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Chance of a Lifetime : Junior-Middleweight Norris Trains in Campo, Calif., for Shot at Leonard

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On Dec. 5, 1875, a shoot-out occurred at the town store and blacksmith shop in Campo, Calif. It was Southern California’s version of the Gunfight at the OK Corral.

Seems a Mexican bandit, Pancho Lopez, was rustling cattle off ranches along the U.S.-Mexico border. At Campo, one mile north of the border and 50 miles east of San Diego, Lopez and his gang tried to hold up the Campo store, owned by the brothers Lumen and Silas Gaskill.

The Gaskills suddenly produced loaded shotguns. After the 10-minute shoot-out, six members of the Lopez gang were dead, along the banks of Campo Creek. Lumen Gaskill was shot through one lung, but lived.

Lopez was shot through the neck during his escape, lingered for a year and died. Three in his gang were captured and lynched by Campo citizens the next day.

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As far as anyone knows, that’s the last time Campo made page one. But if Terry Norris upsets Sugar Ray Leonard in New York on Feb. 9, Campo might make it back to prime time. And maybe this time there will be a victory parade that would, no doubt, wind past the Gaskill brothers’ store, which still stands.

On some cold, crisp mornings, Norris’ roadwork route takes him past the stone-walled, fortress-like store the brothers built after the shoot-out, to better protect them from future bandits.

Norris is based at the nearby First Fighter Squadron Ranch, where he prepares himself for the kind of opportunity most pro boxers only dream about.

Terry Wayne Norris, 23-year-old junior-middleweight, was one of boxing’s more obscure champions until last November. Leonard’s Washington lawyer/manager, Mike Trainer, called Norris’ manager, Joe Sayatovich.

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“Trainer and I had talked about a fight for quite a while,” Sayatovich said. “One day Trainer called and said: ‘OK, Ray wants to do it, so get on a plane and come to Washington and we’ll put it together.”

And so opportunity dropped out of the sky on a young man from Lubbock, Tex., who lacked fame despite having a championship belt. He will get that fame, he says, by beating Leonard.

It’s an improbable setting, in remote eastern San Diego County. On rolling, bouldered highlands, manzanita and scrub oak grow and mountain lions prowl in the cold nights. Here, a fighter hones mind and body, preparing to meet one of boxing’s most celebrated champions.

Norris is 26-3, lives in nearby Alpine, and has fought most of his career in San Diego, Las Vegas and the Forum, but is still relatively unknown to West Coast boxing followers because the two major fights in his career have been held far away.

He won his World Boxing Council junior-middleweight championship last March in Tampa, when he knocked out John Mugabi in one round. His only defense, last July, was in Paris, where he won a decision over Rene Jacquot. It is Norris’ championship Leonard wants in their Madison Square Garden fight.

Since he came back from a 5 1/2-year absence in 1987 to upset Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Leonard, 32, has fought three times. Leonard has earned more than $100 million--more than any other fighter--in a career dating to the 1976 Olympics. So one can assume he hand-picked Norris as an opponent, with some certainty he can beat him.

“I know he picked me to fight because he’s sure he can beat me, but I know for a fact he can’t beat me,” Norris said the other day.

“But that doesn’t bother me, doesn’t motivate me more. The minute I heard the fight was on, I was ready to go to work. I’m a pro. This is my big break, the big chance I’ve been working for all these years.”

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Norris will earn about $500,000 Feb. 9, about 10% of what Leonard will make. Norris is an exceptionally fast-handed boxer who throws excellent combinations and body punches. Perhaps his best weapon is a left hook he throws when his opponent is backing up.

It’s the punch that brought him his championship. A left hook to the temple rocked Mugabi as he was backing up to the ropes in the first round of their fight March 31. Mugabi was then knocked down twice, and the championship changed hands.

Norris is trained by Abel Sanchez and his father, Orlin Norris, whose oldest son, Orlin, Jr., is a heavyweight who trains alongside Terry.

