Bobby Stewart…Upstate New York’s gift to the boxing world
By MIKE HAUSER
For The Leader-Herald
During the first half of the 20th century, Amsterdam New York was known throughout the Northeastern part of the country as a notable hot bed of great amateur and professional boxers. In the early 1970’s, a local boy by the name of Robert “Bobby” Stewart emerged upon the boxing scene and had all of the old-time fight fans in the area being reminded of its boxing glory days, and put Amsterdam back on the boxing map.
Bobby was born on February 25, 1952 in Amsterdam, to parents Robert J. Stewart and Dorothea McNeil Stewart. His father was a zone sergeant with the New York State Police and his mother worked in a local doctor’s office. He had one sibling, a younger sister named Susan, and they grew up in the Henrietta Heights neighborhood of Amsterdam. At the age of eight, he started attending classes at the Amsterdam Y.M.C.A. where he participated in swimming and basketball. The older guys were always downstairs lifting weights and hitting the heavy bags. Amateur boxing in Amsterdam was one of the biggest programs on the East Coast and fighters from Amsterdam went to the Golden Gloves tournaments each year in Troy. The Y.M.C.A. would periodically let the younger kids downstairs to hit the heavy bags, but did not allow sparring. Bobby saw this and started to get interested in boxing at the age of 12. He put together sparring sessions in the cellar of his parents Chapel Street home, until his mother could no longer stand how loud the thuds were getting as they struck each other, and threw them all out. He went on to attend Amsterdam High School and played football and golf, while constantly lifting weights and working out.
As a 17 year old senior in High School in 1969, he took up boxing and started sparring with future Amsterdam police officer Bill Case. Case was seven years older than Stewart and had fought 20 times in the military. Stewart always did well in those sparring sessions and developed enough confidence to enter the Adirondack AAU Golden Gloves Tournament at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy. Case entered the tournament as well, and the two ended up facing each other in the finals. Bobby beat his older sparring partner and became the Adirondack AAU Golden Gloves Champion of the Novice Heavyweight Class (175lbs). He received many accolades from everyone who watched him fight and he was encouraged to continue boxing. He then went to the Albany Trinity Institute boxing facility, and met professional trainer Matt Baranski. Baranski had been a great fighter himself as an undefeated military champion, and went on to coach amateur and professional fighters for several decades. Stewart received permission to work out at his facility. After showing up to work out every day for the next few weeks, Baranski invited Stewart to spar with a seasoned fighter named Lenny West. He knew that the experienced West went easy on him, but the session allowed Stewart to build his confidence.
In 1970, Stewart once again entered and won the Adirondack AAU Golden Gloves Tournament in the Novice Heavyweight Division. His performance caught the attention of Baranski, who began to coach Stewart. He was now 18, and married with a son named Robert Junior. He worked evenings as a bartender at Russo’s Tavern in Amsterdam and trained seven days a week. This included three days a week at Baranski’s Trinity Institute in Albany and the other days working out at the Amsterdam Y.M.C.A., and at his home.
In 1971, Stewart once again won the Adirondack AAU Golden Gloves Tournament and then entered the Western Massachusetts Golden Gloves Tournament in Holyoke Massachusetts in the Novice Heavyweight Division. He won the first fight and lost the second.
