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Banke’s Big Bout : Azusa Boxer Tries to Stay Off Drugs, Win a WBC Title

Times Staff Writer

Attention screenwriters: Check out Bob Richardson and Paul Banke. As boxing’s odd couple, it works.

Richardson, 40, is a prosperous roofing contractor (200 employees) but is hooked on boxing. He runs an old-fashioned stable of fighters in the bouldered hills of western Riverside County.

Banke, 25, is a promising bantamweight, a little slugger who is a headliner at the Forum. He also admits he has a drug problem, and Richardson requires him to live on-site at the training camp and undergo unannounced, weekly drug tests.

Theme:

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These guys love and hate each other. They have been seen embracing each other, and screaming at each other. Richardson: “I’ve threatened a dozen times to give him the heave-ho, but I don’t think I could do it, and he knows I couldn’t do it.”

Plot point:

Up for grabs right now.

Richardson sat inside his motor home at his Quail Valley boxing compound and watched a landscaper with a tape measure take notes while studying the bare ground at his boxing compound.

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“They’re coming in with rolls of grass in a couple of days, we’ll finally have something green to look at here,” he said. Then he shook his head at the thought of the bills.

“My wife keeps asking me why I keep putting money into this operation. I’ve sunk about $350,000 in this operation, and I don’t know if I’ll ever break even.”

Richardson calls his boxing business All-Heart Boxing. He manages, trains, feeds, houses and generally nursemaids boxers. It all started when he was just a fan.

“I used to go to the fight shows in Riverside with my employees,” he said. “I’d buy 30 and 40 tickets per show. I met a few fighters, and got to know Al Long, my welterweight. He wasn’t happy with his manager, so I offered to take him over, not really knowing what a boxing manager was supposed to do.”

Long, 26, is one of four All-Heart boxers. He’s the No. 1-ranked International Boxing Federation welterweight and meets champion Simon Brown April 27 at London.

Heavyweight Levi Billups, 27, cast adrift when the United States Football League folded five years ago (he was a Los Angeles Express linebacker), is a former California heavyweight champion and may be George Foreman’s next opponent.

Russell Mitchell, 31, is a Richardson junior-middleweight.

Then there’s Banke.

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In the early 1980s, he was a successful amateur flyweight in Azusa. He was thought to be a candidate for the 1984 U.S. Olympic team but lost to eventual gold medalist Steve McCrory in the Olympic trials. Being a slugger more than a boxer, Banke all along looked like a better pro prospect than an Olympic candidate.

“Paul was 12-3 when I bought his contract for $1,000,” Richardson said.

“I knew he had a drug history, I went in with my eyes open. But I also thought he had a lot of talent, that he could go places if he was guided right. And I knew that deep down he wanted to put his drug problem behind him.

“Right away, we got into some big arguments. I told him when he started with me that I didn’t think he was in good boxing shape, that he would kick . . . for three or four rounds, then run out of gas.

“We argued about that at first, but I convinced him I was right.

“We also got into some big arguments over drugs. In the beginning, before I invested a whole lot of time in Paul, I gave him every opportunity to tell me to . . . and leave. But he never did. We yell at each other for a few minutes, and that’s the end of it.

“Now, anyone who sees him at the Forum will tell you he’s as well-conditioned as anyone who regularly fights there.”

All-Heart boxers run every morning along a hilly 6.2-mile course near Canyon Lake. Richardson calls it quality running, not road work.

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“They don’t just put in time, they train to beat their best times on the course,” Richardson said.

“Paul’s best time now for the course is 36 minutes 18 seconds, which is a little better than a six-minutes-per-mile pace.”

Banke is a month away from his dream: A world title fight. On April 25, at the Forum, he meets Mexico’s Daniel Zaragoza, the World Boxing Council’s super-bantamweight champion. The WBC ranks Banke eighth.

Banke has become a Forum headliner. He won $100,000 for winning the Forum’s super-bantamweight tournament championship a year ago, and is a favorite of Forum owner Jerry Buss.

Richardson keeps his fingers crossed, knocks on wood and isn’t taking bets yet . . . but he thinks Banke may have turned his back on the drug scene.

Banke lives in his own trailer, with his girlfriend, at Richardson’s compound. And he’s confined to quarters.

Banke banks most of his boxing income; Richardson pays him a $100 weekly salary.

“He’s been clean for over 60 days, and for him that’s great,” Richardson said.

“I require him to live here, and that if he leaves he must let me know where he’s going and exactly when he’s coming back. I (drug) test him every week, and he goes to weekly meetings in Redlands.”

Richardson’s boxing compound is on 2 1/2 acres of a hillside, a few miles west of Interstate 15. In what was once a print shop building, Richardson has built a kitchen, small dormitory and gym.

He walks around the compound, carrying a cellular telephone, attending to the details of running a boxing stable--from ordering jumbo jars of peanut butter to negotiating for future fight dates.

“My wife and I were married four years ago and in that time, we’ve probably spent a total of six months together,” he said.

“I even wind up spending a lot of weekends out here, just cleaning up the place. My wife actually runs my roofing business.”

Even in Banke’s amateur days, coaches gave up trying to turn him into a boxer. He’s a slugger, a pure, flatfooted, leads-with-his-face puncher.

He sets up like a boxer, though, hands held high, against the cheekbones. Guys such as Banke used to be introduced by ring announcers as " . . . and in the red corner, never in a dull fight . . . “

In his last appearance, a Jan. 9 brawl against Ramiro Adames in the Forum, Banke left them standing and cheering for more after an exciting sixth-round TKO victory.

Going into his title bout against Zaragoza, he is 17-3 with 10 knockouts.

Despite the success in the ring, he has struggled with drugs.

“It all started after I won my third pro fight, in Las Vegas,” he said.

“I came home, to Azusa, and for the first time in my life I had real money in my pocket, about $1,500. I went to a party to celebrate and got involved with some bad stuff.

“It became the thing to do. I kept telling myself I wasn’t addicted, but I was.”

After his first six pro bouts, Banke tried to run away from his drug problem. He moved to Blythe, but the climate was not any better.

“It was the same . . . drugs were just as prevalent there. I knew I had a real problem, then. And I knew it was a problem I couldn’t run away from.”

Banke, after having gone through two managers, was hired by Richardson as a sparring partner for his bantamweight at the time, Jorge Diaz. Banke turned Diaz inside out, and Richardson signed Banke.

Banke has won five straight since he was stopped in the seventh round by Jesus Poll a year ago at the Forum.

“That’s a guy I want again, Poll,” Banke said. “That was when I wasn’t taking care of myself, I wasn’t in good shape. Since then, Bob has shown me I have to pay the price.”

Banke blames some of his problems on amateur boxing.

“In 1983 and ’84, I was concentrating so much on making the Olympic team, I almost stopped going to school (Azusa High School). I traveled to nine countries my senior year, and never did get a diploma.”

He was asked if beating Zaragoza would make up for not making the 1984 Olympic team.

“That’s hard to say,” he said. “I cried so hard when Steve McCrory beat me in the trials that year. The only satisfaction I have now is that McCrory won the gold medal, so I can always say it took a gold medalist to keep me off the Olympic team.”

Of his relationship with Richardson, Banke described it pretty much as Richardson does.

“Sometimes it’s like a father-son relationship, or it’s like we’re pals,” he said. “But at other times, it’s like we’re enemies, when we’re yelling at each other.”


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