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Deadly Combination? : Boxing Officials Examine Connection Between Fighters Who Die in the Ring and Fathers Who Work Their Corners

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Johnny Owen died Nov. 3, 1980, 45 days after Lupe Pintor had knocked him out in the 12th round of a bantamweight championship fight at the Olympic Auditorium.

Owen was 24.

Kiko Bejines died Sept. 4, 1983, three days after Albert Davila had floored him in the 12th round of their bantamweight title bout at the Olympic.

Bejines was 20.

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Rico Velazquez died Aug. 20, 1988, one day after he had collapsed in Round 8 of a lightweight fight against David Gonzales in San Jose.

Velazquez was 22.

The fighters shared a tragedy trinity--youth, boxing, death. They also had another thing in common:

All were trained by their fathers.

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Coincidence?

Jimmy Garcia died May 19, 1995, 13 days after his junior-lightweight title fight against Gabriel Ruelas had been stopped in the 11th round at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.

Garcia was 23.

Garcia was trained by his brother and father.

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Coincidence?

On Sept. 21, 1991, El Paso bantamweight Fernie Morales fell into a coma after his bantamweight fight against Orlando Canizales in Indio.

After undergoing surgery to remove a blood clot from his brain, Morales survived and retired.

His trainer?

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His father.

Coincidence?

Many don’t think so.

Prompted by Garcia’s death last May, the California Athletic Commission conducted a preliminary inquiry into California ring injuries since 1980.

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It was discovered that four of the seven most serious head injuries reviewed--including all three California ring-related deaths--involved fighters whose fathers worked their corners.

Richard DeCuir, the commission’s executive director, admits the examination was not scientific--"The numbers have not been scrubbed,” he said--yet the findings struck him as alarmingly disproportionate, given the best estimates that only 5%-7% of professional fighters are trained by relatives.

DeCuir cannot speak to the specifics of each case nor is it his intention to implicate families that have already suffered, yet he suspects there is a correlation between ring injuries and relatives.

“I think we all pretty much believe that,” DeCuir said.

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DeCuir sent his information to Marc Ratner, head of the Nevada State Commission, who is still grappling with Garcia’s death in May.

“It’s something we have no choice but to address, because it is more than coincidence,” Ratner said of the father-son issue.

Boxing history is strewn with flawed father-and-son stories.

“I’d say 95% of the time, it doesn’t work,” Steve Farhood, editor in chief of Ring magazine, said.

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There were Tony Ayala and son Antonio, trained like a pit bull for battle until he self-destructed and landed in prison on rape and burglary charges; Roy Jones and Roy Jones Jr., who recently broke his father’s shackles--Roy Sr. once shot Junior’s Rottweiler with a 9mm pistol--and realized greatness; Joe Frazier and son Marvis, thrown like fresh meat into the ring against Larry Holmes and Mike Tyson; Jack and Jerry Quarry, and the Czyzes, Robert and Bobby.

But whereas father-son teams have long been fraught with turmoil, observers now wonder whether the combination can be dangerous--or even deadly.

“You can’t look away from that,” Robert Karns, chairman of the state commission’s physicians’ advisory committee, said.

The questions:

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--Does the father want the son to win so badly it affects his judgment?

--Is he living his own dreams through his son?

--Is the son less likely to give up in a one-sided fight, knowing he would be failing not only his trainer, but his father?

--Is the son who is, in some cases, the family’s meal ticket, under more pressure to succeed? To stand in there and take a beating?

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Owen and Morales had never been knocked down before, Bejines only twice.

“It’s like a surgeon who operates on his son or daughter,” Czyz said of the father’s perspective. “They cannot be totally objective.”

Antonio Curtis, longtime matchmaker for Forum Boxing Inc., has long been wary of father-trainers.

“Some are too protective, some are not protective enough,” he said. “Some think the kid is better than he is. They become blinded. They keep wishing for that miracle punch. And maybe it’s the fighter who doesn’t want to be an embarrassment to the dad. But it’s usually nothing but problems.”

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Czyz, the former International Boxing Federation light-heavyweight champion, still has nightmares about the father who pushed him between the ropes.

