Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Q&A: Dr. Scott Weiss on Cus D'Amato, Part I.

Saturday Night Boxing recently spoke with Dr. Scott Weiss, the co-author of the book ”Confusing the Enemy: The Cus D'Amato Story" (Acanthus Publishing, 2013). Weiss, a physical therapist and athletic trainer for the United States Olympic Team, has written (along with Paige Stover) the most comprehensive volume to date on one of boxing's most fascinating and enigmatic trainers. Using his experience as a martial artist and former amateur boxer, Weiss delves into the technical, psychological and personal characteristics that helped D'Amato, with his peek-a-boo ring style, shape champions such as Mike Tyson, Floyd Patterson and Jose Torres.

With an extensive background as a researcher and an intense passion for his subject, Weiss successfully pieces together a robust understanding of an often intentionally oblique man. Leafing through archives and conducting scores of fresh interviews with those in the New York boxing scene and friends and family of D'Amato (who died in 1985), Weiss presents a florid picture of post-war New York City boxing, the men who controlled it and how one outcast figure found his own way to the top, often by controversial methods.  
Part I of the Q&A covers similarities between D'Amato and Bruce Lee, the mob's involvement with boxing in New York City, Floyd Patterson, the technical and psychological components of the peek-a-boo style and why D'Amato was scared of George Foreman.
Interview by Adam Abramowitz:
(This interview has been condensed.)
One of the things that I learned from your introduction was how Cus D’Amato was a seminal influence on your own martial arts training. Can you talk about his initial influence on you?
My first connection was when I heard about the young Mike Tyson coming up in the ranks. Being a boxer and a martial artist, almost going to the Olympics myself in 1988 [for tae kwon do], I knew about Mike Tyson from my training. And being a martial artist, I said to myself, who’s this guy? Who’s his master? So I would say in the early 80s, it was really Mike’s influence that made me track down Cus and find out who Cus was. That was the initiation.
The other influence you talked about was Bruce Lee. As you initially learned more about Mike Tyson and Cus D’Amato, what drew you to his style?
Similar to Bruce, it’s a lifestyle. It’s not just something you do on the side. I lived my life thinking all of those thoughts. I realized that Bruce and Cus did it as a lifestyle, not just as a vocation. That was the first thing that I realized about them that was similar to me.
From there, I realized that Cus and Bruce had a similar idea about how to totally be able to express yourself. For instance, when a fighter really gets hurt, the other boxer would square off on the fighter and start throwing bombs left and right. Cus said let’s try to get into the stance immediately, which is similar to a horse stance, so you can get the same power left and right if you know how to shift your weight correctly.
So it was like putting together the East and the West, and Cus didn’t even know that he was doing it. Bruce epitomized it and Cus was kind of dabbling with it in the West.
Once you moved away from actively competing in martial arts, what stuck with you about Cus? What were some of the facets about Cus’ teachings that drew you to pursue a more exploratory role about his life?
Cus’ style transcended boxing. His whole approach was adopting a lifestyle as I was alluding to before – that idea of adapting a lifestyle of nutrition, training, psychology, the right sleep. Everything that he was saying was so analogous to what I’m doing with the Olympians that I work with right now as a physical therapist. I’ll be at the training center in Colorado Springs while our athletes are at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
To be able to see how the best athletes train was really a goal of mine. Seeing how Cus trained and how the Olympians trained, there was such a crossover. But Cus was way before his time.
Some of the specifics [of the crossover] were: when you screw up and when you fail at what you are trying to do, getting back into your rhythm is the hardest thing in life. The girl falls off the balance beam and how do you get back up and say, “Holy shit, I just did that. It’s the Olympics. How do I keep going?”  Cus developed the confidence in you. He knew hypnosis. He knew the right training, the right words to say.
What made your pursue Cus in particular as the subject of your first book?
Being a smaller fighter, I liked the style of the peek-a-boo. The rhythm and timing was more offbeat. It was what I did naturally – so those are kind of the stylistic qualities. Also, realizing that what you are doing is more than just fighting, it was expanding on that. I realized that Cus did that naturally, with his fighters always giving everything they can, and taught them to be a complete person first, and a great athlete – that was very important – not just a great boxer. That’s what I liked about Cus.
How did you hook up with your co-author, Paige Stover, for this project?
After being at the Olympics my second time, in Beijing, I talked to Michael Phelps. I talked to Tim Morehouse, a couple of people who wrote their books. After speaking to both of them, I went with who they directed me towards. Paige had done a few things in the boxing world and was really burgeoning at that time. I needed help in editing, expressing and directing the things that I was saying and that I knew so well from the interviews that I did. Paige was a vital part of that.
