Rocky’s Brother-in-Law Knows the Ropes : Burt Young Tries Boxing in Real Life as Co-Manager of a Challenger
The actor pointed to a line just above and to the left of his jaw. “I got a scar here,” he said, “from Springfield, Mass. And see these teeth? Sunnyside Gardens.”
Burt Young did not discover boxing in the movies although, to millions, that is the obvious association. It was Young, in the role of Paulie, who introduced Rocky Balboa to the meat locker where he pounded on a few sides of beef before his heavyweight championship bout against Apollo Creed. Balboa, incidentally, still is fighting. Next month, Sylvester Stallone will begin production of “Rocky IV” and Young, as his hustling brother-in-law, will be by his side.
But before that larger-than-life spectacle, Young will sweat out a real-life drama when David Sears attempts to dislodge Michael Spinks’ light-heavyweight crown Feb. 23 in Atlantic City. Young is one of Sears’ three co-managers. “This kid,” he said Tuesday with genuine pride, “surpassed me years ago.”
And the man is not reluctant to acknowledge he could take care of himself. By his own count, Young won 32 of 34 bouts in the Marine Corps and all 14 of his professional fights. “But I was not serious about it,” he said, “not like a David Sears. I fought when I was unhappy at home, when I had to get out of the house.”
He also fought, he said, when he was fat. Young would book himself a bout two weeks hence in Massachusetts or White Plains, N.Y., then attempt to lose 30 pounds. “He was adventuresome,” said his friend Vincent Savino, a dentist who persuaded Young to join him and Andy Giovingo, a bowling alley proprietor, in sponsoring Sears. “And a little crazy,” Young noted.
His methods of training did not include trips to the meat locker. Young was anything but a hungry fighter. But they were sufficiently bizarre to warrant inclusion in the “Rocky” trilogy.
Now, in Sears, he has found a disciple. Before setting up camp in the Catskills with trainer Al Braverman, Young would have the challenger on the road at 4 a.m., running with a brick in each hand. Sears also would have to feint punches with bricks. He’d follow that by swinging a sledgehammer full circle. And, at the end of the workout, he’d be required to pull a tire supporting Young around a track.
So, at the very least, Sears will be prepared to move mountains when he faces the undisputed and undefeated champion. Young also has stepped into the ring with Sears on more than one occasion. At such times he has worn a flak jacket.
It so happens that Savino and Young met over a heavy bag. That was 25 years ago. Savino had been an intramural boxing champion at Georgetown and decided to get back in shape after setting up his practice.
“I was at the Y, hitting the bag,” Savino recalled, “when these two tough guys walked in. One of them, Burt, was very instructive. He said, ‘You’re holding your hands wrong, you’re doing this and that wrong.’ So, finally, I said, ‘You want to box?’ ”
Young did. The spot they chose was Savino’s office. “We used to push the furniture back,” the actor said, smiling. “Well,” the dentist said, “it was a big waiting room. We’d box every Wednesday and Sunday. In fact, he used to box his brother, Bobby, in my waiting room while I ran my practice. I don’t know how many customers I lost because of that.”
Savino also accompanied Young to Lost Battalion Hall, where the Parks Department ran a boxing program. It was there Savino met Johnny Sears, a boxer. Later, he followed with interest the amateur career of Johnny’s younger brother, David, who won the Golden Gloves 178-pound title in 1981.
In the meantime, of course, Young had gone from struggling fighter to successful actor. Not that he had ever depended on boxing for a livelihood. His biggest payday, he recalled, was $400.
“I was in every business in the world,” said Young, “that didn’t have an inventory. Anything that required sweat and a lot of bravado. I didn’t start acting until I was 28.
“What happened is that I was chasing a girl and she wanted to study with Lee Strasberg. I thought he (Strasberg) was a girl. Anyway, I met him and he told me, ‘You’re very tense. You have huge tension about you. I feel you’re an emotional library.’ ”
Young landed his first role, as a monsignor, in an off-off-Broadway play. He had appeared, by his own estimate, in 16 films before being handed the part of Paulie, for which he won an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor. That performance was nothing, he indicated, compared to his trips into the ring as a middleweight.
“To go into Massachusetts with no trainer or manager was something,” he said. “The guy in the other corner always would look twice as big. Walking up those steps was like going to the electric chair. You had to start finding buttons in yourself to press so that you’d look better walking up those steps.”
The man has come to admire each fighter who walks up those steps. “Heroic people,” he called them. And he thought of Sears’ first-round knockout of Clarence Osby two years ago. “He did one round in Chicago that was 3-to-1 over Shakespeare for drama,” Young said. “There was no writer, no director. But there was a life force right there.”
Young, 44, has stayed in touch with that force by occasionally offering himself as a target for Sears. Savino, 50, hasn’t been moved to that extreme. But the dentist has run in 17 marathons and he continues to box with friends. Just the other night, he reported, he was stopped in three rounds by a fireman in a private gym underneath a restaurant.
That’s the way it goes in boxing, for all but a precious few. In Sears, they believe, they have someone special. “I look at him,” Young said, “when I box and move with him, I don’t belong in the ring with him anymore. He’s surpassed all of us with our dreams.”