Bill Tibbs talks with Hall of Fame inductee Teddy Atlas
In our 3rd installment, looking at this year’s Boxing Hall of Fame inductees, it is renowned boxing trainer and broadcaster Teddy Atlas who will be inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York this June. It is another recognition in an outstanding career in the sport that has seen him train numerous world champions (18 and counting) as well as being one of the most recognizable voices in boxing broadcasting on the air for ESPN for over 2 decades.
Teddy, who along with wife Elaine, are the parents of 2 grown children, along with 2 grandchildren, will add his Canastota honor to his trophy case that already includes induction into the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame and the Staten Island Sports Hall of Fame.
Along with his long tenure at ESPN, Atlas has worked numerous Olympic games including Sydney in 2000, Athens in 2004, Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012. In 2001, Atlas won the Sam Taub award for excellence in boxing broadcasting journalism and is also a recipient of the highly respected BWAA ‘Trainer of the Year’ award. As well, Atlas is also a member of both the New York State, and California, Boxing Hall of Fame. Since coming back to training, Atlas guided undefeated Oleksandr Gvozdyk to the WBC light heavyweight title in December of 2018 and they will likely resume training this summer for a projected fall date for their second title defence.
Over 22-years ago, Atlas founded the Dr. Theodore Atlas Foundation to honor the memory of his father, a legendary Staten Island doctor. And, in 2006, Atlas published his autobiography, Atlas: From the Streets to the Ring: A Son’s Struggle to Become a Man.
To say Atlas has had an outstanding career in boxing would be an understatement of epic proportions. Maxboxing caught up with Atlas from his home on Staten Island to get his thoughts on his life in the game and his upcoming Hall of Fame induction.
Bill Tibbs: Hi Teddy, always good to catch up. How are you?
Teddy Atlas: I’m good Bill, thanks. How are you?
BT: I’m good, thanks. Let’s get right into it. I always say I’ll only keep you for a few minutes and we end up talking for and hour or two.
TA: Hey, Bill have you been watching the podcast?
BT: Absolutely, “The Fight”, it’s great. You were pretty technology resistant for a long time and now you have a podcast, you are on Twitter, Instagram, what’s going on here? (Laughs).
TA: (Chuckles). No, I still am. I have people that are really good at the technology stuff running it for me. It is my words on Twitter, always my exact worlds, but I have someone else doing the posts for me. My daughter and my son help me a lot, my daughter runs my Instagram, and they both help me with a lot of that stuff.
BT: You are always busy, what else have you been up to? How’s the family?
TA: Well the podcast. It’s really taking off and getting a following. I’m busy with that. I have my foundation, which is a huge part of what I do and it always keeps me busy and I’m still doing the big shows for ESPN Sports Centre and I’m back training so it’s very busy. And, most importantly I’m now a grandfather and that has been great. I want to be part of my grandchildren’s lives obviously and spend as much time with them as possible. Both my son and daughter each have a son and my daughter is due again in October so we are very excited about that.
Yeah, my kids are great, thanks for asking. My son just a got a big promotion with the Raiders and he is doing great with them and getting set to move to Vegas and my daughter is an attorney and closer to us in New Jersey. My son works so hard and he is only 32. He is doing great work with the Raiders and his goal is to one day be a GM in the NFL. Elaine is great, she is obviously loving being a grandmother, she babysits 3-days a week for Nicole. They are all doing well.
BT: How did the podcast come about?
TA: I was approached and there were some people that thought that I had a voice that I had an audience, for, mostly boxing, but not limited to boxing, for our format for the show. It’s going well and it’s really taking off. But, if we were going to do it I wanted it to be well done and very professional and we have the right group of people to make that happen. I’m enjoying it and it’s starting to get a real following.
BT: Tough question, but of all the fighters you have worked with, is there any fighter that really holds a special spot with you? Or maybe training for a certain fight that holds special memories?
TA: Every fighter is special for different reasons and every experience with them is special for different reasons. But, I guess the Michael Moorer fight against Holyfield (for the heavyweight championship) is always one that stands out to me because of everything that was surrounding the fight for me. When I was up with Cus in the Catskills, all those years, 7 years, and he was always working on me. He had to keep me motivated and interested and other things because there was no money back then. He’d call me ‘The Young Master’. I’d be working in the ring and he’d be saying, ‘You are the young master’, he’d say it over and over and over. He was the king of psychology and motivation (laughs). He believed it but he also knew how to work you a bit as well (chuckles). But, he’d say ‘you know what Teddy, you are meant to train heavyweight champions’. He was always saying that to me, that was like the goal for all those years. The Moorer fight with Evander Holyfield represented a culmination of all the hard work and sacrifice and struggle finally coming to a conclusion with a win. It had to be a win, not just being there, but winning. If there wasn’t a win, it was a failed mission. Just getting to the championship wouldn’t do it; the win was everything.
