Costello died on June 29 at age 55 after a long battle with lung cancer. But for Fusco, who trained the former champion during his comeback in the 1990s and others who knew him in and out of the ring, Costello will live on in their memories as a man who was generous to his community, ferocious to opponents and uncompromising with himself.
Costello was born in Kingston on April 10, 1956, one of nine children of William Sr., a noted pool player, and Dolores Costello. A gifted athlete, Costello’s first ambition was to play pro baseball. But after a minor brush with the law in his senior year, he was thrown off the Kingston High School baseball team. After that, according to family friend Joe La Lima, he took up boxing. His first workouts were in a tiny gym behind La Lima’s barbershop on Broadway with his father taking on the role of trainer and task master.
“Whatever his father set his mind to do, he would go all the way with it and that’s what he put into Billy and all his brothers and sisters,” said La Lima. “Whatever you’re going to do, be the best at it that you can.”
Fueled by a sledgehammer left hook and a punishing training regimen, Costello had won a Golden Gloves championship and turned pro within a few years of putting on the gloves for the first time.
“He was a really tough guy. No matter what, he worked,” recalls Fusco. “He’d run 10 miles a day and I’d tell him, ‘What’re you doing? You’re not training for the Boston Marathon.’ But that’s how he was.”
The hard work paid off with a string of victories followed by a title shot in January 1984. He made the most of it with a 10th-round TKO of reigning World Boxing Council light welterweight world champion Bruce Curry. That victory set the stage for a triumphant return to Kingston, where he successfully defended his title before a euphoric hometown crowd at the Midtown Neighborhood Center on Broadway.
Rick Gentile was a producer at CBS Sports in the 1980s at a time when the network was scoring big ratings by betting on the careers of exciting, popular fighters like Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini. Gentile said that Costello showed similar potential. Costello wanted to defend the belt in Kingston, a move CBS executives backed because, Gentile said, it made for good TV.
“We would do these things in some ballroom in Atlantic City and you were never sure if you would sell out, and it would be boring,” said Gentile. “So we did it in Kingston in this neighborhood center, you had this rabid hometown crowd. It was great.”
Between July 15, 1984 and Feb. 2, 1985, Costello fought three successful title defense matches in his hometown. He won them all by unanimous decision. The fights inside the sweltering confines of the neighborhood center were, and still are, a source of pride for Kingston a quarter century later.
“He was a world champion, he could have fought anywhere he wanted, but he chose to fight in Kingston because he loved this town,” said La Lima. “He just wanted to bring it back to Kingston.”
Costello’s unbroken string of 30 victories was, finally, broken in August 1985 when he lost a fight, and the belt, by TKO to challenger Lonnie Smith. The next year, after another TKO loss to former World Boxing Association light welterweight champion Alexis Arguello, Costello retired from the ring.
It didn’t last long. By 1992, Costello had hooked up with Lou Fusco, training in a tiny gym in Beacon reminiscent of the old garage behind La Lima’s barbershop. The goal, Fusco explained, was to chase then-undisputed super lightweight champion Julio Cesar Chavez, giving Costello another shot at a belt. That fight never happened. But along the way, Costello, now in his mid-30s, racked up an impressive 9-0 record.
Fusco recalls a point early in the comeback when Costello wanted to set up a fight with up-and-coming future world champion Felix Trinidad. Fusco put out feelers, but quickly determined the younger fighter was “bad news” and urged Costello not to pursue the bout. Costello, seeing the potential for a large purse, assured his trainer that if he was badly hurt in a fight with Trinidad, he would hit the canvas.
“I said, ‘Bill, if I believed that, I’d say OK, take the fight, but the same thing that made you champ would never allow you to do that,’” said Fusco. “The next day he came back and said, ‘You’re right, Lou, I couldn’t do it.’ He was just the kind of guy that you had to kill him to take him out.”
Fusco saw that tenacity again in the run up to Costello’s last fight against Juan LaPorte. By 1999, the 43-year-old Costello was no longer seeking a belt. But when HBO’s “Legends of Boxing” franchise offered him a chance for one last payday, and one more victory in the ring, Costello took it. Fusco, wary of the fight’s promoters, urged Costello to hold out and hold off training for a 10 percent up-front payment. By the time the money came through, Costello was 20 pounds overweight with the fight two weeks away. He hit the gym in a fierce race to make weight — taking a toll that, Fusco said, led him to conclude the fight should be called off.
“There was no stopping this guy, he lost and lost and lost, then he hit a wall. He was dead,” said Fusco. “I told him, ‘Look, this fight doesn’t mean anything, don’t do this to yourself. You’re mentally dead now, keep going and you’ll be physically dead.”
By the time Costello arrived in North Carolina for the LaPorte match, Fusco said, he was exhausted and still overweight. A last-minute sauna marathon solved the weight issue. But during the fight, Fusco said, it became clear that Costello was worn out, barely fazing his opponent with what should have been knockout left hooks. Costello went all 10 rounds and won the decision.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Fusco. “I said, ‘Bill, you and I have had our go-rounds in training, but tonight, you’re my hero.”
Tutoring the next generation
In the decade between his final retirement and his death, Costello became a hero to another generation of Kingston residents. In 2007, Costello, who lived in a modest house on Furnace Street and made a living as a construction worker, teamed up with Kingston cop Aaron Fitzgerald to start the Kingston Police Athletic League boxing program.
Costello was known as a tough taskmaster who expected dedication from his young fighters and in return brought the same intensity to their training that he displayed in the ring.
“He was passionate about boxing, [saying] ‘This is the way it should be, this is the way it should be,’” recalls Al Nace, who worked with Costello at the PAL boxing club. “He taught these kids about discipline so that they could become productive members of society.”
Fight promoter Brian Burke said that the same exacting standards applied to Costello’s side job as a pro boxing judge. Burke said that the last time he saw Costello was at a match in Albany when the ailing champ recused himself from the judging table because he felt that he could not give the job 100 percent of his focus that night.
“He was a true champion inside and out,” said Burke. “And he was a great judge. I always wanted him as a judge because if he said you lost, you knew you lost.”
Costello was known for his gruff demeanor. He was not especially welcoming of fans’ attention. But those who knew him well said that the real Billy Costello emerged in countless acts of generosity to friends and strangers alike.
“He was the kind of guy who mumbles and grumbles, but if he saw somebody who was in need, he’d take money out of his pocket and give it to them,” said Nace. “Then he would deny that he was a nice guy.”
Fusco said that young people brought out Costello’s soft side. He recalls an awards dinner where the champ was pinned by a throng of young fans seeking autographs. He kept signing until he turned to Fusco for help.
“He said, ‘Lou, you got to get me out of here, I’m gonna wet myself,’” said Fusco. “Now if an adult wanted an autograph he’d say, ‘Why do you want this? You gonna sell it?’”
Costello’s friends and supporters are mourning his death and are to gather Wednesday and Thursday at the Pointe of Praise Family Life Center for Costello’s wake and memorial service. But they’re also working to keep his legacy alive. La Lima led a fundraising effort that raised $20,000 for a statue of Costello that will stand a pedestal at the corner of Clinton and Albany Avenue. But his friends, fans and hundreds of Kingstonians who recall his glory days in the sweltering confines of the old armory won’t need a statue to remind them of Kingston’s Champ.
“I’m just trying to keep him in my mind the way I remember him,” said Fusco. “Strong and straight and sweating his ass off because he’s got a fight coming up and he came in too heavy.”