Ex-boxer Paul Banke battles on after AIDS diagnosis

Boxing took Paul Banke to more than a dozen foreign countries and, figuratively, to the top of the world.

Life took him to hell and back.

It’s not been an easy ride.

Banke is a former World Boxing Council super-bantamweight champion who in 1995 became the first major U.S. boxer to publicly acknowledge that he had AIDS.

Perhaps best known for his savage bouts with Daniel Zaragoza, he vowed to become a spokesman and a symbol, promised to venture into the community to speak about living with the disease in hopes of inspiring others.

But that never happened.

Instead, Banke returned to the hard-driving, drug-abusing lifestyle that cut short his boxing career, sending him into a soul-sucking cycle of rehabilitation and relapse.

“He went from way up there,” says his mother, Yolanda Miranda, “to all the way down, eating out of garbage cans.”

Then he sobered up.

“I just got tired of it,” Banke says, claiming that he has been drug-free for about five years. “I used to go to meetings all the time -- and then later I would use. I tried to get into a sober program -- and then later I would use. And you know what? I woke up one day and said, ‘Enough.’ I just quit.”

As he speaks, Banke sits on a folding chair in the tiny, sparsely furnished studio apartment in Los Feliz that he shares with six uncaged parakeets and his beloved dogs: Rosemary, a Scotch terrier poodle, and BB, a cocker spaniel-Chihuahua mix.

The dogs nap atop blankets piled on the floor, but the birds chirp incessantly, every now and again flying from perch to perch at either end of the narrow apartment.

In anticipation of an upcoming fumigation, Banke says he recently dumped his bed and two old couches.

On a piece of paper taped to the back of his front door, he has written himself a note of inspiration: “It’s not he who falls that fails but he who falls and fails to rise again.”

He suffers from pugilistic dementia, which causes him to slur his words, but he is alert and engaging, smiling easily.

He turns 46 Monday.

“I see people on the bus and they’ve got problems,” says Banke, who does not own a car. “They’re homeless, or they’ve got other problems, and I think, ‘Thank God, my life’s all right.’ I’ve got a little apartment. I’ve got dogs that love me. I’m OK.”

Glancing at his dogs, he says, “They love you no matter what, you know what I’m saying? They don’t care if you’re good-looking or ugly. They don’t care if your credit’s good or bad.”

Banke has been married three times, twice since he was diagnosed with AIDS, and has three adult children.

Last year, he became a grandfather.

Living alone, he notes, can be depressing at times.

“But thank God for the cable,” he says. “Thank God for my cellphone. Thank God my kids can visit me.”

When they do, they might hear the story of how the Azusa-reared Banke started fighting when he was 12 years old and quickly developed into one of the Southland’s most talented amateurs. Traveling the world with international teams, he’d been to Russia by the time he was 16. He’d fought on national television.

Though he failed to make the star-studded 1984 U.S. Olympic boxing team, Banke as a young professional joined Bob Richardson’s All-Heart Gym in Riverside, where his left-handed, no-holds-barred style embodied the gym’s name.

One writer, noting Banke’s ferocity and the way he carried his hands high against his jaw, called him a mini- Mike Tyson.

A Forum and Jerry Buss favorite, Banke won $100,000 in a super-bantamweight tournament in 1988 and earned a WBC title shot against Zaragoza at the Forum in 1989.

Banke knocked the champion down in the ninth round of a memorably fierce battle but lost a split decision.

Then, 10 months later, he won a rematch -- and the title -- by knockout.

He kept the title for only a few months, losing in his second defense, and fought for the last time in December 1993.

Two years later, he found out he had AIDS -- the result, Banke says, of frequent drug use or careless sexual activity.

But that didn’t stop him from slamming crystal meth or abusing other drugs. Once, he says, he overdosed on cocaine, surviving only because someone dropped him at a hospital.

Rolling up the sleeve of his sweater, Banke shows a visitor the needle marks up and down his right arm.

“Five years later,” he says, “the scars are still there.”

Until recently, Banke sometimes sought work as a day laborer. As a boxing trainer, he had worked with cops, attorneys, dentists and other professionals at a local gym. And he had volunteered at an Inglewood church, teaching boxing to kids.

He stopped doing all that, he says, because he felt guilty leaving his dogs home alone all day with no one to take them outside. His mother cites another reason: her son’s diminished stamina.

In 15 years, though, Banke says he has never been sick.

“Of course I feel lucky,” he says, seeking no sympathy. “If God took me tomorrow, I’d be all right with that. . . .

“I got to experience a granddaughter, I got to see my kids get older. These kids serving in Iraq -- 19-, 20-year-old kids getting killed -- didn’t get to experience that.

“I’ve been a world champion. I’ve been blessed.”