From the Streets to the Ring: A Son's Struggle to Become a Man
Teddy Atlas and Peter Alson
Ecco / 278 pages / $24.95
For many a fight fan, Teddy Atlas is a monarch of strategy and technique. He is not just one of the most knowledgeable men alive on the subject of boxing, he may be the single best sports commentator, period. 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 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, but 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. In one week, he was twice arrested for felonies and spent time at Rikers Island. 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, 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 girl in 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.
Several memorable passages shine in this book, such as 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. "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.
According to Atlas, boxing is mainly about intelligence and calm, making the right decisions, developing an understanding of your opponent's weaknesses and how to exploit them. 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. Months later, after a performance at the Kennedy Center, she took a curtain call and received the requisite onslaught of flowers. Also airborne was a pair of boxing gloves, courtesy of Atlas in the front row.
Benjamin Weissman wrote this article for the Los Angeles Times. He is the author of two books of short fiction, most recently "Headless."