Stewart entered and won the 1972 National AAU Junior Boxing Championship in Latham New York and was the main attraction. After getting into better shape and shedding a few pounds, he once again entered the Western Massachusetts Golden Gloves Tournament in 1972, but as a Light Heavyweight in the Open Division and won. This earned him entry into the New England Golden Gloves Tournament in Lowell Massachusetts. He won that tournament as well, and along with teammate Marvin Hagler, qualified for U.S. National Golden Gloves Championships in Minneapolis Minnesota. At the Nationals, he won his first match and lost the second. Hagler competed in the Light Middleweight Class and was also eliminated from the tournament. It was around this time that Bobby was beginning to be touted as the areas next great professional. Baranski recognized Stewart’s devotion to training and introduced him to Constantine “Cus” D’Amato, a veteran boxing trainer in the Catskills who had guided 21 year old Floyd Patterson to become the youngest Heavyweight Champion of the World in 1956 at the age of 21. Bobby was often invited down to spar with some of D’Amato’s better fighters, and quite often it was the highly regarded Eugene “Cyclone” Hart from Philadelphia. Four years later Hart would unsuccessfully challenge Marvin Hagler as a professional. Bobby remembers those trips to the Catskills, “I would go down to train at Cus’ and often stayed over at his home so I could get in parts of two days of sparing with some of his guys. It was those nights after training in which I stayed up late talking with Cus that I learned the most. He was so inspirational and really knew how to build up your confidence. He was the greatest influence on my life both inside the ring, as well as out of it.” On two different occasions in the fall of 1972, Baranski and Stewart traveled down to Mohammad Ali’s “Fighters Heaven” training camp in Deer Lake Pennsylvania to assist with workouts. Ali was there preparing for his November fight with Bob Foster and Cus was already there with a few of his fighters, including Cyclone Hart who lived in nearby Philadelphia. Bobby was brought down to spar with Hart and not only got to watch Ali spar with his partners, but also got to talk with him. According to Stewart, “Ali was very down to earth and very easy to talk to. The show he put on for the press was just his way of working out his nerves. He was really nothing like that. We all picked up great pointers from him. On the way back, we would bring Cus with us and drop him off in Catskill along the way.” Stewart was now 20 years old with two sons, Robert Jr. and John David, and continued to bartend at local Amsterdam area establishments to support his family. Stewart felt that being married with a supportive wife (Bonnie) and having a family kept him disciplined and away from the typical distractions that he might otherwise face as a single 20 year-old.
In January of 1973, an AAU Boxing Show took place at Madison Square Garden in New York City and featured the best of the USA vs. the best of England. Bobby fought England’s William Knight of London, who had won two fights for Great Britain at the 1972 Olympics in Munich Germany, as one of the featured fights of the show. Most of Stewart’s teammates had represented the United States at the 1972 Olympics in Munich Germany. It was the biggest fight of his life up until that point and three busloads of fans from Amsterdam made the trip to New York City on a work night. Bobby was 23-2 at this point as an amateur. The fight went the distance and the decision went to his opponent. A cloud of boos filled the arena when the judges results were read, but everyone was very proud that Stewart was able to go the distance with a seasoned fighter who had fought in the Olympics the year before. Even though he lost, he was still a hero to those who made the trip and respect for Amsterdam Boxing was back!Stewart entered and won the Western Massachusetts Golden Gloves Champion in 1973, which earned him entry into the New England Gloves Tournament for a second year in a row. There he was once again a teammate of Marvin Hagler, who helped calm the jitters that Bobby was feeling heading into the finals. According to Stewart, “there were three rings going with fights in the arena and everyone waiting to fight lined up in order of your weight class and you stood next to the guy you were about to fight. I was feeling nervous, when Marvin Hagler turned back to me and said ‘look at these [expletive]. We are going to kick their [expletive]’. Both of our opponents were standing right there besides us and heard him say this. I had been nervous up until that point, but he instilled confidence in me, and we both went out and won our fights and the New England Golden Gloves Championships for our respective weight classes.” This win once again qualified both Stewart and Hagler to compete in the U.S. National Golden Gloves tournament that took place in Lowell Massachusetts that year. At the Nationals, Stewart won his first two fights and then lost his third to D.C. Barker. Barker went on to win the U.S. National Golden Gloves Light Heavyweight Championship, as well as the 1973 National AAU Championships a few months later when he defeated Leon Spinks. Hagler won all of his fights in Lowell and became the U.S. National Golden Gloves Light Middleweight Champion.
