[An interview with]

Teddy Atlas

Dec 16, 2011

“How could someone be so stupid to say (Mike Tyson) could be the greatest? He had no character. He didn’t have the ability to overcome controversy like Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis. They overcame personal issues…Tyson didn’t have that ability.”

T eddy Atlas has a lot of opinions, and they are not always very popular, but with over 40 years of experience in the sport of boxing he is entitled to speak his mind.

Born in Staten Island, New York in 1956, Teddy Atlas has dedicated the majority of his life to fighting, teaching people to fight, and analyzing fights. Love him or hate him, as one of boxing’s most knowledgeable ambassadors, he deserves to be heard.

Teddy Atlas’ journey in boxing began in his early teens when he was training and fighting in organized amateur bouts. Outside the ring, however, he lacked discipline and direction. As a result, he constantly found himself in trouble with the law. He was involved with several crimes, and spent some time on Riker’s Island for his role in an armed robbery. Perhaps the most lasting example of his rebellious years is the large scar that runs from his forehead to his chin. In the midst of a street fight Atlas was slashed with a knife and required 400 stitches.

The turning point for Atlas came while he awaited his trial for armed robbery. At that time, local boxing trainer and friend Kevin Rooney invited Atlas to come and train in Catskill, New York with Cus D’Amato. D’Amato was a legendary trainer in the area and he took Atlas under his wing. After D’Amato spoke for Atlas at his trial, he was released into his custody and they both returned to operate his boxing gym in Catskill. Although Atlas wanted to train as a fighter, he experienced some major back problems and shifted his focus to training.

For six years Atlas ran the gym with D’Amato and was involved with the training of several legendary fighters. One fighter, however, stands out above the rest. It was during this time that D’Amato took on a young 12-year-old protege named Mike Tyson. Together with Atlas, Mike Tyson was transformed into one the most dominant, and feared boxers in history. Their relationship, however, took a major turn for the worst when Tyson sexually harassed a female relative of Atlas’. In what is now an infamous moment in boxing history, Teddy Atlas put a gun to Tyson’s head and threatened to kill him if he ever touched anyone in his family again.

Needless to say, after that event, Atlas moved on from Tyson’s career and D’Amato’s gym. By this point though he was an accomplished trainer with a breadth of knowledge and experience, and that allowed him to continue training championship fighters. Since his time in Catskill, Atlas has trained many champions including Michael Moorer, who twice won the Heavyweight belt under his leadership.

In 1998, Atlas made a transition from a full-time trainer to a boxing analyst and commentator. Hired on by ESPN, he became the regular voice of their Friday Night Fights broadcast. He was also the official commentator for boxing in the Sydney, Athens, and Beijing summer Olympics. His work as a commentator has further established him as an outspoken, and passionate individual. His ability to consistently keep it real, and honest, has made him a fan favorite. Not everyone agrees with Atlas, but they still pay attention.

Today, Atlas shares his time between his responsibilities at ESPN and his job as head trainer for WBA Heavyweight Champion, Alexander Povetkin.

While boxing is Atlas’ bread and butter, he is also extremely passionate about his charity work. In 1996, he established the Dr. Atlas Foundation in memory of his late father. The organization works to provide financial assistance to those in need, largely in the form of medical expenses. Thus far, the organization has given away $3 million to a variety of people and problems.

There is much I WANNA KNOW from one of boxing’s wisest scholars. I had the pleasure of speaking with Teddy Atlas from his foundation’s office in Staten Island, New York.

From the Klitschko brothers, to Pacquiao vs. Mayweather, to corruption in boxing, to his opinions on Mike Tyson, to the Dr. Atlas Foundation, we cover it all.

* * *

Ryan Kohls: First off, congrats on the big win in Finland with Povetkin. Were you happy with his performance?

Teddy Atlas: Yeah, I was satisfied with the performance. He followed the fight plan I laid out for him in training camp. I thought we took his jab away, and I felt that once we started doing that he started losing hope, and got a little bit discouraged. I also noticed watching film of him that he has a habit of going straight back. I knew once we got him to go backwards we  would have him and we could walk him right into big power punches, and we were able to do that.

