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Back From the Brink

Times Staff Writer

Ernie “Indian Red” Lopez was lost, and now he is found.

That is the short version of how it has come to be that Lopez, a boxer of some popularity in Southern California in the 1960s and ‘70s, will be inducted Saturday into the California Boxing Hall of Fame.

It is an honor that Lopez’s tenacious and loving family had feared might be a posthumous one. But after 12 years out of contact with relatives, the former welterweight contender turned up in a homeless shelter here last month, setting the stage for a long-awaited reunion today.

Lopez -- son of Lucille May Hackford Lopez, a Ute Indian, and Ernest Paul Lopez, a Juaneno Mission Indian -- was born with flaming red hair and stubborn courage, strong legs and knuckles of steel. So Lopez became a boxer, as his father had been and his older brother Leonard was and his younger brother Danny would become. And Lopez came upon his nickname because of his red hair and Native American heritage.

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Twice Lopez fought for the world welterweight title in front of sellout crowds of more than 14,000 at the Forum, and twice he was laid out by Jose “Mantequilla” Napoles. Napoles, a tough Cuban who had found his way to Mexico, beat Lopez once in 15 rounds and once on a seventh-round knockout.

That knockout hurt more than any other. By all accounts, Lopez had won the first six rounds. He had cut Napoles over and under the eye and on the bridge of the nose. But at the start of the seventh, Napoles, hardly able to see, caught Lopez flush on the face. It was a knockout punch. Lopez lay unmoving on the canvas for three minutes while Napoles cradled Lopez’s head and wailed, “Please wake up. Please wake up.”

Lopez woke up, but his life was never quite the same.

“I think Ernie lost his self-esteem when he didn’t win the title,” said Marcia Iannone, his former wife.

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“It was the losses to Napoles and the divorce that sent Ernie into a tailspin,” said Ernie’s brother Danny “Little Red” Lopez. “He was a hurt man.”

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Lopez sat in the cluttered office of Dennis Pennington, program manager for the Presbyterian Night Shelter here, earlier this week. Although the shelter is closed during the day, Lopez remained inside. Pennington did not want to lose track of Lopez, who until two weeks ago had been lost track of for 12 years.

After his boxing career ended in 1974, and after his divorce, Lopez became a wanderer.

He would show up to visit his four children -- daughters Cindy, Kami and Tracy and son Lance -- every few months. He would work construction and odd jobs for a while, then he would go away.

In 1992, Lopez came to stay with Cindy in San Bernardino, where he was visited by his other three children and some of his seven brothers and sisters. He eventually left, but his pattern had been to call someone in the family, a child or a sibling, at least once a year.

A year, two, three went by and Lopez never called anyone.

Even though she was remarried to R.H. Iannone, a school superintendent, and living happily in Alta Loma, Marcia said she never lost her affection for Lopez. Her children, now grown and with their own families, always ached to have their father in their lives.

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So every couple of years, Iannone would contact police, asking for help in tracking down Lopez. But it isn’t the job of detectives to find adults who wander.

As the years passed, his children began to think the worst.

“I feared he was dead,” said Lance Lopez, 38, who lives in Utah with his five children.

A few months ago, Tracy Hadaway, 35, Lopez’s youngest daughter, saw an item in the Los Angeles Times that mentioned her father as well as Don Fraser, president of the California Boxing Hall of Fame and promoter of many of Lopez’s fights.

Hadaway called Fraser, telling him about Lopez’s disappearance and wondering whether he could help. While he did not think he could do much to find Lopez, Fraser recalled in an interview this week, he realized that Lopez belonged in the Hall of Fame.

Determined either to find Lopez or to learn for certain that he was dead, the children and Iannone made another call to the Los Angeles police. “I told them there really wasn’t much we could do,” said Det. Christine Beltran. “This typically isn’t what we consider a missing person. Their father was a man who went away.”

But Beltran was also touched by the circumstance. “They told me about the honor of the Hall of Fame,” she said. “It seemed like we should make an effort.”

Her checks of arrest and death records turned up nothing.

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While Beltran said she could not disclose how she located Lopez, Iannone said she received a phone call about two weeks ago from the detective. Beltran said Lopez’s Social Security number had come up in association with the Presbyterian Night Shelter.

Iannone called the shelter. Yes, she was told, Ernie Lopez was there.

“Ernie, you’ve been lost for a long time,” Iannone told him.

“I’m not lost,” Lopez replied. “I’m right here.”

Over the last week, joyous phone calls have been exchanged among father and children.

Fraser has arranged for Lopez to fly to Los Angeles today. He will be taken shopping for new clothes. About 40 members of his family will gather, including 23 grandchildren.

