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A 'Matinee Idol' turns 50: Czyz reflects on his charmed, tough life
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Award-winning writer Bernard Fernandez chronicles the dysfunctional childhood and early boxing years of Bobby Czyz in part one of his intimate two-part feature story on the popular former light heavyweight and cruiserweight titleholder.
That which does not kill us makes us stronger.
Boxers, even those who never heard of Nietzsche, the 19th century German philosopher/existentialist, are at least somewhat familiar with the aforementioned precept. To survive in that most unforgiving of sports cauldrons, the ring, a boxer has to physically and mentally condition himself to accept pain of all sorts and to battle through it. Those who can combine skill with a high tolerance for discomfort are venerated not only by action-craving fight fans, but by other scarred practitioners of the pugilistic arts. They understand, more than anyone, that those who can take it as well as dish it out have a chance to develop into something special.
At 50 and with a still-handsome face that has taken on a rugged quality with the passage of time and the addition of the obligatory professional nicks, former two-division titleholder Bobby Czyz bears at least some semblance to the unmarked visage of the teenaged “Matinee Idol” who so captivated the public in the 1980s. That Bobby Czyz had it all, or so it would seem. He was being groomed for superstardom and all that goes with it – the television exposure, the hefty purses, the parade of attractive women who sought to lay him out, in their own fashion, as much as did his gloved opponents.
It wasn’t until much later, when he chose to discuss the dysfunctional childhood he and his younger brothers, Vince and Tony, had to endure at the hands of a compulsively demanding father, that the flip side of Czyz’s feel-good story was finally revealed. But, in retrospect, could the satisfaction of the future champion’s greatest successes even been possible without the terror that preceded them?
“There’s nothing you can throw at me that I can’t handle,” Czyz said of the hard edge he developed from the ongoing ordeal he was obliged to endure on an almost daily basis from Robert Edward Czyz, Sr., who committed suicide on June 12, 1983. “Is that a good thing for me? Probably, but look what I had to go through to get to where I am now.”
Czyz now has no problems revisiting less savory aspects of his past, but, understandably, his preference is to harken back to happier times. Those memories aren’t just pleasant, they’re probably therapeutic.
“My first pro fight was on TV, which is normally not the case,” recalled Czyz, who compiled a 44-8 record, with 28 victories inside the distance, in a career that ran from 1980 to ’98. “ESPN was still fairly new; they had done an interview with me and somebody there said they were going to hitch their cart to Bobby Czyz’s tail, or maybe vice versa. Their thinking was, here’s this middle-class kid from the suburbs, a straight-A student, who probably shouldn’t even be a fighter. Fighters were supposed to be minorities, from the wrong side of the tracks, downtrodden, trying to rise above their circumstances. It was just a story they bought into.”
It was a story that had a nice long run, too. Czyz, the North Jersey boy who was as erudite as a college professor but could bang like Jake LaMotta, was fortunate enough to have come along when there were three or four fight cards in the state almost every weekend. Boxing was huge in New Jersey then, and Czyz was its favorite son. He was an Arturo Gatti-sized drawing card in Atlantic City before Gatti bloomed into the full flower of popularity there a decade and a half later.
“Gatti probably was a little more exciting, but Bobby was right there with him in terms of having an incredibly loyal fan base,” said Henry Hascup, executive director of the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame, which inducted Czyz in 1998. “I remember when Bobby was coming up in the amateurs. Even then, he had girls all over him. There was a reason why he was known as `The Matinee Idol.’ But let’s not forget, he could really fight. He won world championships in three weight classes.
“One time I was at a press conference in New York and somebody asked Evander Holyfield to name the toughest guy he ever fought. He said, `Bobby Czyz.’ That kind of took me by surprise. Evander said, `I thought it would be a walkover, but I couldn’t put the guy away. No matter what I did, I couldn’t make him quit. Nobody could make Bobby Czyz quit.’”
As might be expected, Czyz remembers his halcyon period fondly. “My favorite day is Sept. 6, 1986, the day I won my first world title,” he said of the night at the Las Vegas Hilton when he captured the IBF light heavyweight belt on a fifth-round stoppage of Slobodan Kacar, who had won an Olympic gold medal for Serbia at the 1980 Moscow Games.
“In 1986 and ’87, wherever I went, I was recognized. I was pampered, catered to. People were sucking up to me all over the place. It was great.”
But fame is like a drug, and the high produced by any drug doesn’t last forever.
“You can lose perspective sometimes,” Czyz admitted. “I remember one time I was in Haledon, New Jersey, near Paterson, not too far from where I grew up. Everybody in the area knew me. I walked into this restaurant and said, `I’m Bobby Czyz. I have a reservation.’ The maître d’ says, `It’ll be about 20 minutes. You can wait over there.’ After about 30 minutes, I went back and the guy tells me he’s sorry, but it’ll be another 10 to 15 minutes.
“For a split-second I thought, `Don’t they know who I am?’ Then I said to myself, `You asshole. You’re an asshole when you start to think you’re better than everyone else. Even if you’re a world champion.’”
And especially if you have been bullied almost from birth by someone who is supposed to love you, someone who has made it clear in any number of ways that no matter how highly you achieve, it’s not good enough.