Cus D’Amato – A ‘Legendary Coach Even Amongst Legends’

Cus D'Amato
Date of Birth:January 17, 1908
Died: November 4, 1985 (Aged 77) 
Place of Birth:New York, United States
Gyms: ‘Empire Sporting Club – Gramercy Gym’. D’Amato’s gym Catskill NY.
Location: New York
Boxing Background: Amateur Boxer, Boxing Coach
Notable FightersFloyd Patterson, Jose Torres and the ‘baddest man on the planet!’ ‘Iron’ Mike Tyson
Notable Trainers Tutored: Teddy Atlas and Kevin Rooney

Cus D’Amato’s Early Life

Constantine D’Amato, the son of American Italian parents was born in the New York borough of the Bronx on January 17th 1908. ‘Cus’ as he would come to be known had quite an interesting early life and not one you would necessarily associate with someone who would go on to become a legendary boxing trainer. Indeed, at a young age Cus became quite heavily involved and interested in Catholicism to the extent he even considered becoming a priest. Ultimately, he did not follow this path, choosing instead to become an amateur boxer where he fought at featherweight and lightweight. Cus was unable to obtain a professional license however due to an eye injury. An injury which allegedly occurred as a result of his involvement in a street fight. That said, Cus was the victim of routine beatings from his father and confirmed this in interview stating, ‘he did not hold any grudges against his father beating him and that in fact this made him a better and more disciplined man’.

*Note the above is not verbatim but was documented in the biographic novel ‘Confusing The Enemy – The Cus D’Amato story’ by Scott Weiss (2013).  

It nevertheless gave weight to many people’s claims the injury was actually sustained during one of the brutal beatings Cus suffered at the hands of his father. 

Cus D’Amato the Trainer

In 1939, at the age of just 22, Cus and his partner Jack Barrow opened the Empire Sporting Club; the Gramercy boxing gym located at 116 East 14th Street was intended to develop the potential of young fighters.

The gym launched the careers of some of the greatest boxing legends of our time. Cus by his own admission literally lived there for years spending his time at the gym in his words, ‘just waiting for a “champion”’. Sadly, during the early years Cus lost many of his best fighters as they were routinely poached by ‘connected’ managers and in particular the International Boxing Club of New York (IBC). A corporation alleged to have known links to the Mafia and ties and connections with the ‘Lucchese crime family’. Renowned for his uncompromising integrity and honesty, Cus refused to allow any of his fighters to enter any match promoted by the IBC. A decision vindicated when the group was later found guilty of conspiracy, extortion and violation of the anti-trust laws and subsequently dissolved in 1960.

One notable fighter Cus found but unfortunately lost was ‘Rocky Graziano’ who during this time signed with other trainers and managers and went on to become middleweight champion of the world. 

Cus D’Amato’s famed fighters 

It took ten years of waiting before Cus was finally able to find the “champion” he had been searching for, when a 14 year old boy named Floyd Patterson walked into the Gramercy Gym.

Under Cus’ tutelage Patterson would capture the Olympic middleweight gold medal title at the 1952 games in Helsinki. In the same year, Floyd also won the National Amateur Middleweight Championship and the New York Golden Gloves Middleweight Championship. Thereafter, Cus guided Patterson through the notoriously difficult professional ranks and into a position for him to fight for a title vacated by one Rocky Marciano! Patterson first beating Tommy ‘Hurricane’ Jackson in an elimination bout before squaring off against Light Heavyweight Champion of the World Archie Moore on November 30, 1956 for the Heavyweight Championship of the World.

Utilising his unique ‘peek-a-boo’ style developed by Cus D’Amato, Patterson knocked out Moore in five rounds to become at that time the youngest Heavyweight Champion in history at the tender age of just 21 years and 10 months. Notably, he would also become the first Olympic gold medalist to win a professional Heavyweight title. Yet Cus and Patterson would sadly split after Patterson’s second consecutive K/O to Sonny Liston.

