Michael Corleone has the four things all great champions seem to possess: guts, smarts, really good training and a stubborn will power. When we met 25 years ago, he was a welterweight champion and radio shock jock, Halftime Howie had invited me to watch him fight at the Westbury Music Fair.
It was the first time I had ever witnessed a fight from the front row and it became abundantly clear to me that night that boxing was not about brute strength but much more about tactics and focus. I watched as two highly trained professionals carefully circled each other, probing for weakness before they struck, or as Michael told me: “Boxing is like chess but with human pieces.”
Since that time so many years ago, Michael Corleone has moved on from boxing to ownership of the famous boxing gym “Kayo Boxing” located on Hempstead Turnpike in West Hempstead. I felt it was time to catch up after all these years, so I went down to his high-end gym and sat down with him for this interview.
We returned to the question of why he became a boxer in the first place. When he was 22 he was running the family clothing factory in Puerto Rico and in charge of 500 employees. During one festival in P.R. he was asked to fight the Puerto Rican national amateur boxing champ since the promoters could not find anyone else to face this guy. Michael said yes to the offer, beat the champ in two rounds and was promptly approached by a boxing promoter to turn pro.
This story demonstrated the first aspect that all champions must possess, that being guts, bravery or courage. I think this must be a genetically inherited gift and one which I personally do not have. Maybe that’s a good thing because it certainly kept me out of the ring and onto the golf course, a place where one rarely has to deal with someone throwing a punch at you.
Following this win, Michael began working in earnest with the best fight trainer in Puerto Rico and after about a year of preparation he faced his first real sparring partner who promptly made mince meat of poor Michael, giving him a bloody nose and fat lip. All involved thought that would be the end of his boxing dream and that soon he would return to his rightful place in the family business. But this is when smarts and training, the second and third gifts that all champions possess, kicked in.
All night long, Michael kept analyzing the fight and where he went wrong. By the morning he realized that he was being pulled in by the sparring partner’s right feint. He returned to the gym the next day and asked to be put in the ring with the guy that beat him yesterday. His trainer advised against it, but Michael demonstrated the final gift of will power and insisted the match be set up.
Well, somehow Michael’s analysis of his mistake translated into a rousing win against his sparring partner and thus began his boxing career. At the very beginning of his career he demonstrated the four gifts of a champion, which include guts, smarts, a willingness to work with good trainers and will power.
There is a quote on the wall at Kayo Boxing by the poet/warrior Mohammed Ali, which says: “A champion must have skill and will but will must be stronger than skill.” This describes Michael to a tee.
I asked him why people take up boxing and he said: “Everyone in the world has lots of pent-up frustration and aggression and what we do here at Kayo Boxing is let them release all that anger and frustration regardless of their level of talent.”
Asked about what was most challenging about boxing, he said: “You must be able to call your own audibles between rounds. You may train one way for a fight but must be able to adapt to what you are facing in the ring. Floyd Mayweather Jr. was the best at that. He never lost two rounds in a row.”
This again highlights how cerebral this high level sport actually is. Years ago I played golf with a Jets quarterback and I asked him about the biggest issue he had in football and he told me: “I worry whether the team will be able to learn and memorize the 250-page playbook they are given each week.”
Who would have guessed that boxing is a cerebral exercise which requires focus, the ability to learn on your feet and to adapt and change tactics within minutes? Who would have guessed that you need just as much will as skill and that great training is crucial to success?
Boxing has generated some of our greatest champions like Mohammed Ali, Jake Lamotta and Mike Tyson, and some of our finest films such as “Raging Bull” and “Rocky.” It’s perhaps the most exciting of sports since it requires one to face pain and injury but at the same time to keep your wits about you and adapt to what your opponent is throwing at you.
To be a champion in the ring calls for you to muster up all of these skills and be willing to face and master either the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat. And if you want to see what a champion looks like in the flesh and learn the art of boxing, give Mr. Corleone a call.