As St. Patrick’s Day approaches, it seems only fitting to chronicle some of boxing’s most colorful Irish or Irish-American boxers. This week’s profile is of “Irish” Bobby Cassidy, a perennial middleweight and light heavyweight contender from Levittown, Long Island, New York, who campaigned from 1963-80 and compiled a 59-16-3 (27 KOs) record against some of the best fighters of his generation. Currently a fight analyst for this web site, Cassidy has also worn many other hats during his whirlwind career. Besides being a highly rated boxer, he is renowned raconteur and highly respected trainer. However, at different points of his life, he says, he was a “world-class drunk, scammer, bookmaker, gambler and racketeer.”
This is his story.
Long before anyone ever heard of Gerry Cooney, Howard Davis or Buddy McGirt, it was Cassidy who put Long Island on the fistic map. Hailing from blue-collar Levittown, Cassidy, the son of alcoholic parents, planned to enter the New York City Golden Gloves as a 19-year-old in 1963. But a labor strike at the New York Daily News, which sponsored the tournament, resulted in the Gloves being cancelled that year. With no amateur experience whatsoever, Cassidy turned pro and went undefeated (with one draw) in his first 18 fights. His first loss was a squeaker of a decision to Billy Collins Sr.
“Boxing was the only thing that ever gave me any confidence,” Cassidy, now 60, emotionally recounts. “I had a pretty rough childhood, and all of my confidence was beaten out of me by an abusive stepfather. When I started street fighting, I realized there was something I could do well.”
Cassidy had no childhood memories of his natural father, but says his stepfather, who was Italian, hated him for many reasons, not the least of which was his Irish blood. “It was a strange family dichotomy,” said Cassidy whose brother and sister also incurred separate but unequal wrath. “My mother and stepfather were always drunk. They would each watch their own favorite TV shows in different rooms of the house, then come out and do battle during commercials. At some point the children would always get beaten. My mother actually liked to see me get beaten more, not because she disliked me more but because I could take it.”
His son, boxing writer Robert Cassidy Jr., says the major turning point in his father’s life is as happy as it is sad. “His stepfather, a cookie salesman, was an alcoholic who used to beat him unmercifully,” said Robert. “He was a very angry guy. When my father was a teenager, he turned the tables on him. My father was about to be attacked, so he picked up a garbage can and hit him over the head with it. I think he went from prey to predator at that moment. That action unleashed his anger, and he became a master street fighter. And that gave him the only real identity he ever had.”
As naturally talented as Cassidy was, few, if any, breaks came his way during his whirlwind 17 year career. He fought over 500 rounds, and took over 400 stitches, in such diverse locations as Sweden, Italy and Johannesburg, as well as in many of the dank clubs that were still flourishing throughout the United States during that era. He lost close decisions to local heroes Gypsy Joe Harris in Philadelphia and Luis Rodriguez in Miami, even though he had put both of them on the canvas. He even battled to a draw with Sweden’s Bo Hogberg in Stockholm. But he also stopped his red-hot local rival Bobby Bartels in front of more than 20,000 people on the undercard of Joey Giardello-Dick Tiger at Madison Square Garden in October 1965, and had his picture taken with Yogi Berra afterwards.
In 1969, with his popularity at its apex, Cassidy opened a bar, appropriately called Bobby Cassidy’s Neutral Corner, in Hempstead, Long Island. Knowing nothing about genetic pre-dispositions to alcoholism, he wound up becoming a problem drinker himself. Around this time he lived in a neighboring town from the bar and kept receiving mail for a man named Ed Cassidy. One morning in the local coffee shop he was approached by a fellow he had seen on the street many times. The man, an obvious alcoholic who had seen better days, walked over to him, introduced himself as his father, and strode away nonchalantly. He lived only two doors away from his son.
“Like I said, there was always a strange dichotomy in my family,” explained Cassidy.
By 1974 Cassidy was rated in the light heavyweight top ten, and matched with number one contender Jorge Ahumada on the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier II undercard at the Garden. The winner was guaranteed a shot at world champion Bob Foster. By that time Cassidy’s bar had closed down, and he was supplementing his modest boxing earnings as a bookmaker and collector. Cassidy had been arrested for bookmaking and his marriage was on the rocks. He was drinking with intensity and the fight had been in question right up until the opening bell. Never was Cassidy more unprepared for a big fight, and he was stopped in three. While Ahumada celebrated his upcoming title shot, Cassidy drank himself into a stupor at a midtown bar.
Over the next three months Cassidy’s drinking intensified. Even a drunken driving arrest didn’t slow it down. He finally reached the abyss on April 25, 1974, when he knocked out a 6’6”, 350 pound bouncer named Big Dave, as well as two of his cohorts, at a Levittown bar called the Sherwood Forest. Because Big Dave was the sergeant in arms of the local Hells Angels chapter, the story quickly took on a life of its own. Although Cassidy was told that he was chased on foot for miles, and eluded police by hiding out in yards and woods, he doesn’t have any recollection of the incident.
