My Two Days with Vito Antuofermo

By Peter Weston Wood on November 17, 2012
My Two Days with Vito Antuofermo
“Good run, my writing friend,” says Vito, patting my back. “Thanks,” I smile. (Angressano)

“I tried pickle brine,” says Vito, “but it smells like you’re in urine.” A weightlifter looks up, “What’s urine urine?” Vito ignores him…

Middleweight contender Vito Antuofermo and I are walking down West 31st Street, his brown leather bag slung over his shoulder. “I was a gifted street brawler,” he says. “I got into fights back in Italy, too. It had something to do with my temper. Then one day in New York, a cop grabbed me and brought me to a Police Athletic League—that’s when I started boxin’.”

Vito was then 26 years old then, but because of his battered face, he looked well over 30. But there was a rugged masonry to his scarred eyebrows, molded cheekbones, Fu-Manchu moustache and lantern jaw. He was handsome in a craggy sort of way. A quiet violence seemed to be squatting and squirming within young Vito. That’s because on June 30th he was finally getting a crack at Hugo Corro’s middleweight crown.

Vito, a quiet and unassuming man, had been harboring this dream about winning that crown for years. Judging from his lopsided nose and thick, white, worm-like scars within his eyebrows, he was very willing to pay the price for that crown.

We stop beneath a red lettered sign reading: BOBBY GLEASON’S—BOXING INSTRUCTION. He opens the door and picks his way through a crowd of trainers, ex-fighters and boxing fans.

Vito, a scrappy middleweight contender and former European Middleweight Champion could barge into any gym in the world, but he prefers to gently ease by amateur fighters as they skip rope. “ I’ve been told I should do crazy things and be like Ali, but that ain’t me.” As he walks up the stairs to his dressing room, he adds, “Vito Antuofermo is Vito Antuofermo.”

Gleason’s Gym is a poem, a stink, a thudding noise, a quality of strength, a pit, a moan, a light, a dream. It is a frowzy old place where the white chipped walls suffer from psoriasis. Zoological smells and flabby brown odors waft through the air—especially in the bathroom. It is not a clean gym and one should not go barefoot, especially while showering.

Many fighters nurturing their own violent dream train here. Their growling fists are panting in frenzied activity; big men are thumping and thwacking heavy bags; small, dark men are masturbating their egos as they shadowbox into a mirror; Lady Tyger Trimiar, a bald, black lightweight grunts while she spars. Everyone seems rabid. At the round’s end, Eddie Parks, a once promising New Jersey welterweight, now a paunchy middleweight, shrieks a spine-tingling primal scream. It’s his annoying habit.

Vito emerges from his dressing room, which he shares with Wendell Newton, a tall heavyweight with licorice black skin, and Saoul Mamby, a wiry welterweight contender. He’s donned in an orange “Dance Disco” shirt, red woolen shorts and white boxing shoes with a red “V” stitched on the ankle.

Vito warms up on the gym floor. Gleason’s Gym is violently perfect—hot and humid and loud with emotion. Vito and his passionate dream of a championship blend in well with this bestial ambience. He jokes and roughhouses with the other fighters. Their pachyderm faces lighten with laughter as they listen to Vito’s high-pitched banter.

Vito, they learn, was born in Bari, a fishing village on the eastern coast of Italy. “My father was a farmer and saved money for me to fly to America.” Alone at 16, Vito settled in Brooklyn where he worked as a meat cutter. He then saved enough money for the rest of the Antuofermo Family to emigrate.

Vito’s trainer is old Freddie Brown, a flat-nosed former fighter whose trained Dick Tiger, Rubin Carter, Ernie Terrell, George Chuvalo, Abe Simon, Bob Pastor, Joey Archer, Rocky Graziano and Rocky Marciano. He’s currently training Roberto Duran—the modern-day Rocky Marciano of the welterweight division.

Brown fits an auburn-and-brown leather headgear onto Vito’s head. Vito swivels his thick 16½ inch neck to adjust it.

Vito is scheduled to spar three men today.

Middleweight Eddie Romero, a convicted armed robber recently released from Rikers Island is Vito’s first victim.

As Romero awaits the bell, he bounces nervously in his corner hiding damp fear beneath his armpits.

The bell rings.

