Jimmy DePiano was plumped into a chair in his Miami Beach hotel room when the telephone rang. He spoke above the sounds of the surf coming from the open window, uttering another bad word. DePiano is a short but immense man, built the way Christopher Columbus said the earth was built—but with three times the equator. Sighing, DePiano pushed himself erect. "The damn phone hasn't stopped ringing since Mike Rossman won the championship," he said.
The caller identified himself as an advertising man from Chicago. The ad man told DePiano—who is Rossman's father as well as his manager—that a client just might be able to use the new WBA world light-heavyweight champ in a television commercial. But there was, well, a contingency. The caller from Chicago said he first must ask Rossman a dozen questions. And if all of the questions were answered correctly....
The sentence seemed to trail off.
A thick cloud of smoke burst from the end of the long, fat cigar located in one corner of DePiano's mouth, and a slow flush of anger colored his face.
December 18, 1978
"You kidding me or something?" he said into the telephone. "Tell you what. You ask me them questions and I'll answer for Rossman. I know all Rossman's answers."
"That will be fine," said the caller. "Now. Does Mike use an underarm deodorant?"
"Bleep, yes," DePiano said, his eyes widening. Angrily he jerked the cigar from his mouth. "What the bleep do you think he is, some kind of a bleeping slob?"
"He uses a deodorant," the ad man said slowly, the way one does when writing something into a notebook. "Fine. Now, what does he use for his dandruff?"
"Dandruff? Bleep, bleep. Dandruff? He ain't got no bleeping dandruff. He don't use nothing. What the bleep kind of questions are you asking? Tell you what: I'll ask you three questions and—if you get all of them right, then maybe we'll do the commercial."
"What three questions?" the ad man asked.
"What, when and how bleeping much?" DePiano shouted across 1,197 miles of telephone line. "When you've got those bleeping answers, call me back." And with that, he hung up. Crashingly.
"Can you believe that bleep?" said Jimmy DePiano, more amused now than angry. "He wanted Mike Rossman to tell lies to sell some product. Mike Rossman is the light-heavyweight champion of the world. Mike Rossman don't tell lies for nobody."
Mike Rossman, nè Michael DePiano, is the All-American boy. He is half Jewish and half Italian, and handsome. He has a warm smile that begins in his eyes and seems to light a room. He is the kind of kid you'd like your daughter to grow up next door to, go to the senior prom with and, one day, to marry. (Except that Rossman is already married, and recently, at that.) Mike Rossman is only 22, but he wears his crown with casual grace, almost as if, like Prince Charles, he had been born to it.
Recently, Rossman reflected on his new role. It was during a break in training for last Tuesday's title defense, his first, against European champ Aldo Traversaro. "When you think of a champion, you think of a man fighting in the ring," he said. "But there is more. A whole lot more."
Rossman was stretched out on a rumpled bed in an unpretentious Philadelphia hotel room he shared with his younger brother Andy. Jimmy DePiano was hovering nearby. The new champion recalled a conversation with a friend last Sept. 15 in New Orleans. It had occurred a few hours after Rossman had stopped Victor Galindez in the 13th round to win the title. The friend was Dr. Leonard Stan of Miami.
They had met after the fight, and Stan had given Rossman a long, thoughtful look. Then he had said, "You're no longer Mike Rossman."
Startled, Rossman asked him what he meant by that.
"Yesterday you were Mike Rossman," Stan said. "Today and every day after, you belong to the people."
Rossman admitted it had taken him a few days before he was able to understand what it was that Stan had meant.
"I was in a bar somewhere," he said. "I just wanted a few beers. That's all I drink. But I like one or two sometimes. The people in the bar knew who I was. They were giving me funny looks. I could almost hear the rumor spreading. Well, he's the champion and there he is, juicing it up. I got out of there in a hurry and I haven't been in a bar since.
"I still like a couple of beers now and then. But if I want them, I buy them in a store and I take them home and drink them. Being champion, it's a heavy responsibility. It is to me, anyway. I want to show I can be a champion in public as well as a champion in the ring."
As a youngster growing up, first in South Philadelphia and later in Turnersville, N.J., Mike DePiano's only battle was with the fat that was broadening his short body. By the time he was 15 and about to begin his first year of high school, he was 5'8" and weighed 160 pounds, and not much of that was solid.
His father was running a gym in nearby Pleasantville, a place called the Seven Champs. Sometimes Joe Frazier and Ken Norton trained there. A tough and scarred ex-street fighter, Jimmy DePiano has spent most of his 56 years running a saloon or a gym. Sometimes he managed fighters. The best of them was Slim Jim Robinson, a onetime middleweight and light-heavyweight who had trouble getting fights because of a right hand that could punch holes in bank vaults.