Stewart once again cruised through the competition to win both the Western Massachusetts Golden Gloves Championship and the New England Championships in 1974. This marked three consecutive years that he never lost a fight at the New England Golden Gloves Championships, and once again punched his ticket to compete in the U.S. National Golden Gloves tournament being held in Denver Colorado. There, he defeated future WBA Heavyweight Champion of the World (1982-83) Michael Dokes, to become the 1974 U.S. National Golden Gloves Light Heavyweight Champion. To put this title in perspective, it is important to look at some of the past world champions who held the title before him. If you look back in the record books at who had won the title fifteen years prior in 1959, you will see the name of Cassius Clay (Mohammed Ali). If you go back twenty five more years before that to 1934, you will see the name of Joe Louis. And if you flip forward by ten years to 1984, you will see that Evander Holyfield once held the same title that a young Robert “Bobby” Stewart from Amsterdam now held. This is a title that Stewart had aspired to win since he first started fighting competitively. It also marked the first time that a fighter who had won the Western Massachusetts Golden Gloves Championship in Holyoke, went on to win the National Title.
After winning the Nationals, Stewart was now the #1 Amateur Light Heavyweight Fighter in the country and had it been an Olympic year, he would have been the #1 seed at the United States Olympic Boxing Trials. He could have continued to fight as an amateur and wait for the 1976 Olympics, but he was having a hard time finding amateurs in his weight class to fight him. He was often referred to as a Rocky Marciano style fighter, in that he kept after his opponents. It was also said that he moved like a 160lb fighter, but hit like a Heavyweight. Because of this reputation, amateurs in his weight class wanted no part of him. When he initially signed up to fight in the New York City Daily News Golden Gloves Tournament earlier that year, most of the entrants in his weight class dropped out. And then when it was announced that he was not going to participate so he could focus on preparing for the New England Gold Gloves, the registration list for the Light Heavyweight Division mysteriously filled up again.
After much encouragement from family and friends, he decided retire as an amateur with a 45-5 record, and turn professional that spring with Baranski as his trainer. Baranski set up an aggressive schedule which would see him fight six times between May and December. His first fight was on May 5, 1974 in Philadelphia, against Billy Early of that same city. While Early already had six professional fights under his belt, Stewart made easy work of him with a second round TKO. In the crowd that night was Cus D’Amato, who was asked what he thought of Stewart’s performance. D’Amato’s response, “He was a little nervous at first. However, once he warmed up, he went for the kill.” For Stewart’s second fight, which was back in Philadelphia, he rode with Baranski and D’Amato who talked about boxing the entire trip. Unable to sleep, Stewart just sat in the back seat listening and learning from the wise old boxing minds as they talked. His opponent was Vandel Woods and they squared off in front of 4,000 fans. The fight went the distance and Stewart came out on the wrong end of heart breaking decision. He bounced back from the loss and went on to win his next four fights that year. Two of those fights took place Madison Square Garden, and he won them both. His October 29, 1974 fight would be part of the historic “Rumble in the Jungle” in which Mohammad Ali won back the Heavyweight Championship from the formerly undefeated Champion George Foreman. The fight took place in Kinshasa, Zaire (Congo), where the date there was actually October 30th. 60,000 fans attended the fight in Zaire, and it was watched on television by 1 billion viewers world-wide. 5 million watched the fight in the United States as it was streamed across the country on closed circuit pay-per-view. Stewart was part of the event fighting on the undercard that was televised live from Pittsfield Massachusetts. He came away a unanimous decision against Kenny Jones from New Haven Connecticut, for his fourth victory that year and three wins in a row. Baranski enjoyed training Stewart as he was easy to get along with, trained hard and was always willing to train and spar with the best possible fighters. It was around this time that he regularly spared with heavyweight contender Dave Zyglewicz of Watervliet, who lost to Joe Frazier in 1969 for the World Heavyweight title. Zyglewicz’s record was 30-3 at that time.
