Bobby Cassidy and the Sundance Kids

By Robert Mladinich on August 25, 2014
Bobby Cassidy and the Sundance Kids
“The way I grew up,” said Cassidy, “I never dreamed about being anything or anybody.”

“All of my confidence was beaten out of me by an abusive stepfather. When I started street fighting, I realized there was something I could do well…”

Long before local heroes such as Chris Algieri, Buddy McGirt, Gerry Cooney and Howard Davis Jr. reached fistic prominence, the face of boxing in Long Island, New York, was the enormously popular “Irish” Bobby Cassidy of Levittown.

A perennial middleweight and light heavyweight contender, Cassidy fought between 1963 and 1980, compiling a record of 59-16-3 (27 KOs) against many of the best fighters of his generation.

Besides being a world-ranked fighter for the better part of two decades, he later received acclaim as the trainer of world champions Donny Lalonde and Lonnie Bradley. 

However, at different points of his life, the now 70-year-old Cassidy says he has been “a world class drunk, scammer, bookmaker, gambler and racketeer.”

If not for boxing, Cassidy dreads what might have become of him. The son of abusive, alcoholic parents, Cassidy, who had no amateur experience, had planned to enter the New York City Golden Gloves as a 19-year-old in 1963.

A labor strike at the New York Daily News, which still sponsors the tournament, resulted in the Gloves being cancelled that year. Cassidy threw caution to the wind by turning pro and went undefeated, with one draw, in his first 18 fights. His first loss was by split decision to Billy Collins Sr., at the time a 48-bout veteran.

Afterwards, Collins told Cassidy that he had plenty of talent but should be wary of his management for putting him in with such an experienced opponent so early in his career.

“Boxing was the only thing that ever gave me any confidence,” said Cassidy. “I had a pretty rough childhood, and all of my confidence was beaten out of me by an abusive stepfather. When I started street fighting, I realized there was something I could do well.”

Cassidy has no childhood memories of his natural father, but says his stepfather, who was Italian, hated him for many reasons, not the least of which was his Irish blood.

“It was a strange family dichotomy,” said Cassidy whose brother and sister also incurred separate but unequal wrath. “My mother and stepfather were always drunk. They would each watch their own favorite TV shows in different rooms of the house, then come out and do battle during commercials.

“At some point the children would always get beaten. My mother actually liked to see me get beaten more, not because she disliked me more but because I could take it.” 

His son, boxing writer Bobby Cassidy Jr., says the major turning point in his father’s life is both happy and sad.

“His stepfather, a cookie salesman, was an alcoholic who used to beat him unmercifully,” said Bobby Jr. “He was a very angry guy. When my father was a teenager, he turned the tables on him. My father was about to be attacked, so he picked up a garbage can and hit him over the head with it. I think he went from prey to predator at that moment. That action unleashed his anger, and he became a master street fighter. And that gave him the only real identity he ever had.”

As naturally talented as Cassidy was, few, if any, breaks came his way during his whirlwind 17-year career. He fought over 500 rounds and took over 400 stitches, fighting numerous times at the fabled Sunnyside Gardens in Queens, as well as at Madison Square Garden and in Sweden, South Africa and Italy.

He lost close decisions to local heroes Gypsy Joe Harris in Philadelphia and Luis Rodriguez in Miami, even though Cassidy had sent both of them to the canvas. He battled to a draw with Sweden’s Bo Hogberg in Stockholm.

He also stopped his red-hot local rival Bobby Bartels of Queens in front of more than 20,000 people on the undercard of the Joey Giardello-Dick Tiger show at MSG in October 1965.

Afterwards, he had his photo taken with baseball great Yogi Berra. Or, it could be argued, Berra had his photo taken with Cassidy. 

With his popularity at its apex in 1969, Cassidy opened a bar, Bobby Cassidy’s Neutral Corner, in Hempstead, Long Island. Knowing nothing about genetic predispositions to alcoholism, he became a problem drinker himself.

