Bobby Czyz was the "white, bright and polite" matinee idol of TV boxing until his resume was rewritten in a 10-round loss to Mustafa Hamsho four years ago. A promising 20-year-old middleweight, Czyz was thought to be just a fight away from challenging Marvelous Marvin Hagler for the title. With his father in his corner, Czyz (pronounced Chezz) had won his first 20 pro bouts, 15 by knockout. Robert Czyz Sr. liked that. He was a martinet whom Bobby half feared and half loved.
The younger Czyz was fighting for $175,000, his biggest payday, in that prime-time bout against Hamsho on Nov. 20, 1982. But he relied too much on his well-publicized 140 IQ, outsmarting himself with some dubious strategy, and the Atlantic City judges unanimously gave the decision to his opponent. Those 10 rounds of battering by Hamsho effectively took Czyz out of the line of succession for the middleweight title. Even though it was his first and, to this day, only loss, Czyz vanished from TV screens. Defeated challengers don't make ratings.
Czyz drifted for the next two years, experiencing a bitter breakup with his manager, a case of mononucleosis and a conviction on a burglary charge. But the absolute nadir was his father's suicide. One warm summer day in 1983, Bobby got up early, walked downstairs to the family room of the Czyzs' colonial home in Wanaque, N.J., and found his father crumpled in an easy chair.
Czyz fought back. "Bobby's character was forged in adversity and tempered by traumatic experiences," says Tommy Parks, his longtime trainer. "He's grown up. He's finally at peace with himself." Last September, Czyz won the International Boxing Federation's light heavyweight championship with a fifth-round TKO of undefeated Slobodan Kacar of Yugoslavia. In December he knocked out David Sears in his first title defense, and on Feb. 21 in Atlantic City he will make his next defense against Willie Edwards. What he really has his eye on is a title-unification bout with WBA titleholder Marvin Johnson and, if all works out right, a big payday with Thomas Hearns. But for the latter to happen, Hearns must take the WBC championship from Dennis Andries next month in Detroit.
Now 25, Czyz has matured into a thoughtful, serious man who subjects his life to constant self-examination. "I fight because I have certain egotistical needs," he says. "I want to be respected by my peers and the average guy in the street. I want to be somebody who made it. Some people are forced to fight from Day One just to survive. Mine is a temporary game that's only going to last as long as I want it to. Or as long as I'm good at it."
Czyz is a squat, muscular brawler whose good looks are marred only by a nose flattened like a mashed potato. His lack of attention to defense has offered opponents ample opportunity to alter that nose from its former Italo-Slavic splendor. But now there's a knowing quality in Czyz's face that wasn't there back in the days when he blithely pummeled his way into the boxing consciousness with his scuffed-up Jersey Guy confidence. "I'm a regular guy," he says. "I curse, I make mistakes, I do good. I have a wide spectrum of feelings."
Czyz is proud of having once blocked a busy intersection with his Lincoln Continental Mark VI so an elderly man could cross the street. He's extraordinarily protective of his mother, two younger brothers and kid sister. "If someone put my family in danger, I could, in theory at least, eradicate that person from existence," he says.
The death of Czyz's father haunts his nights. In the son's dreams Robert appears at the front door wearing the gray suit, white button-down shirt and dotted gray tie he favored on the job as an ad manager for the Yellow Pages.
Bobby grips the doorknob, dumbfounded. "Dad!" he says. "You've been dead for three years."
Ignoring his son, Robert Czyz briskly mounts the stairs. "Tell your mother I want my dinner," he roars, "and I want it now!"
"You don't understand," says Bobby. "You killed yourself!" But by now his father has disappeared, and Bobby watches himself wandering dazed to the kitchen to tell his mother.
In another painful nightmare, the father assails the son with heavy blows. This time Bobby shouts, "I liked you better when you were dead." Bobby wakes up sweating, eyes filled with tears. The dreams, more fearsome than any ring opponent, reflect his life with his father. "Dad ruled with an iron fist, and he had two of them," says Bobby.
