for emotional reasons," he said. "People take up boxing because they associate it with personal manliness. But once a boy begins boxing he may find that he has an unusual aptitude for it and gets involved in it and then he says to himself, 'Well, what else can I do?' I never urge a boy to take up boxing professionally. I never suggest it to him even. Because if he doesn't suggest it himself he doesn't have the urge and he'll never amount to anything anyway.

"It is the best sport in which a man can learn personal control. He learns to control himself, to make himself do what needs to be done.

"I tell my boys that fear is as important and natural a part of their equipment as their arms or their legs. I explain that fear is like a fire. If you control it, as we do when we heat our houses, then it is our friend. But if you don't control it, fire, and fear, will destroy you. In boxing, boys learn to control fear."

Cus has learned a great deal from personal experience. He recalled a time when he had just turned 20 and was working out in a gym.

"A man asked me how many fights I had had and who was my manager," Cus recalled. "I told him I wasn't a pro and didn't have a manager. He must have thought I was pretty good because he got interested and asked me if I would like to box some. I said, 'Sure,' and he put me in with Baby Arizmendi, a very good Mexican fighter who was training in the gym. In those days they really fought in those sparring sessions.

"While I was waiting I experienced fear in the ring for the first time in my life. I couldn't understand what was making me feel this way. My heart was pounding. I thought it might be that I was afraid, but I wasn't sure.

"Going into that ring was like going to the electric chair. Arizmendi gave me a terrible beating. He broke my nose and closed my good eye.

"At the end of the first round he asked me if I wanted to fight the second round. I said I was pretty tired and didn't know how good a fight I could make it but I was willing if he was. So we fought another round.

"At the end he said to me, 'What a tough monkey you are!' "

It wasn't till years later that I understood what he meant. Every fighter knows what it is to be afraid but he learns to conquer it, to control it. Now I make sure that my boys aren't ashamed of being afraid when they fight the first few times, that it is normal to feel that way."

Cus has learned a great deal, too, from sporadic reading in areas not commonly explored by fight managers. He is inclined to be shy when his reading is mentioned because it exposes him to a certain amount of ridicule at the Garden Cafeteria, where fight managers drink coffee and do business.

"People talk about me reading Freud," he said once, "but all I ever read of him was 10 chapters, the first 10, in one of those paperback books I picked up somewhere. I read those 10 chapters and he hadn't told me anything I didn't know already. I saw it was getting technical so I put the book away. I already knew the essentials anyhow."

When Patterson was training for the Archie Moore fight in Chicago, Cus was worried that Chicago mobsters might try some "funny business." He had his bed placed in the hall across Patterson's bedroom door, blocking it. Because Patterson retired early, as befits a fighter in training, and D'Amato seldom gets to bed before 2 or 3 a.m., as befits a manager, he killed the hours by reading in bed. Vinnie Cerola, a friend in the fight business, insists he caught Cus reading Einstein on one such night. Cus swore indignantly at the time that this was not so, but one afternoon, on a train carrying him and Patterson to the Pete Rademacher fight in Seattle, Cus turned from a brooding study of the Montana countryside to a brief discourse on Patterson's unrecognized greatness.

"You know why Patterson is a great fighter?" he demanded. "It's because he has taken the leap. All great men take a big leap forward. I sometimes compare Floyd to Einstein because they have done the same thing. Before Einstein came along we lived in one kind of world. We had only a little knowledge of what the world was like and we thought that was everything. But Einstein didn't let that stop him. He leaped and he carried the whole world along with him." He hunched forward on the roomette's rumble seat. "That is what Floyd has done in boxing. Some day they will know how great he is."

What he was talking about here was the fact that Patterson is the youngest fighter ever to win the heavyweight championship, that he won it against one of the wiliest boxer-punchers ever to set foot in resin, that Archie Moore was overwhelmingly favored to win that night, and that Patterson, a raw-boned child by the actuarial standards of boxing, conveyed an impression of supreme competence with more to come.

D'Amato recalled that night how, when Floyd was still an amateur, he had told him: "You will win the Olympic middleweight title. After you turn pro you will be the Boxer of the Year. You will be the youngest heavyweight ever to win the championship." It all came true.