It unfolded the way I thought it could if we did what we needed to do. I’m happy that my fighter is coming along; he’s improving defensively and becoming a better rounded fighter.

RK: What do you want next for Povetkin? Are you inevitably looking to match him up with one of the Klitschko brothers?

TA:  I don’t give a crap about the Klitschko’s. I don’t care about them, and I’m sure they don’t care about me. They’re not important to me. We developed a world champion here, and we want him to continue getting better. My goal is the same as when I train all my fighters: make my fighter better, and give him the teaching and experience he needs to become the best fighter he can be. That’s what I’m concentrating on, I’m not concentrating on what we do now to beat the Klitschko’s. I’m trying to figure out how to get Alexander Povetkin better after the Boswell fight. I’m trying to make him more well-rounded in all areas. When I started with him the goal was to make him a better fighter, and find out where that would take us.

We got offered the Klitschko fight two years ago, and we turned it down. I got vilified by all these creeps on the internet who know nothing about boxing. They were saying, “Teddy took him out of the fight. He turned down $2 million, and ruined his career.” If I would have left him in that fight, I would have ruined his career. He didn’t have the experience at that time. He only had 17 fights then, Klitschko had 50. I didn’t think he was ready for it, and with more time he could be. I thought he hadn’t reached his peak yet, and he was still finding out what that was. The $2 million payday included 200,000 for me, by the way. I thought he deserved the time to get better. I know boxing well enough to know that the landscape of boxing changes like the weather. I decided it was best to be patient, and it paid off when we fought Chigaev a year and a half later.


RK: As an analyst, what were your thoughts on Pacquiao-Marquez 3?

TA: I saw it in Russia. I watched it at six in the morning. Hopefully my eyes were wide awake enough to know what I was watching because what I think I saw was Marquez winning the fight. I think I saw what the sweet science allows you do: finding ways to even the playing field when someone has advantages in speed and power. There is always a way in the sweet science to even this out by being smarter, and using different things to counter those physical advantages. Marquez used this. From what I watched, Marquez negated the speed and took away those advantages by using timing, he timed him on the way in and out. I thought he was landing clean, effective punches by doing that. He may not have been that busy, but when he led with punches he led at the right time, and didn’t leave himself out in space to be taken advantage of. When he saw Pacquiao’s feet moving that’s when he got his punches off.

RK: Some people are speculating that Pacquiao may be physically declining after seeing him complain of leg cramps in his past two fights. Do you think he’s peaked?

TA: No, I don’t think he’s physically declining. That doesn’t mean my opinions right, but I don’t think he’s diminishing at all. I don’t know what his training camp was like, or how he was taking care of himself, but all I know is that from my standpoint he didn’t show me any diminishing returns. Maybe at this point in his career there may be other things on his plate that are distracting him mentally, he’s got a lot of other options that other fighters don’t have. I didn’t think he was as aggressive, but maybe that’s because of Marquez’s timing. Something was missing, but I don’t blame it on the psychical side. Maybe he doesn’t have the same urgency as a few years ago when he had to make things happen to win. These are all maybes.

But, I don’t want to take away any of the credit due to Marquez.

RK: Many people are also saying that Pacquiao’s recent performances make him much less of a favorite against Floyd Mayweather. Do you think he still stands a chance if that fight does happen?  

TA: My position will be the same it has always been: I’ve always thought Mayweather would win that fight easily. That was my feeling two years ago, and it’s my feeling today. It has nothing to do with what Marquez did with him. I think Mayweather is the better overall package. I think he can match him in speed, and he’s a better defensive fighter. He’s a real good counter puncher, and could take advantage of some of the reckless aggression of Pacquiao. And, I thought he could also match him in another very important area: confidence. That’s an area not everyone can match Pacquiao in. Floyd Mayweather is a very confident fighter, and that mental area, that’s very important going into a fight. Finally, he’s a naturally bigger guy. So, I think he would actually win the fight easily.

