A Boxing Trainer's Lessons on Life Teddy Atlas got his start in boxing by brawling on the street. In his new memoir, the ESPN commentator recounts his career as a boxing trainer and his father's role in shaping that career.
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A Boxing Trainer's Lessons on Life

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A Boxing Trainer's Lessons on Life

A Boxing Trainer's Lessons on Life

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If you want to know who Teddy Atlas is, besides being a former boxer and a current ESPN commentator, a renowned trainer and Mike Tyson's first coach, you have to know about his father. Dr. Theodore Atlas, Sr. was a well-known general practitioner on Staten Island in New York.

Mr. TEDDY ATLAS (ESPN Commentator): He was a doctor that took care of all the poor people. He went into the projects, he gave people free medication, he charged $5.00 for a house call, he did maybe 20 house calls sometimes a day. He didn't charge patients anything when they couldn't afford it. Sometimes he would just sit in their house and have a cup of tea. I always wondered why he did that and I thought it was just because the tea relaxed him and he'd have a piece of pie and he had a sweet tooth. But after he passed away, all his patients told me that the reason he did it was we would keep our dignity, we wouldn't feel like we were getting something free, we were giving something back. So he was a doctor in every sense of the word.

YDSTIE: But Dr. Atlas had less time to spare for his oldest son Teddy. Teddy got into trouble, he got into fights, into guns and crime, and eventually he went to prison at Rikers Island. He talked to us recently about his new book, Atlas, From the Streets to the Ring, A Son's Struggle to Become a Man.

Mr. ATLAS: I never got a chance to have him around me a lot because he was always gone 6:30 in the morning until 11:00 at night doing all these things, and I looked up to him. I just - there wasn't a lot of talking. My father wasn't a man of a lot of words. He was a man of, you know, living.

YDSTIE: But he was also as a father very distant and emotionally detached.

Mr. ATLAS: Yeah, you know, I wanted him, and I wanted him to be around, I wanted to be able to talk to him, and I started hanging out and getting myself into some serious problems. I guess I was trying to get his attention. I was trying to become a patient.

YDSTIE: In fact, you became a very troubled young man, got in fights, robbed stores, ultimately ended up in prison, and even through that, somehow it seemed like your father had a hard time reaching out to you.

YDSTIE: He was a man who believed in being accountable. There was a time when I was involved in a fight with a bunch of guys and a guy hit me with a tire iron from behind, and I went to Dr. Atlas' office, you know, my father's office, my friends took me right there, you know, Dr. Atlas' son, we'll go right in. And he had the biggest practice there was, it was nothing unusual to have to wait four hours to see him. So we go in and the nurse sees us and takes me right in, obviously figuring, you know, my father's going to take me right away, and there's blood all over the place. I get in, as soon as my father saw me, with very few words, you know, he just said, have him wait outside like everyone else. And I waited the four hours or the three and a half hours, whatever it happened to be that day, and by the time I got in there, the nurse had the syringe ready because I had to get the stitches with Novocain and he just said, he doesn't want that. If he's going to live this way, he should know what it feels like.

YDSTIE: The one thing that saved you was boxing and another father figure, Cus D'Amato, who trained heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson, invited you to come up to his place in the Catskills. Tell us what happened there and how Cus gave you some of those things that your real father couldn't give you.

Mr. ATLAS: It's a funny thing. I was fighting in the PAL.

YDSTIE: Police Athletic League.

Mr. ATLAS: Police Athletic League, yeah. It's a boxing gym, and I was also getting into things we talked about on the streets. And I boxed, I wound up being fortunate enough, lucky enough to win the Adirondack Golden Gloves, and he used to tell me things that you like to hear as a kid, you know, you punch good, you could be a good pro fighter, and it just made you feel good to hear those things.

In the end what my father did was much stronger and more structured and more brick-like to stand on later on, there's no doubt about that. But the ladder to climb up to those bricks so you can stand on the damn things I guess came from words.

YDSTIE: You boxed yourself for a while and you've trained boxers, and a lot of boxers find some kind of salvation in the ring, but tell us what it's like to be in the ring.

Mr. ATLAS: It's about choices.

YDSTIE: What kind of choices is a boxer faced with?

Mr. ATLAS: The same choices that people make in life, but a little quicker and a little bit more scarier, you know, choices about quitting, choices about compromise. You're thinking thoughts of getting away from what's coming at you and you have to be able to take those thoughts and put them somewhere else and understand what you need to do, which is to control yourself and which is, of course, is to be able to overcome what's in front of you. People really can find out in that ring that they can depend on themselves, and that's something that they carry on for life.

YDSTIE: You write about the choice of taking the pain and taking on what you fear in that moment or in that few minutes or in a, you know, three-minute round or something like that as - and the pain of that, as opposed to the pain of dealing with what you are afraid of for the rest of your life or for quitting for the rest of your life.