During this time he lived in a neighboring town from the bar. He kept receiving mail for a man named Ed Cassidy. One morning in the local coffee shop he was approached by a fellow he had seen on the street many times.

The man, an obvious alcoholic who had seen better days, walked over to him, introduced himself as his father, and strode away nonchalantly. He lived only two doors away from his son. 

“Like I said, there was always a strange dichotomy in my family,” explained Cassidy.

By 1974 Cassidy was rated in the light heavyweight top ten, and matched with number-one contender Jorge Ahumada on the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier II undercard at MSG. The winner was guaranteed a shot at world champion Bob Foster. By that time Cassidy’s bar had closed down, and he was supplementing his boxing earnings as a bookmaker and collector.

Cassidy had been arrested for bookmaking and his marriage was on the rocks. He was drinking with intensity and the fight had been in question right up until the opening bell. Never was Cassidy more unprepared for a big fight, and he was stopped in the third round. While Ahumada celebrated his upcoming title shot, Cassidy drank himself into a stupor at a midtown bar.

Over the next three months Cassidy’s drinking intensified. He finally reached the abyss on April 25, 1974, when he knocked out a 6’6”, 350-pound bouncer named Big Dave, as well as two of his cohorts, at a bar called the Sherwood Forest. Because Big Dave was the sergeant-in-arms of the local Hells Angels chapter, the story quickly took on a life of its own.

Although Cassidy was told that he was chased on foot for miles, and eluded police by hiding out in yards and woods, he doesn’t have any recollection of the incident. 

What he does remember is being on his hands and knees the next day, pleading with God for help for him and his two sons, Bobby Jr. and Chris, who is now a successful filmmaker.

He got sober that day, and has not had a drink since. Once he stopped drinking, Bobby Jr., who says his dad was always an involved but distracted parent, became a superb single father.

“I realize now that as a young kid I understood certain things that other kids didn’t, like what the terms ‘juice, shylock, vig, and quinella’ (a type of horse bet) meant,” said Bobby Jr. “But I never viewed my father as a gangster. He was at all of our Little League games, and always in the first row of the bleachers at our basketball games.

“He took my brother and me to the movies every Friday night. I never attached any stigma to his activities. All my friends thought he was a great guy. After games he’d take us for ice cream, and he’d even get something special for anyone who hit a home run.”

Bobby Jr. says that his father told him that as a youngster he had never played team sports, so his participation in his sons’ activities made him feel as if he too was part of a team.

But most importantly, his father was a local icon and his sons liked nothing better than going to his fights. In the cloistered world of Levittown, having “Irish” Bobby Cassidy for a dad was not much different than having Mickey Mantle for a father anywhere else.

“It was like living a fantasy,” said Bobby Jr. “But that fantasy came crashing down when I saw my father dropped by Christy Elliott in the first round (in June 1977, when Bobby Jr. was 12 years old). That fight made me realize just how difficult a sport boxing was. My father won the fight, but it had quite an effect on me.”

By the time Cassidy retired, five victories and a little more than two years later, he says, “My cuts were popping up during the pre-fight instructions.”

With little else to do, he immersed himself in the rackets, which is what he knew best. As a shylock, he once had over $150,000 on the street.

“I gave up drinking, but embraced racketeering,” says Cassidy unabashedly. “I have an addictive personality, so everything I made I was gambling away. I always had money coming in. Who’s not going to pay Irish Bobby Cassidy? But I was a good-hearted shylock. I’d give a guy a miss (allow a skipped payment) at Christmas time. Nobody does that.”

By the mid-1980s, Cassidy was co-training Lalonde for his multi-million dollar payday against Sugar Ray Leonard. His end would have been at least $150,000. However, the closest he got to the fight was reading about in an upstate prison, where he was serving 18 months for falsifying loan applications and possession of forged instruments. 

“That was one of many breaks that seemed to elude my father,” said Bobby Jr. “He fought all those years and never got a title shot, then trained his first champion and missed out on the big payday.” 