RK: Another issue that came up with the Pacquiao-Marquez fight was poor judging. Do you feel that biased judging continues to plague the sport of boxing?

TA: I’ll get right to the point, this sport is a corrupt sport. Sometimes the best thing you can say about some of these decisions is that they’re incompetent, and that’s scary. The judges and referees have the responsibility of fighter’s careers in their hands. A lot people out there don’t understand why I’m so passionate about this. Unlike any other sport, when you rob a fighter of a win you knock him down the ladder and he’s got to take thousands more punches to get to that place where he already was. That’s exactly what you’re doing when you rob a fighter. There are two choices: 1) they’re corrupt, or 2) they’re incompetent. Sometimes I can’t see any other explanation for it. This sport is a mess, and it’s lost the credibility of a lot of fans because of the way it’s administered. The sport is great: it turns kids into men, it gives people confidence, and gives people the ability to overcome things. It’s the greatest thing in the world. But, the administrators of this sport suck sometimes, and it’s a damn shame.

There’s no separation in this sport. The officials and those running the show are too close. There is nothing that buffers them. Do you know how many times I’ve been in Europe and the US and I go out to a good restaurant, and I see all the freakin’ officials and judges for the fight the next night being hosted, at an expensive dinners that costs thousands of dollars, by the promoter! Are you kidding me? It’s ridiculous. They’re sitting there in a restaurant having wine, lobsters, champagne, and everything else, and it’s being hosted and paid by the people that they’re supposed to unbiasedly the next day administer rules. Their decisions ruin and prosper careers in the same night. You can see it anytime if you go to the right place. At the very best it’s got the look of impropriety, and the very worse it is impropriety. What are we idiots here? Are we morons?

And, just to make a parallel to that and make a comparison in another sport. You take the New York Yankees and the Steinbrenners. Could they, the night before a World Series game, be found with the official umpiring crew of the game the next day having dinner? No. It could not happen because baseball would not allow it to happen. It would destroy the integrity of the sport. So, why does it happen in my sport? Because nobody gives a shit, it’s the wild west. We don’t have a central organized body that is a national commission in place to make sure it doesn’t happen.


RK: When I watched the Mayweather-Ortiz fight, I was shocked by referee Joe Cortez’s performance. Do you think refs are ever paid off?

TA: Yes, I do. I’m going into dangerous waters here. I’m not standing here giving you a smoking gun, but again, there is no separation. The problem with boxing is that the landscape that exists begs to be corrupted. It screams out to be corrupted, it asks you to corrupt it. You have no policing, no watchtower, and you have people in close proximity to conflicting situations. When you put human beings in that situation for long enough they’re tempted. I’m sorry. They might be decent people but all of a sudden they have a chance to make an extra thousand dollars, they do it. After a while when there’s no accountability or threat of being caught, they start to think there’s no risk, and they validated it in their minds. For some people it’s about taking care of their families, but it shouldn’t be justifiable. It doesn’t always have to be like the movies and be hard cash in an envelope either. It can be so many other different forms and ways that are still corruption. It could be the referee getting a first class plane ticket, a ticket for his wife, or another extra day or two on site. It can be all those things.

RK: Despite all its flaws, boxing has been a big part of almost your entire life. What first drew you to the sport?

TA: I don’t know if this is good to admit to, but the only other thing I did as a kid was paint one house in the summer. Other than that, I’ve been in boxing my whole life. I did a real good job painting that house though, I put two coats of paint on it. One day I’m going to drive by that house and take a look at it. It’s up in Catskill, New York.

I started training fighters very young. I was training Wilfred Benitez for the Carlos Palomino welterweight title fight in Puerto Rico when I was 21. I probably didn’t deserve to be training a fighter like that then. I was up in Catskill and Jim Jacobs had Benitez. I was with Cus, and he sent him down to our camp and I trained him.

RK: Who do you think are the best trainers out there, that are doing it right?

