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PROFILE : Tough Fighter : Boxing trainer Jim Gambina has felt life's cruel blows, but he didn't stay down for the count.

December 27, 1990|LEO SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

All right, name five things that can be found on a ranch in Somis.

Here's some help: a horse, a cow, a head of lettuce, a barn.

And the fifth? A boxing gym. Really. There's one located in the middle of a 20-acre parcel within the Solano Verde Ranch development. It's right there alongside a spacious house, 10 cars, five boats, a Jacuzzi, a swimming pool and some motor homes.

The property belongs to Jim Gambina and his wife, Kelly. Gambina uses the gym both for his health--as a place to exercise and relieve stress--and as a place to train boxers.

"The area is heaven on earth," Gambina said. "As far as a training camp is concerned, it's the ideal place. You've got the blue skies, then you've got the breeze. You've got the clean air." You've also got the hill out back that Gambina has boxers run up and down, backwards, carrying weights.

Gambina, father of three, spends most of his time in or around a boxing ring. He has spent most of his professional life training boxers and dishing out boxing advice on movie and television sets. He worked with Robert De Niro in "Raging Bull," John Voight in "The Champ," Sylvester Stallone in "Rocky I" and Sage Stallone in "Rocky V," a film in which he also acts.

"I always felt if you can have an understanding of what fighters go through in their lives, you can have a better understanding of life and the ups and downs of it," said Gambina, who at age 47 has experienced some extreme ups and downs of his own.

Gambina was born in Southgate, a small town south of Los Angeles. His father, Ralph, ran the Southgate boxing arena.

When Gambina was 13, doctors diagnosed a congenital bone disease that would cause gradual deterioration of his hips. Gambina was told that he would be paralyzed by the time he was 18. That didn't happen. What did happen was that he grew no taller than five feet. Hip surgery in 1987 added two inches to his height.

Despite his size, Gambina was boxing by age 6. "I used to ask my dad to teach me how to fight, but he wouldn't because I was short," he said. Gambina didn't give up, and eventually persuaded a guy named Hoyt Porter to teach him.

Porter was but one of several boxers who influenced him, and Gambina likes to talk about all of them.

"The greatest and the most loved fighter I have ever known was the quietest and the gentlest--Rocky Marciano," he said. "I used to watch him warm up when he came to Beverly Hills. He knew I was a little guy and he took a little bit more time with me than he would with others."

Then there was Jimmy McDaniels. "I was named after him," Gambina said. "He fought all the great fighters of the '40s. He was my dad's top fighter."

At age 11, about the time Gambina's hips made it impossible for him to box anymore, he got involved with acting.

His first acting job came in the 1956 film "Never Say Goodbye," in which he played the part of a newspaper delivery boy. "I loved the atmosphere in the film business," he said, "more than I did in life."

When he was 20, Gambina got into comedy, doing nightclub acts with partner Johnny Vanelli. "He was a big Italian guy and I was a short little dude. He used to slam pies in my face," Gambina said. "I tripped and fell and whatever else I could do physically that was ridiculous, I'd do."

It wasn't long before Gambina was doing stunts and helping other actors with stunts, fight scenes and physical conditioning for television and movies. He got his start working with Robert Conrad in the "Wild, Wild West" television series in 1967 and 1968, and later he worked on "Planet of the Apes."

Everything was going along well until 1987 when Gambina's hips went out. They had weakened severely in 1971, but with conditioning and muscle strengthening he was able to stand and walk again.

But in 1987, he said, "I couldn't get up. I talked to my orthopedic surgeon and he said there was nothing he could do because it was so deteriorated he couldn't put me back together."

Gambina was referred to Dr. Augusto Sarmiento, an orthopedic specialist at USC Medical Center. Their first meeting was in June, 1987, and by September Gambina was undergoing his first operation.

He had his right hip done first and then he had his left hip done in December, 1987. "I was walking, pretty much, in February and I was training guys too. By May of 1988 I was moving well. Now I don't have the chronic pain I used to have. I feel physically real, real strong. I'm a little chunky, but I like being heavy because the little-guy syndrome goes out the window when I walk down the street."

When Gambina talks of the little-guy syndrome, he refers to people looking down on him both literally and figuratively. "If I was taller, people would listen to me more," he said. "People have a tendency when they look down at you to think 'child.' "

On the plus side, Gambina said, his stature gave him inner strength and a love of life, and people who have worked with him agree. "He gives guidance and advice and an enormous amount of enthusiasm," said Bob Chartoff, co-producer of the Rocky films. "That's pretty much his trademark."

UP CLOSE JIM GAMBINA

Vocation: Boxing consultant/personal trainer.

Favorite movie: "City for Conquest," starring James Cagney. (A boxing film, of course.)

Oddest location for a boxing match: "I was in South America in 1973 with a boxer named Frankie Crawford. We had to go 260 miles into the jungle."

Pets: Five dogs: Scooter, Melanie, Lionel, Bear and Charlie (a stray that dropped by to visit last Fourth of July and has yet to leave).

Quote: "A fighter comes from nothing and if he's good he makes something out of his life and becomes a real good all-around dude," he said. "And the moment he loses, no one wants to be around him."

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