Bill Costello, his dark glasses hiding the 13 stitches a doctor had just sewed into his right eyelid, accepted the applause that erupted as he stepped into Uncle Willy's on Broadway. This is the main drag in Kingston, N.Y., a working-class town of 27,000 people that lies hard by the Hudson River, 90 miles north of Manhattan, and last Saturday night this was Costello's town and Uncle Willy's his place.
"Well done, Billy!" shouted the beery voice from the corner stool at the bar.
Costello nodded. "Thank you," he said. Hands reached out to slap his back and grab his arms. "Hey, Billy, way to go, and welcome back to Kingston!" called another. Suddenly a second round of cheers broke out near the front door when Victor Valle, Costello's 67-year-old trainer, waded through the assembly while holding aloft Costello's WBC junior welterweight championship belt.
"This belongs to you people right here!" Valle announced, as he followed Costello along the bar. "It's back in Kingston, back right here! He's the world champion! Here, touch it everybody and bring us good luck."
Just four hours earlier, Costello had beaten a fairly steady 12-round tattoo on Saoul Mamby, the 37-year-old former champ, whose courage and guile were appreciated by the 1,500 people packed into Kingston's Midtown Neighborhood Center and by a nationwide CBS-TV audience. It was the 28-year-old Costello's second defense of the 140-pound title he won with a 10th-round TKO of Bruce Curry last Jan. 29, and the $150,000 purse (Mamby got $25,000) amounted to his biggest payday yet. With the $25,000 he got for whipping Curry and the $140,000 he earned for beating Ron Shields in Kingston on July 15, he has already grossed $315,000 in purses this year.
"Now I'm making a few coins," Costello says, "and it feels good. It's been worth it. I never had any money. I'm living in Kew Gardens [Queens], but now I'm going to buy me a house outside of Kingston. The land is cheaper here. I might get some land and end up building it myself. I have a lot of friends who are electricians, carpenters, masons. I'll build out in the country. Land is beautiful out there."
That he would one day be making such a bundle and thinking of building his own place out in the country was a thought beyond Costello's dreams as a boy growing up in Kingston. Costello was the second of seven children, four boys and three girls, born to Kingston natives Bill and Dolores. The children were a tossed salad of ethnic types. Bill is Italian; Dolores a mixture of Italian, black and Indian.
"That's why I'm so bad," the younger Bill says, laughing. "I walk the streets, and people think I'm Spanish or this or that. I fought in White Plains [N.Y.], and they didn't know what color I was. They called me a zebra there."
The Costello family was close—a good thing, because its nine members shared three bedrooms—and had to scrape for food. It wasn't easy. "We ate, but it was rough," Costello says. His mother worked as a private nurse for the elderly, a job she still has. Bill Sr. was mostly self-employed—as a pool shark, card player, crap shooter. "My father is a professional hustler," Bill Jr. says. "A gambler." He's also something of a legend in the Hudson Valley for his skills in playing many games well. He fought in the amateurs, was the star pitcher on a fast-pitch soft-ball team and developed into a surpassing Ping-Pong player. "He can sit in a chair and beat you at Ping-Pong," says another son, Steve. But shooting pool was and is the old man's game. He has traveled the length and breadth of America with a stick in his hand; he has been a father from afar. "You can't name a hundred pool halls in the country that I haven't been in," he says.
While growing up, Bill Jr. thought only of being a baseball player, a third baseman in the pros. Becoming a boxer never crossed his mind. "I was no street fighter," Costello says. "I used to get beat up all the time. Guys beat me up; girls beat me up. A macho man I'm not. A lover I am." Costello turned to boxing only after his dreams of playing big league baseball vanished when in his senior year he was kicked off the high school baseball team for being part of a plot to steal money from a store. Treated as a youthful offender, he spent three days in jail. "All my life I never wanted to be anything but a baseball player," he says. "It was all up in smoke. I didn't know what I was going to do."
Costello, then 19, wandered into the local YMCA gym and laced on the gloves for the first time. Youthful, aggressive and strong, he learned to swing hard from both sides and developed into a champion amateur fighter. He had a 40-7 record, including a stunning knockout victory in the 135-pound open finals of the 1978 New York Golden Gloves. That night, following his fight, he joined his high school sweetheart, Jane—they have since married—in the stands. She just happened to be sitting in front of Mike Jones, at that time the co-manager of lightweight Howard Davis and heavyweight Gerry Cooney. Jones had seen Costello fight and handed him a card, which the fighter stuffed nonchalantly in a pocket.
"I never thought I'd hear from him again," Jones says. Nonetheless, Costello called nine months later and asked Jones to be his manager. Jones turned Costello over to Valle, who was also training Cooney, and the three partners were on their way. It was a long way, too. Costello came to Valle rough and raw. "He was always a natural puncher, but he didn't know defense, how to get off the ropes," says Valle. "His punches were stiff, and his leg movement was poor."
Costello fought mostly near New York City—White Plains, Kingston, Atlantic City, Long Island—but only once in it, and Jones kept him busy in the ring. He also kept him undefeated. "Mike has been like a father to me," Costello says. "He really took care of me. He gave me anything I wanted. I didn't have to work. No hassles." By the beginning of 1983, Jones was pursuing Don King, the promoter, for a shot against champion Leroy Haley. Costello was ready—"He had become a boxer-puncher," Valle says—but King wasn't listening.
"I knew I would get a title shot but didn't know when," Costello says. In May of 1983 Haley lost the crown to Curry, a hard-used fighter who had suffered through his share of wars, and Jones intensified his pressure on King. He chased King all over the country, finally cornering him in Las Vegas in July of '83, on the eve of the Mustafa Hamsho-Wilfred Benitez fight. King didn't show for a meeting he'd set with Jones in Vegas. So Jones went to King's room in the Dunes Hotel and knocked on the door. King asked who was there.
"Room service!" said Mike, disguising his voice.
King opened the door and rolled his eyes. "Jonesy! What do you want?"
"You know what I want," said Jones.
It was at that meeting that King promised Costello a title shot early in 1984.
"I was a little worried because the fight was in Curry's home state [Texas]," Costello says. "But after the first round I saw he had only one style, and that was coming in. He was tough. He could take a punch. But I started laying it on him. I knew sooner or later I was going to catch him, and sure enough I did."
The kid from Kingston was champion of the world. Then he whipped Shields in a fight that many thought he would lose, and that led to Mamby, who took the fight on five days' notice after Haley backed out, supposedly with a hand injury. Mamby used all the tricks he'd picked up over the years—the cut on Costello's eyelid was the result of a butt—but Costello was simply too much for him. Mamby ended up hanging in there on pride alone, with two cuts on his face and a mouthful of blood. At best, he won only two rounds, the first and the last.
"He's a bitch," said an admiring Costello, who raised his record to 29-0. "I really wanted to knock him out, but I'm just glad I won. Now I'm just waiting for the next one." For Haley, perhaps. Or Gene Hatcher, the WBA junior welterweight champion. Or maybe Aaron Pryor, the champion recognized by the International Boxing Federation. "That's the money fight," Jones says.
While taping Costello's cut eyelid in the locker room, Valle, savoring the victory, said, "I hope this is my Christmas present."
"You know that!" Costello said. "And there'll be more after that."