1975 saw Stewart compete in five more fights, winning all of them and ending the year on nine fight win streak. His first fight of 1976 was against Otis Gordon, and with Stewart’s nine fight win streak on the line they fought at the Coliseum in Latham. In front of a crowd full of hometown fans, he delighted them with his 10th straight win since the loss in his second fight as a professional. He would fight two more times in 1976, winning one and losing for a second time to Vandel Woods, leaving his professional record at 12-2. 1977 would mark Stewarts last year in professional boxing and he would win one fight and lose the other. He would win his first fight in March with Eddie Philips, but lose his second that April to Eddie Davis. Davis would go on to win the USBA Light Heavyweight Title in 1982, and then unsuccessfully challenge Michael Spinks in 1984 for the three Light Heavyweight Titles he held at that time. Stewart’s final record was 13-3 in 16 professional matches that saw him never knocked out. It was also a career that saw him get to travel and compete in a dozen states, as well as in Canada and South America, as both an amateur and professional.
While Stewart would never suit up to box professionally again, his biggest contribution to the sport he loved was yet to come. In 1978 he went to work full time for the Tryon School for Boys, which was a juvenile detention center located in Johnstown New York. Because he had been a professional boxer, management allowed him to start a program in which he sparred with students in the Elmwood Cottage as a reward for good behavior. This was the cottage (division) of the campus where the students who got in trouble in their respective cottages were sent for discipline. Stewart had two rules for the aspiring boxers, or those who just wanted to have a chance to take some swings at him with gloves on. The first was that they had to put forth an effort in school and not get in any trouble. The second rule was that once they got in the ring, they had to stay in for one full round (3 minutes) and could not give up or quit.
Late in the fall of 1979, a 13 year old boy named Michael Tyson was transferred to Tryon from the Bridges Juvenile Center in Bronx, New York. He was a petty criminal from Brownsville New York who had been arrested 38 times by the time he was 13 years old. He was initially placed in the Briarwood Cottage section of the campus. Shortly after arriving, he got into trouble and was transferred over to the Elmwood Cottage and placed into lockdown. While in lockdown, he sees other kids coming by his door smiling and happy. He then learns that they were coming back from having put on boxing gloves and sparring with a counselor named Mr. Stewart. Stewart enjoyed working with the kids and felt it was a way for them to better themselves. And so long as they stayed out of trouble and showed an interest, he would continue to work with them and teach them how to box. Upon hearing this, Tyson kept asking staff if he could meet Mr. Stewart. Eventually, Stewart goes to Tyson’s room, smashes the door open and intimidates him to see what he is made of. He told Mr. Stewart that he wanted to be a fighter and told him that he would do whatever was asked of him. Stewart made a deal with him that if his behavior changed and that if he went to school and had no incidents for a month, that he would consider working with him. Stewart would check the logs kept by staff on Tyson each day to see if his behavior had been improving. After 6 days of drastic improvement, Stewart agreed to let Tyson spar with him. At the time, Mike was 5′ 6″ tall and weighed 196 pounds. Even though Stewart pushed Mike around the ring and easily handled him, he never quit. Their future sparring sessions began to draw crowds of kids in the cottage, and even staff took interest. As Mike got better, Stewart would work with him on moves in which they threw punches at one another and practiced counter moves. He taught him how to bob, protect himself and how to throw combinations of punches. Staff started hearing something going on in Mike’s room after all of the other kids had gone to sleep and realized that he was in there practicing those moves by shadow boxing, sometimes until three in the morning. Staff began reporting to Stewart that Mike’s behavior and effort in the classroom was improving since he started boxing with him. An added bonus for Tyson and some of the other kids who behaved, was to be released from the campus for a few hours to attend boxing matches that were put on at the former Bishop Burke High School, now a Lexington Center facility, in Gloversville. As Tyson improved, he was starting to get the best of Stewart and leaving him with black eyes and a broken nose. Stewart had to start training like a professional again to keep up with him. Stewart was very pleased to not only see Tyson’s behavior change, but he was also happy that he was living up to his word of doing whatever was necessary to learn and get better at boxing. After a few months of working with Tyson, in March of 1980 Stewart was beginning to think Tyson could be a great fighter. He received permission from Tryon to take Tyson to see his former trainer Matt Baranski at the Albany Trinity Institute where he himself had trained as both an amateur and professional. He