In trainer's eyes, Brianna Macaluso a true champion

Originally Published: August 30, 2006
By Joe Tessitore | Special to ESPN.com

He is as serious as anyone I have ever known. But this went far beyond serious. Teddy Atlas was delivering this story at a level that neared vital. He had to express it with solemn severity.

Teddy Atlas
Atlas

"She showed more class, more bravery and more dignity than some people have the ability to accumulate in a lifetime," Teddy said to me with a natural heaviness that made each descriptive land like a telegraphed, thudding body blow. "And she somehow accumulated it in less than 17 years. Enough class and bravery to last for many, many lifetimes."

She was Brianna Macaluso. And she passed away two weeks ago.

"I sat in church for her funeral and nothing made sense," Atlas said. "It wasn't clear to me why a 14-year-old girl gets cancer. It wasn't clear to me why a person so pure was taken. She was so innocent, she never kissed a boy. I couldn't understand when the priest said we should smile because she is at a banquet with the Lord. I'm Catholic, I'm on my knees when I think I'm supposed to be but I didn't get it on this day. I understand the theory of having faith, but I didn't understand the things that were being said on this day. I didn't understand any of them. Then, when the priest said she was finally finished with suffering, that she had finally given up this fight, it was the only thing I did understand. I understood that wasn't correct. That is not what happened."

Atlas considered Brianna one of his fighters as much as any of the world champions he trained. In fact, he knew her true identity better than most of the boxers he worked and lived with day after day. Teddy knew there was no quit in her. He knew Brianna wouldn't give up. More significantly, Teddy knew she didn't give up.

"Brianna wound up getting connected to the foundation [Dr. Theodore Atlas Foundation] by Kevin Devaney from a group they called Friends of Brianna. Her mother's job was on strike and the insurance stopped. We got involved. We helped them with the insurance and any other way that we could," Teddy explained.

Brianna Macaluso and Teddy Atlas
courtesy: Friends of Brianna Assistance FundBrianna Macaluso, 17, and Teddy Atlas shared a bond that cancer could not take away.

Brianna was a Yankees fan with a crush on Derek Jeter that only a young teen girl could understand. The foundation lined up a trip to the venerable Bronx ballpark.

"When she got home from that day," Atlas said, "her mother Lisa called and thanked us. Lisa thanked everyone for 'giving me back my daughter.' For two years, Brianna wasn't the energetic motor-mouth, she didn't have that passion for life, all the little giggling. For two years, all those little girly things were taken out of her from chemo. But on this day, they had to peel her off the walls. Brianna wouldn't stop talking."

Teddy recalled the conversation. A conversation he could barely participate in as Brianna's joy overflowed like Niagara Falls.

"I didn't get two words in for 50 minutes," Atlas said. "She said, 'Do you realize how green the grass at Yankee Stadium is? It's very green. It's so green, it looks like it's painted on. And do you know how perfect the interlocking NY is marked in the grass? It's perfect, it's flawless.' But the most important thing was when she said, 'Do you know Derek Jeter has the greenest eyes in the world?'

"When she was done, I thought to myself that this was being said by a person who was looking at detail in a way that is different than the rest of us. She was saying these comments as if she may never see Yankee Stadium again. It's almost an axiom to say, 'Don't take things for granted,' but it's the human condition to take things for granted. It happens. Only a person who is not sure that they will ever see that again, only a person who understands the precious privilege that life truly is, could look at something with such exactness and detail."

That Yankee Stadium day was an obvious high point in Teddy's relationship with Brianna. The rest of their time together would be spent in the trenches. It would be spent as trainer and fighter. They dug deep for that something extra. They worked hard for that end goal. Still, leukemia would be a tricky opponent.

"I talked to her mother, and there was a day when her mother said she went into involuntary convulsions because of the medicine, the poison being put into her body," Atlas said. "The bed was shaking, that's how strong it was. Brianna never cried out. That's how dignified she was. She didn't do something that was normal to do, it would have been normal to scream. She never did. She was utterly selfless. She was committed to making sure nobody around her ever suffered thinking she was in pain. She was committed to having the pain stay confined as much as it could. She fought it better than she had a right to fight it."

Teddy can't help it. Boxing is the world he knows. Only in fight terms could this be described. He was watching a champion perform, endure and overcome.

Brianna Macaluso and Derek Jeter
courtesy: Friends of Brianna Assistance FundThanks to Atlas' foundation, Brianna got to meet Derek Jeter during a visit to Yankee Stadium.

"There's no gym for that stuff," he said. "There's no trainer to counsel it. There's no manager to look over it. And you know there's no promoter to set up the date for when you want to do it. There are no choices over those things."

No, Brianna didn't have those luxuries in her fight. But she did have a fight plan. About three months ago, the cancer came back. The painful process of chemotherapy and radiation to prepare the body for a bone-marrow transplant was the only hope.

"There was a day when I called the room," Atlas said. "The mother asked if it was OK if she doesn't speak right now, she just finished throwing up. When she couldn't talk, she said, 'Tell Teddy to let him know that I'm doing what he told me.'"

Atlas had given her instructions as if she was going out for the final round against a prime heavyweight champ. Instructions to win. Instructions to keep a promise to see Jeter again.

You think it's tough to listen to coaching when 60 seconds are ticking down and you're out of breath on a stool. Try listening and executing a plan when your life is ticking away and a relentless opponent is in every cell your body houses.

Quit? Yeah, right!

Now you can start to see why those generic eulogy-type comments don't apply here.

"It bothered me the implication that someone with her character would submit," Atlas said. "Nothing could make her give up the fight. There was no resting in this girl. There was no bending with her. There was no capitulation. She didn't know how to do that. Somebody must have come down and talked her into retiring. Undefeated in fact. An act that would for years make people say there goes the greatest fighter who ever lived."

Let the record show that Brianna Macaluso retired as world champion on Aug. 15, 2006. She did so undefeated. She was carried out of the ring on the shoulders of family and friends. She left a weeping trainer in the corner, sad and confused. The trainer is still searching for the answer to the question, "Why?" But he knows the answer to the question, "Who?" He knows exactly who she was. She was simply the toughest fighter he has ever known.

Joe Tessitore is the blow-by-blow announcer on ESPN2's "Friday Night Fights."

Joe Tessitore has been the blow-by-blow announcer for ESPN2's "Friday Night Fights" and "Wednesday Night Fights" since 2002 and contributes a weekly boxing column to ESPN.com.

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