TA: I think Freddie Roach is doing a good job. He does get really good material though. The real telling of a trainer, though, is how they improve fighters from where they start. That’s how you should judge a trainer. I think Freddie improved Pacquiao. When he first got him he was left hand heavy, and now he’s more well-rounded. He’s not just dependent on that left hand.

It’s one thing to have a good car with a good engine, but you need to then know how to drive it. Just like fighters, you can have the talent, but you need the technical approach to go along with it.


Cus and Mike

RK: Cus D’Amato is revered as one of the best trainers of all time. What was it like working with him in your early days?

TA: He was a guy that was dedicated to one thing: boxing. He never got married or had a family. His whole relationship was with boxing. Everything revolved around boxing. He was a man who was different, he walked to his own drummer. He thought of things differently, and there was a big emphasis on the psychological part of the game, and being exciting. It was about understanding how to be good and exciting, to make money and get people’s attention. It was also about the technical stuff with Cus, the rudiments of boxing, the fundamentals. If you have good fundamentals, it’s the foundation of a house, once it’s up it’s always going to be there no matter the weather. You need that good floor plan. I learned that from Cus, and that’s I think I try and do with my fighters. There’s so many subtleties, and not many people learn these things.

As much as bad referees and judges have ruined this sport, so have less and less qualified teachers. Many trainers don’t understand the fundamentals and throw a towel over their shoulder and call themselves a trainer. They don’t deserve the responsibility of teaching these boxers. It’s a joke. It’s not just about throwing punches, it’s about when to throw them. You have to know when to throw one, or throw seven. And, you need to know where to throw them from.

RK: Speaking of trainers who get raw talent to work with, what was it like working with Mike Tyson when he was 14?

TA: First of all, I started with him when he was 12. I trained him for the first four years, Rooney was nowhere near him. After I left, he moved into that gap. Anyway, he was 12 and 195 pounds with no fat. He was an extraordinary physical specimen. On one hand, you could say I had good material. Yes. But on the other hand, what’s not as easy to observe, is that it was not good material mentally. He was emotionally weak, he was always insecure. He was fractured and crooked in a lot of areas. You had to work with that, and understand that, and try and supplement that and work around it. He got help with that to a certain degree.

Another thing is that although he was very fast, and very powerful, he had to be taught how to use those physical abilities. The car was good, but you still had to have a good driver to make sure that car didn’t go over the cliff the first time it went out. So, we got the benefit of good material, no doubt about it, but he also got the benefit of being somewhere where people taught him the right way for him. We taught him how to make a guy miss and then exploit that with his speed and strength. If he wasn’t taught those things he would have just been another strong guy. There was plenty of strong guys out there, he wasn’t unique in that way, but they didn’t come heavyweight champion of the world because they didn’t get the benefit of this training.

RK: Do you think if Cus wouldn’t have passed away so soon into his career that he could have been the greatest of all time?

TA: No. No, because his character was flawed. Why would you think he could become the greatest of all time without character? Why would you think that? Why would you be so blazon? So arrogant? Think about it – and I know I’m strong about these things but too bad – how could someone be so stupid to say he could be the greatest? He had no character. He didn’t have the ability to overcome controversy like Ali and Joe Louis. They overcame personal issues, they faced them, Tyson didn’t have that ability. Those guys had longevity because of that, he was missing that character. To be missing that is more important than missing speed and power. I’ve seen guys with great character who have become great fighters without being the best physically. We can’t say we would have been a great fighter without great character.

I happen to know what Tyson was, and where he was heading when Cus was alive. He was already doing things that were wrong, but they were being covered better. Jim Jacobs and Cus were doing a good job with the press, but he was doing terrible, horrible things. A lot of the things that came to light later, he was already doing, you just didn’t know about it. I’m giving you an informed answer. When I say nothing would have changed if Cus had lived longer, I know because Tyson was already headed that way before he died.

He already had those flaws when Cus was around but they were hidden by his talent. When the talent couldn’t hide it, they came to the forefront. We all saw them. I happen to know though that it is unfair to make Cus a saint. I appreciate him, but I also don’t appreciate him for some things I’m aware of.



