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A 'Matinee Idol' turns 50: Czyz recounts ups and downs of career and life
Bobby Czyz provides a fascinating and uncompromising look into the triumphs and regrets of his eventful career and exceptional - sometimes tragic - life in part two of Bernard Fernandez's two-part feature on the former champ once known as the "Matinee Idol." Click here to read part one.
It often has been said that there are no atheists in a foxhole, when bullets are whizzing overhead and the possibility of instant death hovers like a foreboding fog. Former boxing champion Bobby Czyz, who is an atheist, would dispute that assertion. He has surveyed the entirety of his existence and concluded that individuals almost exclusively create their own destinies.
Czyz believes that the particulars of our time on earth are less the result of divine providence than of random selection. If someone happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time – or in the right place at the right time, for that matter – the hand of God plays little or no part in it. That is, if there really is an omnipotent God to place the blame or the credit for whatever happens to us at a given moment in time.
The man known as “Chappie” has many strong opinions, some of which he realizes could be considered politically incorrect, socially unacceptable or religiously abhorrent. He has been on either side of the thin line that separates the very fortunate from those decidedly less so, and he is as quick to accept blame for all that has happened to him which is less-than-praiseworthy as to accept credit for that which is commendable. Whenever he breathes his last, Czyz has determined, human scorekeepers will make an assessment of his pluses and minuses more meaningful than the decree of an angel or saint guarding the entrance to a heaven that might or might not exist.
What Czyz holds true above all else is the tangible legacy of a boxing career that saw him win versions of world championships in three separate weight classes; his enduring love for the deceased wife he foolishly let slip from his grasp, and his hopes for the daughter in whom he has invested so many of his own unfulfilled expectations.
Take, for instance, the car accident that prevented a banged-up, teenaged Czyz from accompanying coaches and other members of a U.S. amateur boxing team to a tournament in Poland a week later. The plane crashed and all aboard perished.
Czyz’s mother, Louise, a regular Sunday churchgoer, tried to depict that tragedy as proof to her eldest son that God, in His boundless mercy, had a plan for Robert Edward Czyz Jr. How could young Bobby question the Almighty when he had been so obviously spared?
“My mom is a devout Christian,” Czyz said. “She said, `Son, don’t you see? There has to be a God because that car accident saved your life. You didn’t get on that plane.’ I said, `Mom, do me a favor. Next time you talk to God, ask Him why he killed 165 people just to make a point to me.
“That was an accident of random chance. S—t happens all the time.”
Nor was Czyz inclined to reconsider the possibility of intervention by a higher power on April 13, 2007, when another automobile accident again just missed on snuffing out his candle. That crash hospitalized Czyz for seven weeks, four of which were spent in an induced coma. His doctors originally thought he might only have three to five days to live, because of the extent of burning to his lungs, but his physical conditioning as an athlete, as well as the mental toughness instilled in him through his boxing background, enabled him to beat the odds. Still, he left the hospital $1.5 million in debt, and he still owes about a third of that figure in unpaid medical bills.
“My brothers (Vince and Tony) and I were raised as atheists by our father,” Czyz recalled. “My sister is a Christian. That’s her business. But I’ve done my own independent research, and I’ve concluded that while the Bible is a nice storybook, that’s all it is. There are over 3,000 religions right now in the world, many of them with different gods, all offering their own way of getting to heaven.
“My problem is that I never want to die. I want to live forever. My father taught me to be so special that I’d be in the history books for what I accomplished in this life, because that’s all there is, so I’d better make the most of it. I’m a world champion three times over. That’s immortality, or as close as anyone ever gets to it.”
It should be noted that Czyz’s father, who committed suicide on June 12, 1983, was a pivotal figure in the son’s conflicted childhood and adolescence, and remains so to this day. It probably will forever be thus. Bobby readily admits he came to hate the sociopathic parent who made his life a hellish experience (the details of Czyz’s upbringing by his impossible-to-please dad are detailed at length in Part I of this series), but that some of the tougher lessons he was obliged to learn made an indelible and not wholly unfavorable impression. There cannot be evil, or good, without some corresponding measure of the other against which any person’s particular reality can be gauged.
