Boxing is Teddy Atlas’ life. As a youngster he fought amateur bouts and was a Golden Gloves champion. Chronic back problems cut short his career and he moved on to training and teaching, before eventually providing ringside commentary for ESPN and NBC. Always outspoken and opinionated, Atlas generates both positive and negative responses for his actions both in and out of the ring. But what cannot be questioned is his knowledge, experience, and overall contributions to the squared circle.
The younger years of Teddy Atlas were not without difficulties. As a teenager he dropped out of high school and much of his time was spent on the streets getting into trouble with the law, eventually committing armed robbery, a crime which landed him in prison at Rikers Island. While awaiting trial, trainer Kevin Rooney introduced Atlas to Cus D’Amato. Known and respected as an experienced boxing trainer, D’Amato convinced a judge to release Atlas into his care so the teen wouldn’t have to serve additional time behind bars.
Atlas needs to look no further than the mirror to relive a violent memory from his past. A New York City street fight saw his face slashed with a flick knife, the resulting wound requiring 420 stitches and leaving a vivid scar that stretches along the left side of his face, from his forehead down to his neck.
Teddy’s days of trading haymakers were behind him when he was tasked by D’Amato with running the Catskill Boxing Club. It was there that Atlas would meet a pre-teen Mike Tyson and he was largely responsible for molding the future champion’s style and intensity. An example of how close-knit their relationship was can be seen in a 1982 video. Prior to entering the squared circle at the Junior Olympics tournament final in Colorado, a nervous Tyson broke down at the thought of losing. Atlas comforted him by hugging Tyson and advising him to, “Just relax Mike, just relax.” Teddy was able to restore Tyson back to a confident warrior as minutes later “Iron Mike” went into the ring and scored a first round knockout in eight seconds.
Their relationship abruptly changed when Tyson was accused of sexually assaulting an 11-year-old female relative of Teddy’s. Tyson has since admitted groping the young girl: “I was inappropriate and I grabbed her butt one day.” Atlas later confronted Mike and threatened him with a gun. This action led to Teddy being banished from the Catskill Boxing Club; Atlas and Tyson never again shared a corner.
In 2013, Tyson approached Atlas on camera and shook his hand and hugged him in an attempt to mend fences. But Atlas has refused to give Mike another chance and in a March 2014 San Diego Union Tribune article blasted the former ruler of the heavyweight division: “Mike Tyson was a phony from the very beginning. He never tells the truth and he had no character. He didn’t have to overcome controversy like Ali and Louis. They overcame personal issues. Tyson didn’t have that ability.”
When this writer pursued specific topics related to the Atlas-Tyson relationship, Teddy refused to answer.
Atlas went on to have success training and mentoring a long list of world champions including Simon Brown, Donny Lalonde, Barry McGuigan, Julian Solis, Shannon Briggs, Michael Moorer and Alexander Povetkin.
Atlas’ critics cite him as someone who needs to always be the center of attention. While some were entertained, others lambasted Teddy for his recent work in the corner of welterweight Timothy Bradley. Bradley defeated Brandon Rios in 2015 and after round seven Atlas animatedly delivered these words in a match his fighter was winning decisively: “The fire’s coming! Are you ready for the fire? We are firemen! The heat doesn’t bother us! We live in the heat! We move the flames where we want to! And then we extinguish them!” To some it seemed like needless theatrics as opposed to effective corner work.
When you ask Atlas a question on any issue (except Mike Tyson), you are provided with no shortage of material in response. We covered several topics, including this past June’s Keith Thurman vs Shawn Porter welterweight title bout, a fight which Atlas believes helped generate genuine excitement for the sport.
“It was a great battle, just what boxing needed. I wish we could get more fights like that. I thought Thurman was a little faster, a little more dimensional and I think he is the most athletic guy in boxing right now. I wondered if Porter was going to find a way to get in the trenches and grind it out, because he needed to test Thurman in the mental and emotional areas.”
While Atlas doesn’t have any difficulty with the close decision win for Thurman, he had plenty of praise for “Showtime.”
“Taking nothing away from Porter, but Thurman was good; he was fast, fought on the outside when he had to, and countered when he had to. To the credit of Porter, that’s the best Thurman I’ve ever seen, and the best Porter I’ve ever seen. And if Porter wasn’t so damn good, Thurman probably wouldn’t have lasted; Porter forced him to be productive in the late rounds. He pushed the envelope by coming forward to win in close geography and mixed it up, knowing when to be on the outside and when to grind it out. He was like that great chef that threw in the right spices at the right time. He was magnificent.”
Atlas regards this match as one of the better fights he has seen in a long time and ultimately was impressed by Thurman’s ability to prevail. “What this fight showed me was that Thurman answered the bell and proved he was just as tough as Porter. He was hard enough when the test came. Porter proved himself while Thurman showed that he is much more than an athletic guy. I think the real winner was both of them. And the fans.”
The fight was exciting enough to whet Teddy’s appetite for more great action among today’s 147-pounders. He foresees a bright future for the welterweight division and especially likes the future prospects of one rising contender.
“Currently, you’d have to say that Thurman is out in front of the other welterweights. But I think Errol Spence is one of the most solid guys in boxing in all areas. As a trainer, I see that he has no weaknesses and is dynamic in the ring. Spence and Thurman would be a great fight. There’s another special guy in my heart, Timothy Bradley, not because I train him, but because of what he has accomplished and that he’s always fighting the best.”
Atlas feels that this may be the best welterweight class in more than 30 years: “Right now, the welterweight division is very deep. It’s been a long time since we’ve thought of the division that way. In the 80’s, we had people named Leonard, Hearns, Duran, and Benitez and all those guys were pretty special.”
Like most fight fans, Teddy is very intrigued by the Andre Ward vs Sergey Kovalev clash, slated for November. “Ward’s one of the top two or three most solid guys in boxing. I would have probably more quickly picked Ward two years ago. The only thing that’s chipped away at him a little bit is his inactivity. He’s getting a little older and has sat out a long time and he’s now gotta fight the most difficult opponent he’s ever faced. But Ward’s solid mentally, technically, in every area. He can go inside and outside, he can box, and he’s dependable in the ring.”
But Teddy agrees that Kovalev presents unique challenges.
“I think Kovalev has the edge on the outside, even though he’s known as a seek and destroy fighter who can bang pretty good and has some sensational knockouts. I still see him as a boxer who has a great trainer, a scientist in John David Jackson, who was a technician as a champion and who makes sure Kovalev understands the right routes and the right way to go. Kovalev will be able to use his right hand from the outside, as he’s a master of controlling geography and angles.”
Atlas struggles as he deliberates, but eventually comes up with a prediction: “The pressure is going to be on Ward to take more risks than he would normally because he likes to counter and he likes to box. He’s going to have to take the fight to Kovalev because of that outside dimension and reach that Kovalev has. If you put a gun to my head [an ironic quote if there ever was one], I’m still going with Ward. I’ve called his fights in the Olympics when he won a gold medal and I’ve believed in him as a pro. Until I’m proven wrong, I’ll go with the guy that always finds a way to win, as it seems like 100 years since he last lost a fight.”
Teddy Atlas puts a positive spin on the current state of boxing; he remains optimistic and looks forward to the fight game’s future: “Boxing teaches you self-respect and how to be disciplined but it is like no other sport because it’s all about second chances. It will be around for hundreds of years. Boxing is the best sport out there when you do it right and put the right guys in there. Its greatness is like no other.” — Thad Moore