They touch gloves.

Vito is ordered to concentrate on defense. “Side to side! Slip the punches!” Brown shouts from the ring apron.

For two rounds Vito has done exactly what Brown wants, plus give Romero a bloody nose.

“What’s wrong wit’ you?” Brown rasps, “I tol’ ya don’t punch! Defense! Defense!”

Vito shrugs. He understands that part of Brown’s job is never to appear satisfied.

Vito’s second sparring partner is a fearsome creature named Larry “Tumbler” Davis, a 165-pound, 5-foot-4-inch taxi driver and ex-middleweight. Tumbler’s thick torso appears to have been poured from concrete. He steps into his protective cup and between his Vaseline-smeared lips mutters across the ring, “I’m comin’ outta retirement to face the next Middleweight Champion of the World.”

Vito nods his appreciation.

Brown instructs Vito to “fight” this round.

The bell rings.

This sparring match is like watching two hurricanes in the same paper bag. Everyone in the gym stops and watches—including ex-champ Emile Griffith and bald Lady Tyger Trimiar.

The Tumbler has a right hand like a sledgehammer, but after two furious rounds, he tumbles out of the ring with bloody teeth. “Man! The inside of my nose feel like peanut brittle,” he gasps. 

Ray Skarica, Vito’s co-trainer, wipes Tumbler’s bloody chin. “Good workout. See you tomorrow,” he says, handing Tumbler a ten dollar bill.

Vito is just warming up.

His third sparring partner is Dave Contah, a skillful light heavyweight who toured with Vito in Bari, Italy. Contah is a valuable sparring partner because his style mimics Corro’s.

Although this match isn’t as violent, it highlights Vito’s prime boxing assets: infighting, deftly-executed combinations, stamina and head-movement.

Contah is quick, cute and cocky. He spins Vito and, at times, makes him look amateurish. After three rounds of Contah’s impudence, Vito lands a left hook which sinks into Contah’s jaw as if it were made of butter. One more punch and Contah’s mouthpiece sprawls out and the sparring is stopped.

Freddie Brown, now somewhat pleased, unlaces Vito’s 16-ounce gloves and stuffs his fists into bag gloves. Sweating profusely, Vito is silently concentrating on his violent dream. With so many talented middleweights around, Vito knows this might be his only shot at the title.

He can’t lose.

The bell rings and Vito begins punching. Fortissimo thumps resound as he smacks the heavy bag. His fists zip with snazzy combinations—the heavy bag grunts. Then he eases up. Wet dribbles scribble down his forehead and soak into his mustache. He jabs. They are not deadly punches, only gently brutal. Jab jab—step—jabjabjab. Then, chin tucked beside his shoulder, he steps in and explodes a left hook into the bag’s belly.

The bell rings.

Freddie Brown wipes Vito’s wet face with a white towel. “Vito looks good,” he nods, “but he ain’t in top shape—only 5O%. Plus he cut his knuckle yesterday punchin’ the bag. Got it infected.”

Although Vito’s peak is not yet reached, he appears to be in excellent condition. A screaming silence seems to be within him.

The bell rings.

As Vito punishes the speedbag, threads of sweat fly into the bag’s blurred arc and snap back into his face.

Vito’s manager, Tony Carione, proudly watches. Vito is his first fighter to land a title shot. His other two fighters, Bill Sharkey—a convicted murderer who recently lost to Kallie Knotze on national TV—and lightweight Dom Monaco are of lesser potential.

“They don’t have the strength, or ability, to work hard like Vito,” says Carione, a sanitation company owner, and someone who might be in a position to help Vito after he retires.

“Vito’s my specialty,” he beams. “I’ve had him since he won the New York Golden Gloves.”

I notice Vito’s prestigious Golden Glove necklace—two golden gloves embracing a diamond chip—dangling around Carione’s neck.

“Vito’s the strongest middleweight in the world today—he has no weakness,” he says puffing a thin cigar above a “NO SMOKING” sign.

But Vito does have one weakness—thin skin.

“Sure Vito cuts,” admits Carione, “but people fail to realize that the cuts are from people’s heads—not punches.”

Of Vito’s 48 professional fights, he’s lost three.

“In Germany he blew a hometown decision to a guy named Wissenback,” recalls Carione.