One theme in your book that you talked about was how difficult it was to track down good information about Cus D’Amato. And how, in your words, that was almost by design. With that said, how did the construct of the fictional narrator come out in your work? What advantages and disadvantages did you see in having this fictional narrator take us through the events of Cus’ life?
Cus lived the life of the immaculate puzzle, and he wanted it that way. I can’t express that enough. That’s what he wanted. Be that as it may, it made it very difficult because when you speak to the people that were around, they knew a little bit of Cus…certain things, even his family members.
It became frustrating at one point. But then I began to understand what was going on in his life. I started to understand the big picture. You know, it was tough to decipher just what Cus was doing. I’m a researcher. In the medical field, you have to have three to four references no matter what statement you say. And I couldn’t do that with Cus. So to write a straight biography to me would have been a falsehood or a fallacy. I would never be able to do a direct, straight biography. 
So that’s why after interviewing so many of his family members and the people around him – 80-something interviews – that’s when I realized I started to see through his kaleidoscope and was able to almost think like him. That’s when I started to be able to put together the truth of the story. Instead of staying, “Cus woke up at this time. He did that.” I decided to put it into a story.
Cus opened his gym in New York in 1933 – the Empire Sporting Club. How did he make his bones or penetrate professional boxing? Could you walk us through Cus’ early years as a trainer?
It was his brother. His brother became a boxer and worked with a manager. His brother worked with [boxer] Yama Bahama. I think his manager was Bob Melnick at the time. After Cus really saw the inner workings of boxing from the side, from really watching it at the Bronx, up at Sunnyside Boulevard, at some of the churches where his brother would box, that was his main injection into boxing.
I think I alluded to this in the book that the first essence of boxing in Cus’ life was through an uncle. His uncle was also a wrestler and gave all the boys boxing gloves and punching bags for Christmas once. That was the genesis of boxing in Cus’ mind. But he realized the inner workings of boxing with what he went through watching his brother in the pros.
How was Cus able to first able to achieve success as a trainer?
Probably in the army. Cus had a way of being so charismatic and he always commanded such a personality that they would say, “wow, this guy knows what he’s talking about,” and they listened. When he was an MP in the army and he started taking his brother’s knowledge and evolving it, he realized that people started to listen to him. People wanted to know how to fight and defend themselves. And Cus knew that his whole life. I think the army was an integral place for Cus to know who he was as a person.
One thing that I learned from your book was Cus’ early involvement with Rocky Graziano [Graziano would later become middleweight champion in 1947]. That’s not a fighter who is closely associated with him these days. Can you shed some light on that relationship?
He was a Lower East Side boy and Cus ran the Lower East Side. And that’s what it came down to. When Graziano came about, they needed a substitute for a fight, and Graziano worked at the Empire Sporting Club – he was fighting for Cus’ Empire Sporting Club. It was almost like a boxing organization that you had to be a part of just to be able to get good fights. Graziano was just a young kid from the Lower East Side – just a good looking kid that everybody knew would knock people out. It was really because he was a Lower East Side boy and he filled in for someone.
Another interesting aspect of the book is your painting the picture of the mob’s involvement with boxing at that time. You talk about how challenging that environment was for someone who wasn’t that well connected.  Could you talk about the specific challenges that Cus faced as he started to get more involved in big-time New York City boxing?
Just look how hard it is these days. To really break through, there are only so many avenues, so many paths. Back then, there weren’t even that many. There were only one or two paths to get to the top of the mountain and if you were road blocked, you had a rough day.
Cus had to let his own fighters fight each other in the stable he had. Or let the fighters in his stable fight the guys who left and were at Gleason’s or other gyms. Go to Europe. Start fighting there. And that’s what Cus needed to do. When there’s not a path, you have to find your own path. That was one of his main pillars in the genesis of who he was. It was find another path. When you’re blocked, you’re blocked. But Cus had a little bit more of a harder time and had to climb a higher mountain, and sidestep some landmines.
Can you shed some more light on the mob involvement? I think a lot of elements of that scene would be very surprising to today's boxing fans.
I’d be in the mob and I would tell you only negative things about Cus. Everybody spoke against him. Everybody was negative. If somebody asked about what’s the book on Cus. The guy would say, “He’s a fag. Don’t talk to him. I don’t want to have anything to do with him. Don’t go down to his gym."
That time after the Depression. It was a really rough time. And people wouldn’t let him in. Every time you poke your head in, and you almost had something, they would push you right back out. Cus needed to go through the back door instead of the front door. And that was simply the milieu. That’s what it was. Everybody was in on it to push you out.  