The Gramercy Gym and the ‘peek-a-boo’ style 

Cus’ gym for young New York fighters was a tough place to get into. Quite literally! The entrance door on East 14th Street was heavy and when opened it led along a badly lit stairway and a climb into darkness to a landing with another door. A lot of kids would reach that door and find themselves unable to open it. It was by design not by default. Cus once opining ‘The first thing I want to know about a kid is whether he can open that door!’ Were they to do so, they entered the tough, hard, disciplined school of Cus D’Amato.

Here, fighters were trained in a style Cus had invented – ‘peek-a-boo’ boxing. In essence, it was a style which saw a boxers hands placed in front of their face and the 3-2-3, Body-head-body, or 3-3-2, Body-Body-head punch patterns executed. 

Cus’ personal life, also entwined in boxing!

In the early 1970s, Cus began looking for a mansion big enough to accommodate about 12 of his most talented trainees with the ability to cater to up to 50 others. D’Amato (then in his 60s) met his wife-to-be Camille Ewald who was thinking about selling her house – a 14-room Victorian Mansion. D’Amato came around and made her a proposition! He would be solely responsible for all the training and managing of his fighters while she would be responsible for all cooking and household chores! It was a relationship that worked!

Cus D’Amato’s other fighters

After Patterson, Cus would go on to train José Torres who won the Light Heavyweight Championship of the World by defeating International Boxing Hall Of Fame member, Willie Pastrano. It was, however, Torres’ 1967 rematch with Dick Tiger at Madison Square Garden (in which a full blown riot erupted) and Torres’ loss due to a referee’s call that had a profound effect on Cus. A sensitive and caring man by nature, Cus often could not stomach the violence in the ring let alone out of it. And though this event saw him move to Athens, NY and open D’Amato’s Gym in Catskill the following year, Cus whilst still in the game became reclusive.

Turning down Ali and finding ‘Iron Mike’!

In 1970, after finishing his 3-year prison sentence for refusing to serve during the Vietnam War, Muhammad Ali called Cus D’Amato and asked him to train him. D’Amato declined; the enduring view that he had no patience for the Ali circus!

In 1980, however, he was introduced to a young man named Mike Tyson who was in a nearby reform school (who at the age of 14 had been arrested 38 times) and began training at D’Amato’s Gym. Cus developed a special bond with Tyson and legally adopted him when his mother died in 1984. Tyson started to use the famed ‘Peek-a-boo’ style and was also aided in training by Cus’ famous trainer protégés – Teddy Atlas and Kevin Rooney who emphasised elusive movement. Therein began the tale of the ‘Baddest man on the Planet’.ho

This though is Cus D’Amato’s story and allowing for a little cliché, Tyson’s emergence on the scene ensured that after some 20 years of operating on the peripheries, Cus was back in ‘Boxing’s Big Time’. D’Amato commandeering the spotlight when he announced within two years he expected to match Tyson “for all the marbles” – meaning he was out to ensure Tyson would become the youngest heavyweight champion in history. What followed was indeed, epic history.

Cus D’Amato’s – Legacy

Tragically, Cus D’Amato would not live to see the fruition of his goal dying of pneumonia at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan on November 4th 1985. Tyson would however supplant Patterson’s legacy and fulfill Cus’ prophecy by becoming the youngest Heavyweight Champion of the world in winning the title at 20 years of age on the 22nd of November 1986, destroying Trevor Berbick by TKO inside of two rounds.

Cus D’Amato was inducted posthumously into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1995.

Two years previously on the razing of his gym, Cus D’Amato had a sign erected in his honour with part of 14th Street renamed “Cus D’Amato Way”. Floyd Patterson, Jose Torres and Vinnie Ferguson all attended the ceremony.

Fun fact

Cus D’Amato didn’t really have any real formal boxing training. He grew up as one of five brothers and learned to fight on the streets of New York!