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‘My life inside and outside the ring’ with Bobby Czyz

By Ian Aldous: In a professional career that spanned eighteen years, Bobby Czyz (44-8) saw it, did it and bought the t-shirt. The former IBF light-heavyweight and WBA cruiserweight world champion took some time a few weeks ago to talk with me about his life away from the ring as well as inside it. We touched on parts of his career including tragedy, his first world title and his controversial fight with Evander Holyfield. I sincerely hope you enjoy his tales as much as I did listening to them.

Unfortunately the story starts with a very sad and tragic twist. On March 14th 1980, LOT flight 007 suffered a mechanical failure and crashed killing all 87 people on board. But for a car accident in December of 1979, Bobby Czyz should have been on that plane. “When I found out the plane crashed I’ll tell you exactly what I felt and what I thought. My father was a very brutal man. He was a tough disciplinarian. He called the house from his office and he said ‘Bob, remember that trip to Poland?’ I thought he was gonna rip into me because I’d gotten in a car accident. He said ‘Listen, they’re all dead. The plane crashed at 100% fatality’. When I say to you, a chill ran up my spine, I can’t even tell you, the feeling was so strange, I was physically shaking.” Bobby then brings the factors of fate and religion into the situation. “It’s unimaginable that you were slated to be dead and that is an uncomfortable feeling, I was supposed to be dead. It’s never left me, certainly the severity of the moment has never changed but as time goes by, you don’t think about it as much. Whoever took my place is gone and I was literally slated to die.” He continued “I’m not a religious person, my mom is very old school Catholic and when the plane crashed, she said to me, and I quote ‘Son, don’t you believe in God now? He let you get in a car accident and he saved your life.’ You mean he killed all of those people to make a point to me? That’s just bad Math. To this day, she still believes that’s what happened.”

Having built a then 28-1 pro record, Bobby earned himself his first shot at a world title when in September 1986 he went up against newly crowned IBF light-heavyweight champion and 1980 Olympic gold-medalist, Slobodan Kacar, in the home of boxing, Las Vegas. Just over four rounds and a brutal stoppage later, he was champion. Upon winning the belt, a childhood memory forced its way into his thoughts. “I remember it pretty well. As a matter of fact, I’ll tell you what, it brought me to a flashback and I’ll set the scene for you. September of 1972, I was ten years old and my father first took me to a gym and both of my brothers, Vincent and Tony. I trained September until February 9th, the day before my eleventh birthday. I worked my ass off, and I sparred with a kid who was about fifteen pounds heavier than me. I weighed seventy-five pounds at the time and this kid was about the same age but heavier. I beat him so bad in the first round that the trainer who ran the gym said (to his opponent) ‘Tony, get out’, he said to me ‘Not you, you stay’. He put in another kid who was thirteen years old, two years older than me, and he was only about five pounds heavier than me but he was the most accomplished junior Olympic fighter at the time. I was semi-petrified because I knew this kid had won all these fights and titles and I looked at my father, he looked at me with the most evil look you’ve ever seen and said ‘You can do this son, this is why you’re here’. I was more afraid of my father than anything. Trust me when I tell you I would rather fight a lion bare-handed than face my father. The next three minutes were a bit of a blur for me, but at the end of that three minutes I got a standing ovation from every trainer, every fighter, pro and amateur and every onlooker in the gym. That was my first day sparring, as the British would say ‘testing your mettle’. The feeling that day, I knew I was special and I believed I was destined for something special and I kid you not, when I won my title, I never could understand for the life of me how people when they were happy would cry, it never made sense to me. When my hands were raised and I beat Kacar for the title, I started to tear up. I wiped it away fast but the enormity of what I’d just accomplished, what I set out to do when I was ten years old and took me fourteen years, the enormity of the moment just overwhelmed me.”

That was only his third fight away from his native New Jersey and to take a world title from an elite Olympic amateur was the performance of a lifetime, especially when Kacar had the legendary Angelo Dundee in his corner. ” Here’s the thing, I flew over to Italy when he fought Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, I thought Eddie beat him by a close margin but he (Slobodan) ending up winning a split decision (and the IBF title). He had zero power, he couldn’t break an egg if he threw it at the wall. Tap tap tap, it’s standard East European amateur style, eastern bloc fighting and that’ll work in the amateurs, it’s just not gonna work in the pros. After I knocked him out, he wound up getting beat up a couple more times. If you take apart what he does, he can’t keep you off him. Those points will win it in the amateurs over three rounds but that’s just not gonna last in a fifteen round fight. I started banging him to the body then up to the head and there was nothing he could do to stop it. He had no power at all, nothing he threw hurt. Not one punch that he hit me with registered.”

As well as beating Kacar physically, Bobby appeared to beat him mentally before the first bell had even rung. “You know the phrase ‘when you get inside someone’s head’? Randy Gordon at the time was a reporter for one of the networks and we were friendly. He worked for ESPN and he’d done some other commentary about fight guys and he came over to me. He said ‘Bobby, I just did an interview with Slobodan Kacar and you wanna know what he asked me?’ I said stop Randy, let me tell you what he asked you, he asked how hard does Bobby hit? ‘How could you possibly know that?’ Randy said. Because I could see the fear in his eyes.” Czyz followed up his title win with three successful defenses of the crown in the space of six months, all by stoppage. He must have felt invincible at the time. “You know what, pretty much.”

