The true heavyweight
FOR many a fight fan, Teddy Atlas is a monarch of strategy and technique. He is not just one of the smartest men alive on the subject of boxing, he may be the single best sports commentator, period (with the possible exception of the Shakespeare-quoting Vin Scully). Atlas, a longtime trainer who covers boxing for ESPN, is remarkably articulate, succinct, honest (in a sport more corrupt than American politics), respectful and humble. Never has the fight game had such a verbal talent ringside.
The son of a prominent Staten Island doctor -- a Hungarian Jew who slept with a stethoscope around his neck, made house calls in a bow tie and old wrinkled raincoat (his wife called him Columbo) and often accepted payment in the form of baked goods or Jell-O Surprise -- Atlas had trouble getting his father’s attention. He was a street-fighting wild boy -- anyone who looked at him the wrong way was in for trouble -- and after he began working out at the local Police Athletic League, he became a promising young boxer with a brick chin.
Under the tutelage of the legendary Cus D’Amato, who trained world champions Floyd Patterson and Jose Torres, Atlas won the Golden Gloves amateur boxing tournament, but a bad back shut him down. With friends, he robbed liquor stores and gas stations for fun, not money. On occasion, he carried a gun; in one week, he was twice arrested for felonies and spent time at Rikers Island. (For a while, his father refused to post bail.) At Rikers, another inmate wanted his shoes, but Atlas, then 19, attacked him, and the guards broke it up. This is just one of many moments in “Atlas,” his autobiography (written with Peter Alson), that deal with solving problems early so that one doesn’t have to live with something much worse. In court, a theatrical D’Amato wept on Atlas’ behalf, and the judge gave him probation -- but only if he lived and worked with D’Amato in Catskill, N.Y.
Upstate, Atlas trained other wayward kids, some with talent, others who needed a place to go. They arrived fresh from reform school and he taught them how to be men. Then along came a 190-pound 12-year-old with a lisp named Mike Tyson, who was known for robbing and beating up elderly women. D’Amato quickly smelled money: Would this be the youngest heavyweight champion in boxing history? For the next four years, Atlas worked with Tyson, developing his skills, until the fighter pushed things too far in an incident involving an 11-year-old female member of Atlas’ family. Atlas procured a gun and pressed it into Tyson’s ear as a warning. To emphasize his point, he tilted the gun up and pulled the trigger. This episode ended his relationship with Tyson and D’Amato.
Atlas has one of the scariest faces I’ve ever seen: The left side bears a long vertical scar, the relic of a knife fight. The wound required 400 stitches, 200 on the inside, 200 outside. On another occasion, he was hit over the head with a tire iron. He went to his father’s office, but Dr. Atlas made his blood-soaked son wait, like everyone else. This roughed-up face looks impervious to joy, but when Atlas smiles, it blooms, like the oddest of bruised flowers.
Several memorable passages shine in this book. There’s the time Atlas coached his first match, which took place at the Ohio State Fair -- a true boxing circus, with three rings of action occurring simultaneously outdoors during a torrential rainstorm. Or the day he and his wife, Elaine, pulled into a gas station and Elaine got into an altercation with two men in another vehicle, who had cut them off. This is a story Teddy tells as an example of how tough Elaine is. “A punch grazed me,” he writes, “and ... I heard this voice saying, ‘Get out of the way.’ It was Elaine. She reached past me and took hold of the guy’s Afro, pulling his hair out.” Just as Elaine and Teddy were about to drive away, her victim shouted that he would get a gun and come after her. Elaine jumped out of the car and said, “Go get the gun now. We’ll wait. Go get the gun now, so I can ... blow out your brains.”
“Atlas” is an artless book, the language flat, simple, workmanlike: It reads like mortar slapped on brick. What rings clear throughout is Atlas’ loyalty to and concern for the fighters he has worked with and his deep understanding of the mental aspects of boxing: the discipline and self-control; the management of emotion, including a very rational fear.
The book benefits from photographs of Atlas, as well as the people in his life, since no one is vividly described. There are, after all, remarkable characters here. But “Atlas” is not about engaging writing, it is about “the sweet science,” as A.J. Liebling called it (or “old sweety,” he sometimes also said). The term harks back to a time when young men were reared on the “sciences” of sword, gun and fist fighting -- boxing, being the least deadly, was known as the “sweet” one. Albert Camus boxed, as did Ernest Hemingway and German artist Joseph Beuys. It is arguably the most difficult and dangerous of sports. The rewards are huge, the losses humiliating. Boxing may be the only sport in which a human being can lose 10 pounds in an hour.
According to Atlas, the bigger, stronger guy doesn’t always win, because boxing is mainly about intelligence and calm, making the right decisions, developing an understanding of your opponent’s weaknesses and how to exploit them. Taller fighters might have the long arm of the jab on their side, but Atlas believes that shorter fighters have an advantage, because the big ones offer a larger target. He understands the various strategies of fighters: George Foreman would lure an opponent ever closer by making him think Foreman’s slow jab was all there was. Evander Holyfield would bounce a lot when he wasn’t set to punch, thus giving the green light to Atlas fighter Michael Moorer.
When the dancer Twyla Tharp (whom a friend of Atlas’ here calls “the Muhammad Ali of dance”) needed to retool her 44-year-old body so she could continue to perform at a high level, she hired Teddy Atlas. He trained her hard: strenuous stair climbs, skipping rope, shadow boxing, push-ups, sit-ups, kick-outs and some real action in the ring with Teddy himself, where, just to remind her to keep her feet and head in constant motion, he’d occasionally throw a punch. Once, he connected and gave her a black eye -- a black eye she was proud of. She refused to wear makeup to cover it. Her dancers started calling her “Boom Boom” Tharp.
They worked five days a week for nearly a year. “In dancing, if you mess up you get embarrassed,” Tharp told Ballet News. “In boxing, if you mess up you die.” Months later, after a performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., she took a curtain call and received the requisite onslaught of flowers. Also airborne was a pair of boxing gloves, courtesy of Teddy Atlas in the front row. How sweet was that?
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