I had a lengthy, candid, mentally challenging conversation with Teddy Atlas last week. The ESPN analyst, and sometimes trainer, talked about his new charge, the Russian heavyweight Alexander Povetkin.
As the chat with Teddy went past the five, then ten-minute mark, I found myself drifting off, to a quote made by The Godfather, Michael Corleone, in The Godfather III (1990).
Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in, says Corleone, irked that his stab at respectability has been interrupted by a magnetic tug from his organized crime past.
This is not to insinuate in any way, shape or form anything untoward about Atlas. Rather, the hesitance he admitted to in returning to a training role, in light of his disdain for so many of the selfish, greed-inspired, exploitation specialists who comprise the promoter-manager side of the game inspired my analogy. Corleone, like Atlas, was drawn into a world inhabited by flawed characters, engaging quite often in morally suspect or bankrupt practices. But like Corleone, Atlas couldnt disengage from that world.
The Mafia corollary is far from perfect. The fight game is for sure littered with objectionable persons, and lax standards and practices, which Atlas abhors. But the athletes themselves are typically cut from a cleaner cloth. The boxers themselves seek nothing more than an opportunity to work hard, and be rewarded with a decent wage. Atlas, since he started in the fight game as a teen, duking it out in the Police Athletic League gyms on Staten Island, moving on to follow his pal Kevin Rooney to Cus DAmatos Catskill compound, had nothing but respect for the fighters, the ones who did it right, gave their all. But hed been burned a few times, after getting too close, caring too much, and feeling let down when his guys drifted off, or resisted his disciplinary code.
Teddys last client was the New York based 175 pounder, Elvir Muriqi, who fightwatchers might know from his more-than-respectable showing against Antonio Tarver in a 2007 loss. Atlas wasnt with him at the time, and the ESPN expert has resisted invitations to corner fighters since then. But he was intrigued when he got an invitation to assess Russian heavyweight Alexander Povetkin last summer. He went to Russia, liked what he saw of Povetkin, and more importantly, liked what he heard from the kid. Teddys gut, after a stroll and chat session, told him this is someone who will be amenable to input, who wont chafe at Atlas rigorous demands. Atlas signed off as Povetkins trainer.
He was pulled back in. That meant hed be once again in the orbit of those scumbags who look to do nothing much more than make a buck off a guy, use him up and spit him out. Not necessarily Povetkins people. I dont know them and cant speak to their reputation. But being in boxing, at a high level, means mingling with sharks on two legs.
Atlas accepted that trade off, and looked to smooth the rough edges off Povetkin. Starting with a July 19, 2009 win over Taurus Sykes, Povetkin (19-0 with 14 KOs) and Atlas teamed up to go 4-0. In his last bout, the 30-year-old Russian scored a TKO5 win over Javier Mora in Germany.
Atlas didnt go overboard talking up his kid. He didnt try to tell you that Sykes, and Jason Estrada and Leo Nolan and Javier Mora were this generations version of Foreman, Norton, Frazier and Lyle. Hed tell people that his kid–funny word for a 29-year-old, but Teddy uses it, which indicates his mindset when assuming the role of trainer–had promise, that he was coming along, that he was acting like a professional. That he was making the right choices, that he was progressing towards something, even if that was simply maximizing his potential, let alone grabbing a heavyweight championship.
The kid, who Teddy calls Sasha, wasnt as busy as Teddy wouldve liked. But the kids management were working on getting him fights, including the big one.
A Klitschko fight. The chance of a lifetime.
Wladimir, the one with the iffier chin.
I ask Teddy about that opportunity, which was slated for Sept. 11 in Germany. He didnt bubble over with joy, shall we say. He reacts with the temperament of a guy who has been around the block, in a variety of rides, and knows that the journey would inevitably include bumps. The ride wouldnt be in a stretch limo, all expenses paid.
Up front, Atlas tells me that Povetkins dad had recently passed away. He pauses as he goes there. Maybe hes pondering his own father, the late Dr. Theodore Atlas, who is a revered figure on Staten Island, for his tireless efforts at caregiving, at his old school ways of doing $7 house calls for the sick and indigent.
Atlas says hell be assessing Povetkins mental state during a minicamp here in the US, seeing if hed be able to get a handle emotionally, if hes be ready to be the undersized (6-2, 225) underdog against the oversized 6-6 1/2, 245-pound champion.
I ask Atlas if his kid could win. If he didnt think he couldnt win, he wouldnt counsel the kid to take the fight, he says. But.. Atlas said…But…hed like more time to smooth off those edges. To get the kid understanding that it has to be an every second of every round deal. That offense flows off defense, and vice versa.
I havent been thinking world title or big money fight, Atlas tells me. Im asking the kid to be consistent for twelve rounds. Thats where I differ from promoters, from the people whose goal it is to get that big fight.
Teddy, can and will your guy beat Klitschko?
