Academy Award-nominated actor Burt Young’s knowledge of boxing goes far beyond the fact that he portrayed Paulie, the anguished brother-in-law of Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky” character in the classic 1976 film and all of its sequels.
The 69-year-old Young, a former U.S. Marine, says he was undefeated in 17 pro bouts, fighting under three different aliases which he steadfastly refuses to divulge. He also served as a sparring partner for “Irish” Bobby Cassidy, the perennial light heavyweight contender of the 1970s, and he managed David Sears to an unsuccessful title challenge of Michael Spinks in 1985.
Although he is a lifelong devotee of the sweet science who served as the grand marshal at last year’s International Boxing Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in Canastota, New York, Young admits that his only knowledge of the current heavyweight division is that it is ruled by “two Russian boys who do more planning than doing.”
While the heavyweights don’t thrill him, he can’t contain his excitement over Saturday’s battle royale between Manny Pacquiao and Miguel Cotto.
“I’m like Joe Louis, who I heard was a terrible fight predictor,” joked Young. “Whenever I make a pick, I suggest you pick the opposite.”
As much respect as Young has for Cotto, he can’t help but feel pretty certain that the Pac Man will steamroll him in much the same fashion as he did against David Diaz, Oscar De La Hoya and Ricky Hatton.
“When I watch Pacquiao, I catch myself saying ‘Holy bleep’ the whole fight,” said Young, who expects Pacquiao to stop Cotto in the middle rounds. “He never goes backwards and he looks like he’s having such a good time. I love the kid, he’s such a freewheeling spirit and I love the positive effect he has on his country. The whole bleeping country stops to watch him fight.”
Young marvels at the contradictions that are so commonplace amongst fighters, regardless of where they are from.
“I love fighters, all of them,” he explained. “They are so ballsy, tough and determined, but then when you meet them and get to know them they’re like babies. They all look like high school kids to me, like they came out of the eighth grade. Where they get that spark to be so competitive is what attracts me to them.”
As a youngster growing up in Queens, New York, Young said he was a tough kid who could have easily gone the wrong way if he had not joined the Marines at the age of 16. After serving two years, he took acting classes while working as a carpet cleaner, salesman, installer and truck driver. He also trained as a boxer with Cus D’Amato and Charley Goldman at the now defunct Gramercy Gym.
Cassidy, who spared many rounds with Young, said he was “a very tough, strong guy who liked to try and make you miss.”
One time Cassidy said Young was breaking his chops by questioning his power after a round of sparring. Cassidy, who had already been given a role in the first “Rocky” film by Young, came out blasting in the next round, but remembers thinking, “I better take it easy if I want to be in Burt’s next 10 movies.”
One day Young, who never expected to make a dime acting, accompanied an acquaintance to an audition with the legendary drama coach Lee Strasberg. After the reading, the great Strasberg passed on the friend but was impressed by what he would later call Young’s “library of emotions.”
Strasberg became Young’s mentor and friend, as Young performed in scores of off-off Broadway plays and eventually in over 120 movies. Young said he was the only actor in “Rocky” who did not have to audition for the role.
“I was on the MGM lot when Sly Stallone came over and introduced himself to me, told me he wrote ‘Rocky’ and said ‘you gotta do it,’” Young recalls. “I wanted to do it right away, but wanted to twist their arms a little bit, not look too eager.”
Young knew from the get-go that the film had the potential to be a gem. “I thought the script had the cleanest street prose I’d ever read,” explained Young. “Stallone is not only a workaholic, he’s a genius who is always looking three years ahead. He has a real eyeball for what’s going on in the world.”
A few years after the release of “Rocky,” Young was working the corner of Cassidy when he fought another popular Irishman, Christy Elliot, at the Commack Arena in Long Island, New York.
Cassidy laughingly says that Young almost “engineered my demise” when, prior to the first bell, Young advised him to “relax, just like you’re doing a scene in a movie.” The next thing Cassidy remembers is the bell ringing and him being deposited on the canvas by Elliot.
“I looked up and saw Elliott walking around, waving to the crowd with his arms up,” said Cassidy. “I said to myself, ‘What do you think, you won?’”
Seconds later, Cassidy roared back, dropped Elliott and turned the fight around. He went on to win the decision in a very entertaining fight at which this writer was ringside.
“Burt is a great guy, we had a lot of fun together,” said Cassidy. “He is a genuinely nice man who never says anything bad about anyone.”
Young was very high on Sears, a New York City Golden Gloves champion with an abundance of natural talent and the looks of a cinematic leading man. Sears boxed the ears off of Spinks in the first round, but was brutally stopped in the third.
“Their heads butted, and David got thrown off his game plan,” said Young. “It’s a shame because he had such a good first round. Who knows what could have happened?”
Young doesn’t get involved in the managerial aspects of boxing anymore, but he is still a diehard fan, especially of Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr., who he believes is the only man that can beat Pacquiao.
Describing Mayweather’s boxing abilities as ‘beautiful,” he said that he looks “invincible” to him. Most importantly, he believes the Money Man is “too quick and bright,” even for someone as talented, brave and determined as the Pac Man.
Young is not a fan of Ultimate Fighting, saying, “any good pro boxer could take care of them because a pro’s hands are so well educated.”
He does, however, have great respect for the MMA athletes, as well as professional wrestlers, who he says are “great big, strong, coordinated guys even though they can be 300 to 400 pounds.”
Young still keeps himself awfully busy these days. On November 5, he was honored by the NYPD’s Sergeants Benevolent Association (SBA) for his longtime support of the law enforcement community. On September 11, 2001, he was exercising in his backyard when he observed the first terrorist jetliner fly over his house.
“It was very eerie,” he recalled. Minutes later, when he heard what happened, he put some money in his pocket and called his closest friends to tell them the city was under attack. He ran to the office of his girlfriend, Dr. Clark, and told her to stay put. He continued on to Ground Zero where he observed the devastation firsthand.
“I had to be there,” he said. “I’m a United States citizen…and a U.S. Marine.”
Afterwards, Young continued on with the selfless service to NYPD widows and children that he had begun decades earlier. As important as these functions always were to him, they took on even more personal meaning after the 9/11 attacks.
“I’ve seen some of these kids grow up before my eyes,” said Young, who became a single father to his daughter, actress Anne Morea, when his wife passed away in 1974. “Knowing these kids’ families were ruptured still kills me inside, but I can’t miss seeing them as often as I can. I never forget what their parents did for us, or the scars that they are forced to live with.”
“Burt is always available when called to help out,” said Ed Mullins, the president of the SBA which is the fifth largest police union in the country. “Without any fanfare, all he asks is when, where and what can I do to help? The police community is blessed to have such a good friend.”
Young will soon appear in a semi-autobiographical one-man play called “Artist Found in a Port Washington Flat.” As an artist, his paintings have been described as “his own way, his own style, some years with more passion than others.” He has donated some of his pieces to Gilda’s Club and the Teddy Atlas Foundation, and others have been exhibited at galleries in New York, Southampton, Montreal and Hawaii.
A true renaissance man, Young has squeezed an awful lot of living into the time he spent on Earth. But, he says unequivocally, “I still want more, a lot more.”