Mr. ATLAS: No, that's very true. When you're under pressure, whether it's the pressure of the ring or peer pressure outside or pressure at a job or, you know, whatever it happens to be, you think under that pressure that it's going to last forever, that the ridicule you're dealing with, the punches you're dealing with that are coming at you, the situation with your boss, whatever the hell it is, you think it's going to last; that's part of the pressure. It's not going to last an eternity. In the ring, it's actually going to last a couple of minutes, maybe even a couple seconds, because most fighters are only keep up a barrage more than a couple seconds. But if you give into it, then the results of that, the repercussions of that is it's going to last forever.

YDSTIE: I want to get back to talking about Cus D'Amato and what happened between the two of you. In the end, he betrayed you in a way that demonstrated he didn't have the character and loyalty that your father has. Tell us about what happened then.

Mr. ATLAS: Cus used to tell me, Teddy, whether it's a fighter, whether it's a friend, whether it's a girl, whoever it is, there comes a time they have to be tested, and then you're going to find out what that person really is.

YDSTIE: The pressure that you had in your relationship with Cus D'Amato came after - you were training Mike Tyson in the early days...

Mr. ATLAS: That's where the pressure came.

YDSTIE: You were his first trainer, right?

Mr. ATLAS: Yeah, I was his first trainer. I started him when he was 12 years old. And he was big. He was 190 pounds when he was 12 years old, so we had a funny feeling that there might be something we could work with.

YDSTIE: Eventually, of course, he became the heavyweight champion of the world, but you weren't training him then and you'd had a falling out with him because of some of the psychological and emotional problems that we all know about Mike Tyson had.

Mr. ATLAS: Well, he was never developed. He was strong, but, you know, he was getting hit, and he had to perform mentally, because there were times that he would look to breakdown. As strong as he was physically, there were times that we talked about earlier, he would look to make the wrong choice in the ring and find ways to get out of there. And that was always the thing with Tyson. He was strong as hell, but psychologically he never was together. This is a guy that - I don't know if you remember when he became heavyweight champ, he used to say things like, how dare you talk to me that way when you know I'll kill you for that.

YDSTIE: Now, you quit training him, but Cus D'Amato then you feel betrayed you, because he stayed with Tyson.

Mr. ATLAS: I didn't think he betrayed me because he stayed with Tyson. He betrayed me because he didn't stand up to Tyson with the behavior. Tyson was pushing the envelope with that. He was getting away with things, and it was our job to be together, me and Cus, we were partners. It was our job to develop outside the ring, not just inside the ring, and to be together on that kind of discipline. And Tyson had started going into the lunchrooms in school, he was about 16 at this point, and demanding to be fed at 10:00 o'clock in the morning. When the people there that were working, mostly older ladies, told him that he had to go to the classroom he started taking milk containers out of the milk bin and throwing them at the walls real hard, exploding them against the walls. In the hallway, he would nudge a girl into a bathroom and put his hands on them. And there were all kinds of things going on. Take lunch money from kids, things that were going on that started being reported to Cus.

And then all of a sudden with this particular guy, Cus started intercepting some of things that were coming from the school and making deals with the assistant principal: we'll deal with this in a special way, he's a special kid. It finally got to a point where I had to do something. I was the one in the gym training him every day, so I threw him out of the gym and I told him that you're going to have to learn to control yourself the same way as you got to control yourself in the ring, outside the ring. And after that, Cus started sneaking him into the gym, and I felt betrayed that Cus, a man who told me that things like the way you behave and the way that you perform as a man were more important than anything else, suddenly it didn't look like that was true.

YDSTIE: You're father now yourself. Did you ever have a real reconciliation with your father? After reading the book, I found that you came to admire him, but did you ever reconcile with him?

Mr. ATLAS: Yes and no, not in the way that I really wanted to. I mean, he saw that I was in a good place training fighters. He used to go to my fighters' fights, you know, he would throw sutures in his pocket knowing that hey, he's going to a fight, you know, he wasn't going to an opera. So, you know, he got a connection with me in what I did. And he wasn't the kind of guy that told you too many things about how he was feeling. But it was years later, I'd gotten on a bus and there was a man who got on a bus with a blue uniform and he came over and he said, are you Teddy Atlas? And I said yeah. And he sat down and he preceded to just say that he was a patient for 25 years of my father. And he said, I just want to tell you, I went to his office and he sat down next to me and he started talking about his son, the trainer. And that's the first time ever in my life that I understood that my father was thinking about those things.

And that was a nice thing of that man, that was a decent man to just know that that was something that I never got. And unfortunately, I probably wasn't big enough to tell my father what I wanted to tell him until he was dying in the hospital and I thought it was safe to tell him I loved him, when I wasn't sure if he could hear me and he was unconscious. And part of me wants to think that maybe he heard it, but I can't be a liar and tell you that I'm sure.

YDSTIE: Teddy Atlas, thank you very much.

Mr. ATLAS: Thank you.

YDSTIE: Teddy Atlas' new book is titled, Atlas, From the Streets to the Ring, A Son's Struggle to Become a Man.

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