wanted to get Baranski’s impression of Tyson and find out if he saw the same potential that he saw. Baranski was impressed but did not believe he was only 13. He was convinced that he was at least 20. Base on this analysis, Stewart immediately called his old friend Cus D’Amato and asked him if he could bring Tyson down to have him take a look at him. Cus agreed to look him over, so Stewart then spent a week prepping Mike for the sparring session in front of Cus. He had him do things he thought would catch Cus’ attention. The preparation worked, as Tyson performed a perfect first round sparring with Bobby in front of Cus and his staff. In the second round, Stewart made Tyson’s nose bleed and Cus’ assistant Teddy Atlas tried to stop the session. Young Tyson refused, stating that Mr. Stewart had taught him not to quit, and that he had to go three rounds. They ended up going all three (3 minute) rounds, leaving Cus impressed. And after watching him spar for just 9 minutes, Cus confidently proclaimed to Stewart that he felt Tyson would one day become the youngest Heavyweight Champion of the World, ever. Upon returning to Tyron, they stepped up their workouts, sparring three nights a week and working on the new moves that Cus and Atlas were teaching him on training visits to Cus’ gym. These training sessions took place when Tyson was allowed home visits. Instead of going back to New York City, he would go stay at Cus’ home for a few days. With nobody at the gym that could handle sparring with Tyson, Stewart would get in the ring to spar with him for the workouts. It was at this time that staff and teachers at Tryon were completely mesmerized by Mike’s improvements at school, seeing him raise his reading level by four grades in the course of the three months he had been working out with Bobby. He had simply never gone to school or been taught, but now had motivation and direction. Stewart often went to bat for him behind the scenes and championed the fact that he was smarter than anyone had ever given him credit for.
Stewart also started to worry about what would become of Mike when his time at Tryon was over and he went back to the streets of New York City when he was paroled in the fall. That is when he arranged to have Mike go live with Cus in the Catskills. He felt it would provide a positive atmosphere for him to live and seriously train to box. While he was not scheduled for release until October of 1980, the state allowed him to leave Tryon early in order for him to start school in Catskill in September. He then went to live with Cus and his companion Camille Ewald. There, the couple became parent figures to him. It was also during this time that Mike became a student of boxing history and continued to apply himself at school, while seriously training to be a professional boxer. For the next two years, Stewart continued to travel down to Cus’ gym in Catskill to spar with Tyson. Cus appreciated Stewart staying involved as he always felt that he brought out the best in Tyson. Stewart knew how to stay a step ahead of Mike, where as he would knock other sparring partners. With Stewart, he got a better, longer workout. After two years, Tyson got so good that Stewart could not keep up with him and younger paid professionals had to be brought in to spar with him. Tyson then began taking the same path that Stewart had as an amateur, entering the same Golden Gloves tournaments. And in 1984, Tyson matched one of Stewarts “claims to fame” when he also won the U.S. National Golden Gloves Championship as his mentor had ten years earlier. This marked just the second time in history that a fighter who had won the Western Massachusetts Golden Gloves Championship in Holyoke Massachusetts went on to win the National Title in their respective weight class.
On March 6, 1985, at the age of 19, Tyson turned professional when he fought and knocked out Hector Mercedes in Albany New York. He would fight 27 more times in 1985 and 1886. He won them all and on November 27, 1986, in his 28th professional fight, Tyson defeated Trevor Berbick to claim WBC Heavyweight Title, bringing truth to Cus D’Amato’s March 1980 proclamation to Bobby Stewart that Tyson would one day become the youngest Heavyweight Champion of the World. Tyson was just 20 years old, and Bobby Stewart was there ringside at the Las Vegas Hilton boxing ring, cheering on his former student just has he had for every fight leading up to one of the most historic nights in the history of professional boxing. According to Stewart, “the morning after Mike’s 1986 fight with Berbick, I was in the lobby of the Hilton Hotel checking out and Tyson was coming through the lobby with an entourage that included his management team, security guards and police officers. His trainer Kevin Rooney noticed me and yelled to the group to stop. He then tapped Tyson on the shoulder and pointed over to me. Tyson broke away from the group and came over and gave me a hug. I could hear Rooney say loud enough to the entourage ‘its okay, that is the guy that started this all’. As Mike hugged me I told him ‘you did it, now you’re the champ kid.’ It was a special moment, knowing where he came from just a few years before, where he could have ended up, and where he was at that moment.’ I could not have been happier for him or prouder.”
