RODOLFO GONZALEZ WAS ONCE ON TOP OF THE WORLD : Now He Helps Others on Their Way Up

Times Staff Writer

A sense of pride came over Rodolfo Gonzalez as he pointed to the top line of a poster hanging on the back wall of the Logan Youth and Family Services center.

It read: March 17, 1973 at the Los Angeles Sports Arena: Rodolfo Gonzalez (WBC champion) vs. Ruben Navarro. Roberto Duran (WBA champion) vs. Javier Ayala.

"I was the star that night," Gonzalez said. "I was ahead of all of them."

Gonzalez, the World Boxing Council lightweight champion from 1972 to 1974, was 61-7 with 50 knockouts. However, he was continually overshadowed by the more charismatic Roberto Duran, the champion of the more prominent World Boxing Assn. lightweight division.

As Jackie McCoy, Gonzalez's manager, said in 1973: "Maybe if Rodolfo was nasty to everybody or if he robbed a bank or broke up a saloon he'd be more popular."

Actually, what Gonzalez needed most to gain in esteem was a fight with Duran. It never happened. Duran invited Gonzalez to tour the bars Duran owned in Panama, but he never agreed to a fight.

"I challenged him," Gonzalez said. "He never gave me the chance. I did ask him for a fight (in 1974). He (Duran) was real tough, but I had all the confidence in the world. I believed I could beat him."

McCoy thinks his fighter at least should have been given a chance.

"I don't say who would have won, but Duran would have had a tough fight," McCoy said. "Rodolfo at his best would be a tough fight for any lightweight."

Unlike Duran, Gonzalez never became a household name or a fighter who earned a million dollars-plus per fight. On the contrary. At the time Gonzalez came to the United States from Mexico with 39 knockouts and 40 wins in 41 fights, he was offered only $800--and paid only $27 for his first fight in the United States.

"He (Gonzalez) was a real, real strong guy for a lightweight," McCoy said. "A devastating body puncher."

In the ring, Gonzalez was a defensive fighter who methodically destroyed opponents. But he didn't have the flair of Duran.

"He really never has had that much recognition," McCoy said. "I think he was a lot better fighter than he was given credit for."

Outside the ring, Gonzalez is a soft-spoken, religious man who says his goal is to "help his fellow man."

The first thing he did after winning the championship was buy a house for his mother in Tijuana. For a very poor boy from a family of seven who grew up in Guadalajara, being able to pay $19,000 in cash for his mother's house was a special achievement. For years, when he lived in Long Beach, Gonzalez worked as a volunteer with the L.A. Police Dept.

Since moving to San Diego with his wife and four children seven years ago, Gonzalez has been active in the community.

He organized a Youth Superstars Sports Fest in 1980. Then, for four years, he worked with Project Jove in the rehabilitation of criminals after their release from prison.

"It was tough at times, but it was a very rewarding job," Gonzalez said. "I've worked with thousands of people. I'm not exaggerating. They're like family. They're good people. They need a chance."

When funding for Project Jove was cut, Gonzalez was out of a job.

Since 1985, Gonzalez has been working for the South Bay Drug Abuse Services in Chula Vista. For the past eight months, he has also volunteered to work with teen-age boxers five afternoons a week at the Logan Youth and Family Services in Logan Heights, where the boxing equipment consists of a ring without mats and a beat-up punching bag.

"I help keep the kids off the streets," said Gonzalez, who weighs 149 pounds, only 14 more than his fighting weight.

But helping others doesn't pay the bills. Gonzalez, 41, estimates that he earned about $1.5 million during his boxing career.

But Gonzalez lost $300,000 in an investment in a motel in Las Cruces, N.M., seven years ago. The Gonzalez family moved from Truth or Consequences, N.M., to San Diego for a change of scenery and to be closer to his mother in Tijuana.

"We're not totally broke, but we're not rich either," Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez and his wife, Martha, both work. He has earned what he calls "fast money" by taking bit parts in 15 films and television shows.

"In some parts, I get killed before I start talking," he said.

His jobs are an indication of just how far Gonzalez has come since the time he had to sign his first boxing contract in the United States by marking an "X."

"It was really embarrassing," said Gonzalez, who later attended Long Beach City College for two years.

Gonzalez also is selling videocassettes of his first championship fight against Chango Carmona, and he says he's trying to secure contracts for a book and movie about his career.

It's a career that was certainly filled with twists and intrigue.

This is a man who lost his title in 1974 when he was unable to recover from a spider bite suffered while working in his garden.