Unfortunately, four defeats in his next six fights put a stop to his career momentum and damaged his professional record. Tough losses in championship bouts against Virgil Hill and Charles Williams (his second defeat to Williams) lead to a move up to cruiserweight and an eventual crack at Robert Daniels and his WBA cruiserweight title. The win once again proved wrong the critics that Bobby had during his career. “Well, it’s funny because at the time everybody thought that I wouldn’t make it as a light-heavyweight because I turned pro as a middleweight when I was eighteen and still growing. Then I moved to super-middleweight and eventually light-heavyweight. I remember my first fight as a light-heavyweight, I fought a guy named Tim Broady and he had bad-mouthed me so much in Texas where we fought in Houston, at press-conferences and interviews leading up to the fight, that if you watch the fight when I knocked him out cold, I stand over his body and I said something not so pleasant. It was one of those things where everybody always underestimated me for two reasons: I was white and I wasn’t that big.”

Bobby then informed me of a phrase some of his doubters early on had come up with to describe him. “I’m white, bright and polite, can he really fight? That was the joke and it wasn’t that funny to me. It’s funny to me now.” I’d say that’s quite offensive and hurtful but in true Czyz style, he shrugged it off. “It did (hurt), but I got it, I didn’t sit around the house crying about it, I got over it. I said I’m gonna prove myself and it’s funny because I just told this interesting story the other day: many years ago when I was in eighth grade, there was an exercise that eighth graders went through: who was the most popular, who was the biggest flirt, who was the smartest, who was the most likely to succeed. I voted for myself on two things, most likely to succeed and smartest. And the funny thing was that I was voted smartest but not the most likely to succeed. If you’re the smartest, you should be the most likely to succeed (laughs). I thought ‘no big deal’ but I knew my name would be remembered, I knew I would become a name that never loses its place in history.” He continued “I’m an atheist, I don’t believe in God, Heaven and all that wonderful stuff, I really wish I could but I don’t. I’m immortal now, my name’s in the history books three times. I can’t die. And that was the whole point of me doing what I did. That was the reason I fought.”

At this point Bobby wanted to talk about a man who particularly helped develop his skills and help him become the boxer and champion he became. “I have a special gentleman, name’s Joe Grier. He was one of the pros that I used to work with and he was also my mentor. Here’s a guy, he didn’t just tell you what to do, he didn’t just show you what to do, he did it every single day. He did it by example. Recently he got inducted into the New Jersey boxing hall of fame. I called the president of the hall of fame, gentleman named Henry Hascup and I said if anyone’s gonna induct him into the hall of fame, it’s gonna be me and if you allow anyone else but me to do it, I’ll come there and I’ll burn the whole building down (laughs)! I owe Joe a debt that I cannot pay back. His wife was there, his kids were there and I got up, when I finished my speech, not only did it get a five minute standing ovation but half the room were in tears like I was and Joe was. If not for him, I don’t know that I’d have become as special as I was. Without having a mentor or books to mentor you, how do you know what decisions to make. I think about it all the time because I said to Joe, you’ve given me so much and I’ve given you so little. He said, ‘Bobby, watching you do what you did, where you came from, the little white boy from the country come into the middle of Patterson, N.J into the gym and not only survive, but thrive.’ When I inducted him, the speech that’s on the record, I felt like I finally gave him back what he gave me. He used to call me the ‘white boy with soul’ and when I finished my speech, I jokingly said: Ladies and gentlemen, this white boy would like to introduce you to his soul.”

It’s 1996 and Bobby has made the big move up to heavyweight. In May he got what would be his final big fight, it would be against heavyweight legend, Evander Holyfield. The fight was controversial as it appeared that Holyfield had a substance on his gloves that was causing Czyz problems with his sight. So, what actually happened? “I was told, believe it or not, nine months afterwards from State Police that his gloves were tested and there was Tabasco sauce on his gloves. They believed there was but couldn’t prove it definitively and that’s why it became inconclusive. I got a phone call from Bert Cooper who said after he knocked Holyfield down, in the very next round he was almost blinded and he couldn’t see anything and his eyes were burning. To this day he has sight problems. My vision before fighting was tested at 20/15, better than 20/20. Now it’s 20/35, 20/40. If you watch the fight, in between rounds, you’ll see Don Turner rubbing Evander’s gloves. Now, it’s very common to rub vaseline on the gloves in sparring so you don’t hurt or cut each other but you don’t do that in a fight, you wanna hurt people and cut them. There is no reason on the planet for him to be rubbing Evander Holyfield’s gloves. No reason, zero. Evander Holyfield said a year after the fight, he said ‘Bobby, after one more round, I was gonna quit.’ I knew he would underestimate my toughness. I was ready to go to the long, deep rounds because I didn’t think he was.”

Bobby decided to finally walk away from the sport as an active competitor in 1998, eighteen years after he first fought as a pro. It was obviously a tough decision but one that had to be made. “I wound up doing the commentary for ten years after that, so I wasn’t really away from the entire sport. We can’t regret getting old because the only way to not get old is by dying young and that’s not too good either! It’s one of those things where, because you need to have your body in perfect shape all the time, you just don’t wanna recognize that you’re getting old. I made it to three world titles, I expected to win one, I never expected to win three in different weight divisions. I never believed I would achieve that much. There’s only about a dozen fighters in history that have done it. Fought in five or six weight divisions and won world titles in three or more. I don’t consider myself one of the greatest but I deserve to go down with my credentials and the legacy I’ve left behind for my family.”

Bobby Czyz is a board member of ‘Find A Dream’. The mission of Find A Dream is to attain a safe and supportive environment for youth and young adults of diverse social, economic, and ethnic backgrounds. While interacting with positive role models, our students will achieve a solid foundation in the pursuit of their dreams. Our program has already demonstrated that hands-on and personable coaching will enable our students to become future mentors and leaders in the community.

For more information, check out www.findadream.org

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