Fifty years ago, when boxing was a prominent professional sport in Los Angeles, Alexander the shoeshine boy would peer through a crack in the door of the Main Street Gym, straining for a glimpse of his heroes.
There was something about the smell of that old place, a combination of sweat and grime, that drew him there each afternoon. With every thud of the heavy bag, Alexander, who also sold newspapers to make ends meet, dreamed it was he who was about to knock out an opponent.
Alexander sold papers to Jimmy Doyle, who trained at the gym and later died from injuries suffered in a bout with Sugar Ray Robinson.
Doyle took a liking to the boy. Alexander, perhaps 10, lied about his age and Doyle took him inside the Main Street Gym one day. Alexander was awed. He wanted to be a boxer.
Soon, he was cutting school, spending more time inside the old place than outside with his boot polish and newspapers.
Alexander had potential and none of the old-timers on Main Street minded having him around. At 12, he quit school, and using another man’s identification card, fought his first professional bout under an assumed name.
“He was a nice kid,” said middleweight Red Shannon, one of the legions of local boxers who trained on Main Street. “He was a very good prospect.”
World War II came and the kid tried to enlist in the Army. He was 14. He got all the way through induction before the brass caught on. He objected. He wanted to go to war. His rejection slip read “demented.”
Four years later, fighting as a lightweight, he was one of L.A.'s biggest draws at both the old Olympic Auditorium and Hollywood Legion Stadium. He fought nearly 400 times. Now 60, a bit paunchy but every bit as savvy, Fabela Chavez (a.k.a. Alexander) stands inside the Carson boxing center that bears his name.
“It was a different city then,” he said. “Things have changed.”
But not that much has changed for Fabela. He is still handsome, though his hair is now silver. In Ring magazine photographs from the 1940s and ‘50s, jet-black strands dangle over his youthful forehead. Now, dark eyebrows are all that remain.
Knockout magazine called him “one of (L.A.'s) top drawing cards,” but when he retired in 1957, Chavez vowed to stay away from the ring for good.
And he did--for more than 20 years. He was a meat packer and salesman, and worked in a steel factory for a while. Nothing seemed to keep his interest for long.
Now he stands next to the sparring ring in the Fabela Chavez Boxing and Weightlifting Center, which he runs full-time.
“Why did I take this job?,” he said. “I love (boxing). But this is a crazy business.”
Nine years ago, the city leased a corrugated steel warehouse that had housed a glass company. It wasn’t pretty, at the rear of Carlos’ Market on the corner of Carson and Ravenna, but it would do. City fathers saw a lot of talent in the barrios nearby. Give the kids something to keep them off the streets. The Parks and Recreation Commission put Chavez’ name on it.
“He was well-liked,” said Danny Cisneros, a department supervisor, who recalled that Chavez was a little surprised when he heard the news.
No surprise to boxing old-timers. In his career, which spanned more than 16 years, “Fabulous Fabela” fought often. His promoter, George Parnassus, once had Chavez fight two bouts a week for eight weeks during a swing along the East Coast.
March, 1951. Knockout magazine: “Here’s every fight fan’s favorite because he can box and he can punch with either hand.”
Although he packed the arenas, Chavez never held a title. But he was packing in the bucks. He was guaranteed $10,000 a fight in his early 20s. His biggest purse was $53,000 against Tommy Collins in 1951.
Said Shannon, the former fighter who is now a trainer: “They worked him too fast. He was only 18 and he was fighting 10-round bouts. If this kid had been taken care of like he should’ve been, he would have been a world champ.”
Chavez said: “I would walk around the streets of L.A. and if I had less than $500 in my pocket, I would think I was going broke.
“People ask me, what did you do with all that money, spend it on booze and women? Naw. Women, yes, but I wasn’t much for booze.”
Chavez gave a lot of it away, too.
“Loans,” he said. “Friends would borrow it from me. Never pay me back.”
So Chavez, who has no formal training as an administrator, attempts to pay back the sport that was so good to him, working sometimes 10 to 12 hours a day.
The biggest criticism, according to Cisneros and others, is that Chavez hasn’t turned out a great number of boxing stars. They say that his center is perceived in the community as just a free place to lift weights.
“He has a limited staff. He relies on a lot of volunteers,” parks and recreation’s Cisneros said. “The weightlifting is secondary. We want him to focus on the boxing.”
Chavez said that about 125 people a day pass through the center, many to lift weights. But he said seniors and the handicapped also use the facility and no one pays a cent. He did acknowledged, however, that he is aware of some of the city’s concerns.
But boxing isn’t a cure-all for neighborhood ills, Chavez said.
“Youths need to learn discipline here,” he said. “There’s no discipline in the home no more. Both parents today work. They can’t control the children. They come home from work and they’re tired. . . .
“When I accepted this job, I told (the city) that it was not for boxing. I took it to give the kids exercise and to teach them discipline. If they want to learn about boxing, they first got to learn discipline.”
Chavez forbids gang activities inside. Loitering is prohibited.
“You don’t have workout clothes on, I don’t want you in here.”
The kids seem to respect that.
“You see the graffiti outside this place?” he asked. Every wall on the street outside needed a good sandblasting.
“They don’t do that to my building. I guess that is out of respect. Could you imagine what this place would be like if they didn’t have that respect for it?”
Chavez rolled his eyes.
Money woes threaten the center. Some of the same city fathers who put Chavez’s name on the building now want to close it. A budget deficit as high as $3.7 million means big-time cuts in city services. The boxing center budget eats more than $100,000 a year.
If the center is closed in June, when the lease expires, Chavez will probably keep his job. There is talk of moving the center to the recently completed Veterans Park on 223rd Street where there is a 7,000-square-foot gymnasium, one-third larger than the present building. But complaints by homeowners nearby have put a damper on that idea, according to Chavez. An alternative is to send Chavez on the road as a roving instructor.
That prospect wouldn’t be good for the kids in the area, said Chavez, who said he made enough moves inside a boxing ring to last a lifetime.
Who knows, he wonders aloud. What would become of all those little Alexanders out there if they had no place to go?