Visiting his father in jail was as painful for Bobby Jr. and Chris as it was for their father having them see him there. “My image of my father had always been of him wearing his green robe and shorts, with ‘Irish’ Bobby Cassidy emblazoned across them,” said Bobby Jr.

“Seeing him in an orange jumpsuit with his ID number stenciled across the shirt was pretty difficult.”

“I was so embarrassed and humiliated, and there were times we all cried like babies,” said Cassidy. “I was as humbled as a person can be. But there was also a lot of anger, too. What I went to jail for, very few people actually do time for. I think there was some political motivation behind my incarceration.”

Entering the state prison system as a 44-year-old in 1988, Cassidy said he had few peers. Word didn’t get out right away that he was a former fighter, so he was forced to prove himself when he received his first care package from home.

“Some big guy says ‘that’s my package,’ and I said ‘you ain’t getting nothing,” recalled Cassidy. “Things got heated, and we came close to fighting. I stepped right up and he backed away. Word got around that I was a former fighter, and things got better after that. People started calling me Old Man.”

As miserable as his prison experience was, Cassidy said it helped him put life’s priorities in order.

“Everyone should do one to three,” he jokes. “Your life is very regimented, you’re told when to do everything. But it gives you time to think, and makes you appreciate everything more.”

After his release he took Lonnie Bradley from his pro debut to the WBO middleweight title in the 1990s. In 2009, a Portuguese documentary filmmaker, Bruno de Almeida, released a stirring movie about his life called “Counterpuncher.”

The tagline describes the film as “a deeply human portrait of a boxer with the heart of a lion who refused to give up, in and outside the ring. This documentary follows the fighter’s life from a child who was taught how to hate, to a father who learned how to love.”

And Bobby Jr. has written a compelling play about his father called “Kid Shamrock” that has been produced off-Broadway four times since 2007. Former boxers Seamus McDonagh and John Duddy have portrayed Cassidy.

Mark Breland has also appeared in the play as a trainer, and the last incarnation was directed by former WBO heavyweight champion Michael Bentt, who is establishing himself as a Hollywood heavyweight. His acting roles include playing Sonny Liston opposite Will Smith in the 2001 film “Ali.” 

Other boxing luminaries who have appeared are boxers Chris Algieri, Junior Jones, Richie Neves and Mark McPherson, as well as referees Wayne Kelly and Arthur Mercante Jr., and boxer turned journalist Peter Wood. 

On October 28, 2013, Cassidy married his lovely wife Becky, and they appear absolutely giddy around each other. Becky describes her husband as “a wonderful man,” and he heaps equally abundant accolades upon her.

“The way I grew up, I never dreamed about being anything or anybody,” said Cassidy. “Once I discovered boxing, I became a perennial contender when there was still just one champion. At one point, I was the number-one contender when that really meant something. I’m not proud of all that I’ve done, but even though I never got a title shot, I’m proud of my boxing career.”

Addendum:
Having fought so many boxing notables, Cassidy was asked to rate them according to certain categories. Here is what he had to say:

Best Jab: Jimmy “The Cat” Dupree. “He was the best at a lot of things, just a great all-around fighter. He used his jab well against me, as a way to get at me and also to defend himself. I had him down a lot, but he always got up. He was just a tough, tough guy.”

Dupree had a final record of 40-10-4 (24 KOs). He and Cassidy fought three times in 1973. The first bout was a draw, Dupree won the second by split decision, and Cassidy won the third by unanimous decision.

Best Defense: Luis Manuel Rodriguez: “He bobbed his head a lot, and threw these amazing combinations even while he was bobbing and weaving. His offense was his defense, as well as the other way around. He knew what he was doing in the ring, and was a great all-around fighter.”

Rodriguez, a former WBC and WBA welterweight champion, retired with a record of 107-13 (49 KOs). He beat Cassidy by split decision in January 1971.

