Bill Cayton belongs in the Hall of Fame

By Thomas Hauser
One can make a strong argument that Bill Cayton belongs in the International Boxing Hall of Fame because of his accomplishments as a manager. Over the years, he guided Mike Tyson, Wilfredo Benitez, and Edwin Rosario to stardom and generated an incredible amount of money for fighters like Vinny Pazienza, Tommy Morrison, and Michael Grant. But there's no need to make that determination, because Cayton's credentials for induction are even more clear-cut with regard to another set of accomplishments. Over the course of a half-century, he amassed the greatest sports film collection ever assembled, and the heart of that collection was boxing.

Cayton began his professional career as a chemical engineer for Dupont. In 1945, he formed an advertising agency called, appropriately enough, Cayton, Inc. One of his clients was Chesebrough Manufacturing Company. In 1949, Chesebrough decided that it wanted to advertise Vaseline Brand Hair Tonic on television. Since it was a men's product, Cayton recommended sports.

In 1949, television was in its infancy. Ad agencies often produced their own programs, and most screens measured only five or seven-inches diagonally. Baseball and other team sports were ill-suited for the medium, but boxing was perfect.

Thus, Cayton set out to acquire rights to memorable fights. From 1911 through 1936, it had been against federal law to transport fight films across state lines. Also, many promoters weren't just linked to organized crime; they were organized crime. Accordingly, many of the rights Cayton sought were controlled by the same gentlemen involved in
the distillation and sale of alcoholic beverages during Prohibition. Dealing with an attorney named Godfrey Julian Jaffe, Cayton entered into a series of contracts to acquire exclusive rights, including copyrights, to the films of roughly one hundred bouts featuring boxers like Jack Johnson, Jack Demsey, Henry Armstrong, Mickey Walker, Gene Tunney, and Joe Louis. He then created and produced a television program entitled "Greatest Fights of the Century," sponsored by Chesebrough, that was broadcast each Friday immediately following Gillette's Friday Night Fights.

Those first hundred fight films were the cornerstone of Cayton's library. He built an empire from there. The economics of sports were vastly different a half-century ago from what they are today. As far as boxing was concerned, once a promoter had promoted a fight, he wasn't interested in selling eight millimeter films and licensing fight footage. The token amounts that such transactions brought in weren't worth the administrative effort. But Cayton saw the future.

The most powerful force in boxing at that time was the International Boxing Club. The IBC was controlled by Jim Norris, who was also the principal owner of Madison Square Garden, Chicago Stadium, and Detroit Stadium. Cayton entered into an agreement with Norris to acquire film rights to all bouts promoted by the IBC. Over time, he also acquired the exclusive copyright on the films of hundreds of other contests, including virtually every Rocky Marciano and SugarRay Robinson bout. Young Cassius Clay was included in the dragnet. Then, when Clay won the heavyweight crown in 1964, Cayton went after Ali footage with a vengeance.

Another coup came in 1974, when Cayton and Madison Square Garden president Michael Burke negotiated a contract giving Cayton exclusive rights to the films of all fights and other sports events that had taken place at MSG from its inception through the date of the contract.

But that was just part of the worldwide hunt for fight footage that Cayton conducted. Jack Johnson versus Jess Willard and Jack Johnson versus Tommy Burns were tracked down in Australia. Cayton also acquired rights to the first boxing film ever made; a sparring session between Mike Leonard and Jack Cushing filmed by Thomas Edison in 1894. Two months after that session, James Corbett and Peter Courtney had become the first paid film actors in history when Edison hired them for a five-round sparring session that was shown in peepshows around the country. Cayton acquired rights to that film too. If there were a film of David versus Goliath, Bill Cayton would have owned it.

Over time, Cayton created hundreds of "Greatest Fights of the Century," "Big Fights," and "Knockout" segments that were televised around the world. He also produced several dozen documentaries, among them the trail-blazing a/k/a Cassius Clay and the Academy-Award-nominated Jack Johnson.

Finally, in the mid-1970s, fight promoters and television networks began to grasp what Cayton had understood a quarter-century earlier; that fight films had value. Bob Arum began holding onto film rights to bouts promoted by Top Rank. Don King followed suit. At that point, Cayton's virtual monopoly came to an end, but his collection remained supreme. All totalled, he had amassed film rights to roughly 1,500 significant bouts.

The films most often requested from Cayton's library over the years have been Louis-Schmeling II, Clay-Liston I, Dempsey-Willard, and Ali-Foreman. Many of the films are incomplete. That's because, for decades, Madison Square Garden would film an entire fight, edit it down to fifteen or twenty minutes for theater release, and throw away the excess footage. By way of example, out of thirty-nine minutes from Louis-Conn I, only eighteen minutes have been located as of today.

Cayton is convinced that there is existing film footage that has yet to be discovered. "Some of it still exists and is disintegrating as we speak," he says. "Any lost footage of a great fighter that we find now would be like finding a lost concerto by Mozart or a painting by one of the masters."

Three bouts constitute the Holy Grail for fight film collectors. On July 11, 1949, Sugar Ray Robinson successfully defended his welterweight title on a 15-round decision over Kid Gavilan. A film of that bout is rumored to exist in Cuba. Gene Tunney and Harry Greb fought five times. A copyright on a film of one of their three title fights was filed with the Library of Congress, but the film itself has never been found. And last; Greb fought Mickey Walker for the middleweight title in 1925. Walker's autobiography refers to hot lights overhead, which are presumed to have been for film cameras. But again, no film has been found.

Cayton's film collection made him a rich man. In 1999, he sold his library to ESPN and further solidified his personal fortune. But more important, Cayton's persistence and determination over a fifty-year period preserved boxing's heritage.

Most of the films that Cayton acquired were on nitrate stock, which was the only film used for motion pictures prior to 1947. Nitrate film is highly combustible and given to disintegration. Cayton transfered his early fight film footage to acetate stock. In later years, he transfered it to tape. Without his intervention, the images on those films would have been lost forever.

Does Bill Cayton belong in the Hall Of Fame?

"I'd have to do a little thinking on that," says Don King, a longtime Cayton adversary. "I'd have to separate out the merit of what the man has done from his trying to send me to the penitentiary."

But Seth Abraham, who built a boxing empire at HBO Sports and is now Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at Madison Square Garden, has no such reservations. "If I had a vote and Bill's name were on the ballot, I wouldn't think twice," says Abraham. "I'd vote for him wholeheartedly and enthusiastically. A Hall of Fame should take into account everyone who makes a contribution to a sport. It's not the Boxers Hall of Fame. It's the Boxing Hall of Fame, and Bill belongs in it. He has made a significant, lasting, important, unique contribution to the sport."

Ross Greenburg, who succeeded Abraham at HBO, voices a similar view. Greenburg is acutely aware of Cayton's film library, having drawn upon it many times in producing Sports of the Twentieth Century documentaries and other telecasts for HBO. "Bill deserves to be in the Hall of Fame," says Greenburg. "It's a no-brainer. The history of the sport would have crumbled to dust, and instead he put together and preserved the most extensive boxing film library the world has ever seen. Those films aren't just boxing history. They're American history, an incredible record of American culture in the twentieth century."

Boxing owes Bill Cayton an enormous debt. He belongs in the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

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