When he was 18, Gonzalez had pains in his liver and he said he was diagnosed as having cancer. It turned out to be tonsillitis.

"He told me something like that," McCoy said. "He must have had a quack if he was told he had cancer and it turned out he had bad tonsils."

Gonzalez said he had to take two years off from professional boxing.

"Some doctors gave me eight months to a year to live (because of his diagnosed cancer)," Gonzalez said. "I went to a lot of doctors (in Mexico and Los Angeles). One doctor in Las Vegas said it was too late to operate. Everybody knew I was going to die. I was so sick I could hardly walk. One time, when I was coming back from Los Angeles on the bus, I felt like I was going back to Tijuana to die with my mother."

But one day, after attending church in Tijuana, Gonzalez said he came across a sign that advertised doctor visits for $1.50. He went inside.

"His desk was really rundown," Gonzalez said. "I'm not even sure it had four legs."

After examining Gonzalez, the doctor told him he'd be fine if he had his tonsils taken out. It would cost $165.

"I was so happy, I was crying as I walked down the street shaking people's hands," Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez borrowed $165, promising the lender he would pay him back three times the amount of the loan. He had his tonsils removed at a clinic in Tijuana and was able to resume his boxing career.

Once he became a champion and was in the spotlight, Gonzalez went out of his way not to discuss his health problems.

"I kept most of it to myself," Gonzalez said. "I didn't want people to say I was a crybaby. In boxing, if you tell people you were sick, everyone wants to beat you up. You don't say that."

Still, for years, boxing managers and trainers considered Gonzalez to be a hypochondriac and they wondered about his dedication and heart.

"When I got him, all the matchmakers said, 'You're wasting your time with this guy,' " McCoy said. "(They said) 'He's the biggest headache.' So I told him from the beginning, 'Hey, Rodolfo, if you're gonna be with me, the only way you're ever gonna pull out of a fight is if you break a leg and I can see it's broken.' And he says, 'That's the way I want it.' I never had a problem with the guy. He worked hard.

"There's no telling how good he could have been," McCoy said. "If he would have been that dedicated earlier, he would have been a lot better."

Gonzalez signed with McCoy in 1971, and one year later, he became champion. Before joining forces with McCoy, Gonzalez was averaging $300 a fight. He got $6,000 for his first fight under McCoy.

"When I met Jack, I said you get me the fights, there will be no problem," Gonzalez said. "I didn't believe it when he got me a championship fight."

On Nov. 10, 1972, Gonzalez--a 3-1 underdog--won on a TKO in the 13th round over Carmona.

"No problem, no contest," Gonzalez said.

Because of his reputation for being ill, Gonzalez was called the "Walking Ghost" after he won the title.

McCoy said Gonzalez defended his title twice.

"It looked like no one could beat him," McCoy said.

Then came the bite.

After being bitten in his garden by a spider, Gonzalez had a 102-degree fever and "his leg was swollen and his knee looked like a basketball," McCoy said. While he was sick, Gonzalez went from 135 to 165 pounds.

"I told him, you're liable to eat yourself out of a lot of money," McCoy said.

In preparation for his title defense against Ishimatsu Suzuki in Tokyo, McCoy and Gonzalez went to Hawaii to work out in the humidity. Gonzalez lost 25 pounds in two weeks before the fight, and in doing so, became very weak.

One day while Gonzalez was running in Hawaii, McCoy said he really began to worry.

"Some little old lady was passing him," McCoy said. "I said, 'Rodolfo, this is getting embarrassing.' "

On April 11, 1974, Suzuki--ranked only seventh by the WBC--knocked Gonzalez down three times in the eighth round. The three-knockdown rule was in effect, and the fight ended at 2:12 of the round.

"He was like a shell of what he'd been in those other two (title defense) fights, " McCoy said

Despite losing, Gonzalez still has his championship belt.

"They never asked me for it, so I never gave it," he said.

Gonzalez and Suzuki met in a rematch later that year in Tokyo, Suzuki winning a TKO when Gonzalez suffered a severe cut over his eye.

It was an inauspicious finale for the former champion.

And the next months were not easy.

"After being on top of the world--hanging around with Ryan O'Neal, dinners here, invitations there--as soon as I lost, the phone stopped ringing," Gonzalez said.

After becoming restless and putting on weight, Gonzalez tried to get a fight as a welterweight in Mexico. When there were no fights, Gonzalez retired.

"I was so tired of boxing," Gonzalez said. "I made it. There was no sense going on."

But he has gone on.

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