Best Chin: Gypsy Joe Harris. “I dropped him in the ninth round, and was one of the only guys to drop him in his career. We fought in Philadelphia, his hometown. Before the decision was announced, he said, ‘I hope you at least get a draw.’ I said, ‘I do too.’ I really took it to him, but he could take it.”

Harris had a career record of 24-1 (9 KOs). He beat Cassidy by unanimous decision in October 1967. Going into the fight Harris was 21-0. 

Best Puncher: Jimmy Dupree: “He could hurt you with either hand, and he was always throwing punches. He didn’t give you a break, not even for a second. Jimmy is best remembered for his power, and people forget just how good of an all-around fighter he was.” 

Smartest Fighter: Tom “The Bomb” Bethea: “He was always coming forward but very evasive, not easy to nail. He looked like was coming at you like gangbusters, but he was strategizing all the time. He knew how to control himself in the ring, how to get a rest by holding you when he needed to. He stopped Nino Benvenuti, which was a big win for him. A real pro’s pro.”

Bethea had a career record of 22-21-3 (8 KOs). Cassidy dropped him in the ninth round and won a 10-round decision at MSG in October 1972.

Strongest Fighter: Willie “The Bull” Taylor: “He was a beast, a total beast. I had (actor) Burt Young in my corner for that fight and we couldn’t believe what Taylor looked like. His muscles had muscles. The fight went eight rounds, and was the fastest eight rounds of my career.”

Taylor had a career record of 13-16-4 (6 KOs). Cassidy beat him by split decision over eight rounds aboard the U.S.S. Lexington in ABC-TV’s U.S. Championship quarterfinals in January 1977.

Best Overall Fighter: Luis Rodriguez: “My first guess would be Luis Rodriguez, but Rodrigo Valdes and Gypsy Joe Harris were very good. Valdes became a champion and Harris had all it took to be one, but that’s boxing. I had hepatitis when I fought Valdes, so I was far from my best, but he was a top guy.” 

Valdes held the WBC middleweight title and retired with a record of 64-8-2.

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  1. Michael Murphy 08:05pm, 09/01/2014

    I was Mr. Cassidy’s paper boy as a kid and friends with Bobby and Chris during most of our youth growing up in Levittown. Mr. C always had a smile on his face and was easily the biggest tipper on my route.  Bobby and Chris were great guys and I never heard anyone ever saw a bad word about them or their Dad.  All the kids in our neighborhood looked up to Mr Cassidy because he was very encouraging and interested in our lives.  He was a great Dad and the proof is in the pudding as both sons turned out so well.  On behalf of all us Murphy’s, all the best to you, Mr. C, from your next door neighbors on Sherwood Road!

  2. Seamus 12:09am, 08/29/2014

    Thank you Bob. Another beautifully written piece. It’s late here on SF and I’m on my.cell phone. Hope to see you soon Bob.

  3. Jeffrey Sussman 03:03pm, 08/28/2014

    Bob is a great natural story teller. I couldn’t lift my eyes from his story until I reached the end, and I was sorry it ended.

  4. peter 07:09am, 08/28/2014

    Thank you for another fascinating Mladinich boxing article. A Mladinich boxing article always proves to be much more than a mere boxing article—it usually provides the reader with the more interesting human-interest story which lurks beneath the obvious boxing story-line…The very first boxing magazine I bought was in the early 1960s. I was a young kid standing in front of a magazine rack in a variety store in Northvale, NJ. I had enough money for only one magazine, but there were four boxing magazines from which to choose. After careful consideration, I picked the one that featured a young, up-coming middleweight—Bobby Cassidy—as he looked into the camera before he stepped into the gym. So, Bobby Cassidy, in a sense, introduced me to the boxing game. And now comes this article! Over the years, I’ve gotten to personally know Bobby Cassidy and his wonderfully creative and devoted family. However, after reading this Mladinich article, I know them much better. I also see that some of the motivations that drew me into the ring as a young boy were very similar to Cassidy’s familial motivations…I’m glad I choose to become a fighter and I’m glad I choose to get out of boxing when I did. And I’m glad as a young boy I choose to buy that boxing magazine on the magazine rack, instead of the one that featured a colorful photo of Flyweight Champion, Pong Kingpetch on the front cover.