“You’ve heard of the Menendez brothers?” Czyz said. “I watched that trial, and I said, ‘I know that guy [Jose, the father].’ He’s not even as big a jerk as my father was. My father drove harder, and longer and more viciously than that man ever would. And nobody shot him. Although I thought about it.”

Robert Sr. beat Bobby to the draw. After an argument in June 1983, Bobby awoke the next morning to find his father dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

The father-son debate has caused division in the boxing community.

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The World Boxing Council actually has a rule that prohibits a father or close relative from working as a “chief second” in bouts sanctioned by the organization.

But the WBC’s board of governors can grant special dispensations and one was given last May to Jimmy Garcia, who was trained by his brother, Manuel Jr., and father.

Garcia died of a blood clot suffered in the 11th-round loss to Ruelas, a fight Garcia, from Colombia, had no reasonable expectation of winning. Though outclassed and overmatched by Ruelas, Garcia was pushed relentlessly by his corner.

“They were certainly pushing Jimmy,” Ratner conceded. “The thing is, I don’t want to say anything really harsh, because they already had the biggest loss they could have.”

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Ratner said many unsolved questions remain about Garcia’s death, but acknowledged that the WBC regretted its decision to allow the Garcia family in the corner.

“They’re looking at that rule quite a bit more now, and they’re saying they should not have allowed it,” Ratner said.

Manuel Garcia, Jimmy’s brother, who was criticized in the Colombian press after the fight, said no one was to blame for his brother’s tragedy.

“Boxing is one of the hardest sports,” Manuel said in May as his brother lay in a coma in a Las Vegas hospital. “Sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose. Sometimes you get a knockout, and sometimes you get knocked out. You can lose your life in the ring. Fighters know this can happen. It was an accident.”

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Many in the sport say relatives do not have the detachment necessary to make crucial heat-of-battle decisions.

“A relative of a fighter loses perspective of the whole thing because he gets too emotional,” said Miguel Diaz, who assisted in Garcia’s corner on May 6. “They either throw them to the lions or they overprotect them.”

Diaz did not blame the corner for Garcia’s death but added, “I’m against having the father or the brother working the corner of the fight, no question about it.”

There have been successful fighter-relative teams:

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--Terry and Orlin Norris won titles under the guidance of Orlin Sr., their father-trainer.

--Rudy Hernandez guided brother Genaro to a long reign as a junior-lightweight champion.

--Ham Johnson and son Mark, a fast-rising flyweight team from Washington, D.C., are pressing for a title fight.

--Danny Romero and father Danny Sr. have teamed to win the IBF flyweight title.

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“It’s a myth to say that the father can’t do it,” Danny Sr. said.

Romero was surprised when told of the California Commission findings regarding head injuries.

“You would think that it would be the other way,” he said, “that you would overprotect, you know, see a little bit of blood and then step right in.”

Romero does not deny there are overbearing parents in boxing. He just doesn’t consider himself one of them.

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“If you look into boxing real, real deep, it’s all fathers and sons until they get to the pros,” he said.

At that point, most fathers turn their sons over to more accomplished corner men.

And those who don’t?

“They kind of assume this role of dictator,” Czyz said of fathers. “I’ve seen it happen many, many times, and it causes tremendous rifts.”

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Czyz had outside trainers after he turned professional, but never was able to shake the grip of his father.

Starting when he was 10, Czyz said, he was “beaten and bred to be a fighter.”

Two younger brothers followed.

“We were told we would box until he said stop. There was no choice.”

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Czyz said his father’s taunts haunted him in the ring, never more so than at the 1977 junior Olympics, when the young Czyz was being berated while losing a fight to a lesser opponent.

“I was mortified,” Czyz recalled. “I hit the kid with a left hook in the third round and [knocked him out]. That’s all I remember about the fight, hitting him with that left hook, and my father’s voice.”

Romero said he is living proof that father-son teams can work.

The key to success?

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“I never wanted Danny to fight,” said Romero Sr., a professional trainer since 1985.

“He came along, he came to the gym wanting to be a boxer. My father never let me fight. He was a fighter himself. I think if my dad would have let me fight, I think I would have steered my son way away from it.”

Ham Johnson said the relationship can work if there are ground rules.