“Vito’s other two losses were facial cuts,” nods Skarica.

“Yeah, against Harold Weston in the Garden,” says Carione.

“Vito was ahead on all cards,” adds Skarica, shaking his head. “But the ref was correct in stopping it, it was pretty bad. Then he got stopped by Maurice Hope in England…”

“We was ahead on all the cards then, too,” interrupts Carione. “Ref stopped it with 15 seconds left in the last round. Damn fishy, don’t ya think?”

The bell rings, ending the round.

I watch Vito step away from the speedbag, hold one nostril closed with his gloved fist and blow snot onto the floor.

Freddie thumbs up a green LifeSaver and drops it into Vito’s open mouth. “For reward,” Brown whispers.

“Like giving a horse hay,” chuckles Carione.

“Like a dog! Or one of them fish animals,” Freddie mutters, shuffling away. “They never refuse it.”

Vito batters the lightbag for one more round sucking on his reward.

                                                                ***

Vito relaxes in his upstairs dressing room after his workout while Carlos “Panama” Lewis, a spindly ex-fighter, massages his biceps and shoulders.  “At the weigh-in,” says Panama, “Corro’s gonna mock you. His ankles’re bad so you gotta step on ‘em. His hands’re bad too, so you gotta go up to him, shake his hand as hard as you can and step on his ankle.”

Vito nods thoughtfully, touching his mustache and scarred-eyebrows. “Getting a crack at the title, makes it all worthwhile…It’s like playin’ with a new toy. I hope I just don’t break it.”

Many boxing writers feel Vito has an excellent shot. They say Vito’s superb physical condition, constant body attack and relentless style can beat Hugo Corro, a skilled fighter who jabs with artistry. But Corro, Carlos Monzon’s former sparring partner, will be an elusive target.

“Vito’s very good inside,” says ex-champ Emile Griffith. “He has an excellent chance at the title.” Emile should know—he lost a 10-round decision to Vito five years ago in Madison Square Garden.

Eddie Cool, a New York boxing scribe, agrees with Griffith.  “Vito’s the puncher, and he’s fought better men— Eckhard Dagge, Maurice Hope, Emile Griffith, Eugene Hart, and Bennie Briscoe. Only thing Vito must worry about are his eyes.”

Vito’s skin is like precarious balloon skin—thin and delicate.  That’s why Carione hired Freddie Brown for Vito’s last 11 fights.  Freddie’s been aptly labeled “a sixty second surgeon.”

John Ort, of Ring Magazine, is highly critical of Vito’s propensity for cutting. “Vito gets insulted if you miss him with a punch. He’s the Chuck Wepner of the middleweights. Vito has two good things going for him and neither is talent. One, he’s white, and two, he’s Italian. When he fights it’s a minor form of suicide. But I’ll give him one thing, if the fight isn’t stopped on cuts, Vito will kill Corro in the last two rounds.”

                                                                ***

The next morning I pick up Vito at his house in Howard Beach and we drive to Marine Park for roadwork. The weather is cold, clammy and gray. Waiting for us on the cinder track are four of Vito’s running mates—all marathoners.

At three miles into our run, Vito says, “It might sound stupid, but I make my own anger. I tell myself my opponent is tryin’ to make me starve. But sometimes my opponent gives me my anger. Once at a weigh-in Tony Durango kicked me in the shin. I wanted to bite him so bad. Instead, I did more damage to him in 10 rounds than if I had knocked him out.”

Sid Mendelson, one of the four marathoners interrupts, “But don’t get the wrong idea. Vito’s a different person in the ring. Here, with us, he’s a fine, humble gentleman—make sure you write that.”

We’re running a seven-minute pace with sprints thrown in. From the corner of my eye, I’ve been watching Vito throw short, quick punches into the cool morning air. “Vito, who was your toughest opponent?” I wheeze.

“Dagee was tough. He was six-three. But the hardest I got hit was Briscoe. He hurt me. My head went like this.” He spins his index finger 360 degrees. “But it’s funny—Cyclone Hart punches harder than Briscoe.  Cyclone punches so hard he should be outlawed. But when he hit me, the pain didn’t register.”