  5. Mike Casey 07:30pm, 08/27/2014

    Great article by Robert. Nice to see Bobby giving credit to Jimmy Dupree, who I loved as a kid. Jimmy the Cat was one smooth operator.

  6. Ron 06:05pm, 08/26/2014

    Bobby,
    Writing that comes from your heart tugs at the heartstrings of all your readers. I’ve known your dad for many years, but never really knew him. Now I do. Great job, Bobby.
    Ron Ross

  7. Jason 04:23pm, 08/26/2014

    What an excellent piece. Original quality and a helluva story.

  8. Pete 03:47pm, 08/26/2014

    Robert Mladinich is a top craftsman and always a pleasure to read.

  9. Clarence George 09:37am, 08/26/2014

    I think you’re right, Pete, and he was the least funny of the lot, except for Kotter’s wife (Marcia Strassman).

  10. Clarence George 09:33am, 08/26/2014

    The funny thing about Mr. Woodman is that he was only around 55 to 60 during the run of the show, but he looked a good 15 years older.

  11. Pete The Sneak 09:32am, 08/26/2014

    CG…Maybe my paper boy inadvetently put Ron’s pic over the Robin Williams article. ...Anyway, Washington (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) I believe is the only other remaining sweathog hanging around besides Travolta….Peace.

  12. Eric 08:29am, 08/26/2014

    Figured that “Mr. Woodman” would be gone by now, he was pretty old even back in the Seventies. Had no idea that “Juan” and “Horshack” had died. Last I saw of “Horshack” was when he was boxing in one of those celebrity vs celebrity boxing events, and that was quite a long time ago. Sounds like the “Welcome Back Kotter” crew had about as much luck as the “Little Rascal/Our Gang” cast. Looks like Travolta was the only one from that show that ever progressed beyond, “Welcome Back Kotter,” but Travolta had his share of troubles in his personal life as well.

  13. Clarence George 07:52am, 08/26/2014

    Last week?  Uh, Pete, I think you gotta talk to your paperboy—Palillo’s been dead for a couple of years.  In fact, much of the cast is gone, including John Sylvester White (Mr. Woodman), Robert Hegyes (Juan Epstein), and Debralee Scott (“Hotsie” Totsie).

    Anyway, I crack up every time I look at the photo.  I mean, come on, he could be Gabe Kaplan’s twin.

  14. Pete The Sneak 07:30am, 08/26/2014

    LOL…CG…I was thinking the same thing when I saw the pic…Ironically enough, Ron Palillo (Arnold Horshack)  passed away last week…Still, loved this article on Mr. Cassidy…Peace.

  15. Eric 05:42am, 08/26/2014

    haha. Anyone who can remember or was alive back in the Seventies can just look at those hairstyles and immediately identify with them. Don’t know if Cassidy could pull of the Kotter fro and pornstache in this century though, he’s looking a little thin on top.

  16. Clarence George 02:21am, 08/26/2014

    Looking good, Mr. Kotter!

  17. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 08:07pm, 08/25/2014

    Robert Mladinich-Wow! Thanks for this jolt from the blue….I always had Joey Archer on my radar but I should have paid more attention to Johnny Coiley and to this bad to the bone Irishman who was always but always in the trenches just as Jerry Quarry was.

  18. Eric 07:26pm, 08/25/2014

    Looks like Bobby Cassidy did indeed have the luck of the Irish in his corner. Tough life with an abusive, alcoholic dad, entering prison as a middle age man, etc. Gypsy Joe Harris, Willie Taylor, Tom Bethea, haven’t heard those names in quite a long time.

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