A prizefighter's ability, no matter how magnificent, is plus or minus the ability of his manager. In Patterson's case D'Amato's ability has been a plus. Patterson won the heavyweight championship, younger than anyone ever had won it, not solely against Archie Moore, not solely on his fine ability, but to a great extent on the ability of his manager to counter the massed power of the IBC.

When D'Amato could get no IBC fights for Patterson, he set up his own private fights. He hired fighters, from middleweight to heavyweight, to oppose Patterson without an audience. The idea was to develop Patterson, since fighters develop only in the ring, not in ordinary training. These were real fights and there were 22 of them in all, every one a secret contest. Sometimes they were a secret even from the opponents' managers.

There was, for instance, the case of a fair veteran who held some impressive wins at one period. D'Amato was approached. Would he let his young fighter meet this tough, experienced fellow? With a great show of reluctance, Cus consented.

"What they didn't know," he said the other day, "was that Floyd had knocked the guy out three times before they ever fought publicly. He knocked him out in the first round each time, except the first time, when it took him a round and a half. On three successive days the guy was kayoed."

Three knockouts in three days. On the night of the public fight I told Floyd that the only place he could expect to learn was in the ring in an actual fight. 'You know you can lick this guy,' I told him, 'so this is a chance for you to learn something. Go in there and practice.' Floyd nodded. He went in and practiced with him for five rounds. Believe me, the fellow was grateful. Also, he was ahead but I didn't realize it because I was watching Floyd practice. At the end of the fifth round a guy who should know tipped me off that my Floyd was behind in the scoring. I was astounded. I couldn't believe it, but this fellow should know what he was talking about so I told Floyd, 'You're behind, quit practicing.' Floyd said, 'O.K., I'll give him a hard round.' He did, and then he knocked him out in the next round, the seventh."

Other fighters, some still active, were victims of these private contests. They were pawns in Cus's large strategy of bringing Patterson along far faster than the boxing world, and especially the IBC, realized. D'Amato contends that his main objective in his war with the IBC, which could lead in time to a forfeiting of Patterson's title by such organizations as the National Boxing Association, the World Boxing Committee and the New York State Athletic Commission, is essentially the same as that of the United States Government. The government won an antitrust suit against the IBC, and Federal Judge Sylvester J. Ryan ruled, in effect, that the IBC must surrender one of its two television network contracts. The ruling has been appealed to the Supreme Court.

"If we could have one independent national TV network competing against the IBC," D'Amato said recently, "everything would be all right. Then the two TV promoters would have to bid against each other for fighters. Managers and fighters could get decent prices and the public would see good fights."

The possibility that the NBA and others may declare the title vacant does not bother D'Amato. One gets the impression that he would welcome that kind of battle.

"The public just won't accept any champion but Patterson," he believes firmly. "In the long run it's the public that decides the title."

No matter what happens, there will be no peace.

This is not to say that D'Amato is always belligerent. In pleasant company he relaxes. Sometimes, in his search for peace and quiet, he hides away for days at a time in a secret country villa, where there is no telephone. Or he holes up with his books in a Hudson River Day Line stateroom and cruises the majestic river, pondering the eternities.

One day we were whizzing through the New Jersey exurbia in a Volkswagen bus D'Amato owns but cannot drive. Cus was studying the ranch houses and the billboards. Finally he spoke, and what he had to say is fairly typical of the kind of random remark which Cus D'Amato is prone to make when he is not hotly describing the magnificence of Floyd Patterson and the iniquity of the IBC.

"Nothing ever changes," he mused softly. "I had that idea the other day when I was out in the country like this. I had been there before and the only things that had changed were the man-made things. Nothing ever changes. Only our attitude toward things can change. Everything remains the same."

D'Amato loves an idea like that. He finds assurance in it, as some find assurance in church, which he no longer attends. He knows that the heavyweight championship is not permanent and he feels it is nice to know that something is.

PHOTOWIL BLANCHETART AND TOUGH, Cus at 50 still has the combination of bulldog stubbornness and fiery temper that carried him through street brawls to his climactic clash with IBC.PHOTOFAMOUS PORTRAIT shows Floyd and Cus in January 1956 when SPORTS ILLUSTRATED picked Patterson as future champ.