“It wasn’t just that my father beat my brothers and me, but he hit my mom, too, and I could never forgive him for that,” Czyz said, the memory of the abuse as bitter now as it was on those occasions when it happened. “But my father – besides beating me – also taught me. He taught me all the time. He taught me to want to know and understand all that I could learn. Yeah, opinions are important, but facts – actual knowledge – is more so.
“It’s a fact that light travels at 186,000 miles per second and we can measure the distance of a star that’s five lights years away. That’s mind-boggling. If that star blows up, we can still see it for five years before its light disappears. That’s insane, but it’s reality. It’s the kind of thing that makes my mind click.”
Boxing, in its fashion, also engaged Czyz’s perpetually curious mind. How could he defeat an opponent who was, perhaps, physically superior to himself? Well, he could do so by out-thinking and out-executing the guy in the other corner, and when pure strategy failed, to out-will and out-slug him. It was a formula he successfully utilized time and again in capturing the IBF light heavyweight and WBA cruiserweight championships, as well as the fringe WBU super cruiserweight title.
A member of the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame and National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame, Czyz, 50, savors the memories of his more memorable victories as if they were cherished personal heirlooms.
“I wish I were still in my prime,” Czyz said, wistfully. “The thrill of walking up those stairs … one man vs. another man, only the winner survives, second place is last place. I love the thrill and the high of fighting.
“My favorite day is Sept. 6, 1986, the day I won my first world title (by stopping IBF light heavyweight titleholder Slobodan Kacar in five rounds). That’s when I understood why women cry when they’re happy. I couldn’t stop crying with joy.”
Also high on the list of Czyz’s most-prized boxing nights is his split-decision upset of WBA cruiser titlist Robert Daniels on March 8, 1991.
“I was a 4½-1 underdog when I beat Robert Daniels,” Czyz said. “People said I wasn’t strong enough or tough enough to stay with him, but I beat him.”
There were, of course, times when success proved more elusive. One such occasion came on Oct. 29, 1987, in Las Vegas, when, after three winning defenses, Czyz relinquished his IBF 175-pound crown to “Prince” Charles Williams. Czyz was not allowed to come out for the 10th round because of what the ring physician described as a “horrible” hematoma to his eye. But that hematoma might not have developed had not referee Carlos Padilla appeared to give Williams, who was in deep trouble along the ropes in the third round, a standing eight-count in violation of IBF and Nevada State Athletic Association rules. Padilla said the ropes had prevented Williams from going down, so ruling a knockdown was within his discretion. The recovery time enabled the challenger to survive Czyz’s onslaught and turn the tide.
“Padilla stepped in and prevented Czyz from punching,” Gil Clancy, who was doing color commentary for the telecast, said at the time. “If Czyz had landed one more punch, it might have been a different story.”
For Czyz, the recriminations and might-have-beens were even greater for his next-to-last bout, a fifth-round TKO loss to Evander Holyfield in Madison Square Garden on May 5, 1996. At the time of the stoppage, and frequently thereafter, Czyz, then campaigning as a heavyweight, complained of a foreign substance on Holyfield’s gloves that had blurred his vision and thus hindered his performance.
“My regret is that the fight didn’t last one more round because Holyfield said later that if it had, he would have quit,” Czyz said. “Beating Holyfield, a multiple former heavyweight champion of the world, would have been no small feat. It would have gotten me a million-dollar shot at Mike Tyson or one of the champions.”
Holyfield’s gloves were impounded by the New York State Athletic Commission, but Czyz’s claims were not substantiated. He insists that they were legitimate, and that any real investigation by the NYSAC should have proven so.
“I had a plastic surgeon and an optometrist certify that what was used on my face was nothing short of a serious exfoliating agent,” Czyz said. “Within two days, my entire face peeled off. I don’t know anybody that punches you like that. You can’t punch somebody’s face off.”
But it is possible to tear someone’s heart out, and whatever pain was inflicted upon Czyz inside the ropes could not compare to the circumstances that led to the dissolution of his 1992 marriage to actress/photographer Kimberly Ross, whom Czyz describes as the “love of my life.” But the union broke up a few years later, in no small part because of Czyz’s infidelities, and Kimberly passed away at 47 on Dec. 19, 2006, after a lengthy battle with breast cancer.
