VIA MEXICO : Olympic Dream Was a Beginning for Hector Lopez

Times Staff Writer

Hector Lopez and Paul Gonzales, pals since they were 10, have a lot in common:

--They are of Mexican descent and grew up in Southern California boxing gyms.

--They shared the same dream: Boxing in the Olympic Games.

--They realized that dream in 1984, each winning a medal.

But as 1984 was closing in on them, Lopez became increasingly aware of a major difference between them. Gonzales was a Mexican-American. Lopez was a Mexican.

"I knew by late 1983 that unless I could get U.S. citizenship quickly, there was no use even thinking about representing the U.S. at the Olympics," Lopez said.

"Then someone raised the idea of my representing Mexico in the Olympics. I didn't know what to think, at first. I've lived in Glendale since I was 5. I didn't even speak much Spanish.

"I was asked to compete against the Mexico national amateur team early in '84, and I knocked out their bantamweight, Edgar Garcia, in 40 seconds.

"After that, people started seriously talking about me boxing for Mexico in the Olympics. The (coaches) still weren't sure how good I was, so they invited me to Mexico City to box Garcia again. So I went down there and knocked him out in the first round again."

The result of all this was that Lopez, a 17-year-old who had just completed his junior year at Glendale Hoover High School, wound up in the Olympics in a green shirt with "Mexico" on the front, and won a silver medal.

"I was the youngest guy in the whole tournament," he recalled the other day, after his 17th victory in 18 bouts as a pro.

"In '84, I started thinking for a while that the Mexican coaches didn't want me on their team after all.

"See, after I knocked Garcia out a second time, their coach told me: 'OK, you're on the team. Come to our Olympic training camp in Mexico City.' Then when I got there, they told me I had to beat one more guy before I was on the team.

"I was kind of upset, because they'd already told me I was on the team. I'd let my weight go up. I wasn't ready for another bout. So I boxed this guy, and I knocked him out in the second round."

For a few weeks, Hector Lopez, a Mexican, was a stranger in Mexico.

"It was strange at first, being around guys from another country, none of whom I knew. My Spanish was really bad, but it got better the longer I was there. At first, there were some bad feeling on the part of the Mexican boxers, like I wasn't really a Mexican. But I think they came to like me."

As it turned out, Lopez became Hoover High's and Mexico's only boxing medalist at the Olympics. He sailed through four preliminary bouts before losing a 4-1 decision in the gold medal bout to Italy's Maurizio Stecca. By the time the Olympic tournament reached the semifinals, pro boxing managers were following Lopez everywhere. Even Don King wanted to sign him up.

His pal from East Los Angeles, light-flyweight Paul Gonzales, won a gold medal for the United States.

"I was disappointed I didn't get the gold, but I also felt I'd done well," Lopez said. "After all, a lot of people in Glendale told me in early '84 that I was too young, that I should wait for the '88 Olympics. I told them all: 'Heck no, I'm going to be a pro world champion by '88.' "

He isn't, of course, but he still might make it.

When he knocked out Mexico's Oscar (Negro) Bejines at the Sports Arena on May 7, it wrapped up a World Boxing Assn. featherweight title challenge against Venezuela's Antonio Esparragoza, provided that Esparragoza beats Jose Marmolejos of Panama in Spain today. Azteca Promotions wants to put together a Lopez-Esparragoza bout at the Sports Arena this summer.

More importantly, Lopez's victory over Bejines stamped him as a courageous boxer, the kind who can stoke the flames and turn the tide of battle. After six rounds against the more experienced, more technically sound Bejines, most ringsiders had Lopez trailing decisively. On The Times' card, he'd lost every round.

But early in the seventh, Lopez broke Bejines' nose with a hard left hook. Bejines, bleeding, came apart quickly, and Lopez took him out in the ninth. "I felt strong against Bejines, but I wasn't sharp early in the fight," Lopez said. "I hadn't fought since last October and that was a 2-round fight, when I won the finals (against George Navarro) of the Stroh's tournament at the Forum. I need to fight often. The busier I am, the better I am.

"I started tightening up my defense in the fifth round (against Bejines), and it started working then. Also, I started double-jabbing and stepping to the right, and that worked. I thought I'd turned the fight around in the fifth, before I broke his nose."

Lopez's Forum win over Navarro last fall, incidentally, avenged the only loss on his record, a decision in 1986.

Lopez's trainer is Gordon Wheeler, who still remembers the day 11 years ago when Lopez first walked into the Glendale Salvation Army Gym, dragging his gym bag.

"Even at 10, you could see he had it," Wheeler said. "He was a tiny little guy, but scrappy, and with a driving desire to do well. Even at that age, he was a quick learner. I knew he'd be a good one."

Before May 7, some wondered why Wheeler would chance a bout with the dangerous Bejines, who was 35-4-2 going in.

"Some people were surprised we took that bout," Wheeler said. "But I told them all that Hector wants to be a world champion and that we both knew if he couldn't beat Bejines, he sure as hell couldn't beat Esparragoza."

Going into the Bejines fight, all of boxing's three governing bodies had Lopez ranked among the world's best featherweights. The WBA, which recognizes Esparragoza as champion, had Lopez ranked fifth; the World Boxing Council ranked him second behind its champion, Jeff Fenech, and the International Boxing Federation, whose champion is Calvin Grove, ranked him third.

All three organizations have Lopez ranked ahead of Stecca, who beat Lopez in the Olympics. Lopez is in the process of obtaining U.S. citizenship through the federal amnesty program and his career plan is to win the WBA featherweight championship, then abandon it. He won his Olympic silver medal at 119 pounds, but four years later he struggles to make 126.

He explained all this somewhat solemnly in a Glendale restaurant the other day, while wolfing down a slice of chocolate cake, topped with ice cream and chocolate sauce.

"I'll have to get down to 126 for Esparragoza, and it won't be easy," he said. "But I'll knock him out. After that, I want to go up to junior lightweight (130). Eventually, I think I'll fight at junior welterweight."

And never, he says, will there be a Hector Lopez-Paul Gonzales fight. Friends don't fight, he says.

"Paul and I are really close, really tight," he said. "We'd never want to fight. We work out together a lot, but that's different. We're almost like partners. Besides, he's too small."

On the other hand, beating Esparragoza, he said, will be a welcome task.

"I've never seen him fight, but I've sparred with him and I don't like him," he said. "We were sparring in the Resurrection Gym in East L.A. a year ago when he was training to fight Stevie Cruz, and he was holding and hitting. We both got pretty mad. I know he remembers that I was stronger that day. He knows I'm going to beat him."

According to Lopez, though, the real fighter in the family is his mother, Lucinda. She was separated from his father in Mexico City when she brought her four small sons to Glendale 16 years ago.

One son is a meat cutter, another is a cook and another is a construction worker. And Hector, the youngest, may soon be a world boxing champion.

"My mom is quite a lady," Lopez said. "She raised all four of us. For years, she took any job she could get, and made sure all of us went to school. She went to nursing school at nights, and now she's a private nurse."

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