D'Amato, Constantine ("Cus")

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D'AMATO, Constantine ("Cus")

(b. 17 January 1908 in New York City; d. 4 November 1985 in New York City), professional boxing manager and trainer who opened his home to young, would-be fighters from the urban ghettos; several of these youths became world champions.

D'Amato was born in the Bronx, the seventh of eight sons of Italian immigrants Damiamo D'Amato, a coal and ice deliverer, and Elizabeth (Rosato) D'Amato, a homemaker. Tragically, only five of the eight children survived infancy; likewise, D'Amato's mother died when he was very young. He learned to box as a child from his father and an older brother. D'Amato's youthful matches usually took place on the city streets rather than in the ring. It was in the midst of such street fighting that D'Amato, at age twelve, received a severe blow to the head that put an end to his hopes of entering the professional boxing arena. The impact left him with one eye severely impaired and not long afterward, in another street fight, D'Amato tangled with a bona fide heavyweight fighter. He took another serious blow to the head, which left him dazed for several days. With lingering effects from both blows, D'Amato ultimately dropped out of high school and went to work in a mill. By age twenty-two his hair had turned gray, and he was nearly bald by his early thirties. Already color-blind, he faced the premature deterioration of his eyesight and senses of hearing, taste, and smell.

In 1930, following a brief stint working on the campaign of Fiorello La Guardia, the mayor of New York City, D'Amato entered into a partnership with Jack Barrow to establish the Empire Sports Club at the Gramercy Gym on Fourteenth Street near Manhattan's Union Square. D'Amato also served as a boxing coach in the U.S. Army during the late 1930s, but he was discharged before the United States entered World War II. After the war ended he returned to New York City and devoted all of his time to training young fighters; he lived and even slept at the Gramercy Gym. D'Amato took such a personal interest in each of his pupils that he reputedly refused to take his fair portion of the prize purses they won. He valued mental acuity over physical prowess and instructed his boxers accordingly. The troubled youths he took into his gym during the 1940s included the young Rocky Graziano, who became a middleweight champion in 1947 and a hall of fame boxer, and in 1952 D'Amato began training Floyd Patterson. In 1956, at age twenty-one, Patterson won the heavyweight championship, the youngest boxer to do so until Mike Tyson won the belt in 1986 at age twenty. D'Amato, who helped to train Tyson as well, died before his last protégé's victory.

The crime-riddled business of boxing during the 1950s was controlled by the International Boxing Club. D'Amato stood personally at odds with this alleged racketeering organization and was instrumental in breaking its hold on the sport. In the late 1950s, largely through D'Amato's efforts, the prizefight industry was opened up to support bout venues outside of Madison Square Garden, where the boxing monopoly at that time was centered. Perhaps in retaliation against D'Amato for his antagonistic stance toward the crime machine, New York City revoked his manager's license during the late 1950s, allegedly because of his associations with known underworld figures. He petitioned successfully for reinstatement of the license in 1959, but abandoned his New York City gym altogether in 1962.

With financial backing from two associates, Jim Jacobs and Bill Cayton, in 1962 D'Amato established a new gymnasium facility in Catskill, upstate New York, near the home of Camille Ewald. D'Amato and Ewald had met in the 1940s and eventually entered into a common-law relationship. Ewald supported D'Amato in his dedication to training socially challenged youths, and she allowed her home to function as a halfway house for D'Amato's pupils, often fulfilling the role of a mother figure to them. Most notably, D'Amato and Ewald, in anticipation of Tyson's future athletic success, established legal guardianship over the young man in an effort to protect him both personally and financially from the cutthroat boxing establishment. D'Amato and Ewald never married, although their close friendship lasted for decades, until his death.

D'Amato was well known for giving away, reinvesting, and loaning out his money as quickly as it was acquired. According to his one-time pupil Patterson, D'Amato "gave money away like … water," because he "cared more about his fighters than money." Because of D'Amato's great generosity and despite his frugality, he was driven to bankruptcy in the early 1970s and was thereafter subsidized largely by Jacobs, his business partner. According to the journalist José Torres, a former Olympic boxer and light-heavyweight champion, D'Amato's distaste for money was intense; the trainer had "an aversion to opulence … [which] he felt was a creation of the devil."

D'Amato died from pneumonia on 4 November 1985, and was buried in Catskill. After his death, his friends and colleagues held a memorial service at the old Gramercy Gym. Many who knew D'Amato well continued to quote his wisdom years later, remembering him as a kindly trainer who was two parts philosopher and one part sportsman. As a former D'Amato protégé and a lifelong friend, Torres applauded his mentor's ability to nurture wayward boys toward respectability. "[Cus] understood the boy's defensive posture," Torres said of D'Amato's influence over Tyson, a particularly incorrigible youth. Tyson was "a remorseless predator.… Just the sort of challenge Cus savored."

Dave Anderson interviewed D'Amato for In the Corner: Great Boxing Trainers Talk About Their Art (1991). D'Amato is discussed in José Torres, Fire and Fear: The Inside Story of Mike Tyson (1989), and Ronald K. Fried, Corner Men: The Great Boxing Trainers (1991). For information on D'Amato's relationship with Tyson see "Pennies from Heaven," Las Vegas Review-Journal (12 Jan. 1999). An obituary is in the New York Times Biographical Service 16 (5 Nov. 1985).

Gloria Cooksey

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