Of the four runners, two finished—me included. Vito sucks in air through his lopsided nostrils and exhales from his mouth. With a white towel wrapped around his sweaty head, he’s the picture of health.

But Vito’s battered face is, indeed, the residue of his dangerous championship dream.

“Good run, my writing friend,” he says, patting my back.

“Thanks,” I smile. I’m sure my tired legs feel much better than George Plimpton’s bloody nose felt after sparring Archie Moore.

As we walk back to my car, Vito says, “Ya know, I once sparred with Robert De Niro. He’s a nice guy. He’s doin’ a film on Jake LaMotta called Raging Bull. So I’m teachin’ him to box. I don’t think he realized it but, ya know, he thumbed me in the eye.” As he points to his right eye I notice a mosquito light upon the meat of his rock-hard biceps. It tried to penetrate, got discouraged, and flew away.

                                                                ***

We drive to a shopping mall and park at a Jack LaLanne Health Spa where Vito is secretly involved in a weightlifting/stretching program. Traditionally, weights are thought to ruin the elasticity of a fighter’s muscles. I wonder what Freddie Brown would think. Vito reads my mind. “Freddie would kill me if he knew I was doing this,” he says finishing his third set of bench presses.

“The stretching he does afterwards makes it okay.” clarifies Dr. Mort Levine, LaLanne’s manager. Levine also equips Vito with a mineral ointment containing A and D vitamins for Vito’s scar tissue.

“I tried pickle brine,” says Vito, “but it smells like you’re in urine.”

A weightlifter looks up, “What’s urine urine?”

Vito ignores him.

                                                                ***

As we drive to Vito’s home, a modest two-story house situated in Howard Beach, Brooklyn,

I ask, “What‘s your fight plan with Corro?”

“Simple. I’m gonna press the shit outta him. I’ll be in fronta him at all times. If he goes left, I go left. He go right, I go right. Where‘s he gonna go? I’ll be right there in his chest.”

                                                                ***

Vito’s carpeted living room is filled with trophies, medals, plaques and belts. Gracing one wall is a large oil painting of Vito, the l978 European Middleweight Champion, sporting a shag haircut and Fu Manchu moustache. Two red sofas, still protected by plastic covers, frame the painting. On a wall leading to the kitchen, I notice a child has scrawled a picture of an apple tree with a red crayon. “That’s my three-year-old daughter’s art work,” smiles Vito. “She’s an artist.”

Vito’s home is a cozy middle-class home in every way—except for one very special room: The Antuofermo master bathroom. It’s entirely pink: pink walls, a pink rug, pink basins, a frilly pink shower curtain, a pink toilet seat, a pink scale, a pink door, pink Kleenex, pink soap, pink toilet paper and two pink toothbrushes. I kid you not.

                                                                ***

“Want breakfast?” smiles Vito’s lovely wife, Joan.

Vito and I sit down at the breakfast table where a bowl of scrambled eggs, a plate of bacon, warm toast and cold orange juice await us. 

Vito picks up his fork and starts eating. “Two or three days after a fight I always get depressed,” he says. “I don’t know why. But after I win the championship, it’s gonna be the same. It’ll be the first time you’ll have to cheer up a fighter after he’s won the championship.

“ I’ve been fighting 10 years, but I know I’m getting better each year. I’m still learning. I’m 26 but people say I look over 30. They all want to know how many miles I got left, it’s like I’m a truck, or something.”

Vito gulps down a second glass of cold orange juice. “And people always ask about my cuts. It bothers me after a while. The truth is, I might get hit once, but never twice with the same punch. I ain’t stupid and I ain’t no sucker. My nose snapped, sure, but it snapped on John Capobianco’s head, my sparring partner.”

Vito wipes a bit of egg off his moustache. “Watch this.” He scoops up his little daughter onto his lap, and then reaches for the Ring Magazine laying on the table. He flips it open and points.  “Jill, who’s that?”

Jill stares blankly at the photo.

“Who’s that?” he repeats.

Jill sucks her thumb and shakes her head.

Vito puts her down. “See? She don’t even know my face without my moustache.”

I hope she recognizes her Daddy’s face after he fights Hugo Corro. Her Daddy might not have the thickest skin around his eyes, but the skin around his violent championship dream is untouchable.