The elder Orlin is also the boxing training camp director and cook at the First Fighter Squadron Ranch. He raised two sons and four daughters in Lubbock by working in a cotton processing plant, or until he lost his job two years ago.

Now, he rules the roost in the ranch’s 100-year-old, stone-walled cowboy house. The cook makes the rules. A sign on the kitchen wall reads:

“We are adults. If you make a mess, small or large, clean it up. Your mother or maid do not live here. And if you see something in the refrigerator going bad, by all means throw it out.”

Items found in great quantity, on the kitchen shelves: Cans of tuna, chicken chili and corn; picante sauce, corn bread mix and one 58-ounce bottle of mouth wash. The sparring partners, it’s explained, have bad breath.

Orlin Sr. fixes breakfast and dinner. Recent dinner menu: Catfish and cabbage, corn bread, pasta salad.

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To Orlin Norris, there is supreme irony in the fact his son is preparing to fight Leonard.

“Ray was Terry’s idol growing up, he was a guy Terry was always emulating. He’s always thought of himself as a Leonard type of fighter--quick, hard-hitting, style, good defense . . . but he sees a great opportunity here, and he’s going to beat Ray.”

The three Norrises have been studying videotapes of Leonard fights.

“We’re sure Ray will come out aggressively, try to show Terry immediately that he’s boss,” Orlin Sr. said. “But when he finds out how strong Terry is, he’ll back off. And when he starts backing up, that’s when Terry will get to him.”

Sayatovich, 50, who also manages Norris’ brother, grew up on a farm near Zanesville, Ohio, but was shipped out to San Diego by the Navy in 1958.

After his four-year hitch, in the early 1960s, he started hanging dry wall for San Diego home builders. Then he went into the dry wall business for himself, and hired one employee. A couple of years ago, he had 450. Now he has 100. He also had a helicopter. Now he just has a helicopter pad.

“The housing construction business is lousy now, but it’s cyclical--it’ll bounce back,” he said. “In the summer of ’89 we were hanging 4,000 to 5,000 sheets a day. Now it’s a fraction of that.’

Sayatovich, who also runs several hundred head of cattle on leased cattle lands east of the 30-acre ranch he bought 15 years ago, says the boxing business is lousy, too.

“I’ve been doing this (managing boxers) for five years now, and my partners and I have lost money in boxing right up to today,” he said. “I just enjoy the fights, and I like being around the (fighters).

“I like being part of Terry getting himself ready to fight Leonard . . . it gets a little more exciting every day as the fight gets closer. And I really think he’s going to beat Sugar Ray. I really get excited thinking about that.”

When one of his fighters is in serious training for a fight, the ranch’s house fills up with $600-a-week sparring partners.

“When Terry or Orlin are in serious training like this, it costs me about $20,000 a month, what with sparring partners, room and board, plane tickets and all that,” Sayatovich said.

Sayatovich lives in a new home on the ranch, and commutes to his office in Lakeside. Terry Norris and his wife, Kelly, and their three-month-old son, Terry II, live in an Alpine apartment, 15 miles away. Orlin lives in La Mesa with his wife, LaRonda, and 1-year-old daughter Nikki.

Sayatovich is a student of his 30-acre ranch, which is part of what once was the Big Springs Ranch, a 400-acre spread homesteaded by Sam W. Cameron more than a century ago.

The ranch is about four air miles from the U.S.-Mexico border. Some parts of Campo are only a few hundred yards from the border.

“I have Sam Cameron’s diaries, and he wrote about 40-foot-deep snowdrifts here in the winter of 1881,” Sayatovich said. “He refers to the spring across the road a lot, and it still flows freely, even in the drought.”

What happens if his fighter beats Leonard?

“I’ll lean back for 30 days and wait for the phone to ring,” he said. “We’d probably want to first unify the junior-middleweight (154 pounds) championship, then maybe step up to Michael Nunn.”


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