A Boxing Legend’s Memory Lives on 14th Street
Have you ever walked on 14th Street near Irving Place and looked up to see that this section of the thoroughfare had a secondary street sign naming it “Cus D’Amato Way?” I recently did just this. I walk on 14th Street every day- how had I never noticed it? And how did I not know what it meant? Ashamed at my lack of awareness, I immediately did some research. And boy was I entranced by what I found…
Constantine “Cus” D’Amato was born in 1908 to an Italian family in a tough Bronx neighborhood. He grew up fighting on the streets. In 1939, at the age of 22 he and partner Jack Barrow opened the Empire Sporting Club, a boxing gym intended to develop young fighters, at the Gramercy Gym at 116 East 14th Street off Irving Place (where the building housing PC Richards now stands). This gym launched the careers of some of the greatest boxing legends of our time.In his early days D’Amato lost many fighters to the International Boxing Club of New York (IBC), a corporation alleged to have mafia ties and connections to the Lucchese crime family. Known for his uncompromising integrity and honesty, Cus refused to allow any of his fighters to enter a match promoted by the IBC (the group was later found guilty of conspiracy, extortion, and the violation of anti-trust laws in 1960 and was dissolved).
After ten years, in 1949, Cus would discover the boxing champion that he had been waiting for when a 14-year-old Floyd Patterson walked into the Gramercy Gym. D’Amato trained Patterson for three years before he went on to win the Gold medal in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics as a middleweight. This same year Floyd also won won the National Amateur Middleweight Championship and the New York Golden Gloves Middleweight Championship. Four years later, at age 21, Patterson became the youngest man to win the world heavyweight title and later became the first man to regain this title. Patterson was known for his unique peek-a-boo style of boxing, a style where the hands are placed in front of one’s face and the 3-2-3, Body-head-body, or 3-3-2, Body-Body-head, punch patterns are executed. Peek-a-boo was developed by Cus D’Amato.
D’Amato then trained José Torres, who won the light heavyweight championship of the world, and Vinnie Ferguson, the famed Sports Illustrated “undefeated prodigy.” In 1967, Torres was fighting Dick Tiger in a rematch at Madison Square Garden. Torres lost due to a referee’s call the crowd clearly felt was unfair and the arena erupted in a full blown riot. As stated in a 2010 article in The Daily Mail, “D’Amato began to withdraw from the boxing world after the riot. He had a hard time stomaching the violence in the ring, much less out of it. The following year he moved to Athens, NY and opened D’Amato’s Gym in Catskill. Although still in the game D’Amato became reclusive. He had grown tired of the boxing world and all its corruption.”
In 1970, when Muhammad Ali finished his 3-year prison term for refusing to serve in the U.S. military during the Vietnam War, he called D’Amato asking him to train him. D’Amato declined (more on this refusal is found in The Daily Mail article). He was content in Catskill. In 1980, a young man named Mike Tyson who was in a nearby reform school (at the age of 14 he had been arrested 38 times) began training at D’Amato’s Gym. D’Amato developed a special bond with Tyson and legally adopted him when his mother died in 1984. Tyson started to use the Peek-a-boo style and was also trained by Teddy Atlas and Kevin Rooney, both famous trainers and proteges of D’Amato. A 1985 article in People magazine said the following about D’Amato’s relationship with Tyson:
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.
Just one year after adopting Tyson, in the winter of 1985, Cus D’Amato passed away from pneumonia (view his New York Times obituary) before seeing Tyson become the youngest world heavyweight titleholder in history. A Times article published upon his death referred to him as, “Cus D’Amato, the sometimes strange, often suspicious, invariably generous teacher and philosopher and boxer manager and trainer.” In 1995, Cus was inducted posthumously into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Two years prior to that honor, in October of 1993, the 14th Street Union Square Local Development Corporation erected a sign naming part of 14th Street “Cus D’Amato Way, after the building that housed the gym was razed. Floyd Patterson, Jose Torres, and Vinnie Ferguson participated in the ceremony. Constantine D’Amato may no longer be with us, but now every time we walk down 14th Street we will remember him and his legacy and no longer wonder what that street sign means.
* Photos from LIFE are available to view HERE