Bobby is sitting on the edge of his bed in the house that he recently bought for his family. Down the block is the house in which his father shot himself. Bobby is stylishly turned out in an Italian silk suit. His bedroom has a stocked bar, a rack of hunting rifles and shelves full of his father's books, a collection that includes gun catalogs and G. Gordon Liddy's Will. Czyz slides a videotaped compilation of old home movies into the VCR. The films are set to songs like Memory and The Way We Were.
On the screen a preschool Bobby spars with his dad. Robert playfully slaps his son in the face. Four-year-old Bobby unloads combinations of hooks and sweeping rights that would develop into the punches he would use to win his title. Robert taught his son to box. He saw it as the way to instill discipline. He would shove his son around a makeshift ring in the backyard and say, "Now what are you gonna do?" And Bobby would start whaling away.
"Bobby's father was a perfectionist, constantly in turmoil with himself," says Parks. "He subscribed to the philosophy that every man is the ruler of his own universe." Indeed, Robert would quote from Nietzsche. A favorite was, "What fails to kill me makes me only stronger."
"There was something semiwarped about the way my father perceived reality," says Bobby. "I used to call him the Warrior of Life. My Dad used to take the pressure of everything on his shoulders."
Robert Czyz was two when his own father died of a heart attack. He once told Bobby that he was infuriated by that death. Robert grew up as a latchkey kid in Orange, N.J., streetwise but often humiliated and roughed up by an employee of the day-care center where he was enrolled. He dreamed about becoming a prizefighter but ran with the street gangs. He spent his sophomore year of high school in a correctional center in Jamesburg, N.J. He met Louise Guerriero while on parole. The 17-year-olds married when she became pregnant with Bobby.
Life with Robert was a trial. "He was a very possessive and brutal person," says Louise. "I never knew how sick he really was. I just thought he had a mean disposition." Robert, who held a brown belt in karate, would smack his wife around for forgetting to leave word of her whereabouts or for paying bills late. "To this day my jaw hurts when it rains," she says. Robert's violence seemed rooted in a kind of twisted affection. "The reason I hit you and the kids is that I love you," he would tell Louise.
"Then love us a little less," she would reply. "It hurts." On his 18th birthday—"because 18 is when one legally becomes a man"—Bobby asked his dad to stop beating Mom. Robert said he couldn't promise, but he would try to ease up on the punches a little.
If anything, Robert pulled the reins even tighter as his family grew older. "Robert was afraid of losing us, too," says Louise. "He became obsessed with being well. No one was allowed to get hurt. Anyone who did got beaten." Louise was Bobby's passive protector. He used to beg her not to report injuries. His left thumb is permanently crooked because he mashed it in a car door when he was 14 but was afraid to tell anybody. A year later he broke his ankle in a pickup basketball game shortly before an important amateur boxing tournament. When he came home from the emergency room with his leg in a cast, Robert slugged him in the face.
"I owe you that," yelled the father.
Through all the abuse, a bond survived. Robert and Bobby picked up the habit of calling each other Chappie after reading that Joe Louis was called that name by his trainer, Jack Blackburn. Bobby still likes the nickname. Since his fight with Kacar he has affected a glittery Stars and Stripes ring livery reminiscent of Apollo Creed, but the name Chappie is still stitched on his robe.
Bobby was an excellent student, exhorted to excel by his father. "If I got a B, I'd get grounded for a weekend," Bobby recalls. "If I got two B's, I could expect a pretty good beating." In 1980 he graduated sixth in a class of 335 from Lakeland Regional High and had been accepted by Seton Hall, Rutgers and Arizona State. He had been nominated for an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy. But he was committed to a pro boxing career. Robert brought in Lou Duva to manage Bobby's career. "Bobby's father made all his decisions," says promoter Carlo Dee. "He tried to monopolize Bobby's mind, body and thoughts."
