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Old Boxer's Memories Mingle With Fumes of Auto Paint Shop : Sonny Ray's Sunny Days in Ring Long Gone

December 17, 1987|DICK WAGNER | Times Staff Writer

In the late 1950s, when his life was grand, Sonny Ray boxed in smoky main events in Chicago Stadium and New York's Madison Square Garden and on the small oval screens of black and white television sets.

Although never a champion, he was rated fourth among the top 10 light-heavyweights in the world and was popular on TV fight nights sponsored by Pabst Blue Ribbon and Gillette. A newspaper clipping of one of Ray's bouts described him as stocky, bull-shouldered and with the attacking style of a bulldozer.

Last week, a man with a broom stood without much to do in the King of Color car-painting shop just north of downtown Long Beach. He was Sonny Ray, still bull-shouldered at 53.

He wore a painter's hat, old brown pants, a green sweater and a tattered jacket. Whiskers the color of iron shavings were on his jaw. His nose looked like a boxer's nose, although he said it had been broken only once.

Memories Make Present More Bearable

As with many ex-fighters, Ray's memories make the present more bearable.

"I had quite a few fans," Ray said, his voice hard to hear above the angry din of air hoses that were swooshing grit from just-sanded cars. "Most places I go, yes, people still remember me."

Ray rose quickly from obscurity to beat such high-ranking fighters as Jesse Bowdry and Eddie Cotton and go on to a 42-12-6 record, but two close losses to Tony Anthony in 1958 and '59 prevented him from getting a title fight with Archie Moore.

As a boxer, Ray made $120,000, none of which is left.

In the car-painting shop on Long Beach Boulevard, where men in protective hoods and masks work to the beat of Latin music, Ray, a friend of the owner, earns $150 a week. He also gets a monthly military pension of $520.

The world Ray loved--of sweat, fame and smoke from the big cigars of the ringside fat cats--has been replaced by one of dust and paint fumes. He is surrounded not by friendly fans but by cars that look sinister because they, too, wear masks.

Job 'Keeps Me Occupied'

To pass the long days, Ray makes sure the cars are in the right order to go into the paint booth. He also inspects the sanding jobs and leans against his broom in the shop's back doorway, the boundary between fumes and fresh air. From there he watches the sun dip beyond the telephone wires, watches over the alley for car thieves and dreams of returning to a gym.

"This keeps me occupied," said Ray, who has worked at the shop about eight months.

For almost 23 years and with no pay except his pension, Ray lived in a room at the Seaside Gym in Long Beach and trained fighters. He ran the gym for five years until the lease ran out last March.

Although the years have added to his stomach, Ray still exercises and his weight of 182 pounds is only slightly higher than when he fought. His fists have the consistency of stone.

The whites of his sad dark eyes were yellow and murky, but his thoughts were clear. "I suffered no permanent injury to my knowledge," said Ray, who was knocked out four times.

Ray was typical of the boxers of his era.

"I would come forward (at an opponent), move around and counterpunch," Ray said. "Years ago the crowd really enjoyed the fine art of boxing. They would applaud the savvy and the footwork. Now they enjoy the brutality of it. They want to see some blood."

Raised in Chicago, Ray aspired to be a major league baseball player. An infielder, he was a Cubs' farmhand and played in the minor leagues at the AAA level. "I could field but couldn't hit," said Ray, who was drafted by the Army in 1949. When he returned after three years of combat in Korea, he gave up baseball and took up boxing.

"After a year's training, I was a pro," Ray said. "After three fights I was in the top 10 in the world."

But soon after he attained prominence, his career began to slide. "I had manager problems and wife problems," Ray said. "I didn't train properly, I started drinking." He fought not very successfully in England, Italy, Australia and South America. He retired in 1961, made a brief comeback, then hung up his gloves for good in 1963.

"You miss having fans coming up to you, shaking your hand and getting your autograph," he said. "I miss the smell of the gym, seeing the people around ringside, the sportswriters, matchmakers, promoters."

Known for Jolly Nature

While Ray relived the past, a young man walked by in the alley, said hello to Ray and in jest struck a fighting pose. Ray smiled, clenched his fists in return and said, "I can't do it anymore."

Ray, who shares a $480-a-month apartment with his girlfriend, did not smile a lot at the shop. One's sunniest days, he firmly believes, occur before age 50.

He said his real name is Rogers Moten. "When I was playing baseball, they called me Sonny because I was always happy and jolly," Ray said.

Without boxing, his heart and soul, that isn't the case now.

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