My Former Day Job — Slugging It Out with Mike Tyson, Cus D’Amato, Teddy Atlas and the Fighters at the Catskill Gym
“I never work with people who don’t work for themselves. Can’t trust them,” Cus declared. “You’re your own boss? OK, I’ll work with you.” Michael visited Cus D’Amato, the famous boxing trainer in Catskill, New York at the request of his German producer. He saw an article on Cus training some promising kids, and he wanted Michael to check it out.
With approval from both Cus and our producer in Germany, the next day I found myself in Camille Ewald’s kitchen. Camille was the wife of Cus’ now dead brother. She owned a large Victorian house on the western side of the Hudson River, where Cus lived with her and several of the professional boxers he was training.
Camille was cooking ziti and a large pot of sauce. Cus led us to the livingroom that spanned the length of the house. Two fighters sat in the darkly paneled room watching Judge Judy on the television. As soon as Cus entered the room they stood up and came over and introduced themselves to us.
I knew who Cus was, of course. I grew up watching the Gillette Friday Night Fights. Cus’ fighter Floyd Patterson was one of the first fighters I watched. I was lucky enough to start following boxing during the Golden Age. In the first fight I saw, Sonny Liston flattened his opponent. In the post-fight interview with Howard Cosell, it became evident that Sonny Liston didn’t speak English or any other language. He communicated with his fists and he did that very well. Liston, the then Cassius Clay, Patterson, Foreman, Frasier, Spinks both Michael and Leon, who wouldn’t love watching these guys? In a barely heated glassed-in porch my friend Suzie and I, with pillows on the floor, leaped around, punching the air and screaming, while we watched the fights. We wondered, too, when we would get to sit on a Gillette electric shaver and slide down a snow-covered hill. Now, twenty years later, I was in the house of Cus D’Amato, whose fighter had beaten Johan Johansson. Paterson was a quiet fighter, shy and introspective, and he was the only heavy weight that the mob didn’t own.
This was a problem. A problem for the mob, and a problem for Cus. He told us that for the entire time that Patterson fought, Cus never slept in the same room twice. If Cus was in a hotel and his room was on the third floor, he took the elevator to the seventh floor and walked down. He carried a knife with him folded into a newspaper. Even when he stayed in Europe, the mob sent prostitutes to his room followed by a photographer. If Cus were caught in flagrante he would be barred from the game. Cus trusted no one.
Promptly at four o’clock, we were called to dinner. At the table were Teddy Atlas, Kevin Rooney, Mike Tyson, Frankie from Brooklyn, two other fighters and Camille. As we sat there Camille and one of the fighters brought a large bowl of ziti, bread and salad to the table. Once everything was placed on the table everyone waited for Camille to be seated and served before they dug into the food. Their manners were impressive.
After dinner Cus heated some water and prepared instant coffee for himself and Michael and me. Later as we continued to film with him, we often showed up at the house after dinner, and this coffee ritual became a favorite for Cus and myself. Cus loved to talk, or more accurately, loved to tell stories. I was a new set of ears.
“You know what makes a great fighter?” he asked me one night. Heart, I thought, power, speed. “What makes a great fighter is desire and discipline. He can have all sorts of other qualities, strength, speed, power, talent, but without desire and discipline, he will never make it.” He let that sink in and then he said, “And do you know what the job of a fighter is? To hit, and not get hit and be entertaining. A lot of fighters don’t get that they need to be entertaining. If they aren’t, no one will watch them. “
The gym was an old municipal theater over the police station. On the stage, was the speed bag and large punching bag. The large open floor had a full- size ring and space next to it to jump rope and lift weights. Weight lifting was not emphasized, as it tended to bulk up the fighters and slow them down.
Cus trained the professionals during the day, but at night he trained the kids. As they entered they walked up to each adult in the room and introduced themselves. With Cus they stopped and waited for him to ask about how they were doing in school, did they have homework, how had they done on a test.
At the gym, the fighters all started moving at once and then they all stopped at once. I noticed that there was a light signaling the start and stop. The training was set up as a 15 round fight, three minutes on, one minute off. The timing in the ring became second nature, and over time, how they paced themselves became second nature. Teddy Atlas worked with the fighters in the ring. Before they ever threw a punch they spent months developing evasive moves. Bob and weave, bob and weave. And when they weren’t doing that they were leaping backward and turning 180 degrees in one step. Teddy swiped his arms toward their head and they had to duck or leap out of reach.
On the stage, an old mattress was tied to a pole, with the numbers one through nine written on it and circled. A fighter pressed the button of an audio tape machine, and Cus’ voice, scratchy from over use, called out numbers, at first very slowly, 3-7-1-1-8. This continued for a three minute round. The fighter hit the circled numbers as Cus called them out. If he was able to land all of the punches in the correct order and not get confused, he moved on to a faster version.
