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Atlas confronts his fears with the gloves off

Atlas: From the Streets to the Ring -- A Son's Struggle to Become a Man
By Teddy Atlas and Peter Alson
Ecco, 278 pp., illustrated, $24.95

Fear. Arguably, it is our most primal, most powerful emotion. Fear can make us flail away, or run away (the classic ``fight or flight" response). It can paralyze. Conversely, it can motivate us, pushing us past perceived limits. The difference lies in our choices, how we deal with that raw anxiety. Teddy Atlas knows fear. This son of a revered Staten Island doctor became a dangerous street punk before finding salvation at a Catskills boxing gym, and eventually grew to be a renown ed trainer and TV analyst. Every step of the way, he's faced down his fears. His tale is an unflinching account of a man, vividly told.

Boxing, of course, is the perfect vehicle for Atlas's coming-of-age saga. In the ring, there's no place to hide. You must confront your fears or be consumed by them. Running only prolongs the pain, as Atlas notes: ``George [Foreman] was a guy who found out the hard way that it was tougher to quit than it was to fight . He had quit in Zaire. There's no doubt about it. . . . He got broken down by a man he couldn't deal with, Muhammad Ali, and he had been forced to live with the indignity of that, the lonely truth of that, for all these years. "

Those who have seen Atlas on ESPN know his face reflects a hard life. He's not pretty. Neither is his prose. Atlas's clipped, down-and-out dialogue effectively mirrors the squalid, often frightening, and destitute places his story takes us. Delivered in the staccato rhythm of the street, Atlas's strong-albeit-coarse language -- littered with double negatives and blunt observations -- establishes a sense of immediacy and authenticity.

He keeps the narrative popping at a crisp, lively pace, much like a good welterweight fight . He boldly takes credit for his good deeds, and refreshingly accepts accountability for his many mistakes. There are moments of self-reflection and regret, but Atlas never wallows in them. Given the subject matter, Atlas's tale is surprisingly tender at times -- the author comfortably expresses his love for friends, family, and young proteges. He also displays a withering sense of humor, self-deprecating and otherwise -- ``Meanwhile, on the other side of the aisle, there was Wolfe's freakin' four-hundred-dollar-an-hour lawyer with his salon tan and Paco Rabanne aftershave."

Still, this is a violent tale, and the most brutal moments come outside the ring. During one ill-fated visit home, Atlas found himself in the midst of a knife fight against a larger man. ``He stepped back and spun, like a matador, slashing the side of my face. The blade was so sharp, I barely felt it. I put my hand up and my fingers just went into my cheek; there was this thick, meaty flap of skin that moved, a warm, wet syrupy goo oozing from the gash. I staggered and fell to the ground."

Throughout, Atlas does a superb job breathing life into the characters who populate his life, beginning with his father (``In a way, he was almost like a machine. No emotions, just principle and action " ), a father figure in the irascible trainer Cus D'Amato (``Cus, when I met him, was like one of those gunfighters who's hung up his guns and retreated from the fray to live in peace and quiet "), and his eclectic stable of boxers, including future heavyweight champion Mike Tyson (``He was a con man and a predator " ).

Then there are the settings. Though not as eloquent as Dickens's ``Bleak House," Atlas's account depicts a world every bit as grim and foreboding. From D'Amato's retreat-for-wayward-youths in the Catskills to grungy New York City venues -- home of the fight nights known as ``smokers" -- Atlas's rough-hewn prose conjures striking images, such as this South Bronx gym: ``The building where the Apollo Boxing club was located was one of the few on the block that wasn't boarded up, abandoned, or reduced to rubble. When you walked up the three flights of stairs, the stench of urine was thick. You'd see discarded needles, sometimes even a guy shooting up. "

Eventually, the venues would change, as big money entered the picture and Atlas began training championship contenders (as well as other high-profile clients ). But boxing's sleazy core is never far from the surface, and Atlas pulls no punches in exposing it.

One glaring omission is Atlas's superficial treatment of his fall from a doctor's favored son to street-fighting thug. He offers some keen insights into the mind of a troubled youth but never delves deeply into the rift with his father. Another open question is the source of Atlas's unshakable sense of loyalty -- he often risks financial and physical well-being in the name of allegiance, but the origins of that trait are murky. However, these gaps, while significant, don't derail the story.

Atlas finishes with a 12th -round flurry, detailing the meteoric rise and fall that mirrors the fortunes of his fighters. The book is a winner, on all cards, from the first to the final bell.

Brion O'Connor, a freelance writer on the North Shore, can be reached at brion@InspiredInk.com.

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