By Thomas Hauser
In October of last year, Bill Cayton told me that he had inoperable cancer in both lungs. He was getting ready to undergo chemotherapy, but the prognosis was poor. "Realistically," he acknowledged, "I don't expect to be here much longer."
Bill wasn't maudlin. To the contrary, he declared, "I'm reconciled. I'm not afraid of dying. Very few people are as lucky as I've been. I've had a wonderful life."
Bill also gave me a bit of advice to live my own life by. "Always make people feel they're appreciated," he said. And to make his point, he told me what he called "the lamb-chop story."
"When I married Doris," Bill explained, "she had no idea how to cook, and that made her feel very insecure. The first time we had dinner at home as husband and wife, Doris made lamb chops. They weren't very good, but I told her, 'These are wonderful! You were pulling my leg. You're a gourmet cook. Who taught you to cook this brilliantly?' And over time," Bill reminisced, "with proper encouragement, Doris became a very good cook."
Then Bill's voice wavered a bit. "I miss Doris terribly," he said. "We were married for fifty-eight years, and it was a fifty-eight-year honeymoon. There was never a second when I wasn't totally in love with her."
That was Bill at his best. He inspired love from his family and loyalty from those who worked for him. He was a brilliant businessman too. Over the years, he guided Mike Tyson, Wilfredo Benitez, and Edwin Rosario to championships and generated an incredible amount of money for other fighters. But more important from a professional point of view, he amassed the greatest sports film collection ever assembled, and the heart of that collection was boxing.
Not long ago, Bill reflected back on his career in the sweet science. Here, in his own words, is a list of his ten most satisfying achievements in chronological order:
(1) Purchasing film rights to the July 4, 1919, bout between Jack Dempsey and Jess Willard. That was the film that took me away from a career set entirely in advertising and put me in the fight-film business.
(2) Receiving a "best documentary" Academy-Award nomination for my production of Jack Johnson.
(3) Working with Muhammad Ali during his exile from boxing and producing A/K/A Cassius Clay.
(4) Negotiating with Mike Trainer on behalf of Wilfredo Benitez for a fight in 1979 against Sugar Ray Leonard. Wilfredo lost, but he was paid the then-staggering sum of $1,200,000 plus $200,000 in training expenses. Also, Wilfredo's 1981 knockout of Maurice Hope to win the WBC junior-middleweight title. That gave him three championships in three different weight divisions at a time when three championships really meant something.
(5) Mike Tyson knocking out Trevor Berbick on November 22, 1986. That seemed to confirm our view that Mike was destined for greatness.
(6) Negotiating what was then an unprecedented $26,500,000 multi-fight deal for Tyson with HBO.
(7) Edwin Rosario knocking out Anthony Jones in 1989 to win the WBA lightweight title. That was the culmination of Edwin's comeback twenty months after he was knocked out by Julio Cesar Chavez and written off by most people as a shot fighter.
(8) Landing Tommy Morrison a starring role as Tommy Gunn in Rocky V. I loved playing the game.
(9) Licensing my fight film collection to Classic Sports and, later, selling it to ESPN for a sum that confirmed its value.
(10) The loyalty and support of the people who knew me best and worked with me on a daily basis.
Bill's film collection made him a rich man. But of greater significance, his persistence and determination over a fifty-year period preserved boxing's heritage. Most of the films that he 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. Bill transfered his early fight-film footage to acetate stock. In later years, it was transfered to videotape. Without his intervention, the images on those films would have been lost forever.
Over the past few years, Bill and I talked on the telephone almost every Sunday morning. Either I'd call him or he'd call me, and we'd review what had happened in boxing the previous week. Bill always wanted to know what was going on. He loved the excitement and the action.
This past Saturday, I was in Las Vegas for the fight between Evander Holyfield and James Toney when Bill's daughter, Trish, telephoned and told me that Bill had died. Later in the day, I was sitting with Evander in his suite, and he told me a story that bears repeating.
As most people in boxing know, there were times when Bill and Don King were bitter adversaries. Two years ago, Don was trying to arrange a fight in China between Evander Holyfield and John Ruiz; so he went to Beijing with both fighters.
Don has a certain modus operandi when he's in a foreign country. In Puerto Rico, he goes around waving a Puerto Rican flag, shouting, "Viva Puerto Rico." In Mexico, he waves a Mexican flag and shouts, "Viva Mexico."
Once Don arrived in Beijing, he asked his translator how to say "I love China and the Chinese people" in Chinese. The translator told him and went over it with Don several times to make sure that Don had it down correctly. But as Evander tells it, what Don didn't know was that gremlins had gotten into the translation.
So Don went around Beijing waving Chinese and American flags. Wherever he went, he'd shout out his phrase, and people would laugh, cheer, and applaud. But what Don didn't know was that he was going around Beijing, waving his flags with his hair up in the air and that wonderful trademark smile on his face, shouting out in Chinese, "I love watermelon."
Evander recounted that scene for me, and the first thought that flashed through my mind was, "God, I wish I could call Bill. He'd love that story." And it made me realize how much those of us who cared about Bill will miss him.
Dying is no great accomplishment. Everyone does it. It's the way a person lives that counts.
Bill lived his life the way he wanted to and enjoyed his life to the fullest. I suspect that he is up in heaven now, managing Joe Louis, haggling with God over the details of a multi-fight contract. Most likely, Doris is tugging gently at his sleeve, saying, "Bill; don't push too hard. You're dealing with God." And Bill is telling her, "I know it's God; but Joe Louis is the greatest boxer in heaven."
Meanwhile, down here on Earth, every time we look at Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, or Sugar Ray Robinson on television, we'll be reminded of how much we're indebted to Bill Cayton.
Award winning author Thomas Hauser can be reached at
October 9 2003.