One day a man came to the gym who said that he could make fighters punch faster. Cus had his doubts, but let the man explain. He had done this before, but the last time was with a race horse. It seems that he had made the same claim about race horses, that he could make them run faster, and someone challenged him to prove it. They gave him a horse that always ended up in the middle of the pack; he just didn’t have it in him to win. The man carefully studied the mechanics the horse’s motion – what foot needed to be where and when, to maximize its speed. Then he slowly and deliberately reproduced these movements in this horse. What he was doing was imprinting the correct movements on the horse. When the horse could execute the movements perfectly in slow motion he sped up the process ever so slightly. It made sense to Cus. What his fighters needed was the ability to land combination punches, fast. A three-punch combination is common, but if a fighter could land five and maybe even seven punches in the same amount of time, it would devastate his opponent.
They set up the mattress – 1 was a jab, 2 a body punch, 3 an upper cut and so on. Then slowly, so slowly the fighter barely had the patience for it, Cus called out the punches by calling out the numbers. The lightening speed with which Tyson could deliver a combination punch is attributable to this. Years later, when I watched Tyson fight on television; I could hear people in his corner and at times even in the audience, yell, “Give him a three!” Or sometimes I heard a stream of numbers, and as with Pavlov’s dog, it unleashed a torrent of punches. No one had ever seen five and six punch combinations delivered with such speed.
I sat next to Cus while Teddy worked with a fighter in the ring. “Look at that,” he said, “That kid is a Zen Master.” I looked at him surprised to hear Cus use the term “Zen Master.” Then he yelled, “Johnny, you are the Master.” In the ring was a skinny kid moving deftly around the ring avoiding every punch thrown at him. “He knows everything that is going on in the ring at every moment. He is never taken by surprise. If you see a punch coming, it can’t knock you out.”
One night at the house I found Cus reading Eugen Herrigel’s, “Zen and the Art of Archery”. “Its my favorite book. Norman Mailer gave it to me. If you are a Master of one thing, you can be a Master of anything. The qualities it takes to be a Master are the same, no matter what discipline they are applied to.”
It was at this moment that I realized that my training had begun. I was going to learn from Cus what was never available to me in school. I was with a Master and I was going to absorb everything he could teach me.
Fighting is just like painting. You face a big blank canvas and your worst enemy is not your opponent, your worst enemy is yourself. You need to put in endless hours of training, study, preparation, so that at the moment when you confront the void you can completely let go, empty your mind and merge with the void.
Michael had a Zen approach to making documentaries. He found a situation, like this one, of an old trainer working with young fighters; he immersed himself in the situation and filmed everything until the story emerged. He was devoted to letting his subjects reveal themselves without the aid of a narrator. For eighteen months we went everywhere with these fighters. Michael and I always worked as a two-person crew. It made us extremely mobile. We could arrive at a location, be out of the car and shooting in less than two minutes. Michael worked the camera and I did the sound. We shot in video and not film, so I also carried a 30-pound video recorder on my back and was connected to Michael with a cable. Michael’s viewfinder limited his vision, so I scanned the scene and made sure that Michael didn’t miss any action outside of his field of vision. With my hand gripping the back of his shirt I could indicate to him to pan one-way or the other. He trusted me and was able create long pans that contained and followed the action without interruption. He also knew that I kept him safe, so that if someone took off down the street he could run backwards in front of them while shooting because as I held of his shirt and I could warn him of curbs, steps and other obstacles. Eventually we were able to run upstairs backwards and through revolving doors shooting all the while.
“Fear is your friend. Being afraid is a sign you are going to win,” Cus repeated this daily. I had to trust that he was right. Michael and I were finally going to film the kids in a real fight at the Apollo Boxing Club in the South Bronx, run by one of Cus’ former champions, Jose Torres. The fight was a “smoker”, unsanctioned, due to the fact that there was no doctor at the fight. I drove, Michael filmed out the window as we followed Teddy, who drove the kids in a van. Teddy had a lead foot, so that even with the pedal to the floor of the Subaru, I could barely keep up. We hit the George Washington Bridge moving quickly against the rush hour traffic. Teddy remained in the fast lane going east on the bridge. Suddenly and without warning, he cut across the all three lanes and went full speed down the off ramp. I did everything I could to stay on Teddy’s bumper. After winding through the bombed out neighborhoods of the South Bronx we pulled up to a bar under the “El”. (This was the New York of John Sloan and George Bellows.) Teddy jumped out of the car and said, “Wait here”. He went into the bar and came out with someone. He pointed at us. The guy went back into the bar and Teddy came to my window. “Its OK, he’ll look after your car.”
We entered a door across the street and bound up the stairs to the Apollo Boxing Club. On the landing a couple was deep frying Empanadas and cooking chicken on a charcoal grill. The stairs were filled with smoke, but the smell was as good as any fine ethnic kitchen.