It would be like you trying to get an interview with Manny Pacquiao after the fight. Everybody else who would be part of the mob, they would get the first offer to talk to him. After that, if he wanted to hang around, maybe you will get it. If not, you’re done. You don’t get anything. You might just get a little piece of something that he said to another reporter. It became very tough.
Let’s talk about Floyd Patterson, Cus’ first big champion. Tell us about the relationship between the two of them. How did it progress through the years and how was Cus was able to guide him to the top?
Cus prided himself on not getting people later in their career after they were champion. He prided himself on getting them as a boy, creating them as a man and making them a great fighter. That’s the example of Floyd. Floyd knew nothing when he started with Cus. He didn’t read or write. He didn’t know how to communicate with people. He was really a struggling kid. Cus loved the idea of making sure that this guy became a man in life. That was really his main goal with Floyd.
Over the years, just to make it simple, Floyd stuck with him as much as he could but then got taken advantage of. [Patterson] had a big meeting with Roy Cohn and one of the big priests of that time, one of the cardinals. They had a big dinner. And long story short, people started to deceive Floyd to make him think that Cus was doing the wrong thing for him.
The guy who helped pull Floyd over the hill to their side was Julius November, a lawyer. He made sure that Floyd had money. He was working for Floyd and Cus and it became a horrible situation. That’s what happened over time. It just deteriorated. People started telling Floyd that Cus was not on his side, and Floyd eventually believed it.
When Floyd was coming up, how was the peek-a-boo style perceived?
It was a big joke. Adam, it was one, big joke. [Matchmaker] Teddy Brenner used to say, “What’s this guy doing, hiding behind his gloves? What is he playing peek-a-boo or paddy cake, like I do with my kids?”
All the media laughed. All the mob media were writing in their pads while they were tilting their hats down, if you know what I mean. It was all a big game in that era. They were making fun of Cus’ little guy. He’s not even a heavyweight! Look at this kid! He’s going to get knocked out by anybody! They were laughing at him.
How did Cus deal with Patterson’s loss to Sonny Liston and how did that affect him as a person?
Right away, Cus wanted him [Patterson] to start getting hypnotized again. Hypnosis was a big point in Cus’ world. Mike [Tyson] used to get hypnotized two or three times a day – before  practices, before fights. So hypnosis was huge. Psychology was huge. Cus called it your own internal dialogue. What you say to yourself the day of your fight is either going to make you or break you.
So as Floyd advanced, that became more and more important. When he lost, Cus unfortunately wasn’t that involved at the time. And he tried to reach out to Floyd but Floyd was on that mountain where I was alluding to before – almost on the top of that mountain believing everybody else. He was just gone from Cus. At the time, Cus wanted to speak to Floyd and Floyd blew him off. They were supposed to meet after a fight at one of the entrances but he never showed up. Cus was there waiting, and he was really, really upset.
He never got to share the feelings and the psychology of coming back and being strong in the second fight. He never really got to teach him and tell him everything that he wanted to…to be able to come back from a huge loss. Again, just like Mike, nobody was there to teach him how to come back from a tough loss. But look at Manny Pacquiao; he came back from a huge, tremendous loss. That’s developing a champion. And Cus wanted his fighters to understand that and learn that.
I know you are big into technique and philosophy. Can you give us a quick tutorial on the peek-a boy style? What does it enable fighters to do well? What are some potential weaknesses? Why did it work well for Patterson and Tyson? Why hasn’t that style carried over to other fighters?
I’ll give you a couple of things on both sides. For the pros, look at the Thai boxers. They are known in the UFC. They are known for any type of hand striking to be the best. It’s called the Art of Eight Limbs. Look where they keep their hands – up high. Keeping your hands up high is one of the biggest things you could do to protect yourself from getting hit in the head.
Cus also believed in tucking your chin. If you really saw Mike as a young kid or Floyd as a young kid, they would be tucking their chin so much into their chest that if you looked at them from the back, you almost didn’t see their head. It was almost like a magic trick. Tucking your chin and keeping your hands up high were very important for any strike to the head.
Another huge positive thing was movement. Cus always said to make sure your head was not in the same spot, if you throw a punch or if you move. That was huge. Throwing a punch and dipping or throwing a punch and slipping to one side, mostly to the left, head movement was really important.
Also, a final big pro of that style was the footwork. It wasn’t so orthodox. There were more martial arts movements, where there was hopping and springing to one side. Switching feet to get your strong side into the uppercut. Jumping to the other side to throw a right, what Cus would say a “6” to the liver or the kidney, a really deep shot. He would constantly move the body.
A negative about the style was you really had to close the gap properly. A shorter fighter, like a Mike, fighting a taller guy like a Buster Douglas or a  Lennox [Lewis], the movements going forward are different than the movements in a vertical plane. Mike worked furiously. Cus called it a “furious concentration” to move forward and dip and weave and only then would you be able to get into a spot where you could throw a punch with your bad intentions.
There was a weakness in closing the gap. There was a weakness to people who could really throw the uppercut or throw a low body shot. And a further weakness was against somebody who weighed more than you and could push you on your heels.
Cus’ fight library is legendary. He used to have all-night screenings and make his boxers watch tons of old fight films. Were there particular fights or fighters that he kept coming back to as influences?
Oh yeah. Off the top of my head, Cus loved Robinson. He loved Ray Robinson’s spinal posture and the way he threw his shoulders into the punch. He loved the technique of Robinson but he liked the movement of Henry Armstrong. Armstrong was a guy that was always dodging and weaving and punching as he moved forward. He’s almost like the Floyd Mayweather of today.
Another guy would be Tony Canzoneri – another lighter-weight fighter that had the power of a heavyweight but he moved like a lightweight. Those are the people who Cus loved. He came back to all of their fights.
But Cus was afraid, and it is true, he was afraid of George Foreman. If you looked at the way that George Foreman punched, and if you stand up and pretend that you’re in a boxing stance, his right hand comes around and underneath. And that unfortunately gets the peek-a-boo fighter in a bad position because every punch is like a clockwise motion. They are like wide, rounding uppercuts. Cus would say, “You’ll never fight George Foreman. Don’t do it.”
Another aspect of Cus’ technique was the array of punches that he would make his fighters throw. When you think of modern fighters, many of them are known for two or three punches, whether it’s the jab or the straight right hand or the left hook. But Cus really worked on seven, eight or nine different punches. He was a real believer in punch variety and punches from different angles. Was this more philosophical in nature?
No, this was actual. He wanted fighters to throw five or six punches in two-fifths of a second. He was timing it. It was a goal of his. Jose [Torres] was the first person before Floyd who accomplished it. Jose was actually able to throw six punches in two-fifths of a second. His point was no matter what fighter you put in front of my boy, you’re going to stand still for two-fifths of a second and that’s when my guy can lay six punches. He really talked about the science of it and the timing of it. Jose was also instrumental in ingraining the peek-a-boo.