"Mike had been going to gyms with me all his life," Jimmy DePiano says, "but he never gave no sign he wanted to be a fighter. Then one day as I was leaving for the gym, he showed up with a little bag in his hand. I said, 'What's that for?' He told me he wanted to work out a little to get rid of some of his fat."
"The last thing I wanted to be was a fighter," Rossman says, recalling those years. "I'd watched those guys train and fight. I didn't want any part of it. That first day in the gym, everybody laughed at me. But I kept going back."
DePiano fingers one of the golden chains hanging from his neck. "Mike was a natural from the start," he says. "All of my life I'd been looking for a great fighter, and here I had one growing up in my own house. I began to show him a few things. He began to get interested. Then I began to get interested."
As Rossman's interest grew, so did his curiosity. He wondered, often aloud in front of his father, how he would do against another fighter. One day his father said, "You want to find out? There's only one way. Fight."
An amateur bout was arranged. But there was another battle at home. "I was upset from the beginning," says Celia Rossman DePiano, the champion's mother. "I thought Mike would be a football player. He liked football so much. And I'd always hoped he'd be a doctor or a lawyer. But never a fighter."
As a gesture of appeasement, Jimmy DePiano decided that Mike should use his mother's maiden name in the ring. "Mike Rossman," he says. "It's got a nice ring to it. Then we had a blue Star of David tattooed on the outside of Mike's right calf.
"Everybody says we did it for the publicity, this Jewish Bomber thing. Well, we did it before his first amateur fight, and at that time we weren't even thinking of turning pro. Fighting was something Mike wanted to try, and he's been Mike Rossman from the day he threw his first punch."
As an amateur, Rossman threw enough punches to win 20 of 23 fights. One of the losses came in his final amateur bout.
"I fought this guy in his hometown," Rossman says. "I knocked him down in the first. I knocked him down in the second round. When the fight was over they raised his hand and gave me a loser's trophy. I figured to heck with this. If they're going to steal decisions from me, I might as well get paid for it."
On Aug. 10, 1973, just 40 days after his 17th birthday, with a forged birth certificate and a powerful right hand, Rossman knocked out one Stan Dawson in the second round. He made $90. That same year he stiffened six more opponents.
"And my head blew up about three times its normal size," he says.
A problem of another sort was created by Carmen Graziano, Rossman's first trainer. He styled the fighter to be a counterpuncher. It was like asking Patton to use his tanks to transport wounded. Instead of attacking, Rossman fought from ambush. He won fights—and lost fans. As a boxer he was boring. After each fight the crowd would awaken just in time to boo.
Appreciated or not, Rossman won his first 13 pro bouts, nine of them almost accidentally by knockout. After a draw with Nate Dixon in Philadelphia he won his next eight. Then his career began to curdle. He lost his enthusiasm for training—and he lost three and drew one of his next eight fights. Things were coming to an ugly head between DePiano and Graziano. They spoke to each other mostly in four-letter screams.
Just before Rossman fought Tony Licata of New Orleans in New Orleans in June of 1976, Graziano had a heart attack and retired. DePiano said it was just as well; he was going to fire his old friend anyway. "Carmen was a good trainer," DePiano says, "but not for Mike Rossman. He leaned more toward the boxer. Mike would win fights, but he wasn't winning the way he should. Or the way fans want to see fighters win. The fans want action. Lots of fighters used to bull Mike around. He wasn't aggressive enough. Sometimes, just winning isn't enough."
Temporarily without a trainer, Rossman took matters into his own hands. With only his father and his brother Andy in his corner, he lost to Licata. He sees it as one of the turning points of his career.
"It was the first time I had fought without a trainer in my corner to talk to me between rounds," Rossman says. "I didn't really know what to do. So I decided to just go out and bang with the guy. It was the first time I didn't lay back in a fight, and I loved it."
By most accounts, Rossman won the fight, but he lost the decision to three Louisiana judges. "I knew in my own mind that I won," Rossman said. "And I liked the way I'd fought. I'm a banger, and I should be in there banging people, not pussyfooting around."
After the Licata loss, Jimmy DePiano hired Slim Jim Robinson, his old fighter and a close friend, as Rossman's new trainer. It was a perfect match.
"When I got Mike, he was a counterpuncher," says Robinson. He says it with obvious distaste. "He'd sit back all night just waiting for the other guy to start something. I had to teach him to go forward, be aggressive, to take the lead."
In effect, Robinson made Rossman into an aggressive body puncher and a hooker who likes to mix it. With Robinson in his corner, Rossman won seven of his next eight fights, five by knockout; the other bout ended in a draw.