Mike Tyson came to every fight, but even at fifteen his reputation was such that no one, who didn’t have to, would fight him. You didn’t fight Tyson for practice, which was really the point of these fights; you fought him if you never wanted to fight again.
The last fight they had at the Apollo, there was more fighting outside the ring than in it. Nothing about these fights was regulated. The audience was filled with local enthusiasts, who came, drank, cheered, and bet. One fellow had too much to drink and was not fairing well with his bets, so he started a fight in the seats. Someone knocked him out with a trophy. I was glad that Tyson would be watching the fights with us.
Teddy was able to get a fight for Frankie. As the “El” clamored by on the second story level outside the window, Frankie swooped into the middle of the ring, his arms flailing through the air. “Frankie, Frankie”, Teddy screamed, “Slow down, you’re going to knock yourself out”. In a case where the judges must have awarded points for effort, since almost no punches on either side actually landed, Frankie was awarded the fight. You would have thought he had won the Olympics, the way he strutted around the ring beating his chest.
The following week we were supposed to go to a fight in Queens. I had a horrible feeling about it; something was screaming in my head not to go. I never had such feelings before and wouldn’t dream of interfering with a shoot, but I couldn’t shake it. After much whining and pleading on my part, we didn’t go. When we returned to the gym on Monday, Teddy told us that there was a shooting at the fight. Worse than the gun-shots were the people running for the exits. Michael turned to me furious. “You made us miss that!” — Fear is your friend; fear is your best friend. –
He was right. Michael’s job is to run into the burning building, not away from it. My job is to run in with him. It was the only time I opposed his decision.
When you make a documentary, at least when you do it the way we did it, if you miss something it is gone forever. If you have a technical fuck up, the shot is lost forever. If the sound is bad, light is wrong, cable loose, you have lost it forever.
My job was to be sure that when something important happened the sound was perfect. There is no over dubbing in this sort of documentary, but people are used to perfect sound on TV and if you don’t have it, you will lose your viewers fast. When I walked into a room I surveyed it for errant sounds. If there was music, a radio, or TV playing, I turned it off. You can’t have part of a conversation with Judge Judy in the background and another part with Jeopardy – you can’t edit and have the conversation undermined by this contradictory sequencing in the background. More insidious are ambient sounds; the humming refrigerator, buzzing flourescent lights or sneakers thumping in the dryer. It was my job to go into someone’s home or a public space and as far as possible, eliminate these sounds before we started. This is where detachment or even out of body experience can help. In fact, if I could have worn a uniform that would have helped me assert my authority in these situations I would have been grateful. But knowing how bad a scene looked with lousy sound, to say nothing of Michael’s explosive temper, was enough to give me the courage I needed to invade someone’s home, unplug the refrigerator, remove light bulbs and turn the key on an idling ignition.
People asked how I could stand working with Michael. He screamed at me, kept me from going to the bathroom, or taking a break. But I learned early to listen to the content of what he was telling me, and never the tone. This was his work. This was the most important thing to him and if we missed a shot, it was gone forever. As far as it was humanly possible, it was my job to facilitate that. Some days we were in sync, moving through space together like tango dancers, whipping, turning, spinning, and never missing a thing. Other times we were more like figure skaters that had missed our jump and gone careening into the wall. I lived for the good days, where we were in the zone and we shot what we needed and it was better and more surprising than anything we could hope for.
I always saw this as Michael’s work. It was years before I even acknowledged to myself that I had anything to do with the production of these films. It wasn’t until I described this work to an actor friend and I told him about knowing what Michael wanted, and having an understanding of his vision, so that when I had my hand on the back of his shirt and I’d tilt it so that he would pan, my friend said to me, “You mean you were directing.” It stopped me short, and I protested and insisted that, “No, this was all Michael’s vision.” But later I thought about it and was reminded of how, when we finished shooting and Michael started editing and I returned to the studio, that he called me and asked me to lunch and as we sat in the diner he said, “And how should it start?” And as we talked through lunch I outlined the film on a napkin. Michael did all the editing, and to me, that was making the film. I always saw my role as a passive one. But perhaps it was in that passive role that I was best able to see what was there. As the sound person, no one interacted with me. I was the ultimate passive observer. In fact, I found that in this role I could see people as they were. I saw them as others saw them, and I saw them as they saw themselves, and I saw them just be in the world. And I always, always, fell in love with them, whether they were boxers or socialites, Holocaust survivors or composers, to know someone as they are, is to love them.
- In 1982 I was the sound person, assistant camera for Watch Me Now, a Michael Marton documentary about young boxers at Cus d’Amato’s gym in the Catskills fighting their way to the top. One of the boxers featured is fifteen year old Mike Tyson. (PBS and SDR)