What would you say were some of the defensive underpinnings of Cus’ style? 

No matter what punch you threw, there was a head movement for it. No matter what punch was thrown at you there was head movement for it. Head movements were so important. Whatever you threw or they threw, there were head movements. Being defensive and not getting hit was more important than truly being offensive and hitting.

If you’ve ever studied Wing Chun, if there’s a block there’s a punch at the same time. That’s what Cus developed. It was always a simultaneous offense and defense. You are blocking and hitting at the same time. That was a very different piece that Cus had to his style
I wanted to talk about Cus’ psychological techniques.
A lot of fighters couldn’t deal with them.
Yes. But what made him unique in this area? What were some of the techniques that he used and how was he able to have success in this area and prop his boxers up to make them the great fighters they would become?
He wanted and needed all of you, psychologically and physically. If you could give yourself fully to him, you would be able to use all of those attributes and all of your weight into doing the task at hand. That’s what Cus’ goal was – really teaching you to be the best you can and express the best you can with the body you have. And that’s why I love Bruce as well, because Bruce Lee’s whole goal was fully expressing yourself with your body. Integrating whatever worked to make it work for you. And that’s what Cus and Bruce did.
And Mike just happened to have all of the attributes perfectly. Jose had some of them in one direction. Floyd had some of them in the other direction. But when Mike came along, all of the stars were aligned.

Click here to read Part II.

Adam Abramowitz is the head writer and founder of
He is also a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.
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1 comment:

  1. when can we expect the second part?
    Please more on Tyson and peek-a-boo