YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The Prince of the Barrio : Ex-Olympian Paul Gonzales Fights : to Win a World Title, and to Keep a Friend : He Once Called 'Pops'

July 05, 1987|BELLA STUMBO

THREE YEARS ago, Paul Gonzales, the young boxer from East Los Angeles, became not only the first American to ever win an Olympic gold medal in the flyweight division (106 pounds) but also the only American gold medalist of Latino heritage in the history of Olympic competition.

Gonzales was so determined to win that, as boxing fans roared their appreciation, he literally gritted his teeth, ignored the pain and slugged his way to victory despite a broken hand. But afterward, when judges also awarded him a special trophy as outstanding athlete of the XXIII Olympiad, Paul Gonzales, one-time gang member and first-rate punk, survivor of stabbings and shootings by the time he was 12, broke down and cried as he thanked the man most responsible--Al Stankie, a Los Angeles cop.

It was Stankie who had pulled Gonzales off the streets nearly eight years earlier, bullying, badgering and finally cajoling the scrawny, mean little kid into the boxing ring at the Hollenbeck Youth Center--and who then became both his full-time trainer and surrogate father. Stankie eventually even moved the boy out of the notoriously rough Aliso housing projects, where Gonzales lived with his divorced mother and seven siblings, and into his own suburban home, far from harm's way. In time, the pair began calling each other Pops and Son.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 2, 1987 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 4 Times Magazine Desk 1 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
Paul Gonzales won the 1984 Olympic gold medal in the light flyweight, not flyweight, competition ("Prince of the Barrio," by Bella Stumbo, July 5) .

The media went wild. So did Hollywood. The story of "the cop and the kid" became the grist for thousands of inches of sports copy from here to Barcelona and Bombay. Hordes of screenwriters, agents and would-be producers descended, all eager to nail down exclusive rights. Coca-Cola came calling, along with hamburger chains, Chevrolet and such charities as United Way. Speaking invitations poured in by the hundreds, especially from organizations working with barrio youngsters, since Paul Gonzales had become an overnight hero, role model and living legend to practically every Latino kid in town.

Just about everybody, it seemed, wanted a piece of the action, or hoped to share at least briefly in the inspiring, heartwarming relationship between the tough, compassionate Anglo cop and the gifted Latino kid.

But that was then. Stankie, 46, is still Gonzales' trainer, and a couple of months ago the two began a small boxing school for barrio youngsters called--what else?--The Kop & Kid Boxing Academy, with Stankie as president. Otherwise, however, the relationship that was once so touching is now tangibly strained, with pressures still rising, and any stranger can instantly see it just by walking into the Kop & Kid most any weekday afternoon after 5, where both Gonzales and Stankie can usually be found, working out with dozens of young athletes.

Although the place isn't much to look at--just one large room, formerly part of a church complex, converted into a gym with a single boxing ring, peeling paint, and worn equipment in short supply--it represents the first step toward a dream Stankie and Gonzales once shared with mutual passion. Now, unless Gonzales himself is sparring, they rarely seem to share the same side of the room if they can help it. No more hanging around together, chatting, laughing or smiling. Gonzales, 23, moved into his own apartment long ago, and the pair seldom see each other socially anymore. No more happy hugs of greeting or frisky slaps on the tail, either, even in passing. Sometimes they quarrel openly, occasionally shouting. And they almost never call each other Pops and Son; now it's Paul and Al.

Usually, though, especially when outsiders are around, the kids who come to the Kop & Kid studiously avoid any discussion of what's going on, or, looking embarrassed, brush the situation aside as no big deal, minor emotional eruptions between two men, both under special pressures lately. Gonzales, for instance, is now in training for his first run at the world flyweight title, probably sometime later this summer. Meantime, his first fight in more than a year is scheduled for Tuesday at the Forum against Lucilo Nolasco of the Dominican Republic, another top contender. (Gonzales had been set to fight Nolasco last spring but had to cancel after he severely bruised his right hand, the same one he broke during the Olympics.)

"So, maybe Paul's a little uptight right now, you know? But he's got a lot of things on his mind," gasped one sweaty 16-year-old with homemade tattoos on both arms as he beat the living daylights out of a punching bag suspended from the ceiling.

But whenever a newcomer shows up at the Kop & Kid, Gonzales is promptly there, shaking hands, introducing himself, doing what he can to encourage and help out. He sometimes also spars in the ring with awe-struck amateurs barely into their teens who will probably be talking about it to their grandchildren someday.

Los Angeles Times Articles