"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."