If its up to me, I dont give a s–t about Klitschko. Hes progressing. Hes getting better. I see the ability to continue to keep getting better. To get a little more streamlined physically, throw punches for a reason, be a little more targeted, not be as susceptible to the right, use the jab more, no snoozes at the wrong distance. If I had my druthers, Id like to get as close as possible to running on all cylinders (before getting the big fight). But I wouldnt be training him if I didnt think he would prevail. And I firmly believe I know what it takes to beat Klitschko. I firmly believe that I can impart that to my fighter. I dont know if he can act on it for twelve rounds, thats a different thing. At the end of the minicamp (last Friday), well have a helluva better idea.
Teddy knows, as there was with Michael Moorer, and Kirk Johnson and Muriqi, when the temptation will come to tune him out. If he stays with Povetkin, and the kid gets some big wins, and grows his bankroll, he might well not be as receptive at fight 40 as he was at fight 20.
His posse might give him the OK to relax. Might insinuate that Atlas is wound a bit too tight. Might seek to create a wedge. The suits, the dealmakers, they are enough, practically, to keep Atlas from ever signing on with another kid.
I hate parts of this business, he says. I love the purity of this business. The nobility of the fighters. But the corruptors, the administrators, I hate them.
If Teddy were to stay with the kid, and allow what looks to me might be taking on a father-son sort of dynamic, he might get hurt. Never fall in love with your fighter, anyone in Teddys place has been told. Too many times, hes given in. Allowed himself to love, to be vulnerable, to share some of the lessons he got from watching and talking to his dad.
But it can be argued that Atlas isnt built right for the game. Its easier to be amoral, to see the kid as an ATM, as a vehicle to ones own success. Its easier to have a hardened heart, to work the game like The Godfather worked his turf.
Make money, not an emotional investment. Rather than step over and around the mud, or even try and clean it up, wallow in it.
Everyone else is wallowing, I might as well too. That hasnt been Atlas way.
He talks about a mans inability to be a witness to his weakness. He talks about how human beings shrink at being evaluated by someone whose brand of love is tough. Im not going to be a yes man, he says. To be a trainer you have to make them cognizant.
Except, you dont. You can get along, and look the other way, and not tell the kid the harsh truth, alert him if hes lapsing into self delusion. Thats easier if your cut of the purse is fat. Many guys take the tradeoff. More money, less harshness, less discipline.
The sting of the inevitable seeps into Atlas voice. He talks about how the time for the betrayal, mostly of an adherence to standards, to a code of ruthless self appraisal, moves closer to actuality the minute you sign on to corner a guy. But hes hoping, as far as I can tell, that Povetkin will be different. That he wont let the bond fray. That he wont allow the marriage, because thats what Atlas enters into when he trains a guy, a marriage, wither, or morph into a union of convenience.
Atlas admits he doesnt want to let the kid down. Its not a one way street in his head. What if at the end of the day, Povetkin allows himself to believe fully in Teddy ways, his stringent requirements. He buys in, and works to his max, but it isnt enough? Will he feel let down? Will the bond begin to fray then? He bought in, the trainer says. He believes. I know what I say is the truth. But its not a guarantee, that itll work out. Thats the real world, not just boxing.
It doesnt matter, Atlas decides. Not now, it doesnt matter know. Im a teacher, he says. Cus told me I was born to be a teacher. It mightve been to BS me, he says, chuckling. But I can help Povetkin. He is green. I should help him.
Atlas recalls a night. He was about ten. It was around midnight, and his dad, who passed away in 1994, came home from a round of house-calls and hospital visits. Teddy the kid chatted with him as he ate some fruit.
Where were you? the kid asked.
I stopped to see a patient in a hospital. Hes very sick. Cancer, Theodore Atlas said.
But hell be all better now, right?
Young Teddy couldnt believe it.
Hes going to die, his dad said.
Why were you with him then? Its midnight!
Because you you dont give up on life, the doctor said.
See, Cus gave me a lot of philosophy, and a lot of theory, Atlas continues. But my father did it.
And will Atlas stick with it? History says he will exit, will have gotten his fill of the proximity to the muddy wallowers, and head back to the booth. If it goes bad, Ill understand. I wont be surprised or shocked. But that doesnt mean Ill stop trying, stop caring. When I stop being disappointed I might as well not get involved. Then you dont care anymore. Then whats the sense of living? If you stop expecting people to do the right thing, to be full human being, then you have no care for things that matter. Im in with this kid, Atlas says. These c——-s, they have no honor, but the kid, Im committed to this kid. I fell in love with this kid. Im not supposed to. Cus told me that 150 years ago.
On Thursday afternoon, it was announced that Wladimir Klitschko would not be fighting Alexander Povetkin. He will instead likely face challenger Samuel Peter. Word was that Povetkin had a sinus problem, which rendered him unable to fly to Germany for a Monday press conference to hype the bouta, and that no-show was a catlyst for the challenger switch. Atlas will now get more time with his kid, to smooth out those edges, so he isnt as green. Was there a test of wills between Atlas and those administrators? Cant say. But the kid will get the chance to keep on progressing, keep getting better. Someone got to the suits, made them cognizant.