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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!"