*

Lopez is 58 and looks older. His red hair has turned bright white. He wore a blue stocking cap, a faded flannel shirt, worn jeans and boots covered with dirt. His eyes were bright, his smile wide.

“This is the humblest man I’ve ever met,” Pennington said.

And Lopez asked five times, “Why are they doing this for me? I wasn’t good enough for the Hall of Fame.”

“Yes he is,” Fraser said. “Absolutely.”

Hedgemon Lewis, who fought Lopez three times and lost twice, called Lopez a ferocious fighter. “He was aggressive and always on the attack,” said Lewis, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame last year. “Ernie was a crowd-pleaser because he was a fighter. Period. He fought.”

Ryan O’Neal, the actor of “Love Story” fame, was Lewis’ manager when Lewis fought Lopez.

“Lopez was a warrior,” O’Neal said. “He was also a gentleman, a decent man. But as a fighter, Lopez would hit the other guy so much he would become exhausted. Because of that, Lopez would always fill an arena, because he would give the fans their money’s worth.... It was his heart that made him win.”

For much of his career, Lopez fought out of Los Angeles’ Main Street Gym. He and his brother Danny, who won a world championship, were managed by Howie Steindler. “Howie treated me like a son,” Lopez said. “I loved Howie.”

Lopez was born on the Ute Indian Reservation in Fort Duchesne, Utah, the third of eight children.

“Our life wasn’t easy,” said a sister, Naomi Adams. “There was trouble at home and many of us ended up in foster care.”

Lopez says his father taught him to box. “But sometimes I learned when I watched my father hit my mother,” Lopez said.

Lopez met Marcia when they were students at Orem High School, and the couple moved to Pasadena when Lopez began fighting out of the Pasadena YMCA.

Over a decade, Lopez compiled a 51-18-1 record, fighting champions such as Napoles, Emile Griffith and Katsuya Nakano. He fought in England, Hawaii, Japan and Mexico as well as all over Southern California and Nevada. “My biggest purse was $40,000,” Lopez recalled. “But it’s gone.”

Lou Filippo, 79, a veteran referee from Downey who worked many of Lopez’s fights, says that if Napoles hadn’t been in Lopez’s way, “Ernie would have been a great champion.... I feel so good for him. He deserves this. I hate to say it, but when I heard his story, it brought tears to my eyes.”

Fraser said he was going to introduce Lopez at Saturday’s induction in the City of Commerce, “but I think I’m going to ask someone else because I will not be able to keep from breaking down.”

Lopez says he’s not sure when, how or why he came to Fort Worth.

He remembers living with a church family in Missouri, shoveling snow for a hotel owner in Portland, Maine, sleeping in New York’s Central Park, working construction in Florida and cleaning hotel rooms in Phoenix. “Twice at that hotel, I went to clean a room and found a dead body,” Lopez said. “After the second time, I left.”

*

Lance Lopez has spent many years collecting bits and pieces of his father’s boxing career. “I’ve found video clips of some of his matches by searching the Internet,” he said. “I’ve turned up some newspaper clippings.”

He wants to share these things and some other memories with his father.

“I remember we’d have this big jar of silver dollars on a shelf,” Lance said. “Whenever I’d hear the ice cream man coming, I’d grab one of those silver dollars. Later on I found out that fight fans had thrown those silver dollars into the ring as tips.”

On Halloween, Lance would dress up in his father’s boxing robe, recalling that people would stop him and say, “Oh my goodness! Do you know Indian Red?”

Many years later, Lance took Ernie to the Forum to watch boxing.

“I snuck down during the first match. Gil Clancy was there. I told Gil my dad was in the stands. Gil said, ‘Oh, no, you’re kidding. Indian Red is here?’ Before I could even get back to the seats, they were introducing my dad. He got a standing ovation.”

Pennington and others at the shelter have worked hard to get Lopez ready for his flight home. They took him shopping for pants and shoes, and to the airport for a dry run. Pennington told Lopez he might have to take off his shoes for security “because of 9/11.”

“What’s that?” Lopez asked.

Pennington says he hopes that when Lopez gets on the plane today, that it is a one-way trip: “We all hope he finds a home.”

Daughter Kami, who lives in Apple Valley with her six children and her husband, William Watkins, gets choked up when she considers the reunion this weekend.

“I had a dream years ago that my dad had died,” Kami said. “It really, really scared me. From that time on we all started pitching in, being more proactive about finding him. We’d call police stations in places we knew where he had been, checked out unidentified John Does.

“It’s very exciting we have found him alive but also very sad that he was so alone. We just want him to know now that he is always welcome in any of our homes.”


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