BT: After all those years of training and you’re finally on the doorstep of a heavyweight title.
TA: Exactly, but there was so much more to it for me. My father had passed away four months before the fight. And, all the time I was training and getting ready I was thinking about my father and all the years he supported me up in the Catskills with Cus and paying my board up there so I could be there and train fighters. And, frankly help me at a time when I wasn’t making good choices, I was getting in trouble and letting people down, letting him down and letting myself down. This was a chance to pay some of that back and achieve this goal that Cus had talked about for years and to say thank you to my father. For me, it all centered around my family and my father. But, interestingly, during the week of the fight, when we were in Las Vegas, people kept coming up to me and congratulating me on being there, just getting to the title. People would stop me and say ‘hello’ and ‘congratulations’, like getting there was enough. And, in my head I was like, ‘what are you talking about?’ Getting here is nothing, winning is everything, this means nothing, this means nothing….means nothing, if we don’t win’. So much of it was wrapped up in achieving what Cus and I had talked about for years and years and also to pay back my father. It was everything I had worked for in my life up to that time and winning was everything. If we didn’t win it meant nothing.
BT: Nobody talks about the guy who came in second.
TA: Just getting there was nothing. Winning was everything. A win completed the mission.
BT: Just getting there didn’t even come close to completing the mission.
TA: If we had lost it would have meant nothing. And, it was bothering me that all these people were coming up to me and saying, ‘congratulations’ on fight week and I was just thinking ‘the mission is a win, we haven’t won, why are you congratulating me?’. I know they meant well, but it was strange how that was bothering me.
BT: Incredible pressure, not just the fight itself, but for so many personal reasons.
TA: You just don’t want to let people down that have put trust in you. I feel that when I am training a fighter, the pressure that I feel is almost overwhelming at times. You have this responsibility and you have people that have put trust in you and you don’t want to betray that trust in any way, you don’t want to let them down. I talk to my son everyday and he was talking about that to me after some of the situations he found himself in with the Raiders. Where they had given him a lot of responsibility and trusted him with that responsibility and he felt the pressure. Not the pressure of the job, he understood that, but the pressure that comes with not letting anyone down, not betraying that trust, not failing. He told me “Now I understand what you mean about the pressure Dad”. He didn’t always understand it before that but he started to understand later. In that fight I didn’t want to let my fighter down, I didn’t want to let Cus down, and I didn’t want to let my father down. But that is the responsibility I had as a trainer. My kids always have told me, ‘Dad, you are a teacher, that is your gift, that is what you are meant to do. Teaching is a privilege’ but it is also comes with huge responsibility and huge pressure but I have to handle it because teaching is what I am meant to do.
BT: And, what a win that was against Holyfield.
TA: When the fight was over, I felt like we had completed the goals that Cus had set out for me all those years before. All those years of training, 7-days a week, no days off, all the years of barely scraping by, making next to no money and barely able to get by, the sacrifices my family made, and most importantly I did something my dad would be proud of. When the fight was over I looked up and said, ‘Dad, I hope I made you proud’. My kids got in the ring after the fight and said to me…they were little, like 7 and 9 or something… ‘Dad, you did it’. And I said ‘no, we did it’. I was able to let go of my father and really be a dad after that myself, really focus on my own kids in a sense, completely, because I had completed that mission for my father.
BT: Wow. A very special victory.
TA: There are so many things that go on and stay with you as being special in a career and they aren’t always attached to what people think - the biggest victory, or money or whatever. I had a fighter Tyrone Jackson…
BT: The Harlem Butcher, I remember him well.
TA: Yeah, anyway, I took him out to Nevada in ’89 and he was fighting Tony Lopez for the IBF super featherweight title. Lopez stopped him and he didn’t have a good night.
BT: As I recall, I remember thinking he looked like he kind of froze (in front of a very pro-Lopez crowd) in that fight.