When asked about Stewart’s role in his career, Tyson still has a hard time grasping how he was fortunate enough to have someone like Stewart come into his life. He states, “Who is this guy, how could that have happened, how does this Irish guy become a part of my life? Coming from Brownsville I did not trust white-people. I never met anyone like that, so I never really understood how someone could do something like that for someone else. I could not understand how someone could care about me like that. I had no idea what I was getting into, but am thankful that someone who was in my life for such a short time, turned out to be the biggest influence in my life. It’s like it was magic that it ever happened.” When told of Tyson’s comments and how he still is unsure of why Stewart was so good to him, Stewart responded with, “Because he was so good to me. He did everything I asked him to do, and lived up to everything he promised me during that first night we spoke in his room at Tryon when he told me he wanted to be a fighter.” Even after Tyson became the Heavyweight Champion of the World, he continued to leave tickets for Stewart to all of his fights. The first event that Stewart missed was his February 1990 fight against Buster Douglas in Tokyo, as he was reluctant to make the fourteen hour flight from New York to Japan. Ironically, it would be the first professional fight that Tyson would lose.
While Stewart retired from boxing before reaching his chance at a title fight, his impact on Amsterdam, as well as the world of boxing was felt and carries on today. Not only did he have a major role in helping to produce one of the greatest Heavyweight Champions in history, he also had a pretty impressive fighting career himself. Winning the 1974 U.S. National Golden Gloves Championship is a feat that has him etched in the record books amongst such greats who have also held that same title; Joe Louis (1934), Mohammad Ali (1959) and Evander Holyfield (1984). In 1988, for the 30th Anniversary of the Holyoke Boys Club Golden Gloves Tournament, they named their all-time team by the 13 weight categories. Bobby Stewart was chosen as their all-time greatest for the 175lb Light Heavyweight Class and his protÈgÈe Mike Tyson (world champion at the time) was chosen as their all-time greatest Super Heavyweight to ever come through their program. This is a prestigious honor for both fighters, and just one more way in which they are forever linked in boxing lore.
When asked what his proudest moments in his life are, Stewart responded “winning the National Championship is my greatest accomplishment and favorite, without a doubt. My goal was to one day break into the top 10 in the country, which would have made me happy. But I got to #1. I am also proud of Mike Tyson and knowing I gave him some help along the way.” If you see a car driving around Upstate New York with the license plates boasting “74CHAMP”, you will know that it belongs to Bobby Stewart. Now retired, Bobby resides in Tribes Hill and still works out seven days a week. Included in his regimen is stretching, sit-ups, bike riding, hitting the heavy bag, chopping wood and doing landscaping for others.
For having won the U.S. National Golden Gloves Light Heavyweight Championship in 1974 and going on to box professionally, Robert “Bobby” Stewart has been nominated for induction into the Fulton County Baseball & Sports Hall of Fame. The date and location of his induction ceremony will be announced in the near future.
Thank you to the following who helped with the research in writing this story; Mike Tyson, Billy White, Rob Hickman, Roy Carter, Eddie Rivera, Bill Ryder, Jason Pajonk-Taylor and the Aqua Training Bag Team www.aquatrainingbag.com , Noel Levee, Irwin “Dutch” Hall, and Stan Karpinski.
Mike Hauser is the founder of the Fulton County Baseball & Sports Hall of Fame in Gloversville. If you have story ideas, old articles/photos or would like to nominate someone for the HOF, he can be reached through the organizations website at www.fchof.com, email; firstname.lastname@example.org or call (518) 725-5565. If you enjoyed this story and want to learn more about other sports history topics, look for Hauser’s “Hometown Sports Heroes” series of paperbacks on www.amazon.com and search; ‘Mike Hauser Hometown Sports Heroes.’