But family members believe that Bobby's mounting success actually troubled and threatened his father. "It began to dawn on my husband that it was Bobby fighting, not him," Louise says. And Bobby was becoming increasingly independent. Defeating Hamsho almost certainly would have assured a multi-million dollar fight with Hagler, but Bobby devised the kamikaze strategy that cost him the fight. To the amazement of both his father and his manager, Czyz came out with a southpaw attack and alternated left and right leads the whole bout. Hamsho wasn't fazed, perhaps because he had seen Hagler use this same tactic when he had lost to the champion in a title fight 13 months earlier. Hamsho unloaded on Bobby for 10 bruising rounds.
Czyz, who claims he injured his right hand in the early going, also says he was weak from making the weight. "That's b.s.," Duva says. "It wasn't the weight, it was Bobby. He could have beat Hamsho any day of the week. Bobby just wouldn't fight. His head had gotten too big. You're in trouble when a fighter starts reading his own publicity material and believing it."
"Not true," counters Czyz. "The only material I pay attention to is attendance figures and Nielsen ratings." Even so, Czyz's career as a middleweight was pretty much over. His right hand required a bone graft from his hip and took 10 months to heal. Meanwhile, Robert, who had taken to intermittent nonsensical babbling, told Bobby there were only two reasons he would ever take his own life. One was if he had a terminal illness. The other: if he thought Bobby didn't love him anymore.
When Bobby increasingly thrust himself between his brothers and dominating father, Robert may have seen his chain of control breaking. On the night of June 12, 1983, when Bobby tried to apologize for his past insubordination, Robert refused even to look at him. Bobby went to bed thinking his dad would cool down by morning. But in those deadly hours Robert shot himself with a .45 automatic. "All of a sudden I was the man of the house," says Bobby. "Dad's death left me totally disoriented. I went off on a course of self-destruction, searching for something to fill the emotional void."
After Czyz pulled out of two scheduled fight appearances, NBC said it didn't want to do business with him. Duva and Czyz had a falling out. One night, a year after his father's death, Bobby dressed himself in Army fatigues and trashed the home of his then-fiancèe's mother. After his arrest he pleaded guilty to burglary. A judge sentenced him to four years' probation, fined him $3,500 and ordered him to seek psychiatric aid.
Czyz now acts as his own manager. He retained Parks as his trainer and signed Dee, a Madison, N.J., restaurant owner, to be his promoter. Bobby calls this trio the Committee. "Bobby always has the final word," says Dee. "He's the boss, just like his father."
The Committee chose the light heavy route. Czyz has won 10 straight fights, including the fifth-round TKO of Kacar for the IBF title. "Bobby's in a good spot," Duva says. "He's a white kid with a lot of charisma in a weak division. He should make a lot of money."
Nevertheless, Czyz remains better known as a middleweight prospect than as a light heavy champ. He made $50,000 for winning the title and about the same for his first defense, when he needed only 61 seconds to knock out seventh-ranked challenger Sears in West Orange, N.J. Czyz sidestepped inside, banged Sears in the belly and drove him to the ropes. When the challenger dropped his hands, Czyz finished him with a thudding right. Sears fell to the canvas on all fours.
While the referee counted, Czyz prowled the edge of the ring, growling in exultation. "To hear a bone crack or watch your opponent topple helplessly gives you a tremendous rush of power," Czyz said. "It's the ultimate feeling. You're totally in control. Of course, as a human being I also feel a tremendous compassion toward that person. But at that moment in the ring, you think that your food, your fame, your respect—everything—is on the line."
At the postfight press conference, Czyz hyped his next fight, against Edwards. The truth is, though, he is laboring in a lackluster division. And the division will stay that way unless Hearns successfully moves up and generates new interest. Another possibility presented itself when Hamsho showed up at the press conference to issue a challenge. Hamsho, too, has fought as a light heavyweight, and his manager, Al Certo, baited Bobby by saying a rematch is the only fight that really matters.
Czyz was tempted. "I would love to erase that loss," he said, "...if only to rewrite some of my history."