A Can’t-Miss That Did--by Accident

What Sugar Ray Leonard was to the Montreal Olympics, or Muhammad Ali--then Cassius Clay--to the Rome Olympics, Paul Gonzales was to the Los Angeles Games.

The best fistfighter in the lists. The can’t-miss kid out of the barrios of East Los Angeles, a polished boxer and damaging puncher, wily, experienced (210 amateur fights), durable (never been knocked off his feet). He had it all going for him.

Next would come the million-dollar fights, the magazine covers, the movie about his life, the fast cars, the good life.


I had lunch with the once-and-future champ the other day, four years after his default victory in the Olympics. No heads turned in the restaurant. There were no autograph-seekers. He wasn’t trailed by a biographer or an entourage of hangers-on.

I thought he’d be flyweight or bantamweight champion of the world by now. He’d be Poundin’ Paulie or Go-Go Gonzales. He’d probably show up for the interview wearing an earring, a suit with sequins and enough gold to start a war.

I thought he’d have it made by now. Who was going to stop him? Isn’t that what Olympic gold medals are for? A springboard for young pugs on their way to fame and fortune in the prize ring? Isn’t that the way Floyd Patterson did it? Sugar Ray, the Spinks brothers, Ali, even Joe Frazier and Ingemar Johansson?

He had the requisite personal story, the kind the television anthologists love to take and run with. He ran with the gangs in his old neighborhood. He came out of the killing fields of East Los Angeles.

He made it clear to age 10 before he got a knife stuck in his ribs. By 13, he was picking shotgun pellets and glass shards out of his scalp with a pair of tweezers. The cops saw more of him than the schoolteachers. The only thing he ever read was his rights.

Into this picture stepped the tough street cop. It was an old heart-warming story right out of the Warner Bros. library. Al Stankie saw this kid was on a one-way street and at the other end was a cell door or a cyanide capsule.

“Hey, kid,” he said in his best Bogart snarl. “You think you’re so tough, why don’t you come down to the police station gym and show us how tough you really are--or aren’t?”

Most kids pass up this invitation. They prefer the kind of fighting where the ordnance is all on their side to the Marquess of Queensberry kind. They don’t like referees. They don’t like any kind of witnesses.

But little Paul showed up, all 100 pounds of him. He soon showed he would fight you all night if necessary. You had to kill him to beat him. But he wasn’t all macho bravado. “He had some moves and speed. He didn’t think it was unmanly to duck a punch,” recalls Stankie.

He fought all over the world--Moscow, Warsaw, New York. By the time the Olympics came around, he was America’s team, the pet of the sporting press, the darling of the fans at the Sports Arena boxing venue. He was a symbol.

He breezed through his five fights with a broken hand and a dislocated shoulder. One-handed, he was too much for the competition. He loved the limelight. He wasn’t your basic inarticulate brawler. He couldn’t quote Shakespeare but he was lively and bright in the interviews, and the public lapped it up.

It was going to be Sugar Ray Leonard deja vu. A few tuneup fights, then the big money on cable or network TV.

Only it wasn’t. He got one quick network shot at the Hollywood Palladium. He won--and he disappeared from view.

What happened?

Well, the story surfaced that Paul hadn’t gotten as far from the gangs as at first thought. There were rumors of drugs, rumors of his throwing in with ill-advisers. You had a picture of him sitting in a car with tears rolling down his cheeks mourning, “I coulda been a contendah!”

What happened to Paul Gonzales was nobody’s fault. What happened was your basic one-car accident, the one in which your own automobile runs over your own left leg as you try to steer it with your right one and find the brake.

It happened one day as he was in a hurry and he jumped into his stick-shift Corvette and accidentally kicked the gear knob with his knee. It put the car in gear and it took off with him half-in, half-out of the car.

He was the victim and perpetrator of a hit-and-run accident at the same time. The back wheel ran over his ankle and heel, breaking both and pinning his leg under the car for 20 minutes until he could be lifted out.

But that was only the major accident. There was also the time he was riding a bicycle down the Los Angeles River, the only river in the world where you can do that 10 months a year, and he hit a rock. That only broke a hip.

There was the fight against Javier Barajas in which they both started right hands at the same time. They both connected, only Gonzales hit the floor with his chin. He fought nine more rounds, won the fight, but afterward complained of dizziness and blurred vision and disorientation. Because he went to a hospital, a report was filed and he was suspended from the ring for three months.

“This is why I’m wearing this Temple of Doom T-shirt,” explains the former contender. “Whatever can happen, will happen to me. I’m going to have to live in one of those glass bubbles.”

The good news, Paul says, is, he’s not one of those pugilists who’s unhittable inside the ring and unmissable outside it. His problem does not come from a bottle or a needle, it comes from a wheel.

Not too many people need a comeback at the age of 24. Paul Gonzales does. He starts it May 23, at the Irvine Marriott, where he takes on Jorge Ortega of Mexico City in a 10-round super-flyweight encounter. It will only be his eighth professional prize fight.

“I hate to waste a gold medal,” he scowls. “I’d like to cash it in for a title and a million dollars, like all those other guys.”

If he does, the first thing he should get is not a fistful of rings or gold chains. He should get a chauffeur--and go on rivers that only take boats.