RK: There was an infamous incident where you put a gun to Mike Tyson’s head before you left camp. Do you have any regrets about that decision?

TA: Why would I regret that? Listen, I don’t want to go to jail for the rest of life any more than anyone else. But, I don’t want my family to be raped, to be abused. I would rather face a danger from myself than to live with the knowledge that something happened to my family and I could have prevented it. I’m not allowing someone to hurt and abuse my family and it’s that simple. Did I want to do that? Do I condone doing those things? Of course not. But at the time I felt I didn’t have any other option.

RK: You had a troubled youth yourself, would you say it was boxing that kept you focused, and prevented you from further slipping into crime?

TA: Yeah, boxing definitely help get me from point A to point B without falling further into the caverns which would have prevented me from moving forward. Sometimes you just have to get from point A to Point B, and it’s a son-of-a-bitch to get there, but boxing helped me.

RK: Teddy, is it fair to say that you’re a man who wears his heart on his sleeve, and is not concerned about the popularity of his statements?

TA: Look, after all these years, damn right it’s fair to say that. I don’t give a shit what they say. There will be people who will read this and agree with this, and those who won’t. I don’t care because I believe what I’m saying. I believe it because I’ve lived it. I’m not saying I’m right, but I’m saying it because I believe it from a meritable standpoint of what I’ve seen, and lived. I talk to guys on the air that I have no respect for, but I don’t say one damn thing about them other than what I see or know. It’s not fair to use my position in any other way but to say things I can stand behind, and be reasonably sure of. I have invested truth in what I’m saying.


RK: One of your main projects these days is the Dr. Atlas Foundation. Can you tell me a little bit about your father, and how he inspired this organization?

TA: My father was a committed doctor. He took care of people and believed you took care of people whether they could afford it or not, and most of them couldn’t. He believed everyone deserved that opportunity. He went into the projects in the middle of the night, he did house calls till he was 80. He didn’t charge for most of them. Sometimes they would make him a cup of tea, or give him a piece of cake because it would make them feel better. He knew it, so he let them give it to them. He didn’t want them to lose their pride. You can’t help somebody if they don’t have pride. 55 years he took care of people. He founded a hospital called Sunnyside with 22 beds to care for those who couldn’t afford treatments. Those beds were almost always full.

I remember on Christmas Eve the only way I could see him was if I went with him on house calls. So, I hung out with him, and went on these calls with him. I remember seeing this young Spanish girl with four children, and I watched her while she waited to see my father. I saw her fidgeting, and looking at the door, and I was sizing her up a little bit. I realized she was looking for an escape route because she didn’t have money. But, all she knew is she had to take care of her kids. I didn’t realize how my father was way ahead of me, he saw that light years ahead of me. All of a sudden, he said to her, “there is no charge.” He said it just at the right time, and she couldn’t believe what she had heard. When she left, he turned to me and pulled out 50 dollars and said, “What was I thinking? That woman has no money for Christmas. Go find her at the bus stop and give this to her.” He was right. I found her at the bus stop, and I went up to her and said, “the doctor told me to give you this.” She started crying, and that was it. I felt like I was apart of something special in that moment.

When he died I thought to myself, someone who does that for 55 years should be remembered. So, I started this foundation, the Dr. Atlas Foundation, 15 years ago, and I said we’re going to do what he did. We’re taking care of thousands of people who have nowhere else to go. We have people who can’t afford cancer treatments, and we take care of it. We’re flying a family out next week for a treatment. Other organizations that have way more money than us are recommending us because they won’t take on people who can’t afford treatments. It’s scary sometimes to figure out how we’re going to keep going, but we have our fundraisers and we’ve lasted 15 years. But, I’m blessed because the right people at the end of the day are coming to us, and we’re taking care of them. That’s what matters. I can get frustrated, but it’s working out the right way.


1) Check out the Dr. Atlas Foundation – http://dratlasfoundation.com/

1 Comment

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