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Joey Olivo : In a Division Where the Purses Are Just as Light as the Fighters, He’s Persevered to Become WBA’s Junior-Flyweight Champion

Times Staff Writer

Boxing’s junior-flyweight division requires little of its contenders. You can get by with a supersonic metabolism, a tolerance for anonymity and the willingness to work for minimum wages when everybody else in boxing is pulling down million-dollar purses and griping about it.

In other words, the division’s requirements are not quite the same as the heavyweight division’s.

Take the metabolism. Consider that these junior-flyweights, whom you likely have not once considered since you are not reading this in the Orient, have to come in at 108 pounds, a weight that would indicate anorexia nervosa among jockeys, bloated fellows who weigh in at upward of 112 pounds.

As for the rest, consider that Joey Olivo, the new World Boxing Assn. champion, made all of $2,600 in winning his title and that his subsequent fame has so far been confined to four paragraphs in the local sports pages. And that much only because he’s a local boy. If he hadn’t been from West Covina, well, he’s little known enough as it is. Don’t think about it.

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Let’s put this another way, if perspective will help. Greg Page, who was maneuvered into his heavyweight championship after losing two of this three tuneup fights, had been sufficiently reimbursed during his short reign--one awful fight--that burglars were able to lift $33,000 in jewelry from his hotel room recently, not to mention a $10,000 mink belonging to Page’s road cook.

In nine years of professional boxing, Olivo, at least as good in his division as Page was in his, has made a total of $50,000, a little more than $5,000 a year.

Back up a minute. A road cook?

You already know life’s not fair. Try to imagine what boxing’s like.

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But Olivo, 27, a stick figure of a fighter, is almost unconcerned. He is not bitter or even particularly envious.

Actually, he’s pretty happy. He wanted to be champion and, after six years of Top 10 ranking, fighting in all manner of exotic locales for all manner of peanuts, he finally is. What’s to gripe about? This is pretty good for a graduate of East L.A.'s Hazard Gang. Some of his boyhood pals didn’t come quite this far.

Now, don’t get too excited about the gang angle. Although Olivo ran with the home boys, he was never much of a gangster. He’s been boxing since he was 10 and Olivo didn’t have much time to perpetrate anything more than a knockdown here and there. So this isn’t a true hood-makes-good story. Anyway, Olivo has had plenty to overcome as it is.

First of all, being a junior-flyweight, however able, is not exactly a license to print money in this country. In a land where the Constitution guarantees the freedom to pursue fast food, where the national symbol is starch, there are not many fellow junior-flyweights.

When was the last time you weighed 108 pounds?

Olivo has to work out with boxers who weigh as much as 25 pounds more than he. That suggests the greater problem. There is nobody here to fight.

It is Olivo’s recollection that of his 43 fights, all but six have been outside Los Angeles, and most of them have been outside the country.

In fact, however, he has fought in Los Angeles more than he cares to remember and in Las Vegas even more than that. But nearly all his important fights have been out of the country, where the judging can be a little arbitrary at best.

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The junior-flyweight division, virtually unknown in this country, is big in others. Panama, the Dominican Republic, Thailand and Korea have all produced champions in the division in recent years. That’s where the junior-flyweights are, hence that’s where the fans are.

Until Olivo challenged Francisco Quiroz for his title in Miami two months ago, there had never been a junior-flyweight title fight in the United States. Of course, until Olivo won it, there had never been a U.S. champion in the division.

Olivo’s manager, Rudy Tellez, broadly outlines the horrors of being an American in a division that is decidedly non-American. It’s not that you have to go to strange places and eat unfamiliar food. It’s that you get robbed, and not of expensive jewelry.

Tellez said that in a 1979 title elimination bout with Chilean Martin Vargas, held in Santiago, Olivo “slapped the hell” out of his opponent for 10 rounds but then lost a decision. Tellez said that Vargas came over and said, “You’re in my country. What can I tell you?”

Tellez grants that Olivo did lose his first title bid, against Hilario Zapata in Panama City two years later. “But Joey was ill,” he said. “He weighed 104 pounds for the fight, 97 after.”

The politics of boxing, however, are such that the strange thing about Olivo’s career is not that it took him so long to get a title bout but that he ever got a second. The WBA in particular has a South American bias and there are plenty of South American contenders, or, if necessary, Asians, to compete for its title.

Not only did Olivo find a title fight elusive, but any fight at all. He once trained for nine months, never once getting a fight, for a title or anything. He got so depressed that he told his father he was hanging up the gloves. His father persuaded him not to.

All that kept him together were his family, a summer job at Lincoln Park, where he worked in a youth program, and Tellez, who runs a dental lab and who occasionally employed Olivo in the making of dental bridges, a nice sideline for a boxer, many would probably agree.

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Olivo and Tellez were smart enough to finally make their own break by enlisting the help of Los Angeles attorney Norm Kaplan, who managed Art Frias to a WBA lightweight title several years ago. Kaplan knows the ropes and which ones to pull. So it was that Tellez eventually got his second title shot.

Still, it wasn’t easy. The fight was originally scheduled for Miami in early February. Then it was postponed and Olivo, who was training there, came home. Then the fight was changed to Venezuela. Olivo was there a week when it was again postponed. Figuring it would eventually be rescheduled there, Olivo was left in Venezuela to continue training. He stayed five weeks before it was switched back to Miami. Funny what a guy will do for $2,600.

Olivo knows that it will not be any easier for him, now that he’s won a title. “I’ll be doing a lot of traveling,” he said. “But to me, it don’t really matter. I’ll go wherever the promoters find fights.”

He knows that being a champion in exile is extremely risky. “When you fight in your opponent’s country, you’re putting your title up for grabs. You feel so small out there, like everybody’s against you.”

But he does have some advantages. At 5-7 1/2 he is possibly the tallest fighter in his division. And his reach of 74 inches is the equal of middleweight champion Marvelous Marvin Hagler’s, suggesting he could move up. “But not to middleweight,” he said quickly.

Actually, it would be extremely difficult for him to move up, since he almost never, no matter how he gorges himself, tops 112 pounds.

“He eats whatever he wants,” said Tellez, disgusted. “Pies, ice cream. And he goes up to 106.” Of course, there’s a reason he doesn’t balloon. If Olivo were to get into the “Lose weight now, ask me how” business, he’d have to prescribe an entirely unwelcome workout.

According to Tellez, Olivo cannot be chased out of a gym. “If I tell him to stay home, he goes out and runs,” said Tellez. Of such perversity are champions made.


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