TA: Yeah, that is fair to say, that’s a good way to put it. Anyway, I told him I wouldn’t train him after that. He came and asked me to please train him and again I said no. He came back again and I finally said I would work with him again. Anyway, he didn’t need any tune ups or anything and we put him right back in a tough fight in Mexicali, Mexico against a real tough, rugged guy named Rodolpho Gomez. He got dropped and he was hurt and then there was that one split second in the fight where he was going to answer a lot of questions. And, he got up and fought his heart out. He lost the decision, but for what he needed to prove to himself, it was a victory and I told him I was proud of him after the fight. Then, we got him a title shot in 1990 at the Inglewood Forum in California against a real tough veteran named Manuel Medina for the super featherweight title. He went the distance and he won that fight. Bill, he won that fight! They gave it to Medina by one point but Tyrone won that fight. If he didn’t win, believe me, I would tell you, and if he won I’d say that too; he won that fight. There were people who were putting some trust in him again and he didn’t want to let them down, he wanted to prove something to himself and the people around him. And he did it. I retired him after that fight but I was as proud of him in that fight as any fight in my career. Fights can have special meaning to someone for what are the bigger picture things that people behind the scenes don’t know about. But Tyrone came back from a tough place and he answered a lot of questions about himself.
BT: After being away for a bit, focusing more on the broadcasting, you have stepped back into training. Did Tim Bradley get you back into training?
TA: Timmy is a special guy. He allowed me to trust again. He allowed me to go back into that part of boxing again and help someone improve professionally, maybe personally? I still enjoy the challenge of teaching; it’s a privilege. I’ve been blessed with amazing children who are so supportive, and helpful to me, and they have been the ones that encouraged me to try again and trust again and go out and train and teach. My daughter says ‘Dad, that is your gift, training and teaching’. She has helped me go back to that place.
BT: You have referenced your father a lot in this conversation. Did he ever get to enjoy your success?
TA: He started to see what direction I was going and he seemed to really enjoy seeing me when things started to show that some good things were happening in my career with the fighters I had. He used to come down to Atlantic City and watch the fighters I was working with when I was taking fighters down there all the time for a period, Kevin Rooney, Chris Reid or whomever. He’d get on the bus with the 100 or 150 or so others that would bus down to see the fighters I had and he’d go along. He seemed to really like it.
BT: That’s great.
TA: Yeah, yeah it was. (Pauses)…Bill, one more story I just thought of. One time a bus driver came up to me and said. ‘You’re Teddy Atlas the boxing trainer’. I said ‘yeah’. And then he said, ‘your dad is Dr. Atlas here on Staten Island’. I said ‘yeah he is’. Then he goes on to tell me that he was one of his patients. The thing with my dad was when you went to see him there was always a long wait, maybe hours, because he didn’t turn anyone away. So, this guy tells me that he goes there for his appointment and he gets into the, sort of, second waiting room, the room you go into right before he sees you. So this guy is thinking, ‘this I great, I’m going to be in and out pretty quickly here’. So, the guys says, ‘Dr. Atlas walks in and I’m asking him all these questions about why I’m there and all he wants to tell me about is his son the boxing trainer, all he is talking to me about for the longest time, he is going on and on about his son the boxing trainer’….(pauses again)….that felt pretty good when I heard that.
BT: Is this Hall of Fame induction your greatest achievement in boxing?
TA: No. I know that isn’t the popular response to that question. And, I don’t mean to disrespect anyone who says that it is his or her greatest achievement in the sport. I respect that, but I’m not going to give the answer everyone expects just to go along with the crowd or what is popular. For me, I am thankful, but it really is just another opportunity in boxing to say thank you to people who have given so much and sacrificed so much and it allows them to enjoy something and for me to say thank you. I am happy for people in my life that will share this with me and it is another chance to say thank you to them. I am appreciative of the opportunity to share something with my family that will make them feel good.
BT: This might not be a fair question, but would the induction have meant more if you were inducted as a trainer?
TA: That is their call to make, that isn’t my call. But, if not for my career as a trainer, I wouldn’t have had the career as a commentator and I wouldn’t be here. My kids always told me that, ‘Dad you are a teacher, that is the gift you can give to the people you work with, and you are a gift giver as a teacher’. But, like I said, I am happy and appreciative of the Hall of Fame induction, and honor, as another chance to say thank you to my family and loved ones for their support.
BT: I have a feeling your story is a long, long way from being over but how would you like to be remembered?
TA: As someone who cared. As someone who cared - that’s it.
BT: Teddy, our quick chat turned into 90 minute again and I could talk for another hour but I should let you go. Congratulations on your induction, thank you for your time, and please give my best to your family.
TA: Thank you Bill, call anytime. All my best to your family as well.