“As an amateur, I was the boss,” Ham said. “Now that he’s professional, I work for him [Mark]. I had to take a back seat. We’re not father and son anymore. I’m a boxing coach. I’m a manager, I’m his walking buddy, I’m his friend. We can say almost anything to each other. We yell, we bark at each other like good buddies do but we go right back together.”

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Ham and Mark have talked about facing a dangerous situation together in the ring.

Mark Johnson says he not only believes his father will do the right thing, but has instructed him to do so.

“The Jimmy Garcia fight was a terrible situation,” Mark said. “If I’m in that situation, stop the fight. If I’m in a situation where I’m getting beat bad, and have no way of winning the fight, stop it. There are other fights. That’s mandatory.”

Jack Mosley, father-trainer of promising Pomona lightweight Shane, rejects the idea that he can’t be unbiased.

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“I have a brain, I can see, I’m calm, I’m collected, I can be objective,” Jack said.

Shane agreed, saying, “I believe my father would stop the fight before I would stop the fight.”

Longtime observers tell different stories.

Don Chargin, a veteran West Coast promoter, remembers a fighter who was sick to his stomach before a fight but went into the ring because he feared the wrath of his father.

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“I said, ‘If someone else was your trainer, would you have said something,’ and he said, ‘Oh, yeah.’ ”

Then there was the father who demanded “tougher” fights for his untested son.

Chargin knew tougher to be a code word for fights with bigger paydays.

Although he was not in attendance the night Mexico’s Bejines suffered fatal head injuries at the Olympic, Chargin promoted several of Bejines’ fights and recalls the relationship between father and son.

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“Stormy, very stormy,” Chargin said. “The whole family pushed those kids. There were three brothers that boxed. They were all unhappy young kids.”

Diaz once trained Pedro De Cimas, a world champion super-bantamweight from Argentina.

“He never wanted to be a fighter,” Diaz said. “His father was the one who pushed him--pushed and pushed and pushed.”

Diaz said De Cimas’ father trained roosters for cock fighting.

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“Good thing his father wasn’t his boxing trainer,” Diaz said.

Czyz, who recently sold a movie script of his life story, says that fathers rarely know best in boxing.

“He always had my best interests at heart,” Czyz said of his dad. “But he couldn’t help his emotions. His emotions were always tied to me, and therefore his judgment was always clouded.”

Yet, despite the WBC’s efforts to control father-son teams, and mounting evidence that they may be dangerous, DeCuir said the California commission has no plans to ban relatives in the ring.

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“You can look at it and say, ‘We shouldn’t be allowing this,’ ” he said. “In all reality, I’m saying you probably won’t see a change. It would be awfully hard to say your father cannot be your trainer.”

DeCuir said there are other factors to consider.

“We believe much injury occurs outside the ring, outside the bout itself,” he said. “And just because you don’t have the father, or brother on the apron during that fight, that doesn’t mean you’re providing a better level of protection.”

DeCuir said the answers are education and awareness. He said his referees have to be more mindful when working father-son fights and be prepared to stop a fight one round too early rather than one too late.

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Karns, the ring doctor, also is not in favor of change.

“I tend to think, just make it as safe as you can,” Karns said. “I’m not sure you legally could ban it.”

That does not stop Karns from going on red alert every time he works a father-son bout.

“By the way,” he warns officials beforehand, “this is a guy with a father in the corner.”

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Ratner isn’t so quick to dismiss the idea of a ban.

“I am constantly rethinking our position,” he said. “It’s the most inexact sport there is. I’m willing to change. The only reason we’re here is for the safety of the fighters, and to make sure they get paid. Maybe we do have to take a little harder stand.”

Jack Mosley opposes any edict that would prevent him from working his son’s corner.

“I know what I’m doing,” the father said. “I know what I’m talking about. I’m not boasting, but I think I’m one of the best coaches out there today.”

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Antonio Curtis, the Forum matchmaker, thinks there is a place for fathers in boxing.

"[World Boxing Organization super-bantamweight champion] Marco Antonio Barerra’s father comes to every fight,” Curtis said. “But once the fight starts, he sits in the stands. That’s the way it should be.”

* AFTERMATH

Jerry Quarry didn’t quite live to tell of his boxing exploits. He suffers from a deteriorated mental condition, and his brother blames their father. C8

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