Once a week, Ralph Citro, 63, a retired insurance agent from Blackwood, N.J., loads his black salesman's sample case with an economy-sized jar of Vaseline, an enormous bottle of Maalox, Q-tips, pliers, a screwdriver, several objects that look like dollhouse irons, a jar of Avitene, three bottles of Thrombin and a vial of Adrenalin. Then he gets in his station wagon and drives 45 miles to Atlantic City.
It's not the gaming tables that draw Citro to the hotel-casinos there. Atlantic City is one of the busiest sites in the country for professional boxing matches. When a boxer gets "busted up," in the parlance of the fight community, Citro goes into action. He has 60 seconds between rounds to coax a young man's nose back to the center of his face or to seal a split eyebrow so the fight can continue. Citro is a cutman.
"I have no formal training whatsoever," he says. He learned his trade through his involvement with the fight game over the years, first as an amateur boxer himself, watching men at work in the corner, and later from physicians. His skill and reputation now keep him busy in the ring about eight days every month, and he has worked 54 world championship fights. In addition, Citro keeps a central database of records for all registered fighters in the world—the only comprehensive record considered official by all the international boxing associations—which he publishes every year as Computer Boxing Update. He is far from the boredom of a retiree's life.
On a Tuesday afternoon in April, Citro pulled into Atlantic City at 2:30 for that evening's four-fight card at the Showboat Hotel & Casino. The bouts wouldn't start until 8:30 p.m., but Citro likes to take his time and schmooze in the hotel coffee shop, where he is joined by other Atlantic City cutmen. They include 79-year-old Milt Bailey, who says he learned the finer points of the job during his career as a hospital maintenance worker; Leon Tabbs, who owns a launderette in Philadelphia; Don Nelson, a semiretired contractor; and, of course, Eddie (the Clot) Aliano, an ex-railroad man who is most frequently in the corner opposite Citro.
December 4, 1989
Led by Citro, a nonstop talker, they debate the same topics over and over again. What, for instance, does Don King have up his sleeve? What were the worst cuts in boxing history?
"Just pick any fight Vito Antuofermo's ever been in," Citro says. "What a challenge."
"What about Chuck Wepner's fights?" responds Aliano. "The Bayonne Bleeder, oooh, the man was human hamburger."
"What about the cuts in Rocky Marciano's fights?" someone chimes in.
"What about Jake La Motta's fights? What about Jake La Motta's fights with his wife? Now there was a challenge."
Citro thinks of himself as a technician. "The toughest cut occurs in the middle of the forehead or at the hairline," he says. "The skin is thin there, and the blood will flow directly into the eyes. A cut inside the mouth tends to bleed a lot. Cuts on the cheek aren't too bad. You use the cheekbone as leverage to press against. Cuts on the eyelids and eyebrows are real, real tough to fix. You need to break out your coagulants for those. You can't press too hard. There's not a lot holding your eyeballs in your head to begin with, you know."
Years ago, cutmen used any coagulant available. A lot of them preferred flexible collodion, a syrupy compound that dried to the color and consistency of mothball flakes and sometimes had to be surgically removed. Now the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board, like most local commissions, allows only Avitene, Thrombin, and adrenaline chloride 1:1000. Adrenaline causes broken blood vessels to constrict; Avitene, an expensive, chalky-white synthetic fiber, and topical Thrombin, a colorless liquid, are applied directly to the wound and enhance the body's natural clotting process. (The Maalox Citro carries is for managers and trainers with nervous stomachs.)
"These are the real secret to stopping cuts," says Citro, holding up his thumbs. They are strong and calloused. "Blood comes from valves in your head like a faucet," he continues. "You identify the valve and apply pressure. I learned that from my doctor, Ralph Skowron, who is a cousin of Moose Skowron, the old Yankee slugger."
Citro's first fight of the night is the main event, Doug (Cobra) DeWitt versus Robbie Sims for the WBO middleweight championship. Citro crouches near the corner of the ring next to DeWitt's manager, Tommy Gallagher, and his second, Ray Pallilo. Citro is dressed in his street clothes—sneakers, Sergio Valente jeans and a white terry cloth shirt with a light blue collar. Over the shirt, he wears a silk jacket with embroidered red letters that read, DeWitt.
"DeWitt is a $1,000 cut job," Citro whispers to an observer. If Citro is lucky, he earns 2% of a fighter's purse for a bout. Often the purse is so small that he works for nothing.
DeWitt doesn't start well. In the first round, he gets his face in the way of an uppercut, and a nasty slice opens under his chin. A few rounds later, a right jab by Sims cracks DeWitt's eyebrow, near his left temple. Blood washes down his cheek. The crowd sees this and releases the type of whoop that makes you think civilization still has a way to go.
Citro fights his battle with a clock that is the opposite of his boxer's: one minute of frantic activity, three minutes off. As the round-ending bell rings, Citro dips through the ring ropes to do his damage-control work. Out come the gauze pads and the brown vial of Thrombin. Out come the Enswells, those miniature flatirons that Citro keeps on ice and applies to the boxer's face to keep swelling down. The bands of nervous tension in DeWitt's neck and face loosen as Citro's thumbs close those leaky valves.
Twelve rounds later DeWitt wins a split decision. He is swept from the Mississippi Pavilion by a wave of reporters, die-hard boxing fans, and high rollers who have been "comped" by the casino and are trying not to spill their plastic cups of whiskey. In the turmoil, Citro is left behind, forgotten. This is not unusual. He shrugs.
Citro has always had too many interests to let little things get him down. Through high school in Gloucester City, N.J., and a hitch in the Marines during World War II, he fought as an amateur boxer. He worked as a letter carrier in Blackwood, while attending the Columbia School of Broadcasting in Philadelphia, from which he graduated in 1951. He also took business courses at the Wharton School. Since then, he has been a theatrical booking agent, a substitute high school teacher and an insurance agent, and is the author of a booklet, So You Want to Be a Cornerman. All the while he has been involved in boxing in a variety of roles.
Why didn't all this experience lead to a more visible and lucrative position in boxing? Citro looks wistful. "I used to train a white fellow in the '70s named Gaetan Hart," he says. "Gaetan was the lightweight champion of Canada, but he was unlucky. He knocked out one opponent, the guy went into a coma and eventually recovered. The next guy he fought went into a coma and died. Gaetan's career went into a downslide.
"When you train a fighter he becomes like your son, and I already have five kids of my own. The thing people remember about Hart is that he was a bleeder in the ring and I was the guy who kept him going. Pretty soon whenever I came around everyone would say, 'Hey, Ralph Citro. Hey, cutman.' "
It is 11 p.m. at the Showboat. The slot machines downstairs are clacking away, and the hotel buzzes with a restless energy. Citro snaps shut his black case. "There are plenty of possibilities tonight," he says. "Some of the other cutmen are going to the Sundeck Coffee Shop to flirt with the waitresses. The Clot is down the hall trying to drum up work for next week. The guy never stops. He drives me nuts. Doug DeWitt's at the Atlantic City Medical Center getting stitched up. I think I'll pop over there. The doctors may need some pointers. No, on second thought, maybe I'll just hang around here for another hour and try to get paid."
Mark Stuart Gill is a free-lance writer based in New York City.