What he does remember is being on his hands and knees the next day, pleading with God for help for him and his two sons, Robert and Chris, who is now as renowned a photographer as Robert is a journalist. He got sober that day, and has not had a drink since. Once he stopped drinking, Robert, who says his dad was always an involved but distracted parent, became a superb single father.
“I realize now that as a young kid I understood certain things that other kids didn’t, like what the terms juice, shylock, vig, and quinella (a type of horse bet) meant,” he said. “But I never viewed my father as a gangster. He was at all of our Little League games, and always in the first row of the bleachers at our basketball games. He took my brother and me to the movies every Friday night. I never attached any stigma to his activities. All my friends thought he was a great guy. After games he’d take us for ice cream, and he’d even get something special for anyone who hit a home run.”
Robert says that his father told him that as a youngster he had never played team sports, so his participation in his sons’ activities made him feel as if he too was part of a team. But most importantly, his father was a local icon and his sons liked nothing better than going to his fights. In the cloistered world of Levittown, having Irish Bobby Cassidy for a dad was not much different than having Mickey Mantle for a father anywhere else.
“It was like living a fantasy,” said Robert. “But that fantasy came crashing down when I saw my father dropped by Christy Elliott in the first round (in June 1977, when Robert was 12 years old). That fight made me realize just how difficult a sport boxing was. My father won the fight, but it had quite an effect on me.”
By the time Cassidy retired, five victories and two and a half years later, he says “my cuts were popping up during the pre-fight instructions.” With little else to do, he immersed himself in what he knew best: the rackets. As a shylock, he once had over $150,000 on the streets. “I gave up drinking, but embraced racketeering,” he says unashamedly. “I have an addictive personality, so everything I made I was gambling away. I always had money coming in. Who’s not going to pay Irish Bobby Cassidy? But I was a good-hearted shylock. I’d give a guy a miss (allow a skipped payment) at Christmas time. Nobody does that.”
By the middle of the decade Cassidy was co-training Donny Lalonde for his multi-million dollar payday against Sugar Ray Leonard. His end would have been at least $150,000. However, the closest he got to the fight was reading about in an upstate prison, where he was serving 18 months for falsifying loan applications and possession of forged instruments.
“That was one of many breaks that seemed to elude my father,” said Robert. “He fought all those years and never got a title shot, then trained his first champion and missed out on the big payday.”
Visiting his father in jail was as painful for Robert and Chris, as it was for their father having them see him there. “My image of my father had always been of him wearing his green robe and shorts, with Irish Bobby Cassidy emblazoned across them,” said Robert. “Seeing him in an orange jumpsuit with his ID number stenciled across the shirt was pretty difficult.”
“I was so embarrassed and humiliated, and there were times we all cried like babies,” said Cassidy Sr. “I was as humbled as a person can be. But there was also a lot of anger, too. What I went to jail for, very few people actually do time for. I think there was some political motivation behind my incarceration.”
Entering the state prison system as a 44-year-old white man in 1988, Cassidy said he had few peers. Word didn’t get out right away that he was a former fighter, so he was forced to prove himself when he received his first care package from home. “Some big guy says ‘that’s my package,’ and I said ‘you ain’t getting nothing,’” recalled Cassidy. “Things got heated, and we came close to fighting. I stepped right up and he backed away. Word got around that I was a former fighter, and things got better after that. People started calling me Old Man.”
As miserable as his prison experience was, Cassidy said it helped him put life’s priorities in order. “Everyone should do one to three,” he jokes. “Your life is very regimented, you’re told when to do everything. But it gives you time to think, and makes you appreciate everything more.”
After his release he trained such notable boxers as Godfrey Nyakana and even took Lonnie Bradley from his pro debut to the WBO middleweight title. He is currently hoping to form an alliance with Buddy McGirt, who is now training fighters at his facility in Vero Beach, Florida, but wants to open another gym in the New York metropolitan area as well.
“Boxing is what I do, and who I am,” said Cassidy. “It’s what I do best, what I should be doing with my life. More than anything else, I’d like to train fighters full time. I have a lot of knowledge to impart to them. I know what makes them think, what makes them scared, and what makes them successful.”
In the meantime, he spends as much time as possible with his children, and dotes on his two grandchildren. Although he says the demons from his past sometimes send him into funks, he is a high-energy man living in relative peace.
“He’s a helluva amazing guy,” said Robert Ecksel, the content editor of this web site. “He’s one of those characters who throws off light instead of absorbing it.”
“The way I grew up, I never dreamed about being anything or anybody,” Cassidy said. “Once I discovered boxing, I became a perennial contender when there was still just one champion. At one point, I was the number one contender when that really meant something. I’m not proud of all that I’ve done, but even though I never got a title shot, I’m proud of my boxing career.
“And I’m proud of my children,” he adds. “Ninety percent of kids who come from backgrounds like mine inflict the same damage on their children. I went the opposite way, bestowed the love on them that I never got, and they turned out great.”