It's hard to be the son of a saint.
Teddy Atlas is the offspring of a man who is still revered in his community, thirteen years after his death, for his boundless compassion on behalf of those in need.
Dr. Theodore Atlas founded two hospitals in Staten Island and was the man to call at any hour when your kid needed care but your pockets were empty.
He would take a cup of tea and a few Fig Newtons in exchange for his services.
He worked ludicrous hours and was a certifiable workaholic, racking up ungodly hours as he followed his heart and fed his soul doing what he had to do. It was his calling.
Meanwhile, his son too often chose the path of the easy wrong over the hard right.
But before Teddy Atlas was dubbed The Young Master by the wizened professor of pugilism Cus D'Amato (because he showed an acumen for the science of fistic combat far beyond his years) he was a juvenile delinquent, well on his way to being a post-juvenile delinquent. He dropped out of high school midway through his senior year, and started stepping up his junior wiseguy antics. Fistfights gave way to ill-planned robberies, and the not-yet Young Master quickly found himself in the zoo that is Rikers Island.
Atlas' story of immersion into a way of life that contrasted so starkly with his father's chosen route is detailed in "Atlas: A Son's Journey from the Streets to the Ring to a Life Worth Living," which hits bookstores Tuesday.
Fans of the tell-it-like-is trainer/TV analyst who expect a behind-the-scenes breakdown on his quipfests with Max Kellerman on Friday Night Fights will have to wait for Max's bio. Fear not—there is no shortage of compelling anecdotes in book, which took two years to reach publication, so if you are curious what exactly went down when Atlas and serial fondler Mike Tyson parted ways, or how Atlas got that hardcore scar on his face and how many stitches it took to put his cheek back together, you will not be disappointed.
The anecdotes presented in the book, written with Peter Alson, flow steadily, and ring with an authenticity that can only be found in nonfiction fare. Readers will hear about Atlas putting John Gotti's right hand man, a stone-cold murderer, through his paces in the ring. Interested parties will learn which Hollywood hotshot learned the Atlas method of getting into the role of a fighter. And the A-to-Z story of Atlas' partnership with the talented but mentally fragile heavyweight Michael Moorer will please the fight game aficionado who craves the behind-the-scenes dirt which paves the road to the heavyweight crown.
But why the book? Why now?
Boxing books don't sell all that well, typically. A cynic could presume that maybe much of the crowd who follows the fight game may be more disposed to spending discretionary income on Budweiser and Marlboros than books.
The publisher, HarperCollins, knows the poor sales history of boxing books. So Atlas has crafted, with Alson, a book that touches on themes of loneliness, fear, redemption and salvation. This is not a compilation of all of Teddy Atlas' zingiest memories collected from his four decades in and around the theater of the unexpected. And the intended audience is not limited to fight fans.
Atlas' motivation to write the book stems firstly from there being interest from the publishers. After an initial reaction of gratitude at being asked, he said, the trainer/analyst let the concept marinate in his head.
"I felt funny about doing a book," he said in a phone interview Sunday night. "But then I felt like it was the time in my life where I could tell these stories, and could let my kids (age 23 and 21) know some of these things. It was a nice vehicle for doing it."
As the son of a saint(ly) sort, Teddy Atlas has some mighty spacious shoes to fill. But he doesn't try to overcompensate by tooting his own horn incessantly and building a case for his own worthiness. His myriad sins take up pages upon pages of "A Son's Journey," and a particularly heart-shattering situation featuring his brother hits harder than a Sam Peter power shot.
Atlas contemplated the direction and scope of this book, he said, and immediately realized that he'd have to put it all out there, lay bare all the warts and missteps, if the book would serve a useful purpose to its intended audience.
"The guy writing with me helped me decide if things should go in or be taken out," he said. "He'd have to talk me in to include some things, but I knew if I did a book I knew that maybe later people might say, 'He didn't say this about his brother,' and then they'd write about it, and not in the proper way."
Atlas could have filled a good chunk of the 280 pages on his father, their complicated relationship and how his father's vocational enthusiasm affected his life. Instead, he wrote the book as an homage to his dad, a man who is lauded for serving his community with unflagging devotion, which likely detracted from his ability to be present in the same manner in his own home. Complicated stuff, to be sure. But rather than let the book trail off into chapters of therapy session epiphanies, instead Atlas chose to offer a tale of an imperfect man who battles heartily on a daily basis to do the right thing.
Taking an unflinching measure of his father was a chore, Atlas admitted: "That was difficult. It was always important to think of him as a perfect guy." But the opportunity to continue in his father's steps, to fill his shoes, in a different style, appealed to him. "I want to be helpful to people who go through things as they're growing up," Atlas said. "Give them a little help, help them understand, 'Why I'm this way.'"
The book, Atlas believes, will appeal not just to fight fans, but regular folks who will identify with a troubled teen who veers off into troubled turf, but manages to get back on track and be a contributing member of society.
"I hope people will read and say, 'That sounds familiar,' and people can digest it and it can provoke thought," he said.
Atlas' road to age 49 is certainly thought-provoking, and he doesn't attempt to wrap his existence up in a neat bow, which is refreshing. His life is still a work in progress, it's clear, and he makes no secret of his imperfections of behavior and character. But his father would quite likely approve of the direction of his son's path and for the commendable fundraising he performs for the charitable foundation that bears his name. The son of the saint has done a pretty fair job of filling some mighty spacious shoes.
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