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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."