NY1's Budd Mishkin continues his "One On 1" series with a profile of a man who has an extraordinary story, even by New York standards - Teddy Atlas.
At his home on Staten Island with his wife of nearly 24 years, Elaine, two grown children in college, a position with ESPN as a boxing commentator, and respect garnered from the work of his foundation which helps people all over the New York area, it would seem to be a contented time for Teddy Atlas. But this New York story has never been that simple.
"At this point in my life I was thinking a little tiny bit more about getting some answers to why I went to certain places, and I just thought that maybe doing this project - along the way as a plus - I would find out some things about that,” he says.
The project is a book, a brutally honest book about a rebellious youth getting into trouble, doing time at Rikers Island, a complicated relationship with a father who was a prominent physician, family tragedy, confronting the extremes of his personality, and how boxing turned him around.
An injury forced Atlas to end his fighting career early on, so he started training, first kids in the Catskills, eventually contenders, exhibiting a skill with boxing strategy and the psychological aspect of the game too.
“You better bring to that moment a memory and an understanding of what buttons do ignite your fighter,” he says. “You’d better know your guy.”
Teddy Atlas and Michael Moorer would reach the mountaintop one night in 1994, winning the heavyweight championship.
"The best thing I felt about Michael Moorer was that when he won the title I didn't have to talk any more about what I was supposed to have with [Mike] Tyson,” Atlas says.
It's been more than 20 years since Teddy Atlas trained Mike Tyson, and yet it's the first question that comes up when a guy stops him on the street.
Atlas trained Tyson in the early 1980s under the tutelage of Cus D'Amato in Catskill. He quickly felt that D'Amato let Tyson get away with too much outside of the ring.
Then Atlas's wife Elaine told him that Tyson had allegedly made unwanted advances on her sister. Atlas got a gun, confronted Tyson, told him he would kill him, then fired a shot in the air.
“I'm not proud of that. I don't condone it, but I'm not un-proud of it,” he says. “I wasn't going to let him treat my family that way. I wasn't going to let him take away something that nobody has a right to take away from a person - their dignity."
So why would he put something on his wall that would remind him of Tyson?
“Because he’s part of my life,” Atlas says. “There’s something about seeing him as a young kid, before the things that transpired, that is still OK to look at, if that makes sense.”
It would not be the last time that Atlas's passion for what he felt was right would almost bring on tragedy. He trained the fighter Donnie LaLonde, but LaLonde eventually went with another trainer and eventually fought for a multi-million dollar payday.
At the time Atlas was struggling to feed his family. Atlas felt betrayed, and in December 1988 he got a gun and went to LaLonde's apartment in the city, prepared to kill him. But LaLonde didn't answer the door.
If he had answered the door, what does Atlas think would have happened?
“I don't know,” he says. “I’m not going to tell you I don't want to think about it, because that's a weak answer and then I shouldn't have wrote the book if I'm not ready to answer that question. But it didn't happen. I thought they had to be accountable, and I didn't know any other way to make them accountable. I didn't know how to let them know how much it hurt except to hurt them back."
Teddy Atlas grew up in a nice neighborhood in a house with a view overlooking the Verrazano Bridge. But he hung out down the hill in the poorer Stapleton section.
He got into trouble and did some time at Rikers on a gun charge. He doesn't need to conjure up memories of that part of his life.
A fight turned into a knifing which required 400 stitches, leaving a scar on his face and a constant reminder.
“I wish this wasn't here,” he says. “People say, 'Teddy, it's not that bad.’ It's not on their face. From that it led me away from maybe something worse, from having no life, and it allowed me to finally make a choice to have a life and a family."
His father was a prominent physician. Atlas describes a man who worked six days a week from morning to night, taking care of patients whether they could afford it or not.
Time spent at the office and the hospital meant little time at home.
"It’s a terrible feeling to be left alone and you’re lonely and you’re not getting any care,” he says. “I was a middle class kid. It’s not about economics, it's about being poor, period. And you can be poor by just not getting the love and attention that you want.”
Boxing turned Atlas around, and his father eventually enjoyed the son's work as a trainer, even if Atlas had to learn about it through one of his father's patients.
"It was the only time I ever heard anybody - because my father never talked in those ways, ever - that I ever heard anyone say to me about my father how he was feeling about me and my life," he says.
It may have been a complicated relationship, but that didn't stop Atlas from getting his father's story out so that all would know what he did for the people of Staten Island.
“If I gave that up as having him as a father and we didn’t get that, than at the very least people should appreciate what he did, because otherwise it's like it's not validated,” he says.
But of the subjects Atlas covers in his new book, none is more painful than the story of his brother Tommy. He would eventually be diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, but not before taking a gun and killing their grandmother.
Atlas wanted the book to be honest, but had to be convinced to include this story.
“I didn't know if it was right to let people know that,” he says. “I didn't know how it would affect other people in my family. You have hesitations, and you’ve got to think about it and reflect about it because it's not going to be just you that's left with the aftermath of that coming out."
Atlas no longer trains fighters, he just analyzes them on TV. His passion is now primarily in his foundation, which helps people in all sorts of predicaments around New York.
Atlas is a man who will help at the drop of a hat, yet in the past he's felt so strongly about a sense of right and wrong that he's almost killed two fighters when he felt betrayed. Perhaps Atlas is best wrapped up in a story he tells about his old friend, the late writer Jack Newfield.
“He said to me, 'Teddy, I love you, and if I could give you a gift, my gift to you would be to have you go to a fictional place every once in a while - live in fiction once in a while - just so I could always have you and you can always be alright and it wouldn't be so hard on you,’” he says. “Because if you're always in a non-fiction place, it can really be a fight that is sometimes impossible to win."