                                                                ***

Peter Wood, an English teacher at White Plains High School, is the author of “Confessions of a Fighter—Battling Through the Golden Gloves” and “A Clenched Fist—The Making of a Golden Gloves Champion,” both published by Ringside Books. He was a 1971 NYC Golden Gloves Middleweight Finalist in Madison Square Garden and First Alternate in the 1976 Maccabiah Games.

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  1. George Thomas Clark 02:33pm, 07/22/2013

    I couldn’t enjoy the first Hagler-Vito fight because I was worried that Hagler was going to kill or maim him.  And the judges called it a draw.  Decisions like that are a disgrace.

  2. Kathy Fineman 06:40am, 05/03/2013

    Small world!  Just came across this and Vito was a friend of my first husband John W in Brooklyn (1970s) and the heavyweight he shared his dressing room with at Gleason’s Gym was and still is my husband Seymour’s best friend of close to 50 years, Wendell Newton.  I often saw Vito work out at Jack LaLanne’s in Brooklyn ... and he was strong and flexible and scarred and intense!  Thank you for posting this!

  3. Lef Carroll 11:26am, 12/10/2012

    I remember watching Vito Antuofermo fight on TV.  He seemed violent and brutish like a gladiator from a period movie.  But you don’t get any sense of what kind of man he is from sitting on your couch listening to the commentators.  I like this article.  Pete’s Hemmingwayesque style lends itself well in the story of a family man caught up in this most manly of occupations.  I’d like to see more.

  4. Bobby Cassidy 09:37am, 11/26/2012

    Congrats on this article, Pete. Very well written. You took us right there, and as a reader, it’s all you can ask for.

  5. Bob 02:35am, 11/19/2012

    What a terrific article.  Peter Wood evoked a great boxing era perfectly from so many different perspectives: the old Gleason’s Gym, the sparring partners, the wizened trainer, wily manager, writer/boxer, and, of course, the fighter himself, Antuofermo, who was as gritty and determined as they come. Wonderful piece of writing which covered a wide gamut that doesn’t even exist anymore.

  6. CoachSal 04:06pm, 11/18/2012

    Nice article. Well written.
    Correction: Howard Beach is in Queens

  7. CS Pierce 05:20am, 11/18/2012

    Great piece!  Mr. Wood’s writing style vividly brings back memories of the ‘70’s and ‘80’s when Middleweights were claiming more of the public’s attention.  When the NY training gyms and the Philly trainers were turning out some prodigious talent.  This article brought me ringside again and makes me wonder who Antuofermo’s cutman was.  Whoever he was, he didn’t get paid nearly enough!  Also wonder what a fantasy matchup between he and Benvenutti might have looked like, two Italian stallions duking it out in their own inimmitable styles.  Thank you, Mr. Wood, for an honest and evocative article that only could have been written by someone who respects the sweet science ... a respect earned by walking in the shoes of boxer.

  8. Peter DePasquale 07:11pm, 11/17/2012

    Outstanding article about an outstanding fighter. Brings me right back to those days, when Vito, Hagler, Hamsho and the Philadelphia middleweights like Briscoe were at the top of the game. Very well written, Pete. Thanks for writing it. I feel like I’m back there again.

  9. Mike Silver 03:44pm, 11/17/2012

    Boxing writing like this is a rare treat. Wonderful article about one of the gutsiest fighters who ever lived. Vito’s tremendous heart and desire compensated for whatever shortcomings he had as a boxer.

  10. the thresher 09:28am, 11/17/2012

    Between ‘73 and ‘76, he beat some very top flight opposition including Vinnie Curto and Emile Griffith. I think he also beat Benny Briscoe.

  11. the thresher 09:23am, 11/17/2012

    Vito vs Mustafa would have been a woody popper!

  12. Eric 08:24am, 11/17/2012

    Vito would have been as comfortable fighting in the 40’s & 50’s as he was in the 70’s & 80’s. Definitely a throwback to the golden age for middleweights. Would have loved to seen Vito matched up with Mustafa Hamsho or maybe even Tony Sibson. Seems like the awkward Hamsho was capable of beating every middleweight but the champion Marvelous Marvin Hagler. Vito vs Mustafa would have been an interesting fight for the 1980-1981 period of boxing.

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