But his last knockout proved costly. In July of 1977 Rossman hit Marcel Clay so hard in the first round of their fight at Miami Beach that he tore ligaments in his right hand. He fought once more, winning a one-handed decision over Gary Summerhays at Madison Square Garden. Then he was forced to lay off for five months to give the hand time to heal.
While mending, Rossman discovered the good life. Signed to fight tough Yaqui Lopez last March, he was less than dedicated when he resumed training.
"It wasn't anything you could yell at him for," says DePiano. "He'd train. But he wasn't putting anything into it. And he wasn't getting anything out of it."
For five rounds against Lopez, Rossman was Rossman—and then he ran out of gas. In the corner after the sixth round, DePiano looked at his exhausted son and shook his head. "That's all," he said, waving his arms at Referee Pete Della.
"Dad was right in stopping it," Rossman says. "I just didn't train for the guy. I guess I thought I was so good I didn't have to. But for five rounds I beat the hell out of him. He was some winner: after the fight they took him to the hospital and put 23 stitches in his face. My punches chop people up. For five rounds I beat him good. But in the sixth round I could hardly stand up. I learned a lesson. Since then I haven't spent more than two weeks away from the gym after any fight. And I don't intend to."
His head once more reduced to normal size, Rossman began to train and fight with a vengeance. He knocked out both Lonnie Bennett and Matty Ross in two. Then he signed to fight Galindez for the championship.
Galindez is a short and powerful man, a brawler who fights well inside; he brawled so well that he had held the WBA light heavyweight title since 1974. The mean-looking Argentinian didn't expect many problems from his challenger, in spite of the fact that Rossman hadn't been knocked down or cut either as an amateur or professional.
"I'll kill him," said Galindez, an overwhelming favorite.
"Don't worry about it," Rossman told his wife Maxine. "You see all that scar tissue over his eyes? I'll open him up like a can of beans."
That was the battle plan Robinson had devised: beat Galindez at his own inside game. Go for the scar tissue over the eyes. Friends thought Robinson had gone mad. No one fights Galindez inside.
"It was beautiful," Rossman says, almost in awe. "Jim told me two days before the fight exactly how it was going to go. And the fight went just exactly as he said it would. The man is unreal. Whatever he tells me to do, I do."
Taking the fight to Galindez, Rossman chopped open the Argentinian's right eye in the second round, and again in the sixth. By the ninth round Rossman was in total command. By the 10th Galindez seemed to be looking at Referee Carlos Berrocal with a silent plea to stop the massacre. In the 13th, after Rossman almost dropped Galindez with a vicious left hook, Berrocal did just that.
"Mike followed the plan perfectly," Robinson says. "He fought Galindez on his own terms, strength against strength, and he chopped him to pieces. Nobody else could do that because nobody else can hit as hard as Mike."
Then the telephone callers began their incessant search for Jimmy DePiano. Offers flooded in. There was talk of a fight with Muhammad Ali. Rossman was offered a small part in Rocky II. He did one commercial, for The New York Post. Other commercials were put on hold.
"Hey, we're in no hurry," says DePiano. "Mike is going to be around for a long time. He can do anything he wants, maybe become a movie star. I'm proud of my son the world champion. Just as proud as if I walked into an operating room in some hospital and watched him saw off some guy's leg, or if I was in a courtroom watching him defend some bum for murder. He don't have to be no doctor or lawyer. He's the champion of the world."
Last week's opponent, Traversaro, was not about to make a false prophet of DePiano. The Italian had a seemingly impressive record—30 knockouts in 44 fights and only two losses—but Robinson had another plan.
Before sending Rossman out for Round 1 at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, Slim Jim told him, "We'll hit him in the head later; first let's see what he's got."
What the Italian had was a long jab and a quick, if not powerful, right hand. And after four rounds, he was no worse than even, while Rossman was bleeding slightly from the nose and mouth and from a small slice under his left eye.
"Enough of this," Robinson said. "Go after him now."
Rossman went to work. Both Robinson and the young champ had noted that Traversaro used a peek-a-boo defense under heavy fire. In the sixth round, Rossman snapped the Italian's head up with a right uppercut, then banged a left hook high off the forehead. The blow opened a deep cut in Traversaro's scalp. Referee Jesus Celis took one look at the spurting blood, realized that an artery had been severed and stopped the fight at 1:15 into the round.
"I'm glad he stopped it then," says Rossman. "It's not nice to say, but if he hadn't stopped it, I would have kept on punching. And the Italian would have lost an awful lot of blood."
Does that answer your questions, Mr. Chicago Advertising Man?