“My mother, in my eyes, was the perfect human being until I met my wife,” Czyz said. “The reason I married Kimberly is because she was better than my mom. She’s the only person I’ve ever met who was better than my mom. Kimberly was everything my mom was – kind, sensitive, soft-spoken, beautiful – and then some. She was as close to perfect as anyone could ever be.”
But Czyz didn’t do enough, he now admits, to hold onto the good thing that he’d found. “I was arrogant and selfish,” he said. “I screwed up. I made mistakes and they cost me my marriage. I’ve regretted what happened ever since, but Kimberly and I remained best friends until the day she died.
“It’s unfortunate that I didn’t meet Kimberly until I had been intimate with hundreds and hundreds of women. If I had met her first, I don’t think I ever would ever have wanted to be with anyone. But I can’t go back and change any of that.”
Kimberly’s death, and Czyz’s dismissal as an analyst for Showtime’s boxing telecasts in 2003 after he pleaded guilty to his fourth drunken-driving arrest in six years, in large part have caused him to dedicate himself to his only child, Mercedes, a scholarship student at Hofstra University.
“My relationship with my daughter is exactly the opposite of my relationship with my father,” Czyz. “She is very close to me. She tells me everything. I couldn’t be more proud of her.”
Czyz is no less forthcoming, and his candor about subjects that might best be tiptoed around sometimes can come across as sour grapes. Put it this way: He doesn’t just burn certain bridges; he napalms them.
Take his forced separation from Showtime, for instance. He has harsh words for the late Jay Larkin, who was the senior vice president and executive produce for Showtime’s boxing telecasts, as well as for retired colleague Ferdie Pacheco and Czyz’s successor as the pay-cable network’s color analyst, Al Bernstein, who on June 10 was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
“I felt that Jay Larkin lied to me,” said Czyz, who said his frequent on-air differences of opinion with Pacheco were not play-acting to create the impression of friction. That friction was real. “Every time (Pacheco disagreed with him), I was correct and he was wrong,” Czyz continued.
Nor does he believe the well-respected Bernstein can provide the sort of insights that only someone who has been a fighter can. “I walked the walk,” Czyz noted. “Al Bernstein never took a left hook to the solar plexus and had to suck it up and fight back. He doesn’t know what it means to slip a punch that’s coming at you at 80 miles per hour.
“All these guys, they’re experts from the outside in, not the inside out. I was an expert from the inside out. I’ve been there.”
Czyz also took a bit of a potshot at the great Thomas Hearns, whom he insists he would have defeated had they ever gotten together to swap punches. Like Bernstein, the “Hit Man” was inducted into the IBHOF on June 10.
“I never thought that I was as good as Michael Spinks,” Czyz said. “I knew in my heart that I wasn’t. I’m not foolish; I’m very good at being able to assess myself as well as others. But there’s a lot of people that I would have beaten.
“I would have beaten Tommy Hearns. Tommy was always considered a technically better fighter than me, but he would never have beaten me, just as he would never beat Iran Barkley, because he just wasn’t tough enough to do so. Tommy’s style would not hold up against a tough, rugged, hard-punching, decent-chinned fighter, because Tommy always got tired and didn’t have that great of a chin.”
Such comments aren’t apt to endear Czyz to everyone, but those who know him reasonably well say it’s just a case of Chappie being Chappie.
“Bobby was one of the nicest people I’ve ever been around in boxing,” said longtime Showtime blow-by-blow announcer Steve Albert. “He was a great deal of fun to work with, and he certainly knew his stuff. But I never socialized with Bobby. It was strictly a professional relationship.
“As a broadcaster, he was always on time, he was always at the production meetings. He asked good questions and was obviously highly respected by trainers and fighters alike. And I never saw him turn down an autograph request or an invitation to pose for pictures with his fans. But I’m not naïve. I heard about all the other stuff. You know how it is in boxing. Some things are exaggerated, and some things aren’t.”
Czyz has branched into a new field, commodities trading, in which he will have to make his mark since his return to boxing in any significant capacity seems problematic at best. “My name recognition does give me a small leg up,” he said, “but if I don’t have the goods at the end of the day, it’s `Nice talking to you, champ. Have a nice life.’ I have to produce, and I’m producing.”
Photos / Bobby Czyz, Simon Bruty-Getty Images, Ray Bailey