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THE GLOVED ONE : George Latka's Golden Years as Pugilist and Proprietor

January 10, 1991|JIM WASHBURN | Jim Washburn is a free-lance writer who regularly writes for The Times Orange County Edition.

On the outside there's only a sign and a few coats of paint to distinguish Latka's Golden Glove Tavern from the biker bar once housed at 5061 Warner Ave. The inside is far cheerier, though a fern would still likely die a fast death here. And according to George Latka, who owns the tavern with his wife, Trudie, "You'll hear some of the roughest talk in the world here, but it's just a big happy gang."

Orange County country musician Chris Gaffney, who has seen the inside of a few bars, says, "I like bars where the people are nice, and Latka's is it ." According to Gaffney and other customers, that niceness emanates from its owners.

It's a handy thing that George Latka is a likable guy, because one look at the tavern walls makes it clear he could be trouble if he weren't: There are numerous tobacco-yellowed photos of a gloved Latka in the ring, in the midst of a pugilistic career that in 55 pro fights yielded only six losses. He was dubbed the Boxing Professor, both because he was the first pro fighter to earn a college degree (UCLA in '44) and for the boxing lessons he would administer in the ring to his more muscled opponents. Though he hung up his gloves nearly 50 years ago, this 76-year-old still moves with a wiry assurance.

And in most of those years, the World Boxing Hall of Fame inductee has kept his hand in the sport in one way or another. He has managed and trained fighters, and thousands of Southland boxing fans know him from his years as a referee and judge. Along with being a fixture of fight telecasts from L.A.'s Olympic Auditorium, he officiated 35 world championship bouts. He also turns up in movies, TV and commercials. There aren't many who can claim a big-screen career that includes both "Matilda (The Boxing Kangaroo)" and several critics' choice for the best film of the past decade, Martin Scorsese's "Raging Bull."

Latka has a modest explanation for why he's the one who gets the calls for such jobs: "I'm so damned old now that all my contemporaries are dead. So people only come to me because there's hardly anyone else left who knows what it was like back then."

His tavern is practically a photographic museum of boxing, with photos of fighters both legendary and obscure, and he has boxes more of them that he plans on sorting through one of these days. More voluminous still are Latka's memories. He rarely talks about himself unless asked, but many come to the bar simply for that reason. And even for those who know not a whit about boxing, to hear Latka expound on his life and times is an unforgettable experience.

Taking some time off from behind the bar recently, he explained how he started in fighting: "All of us guys say, 'We lived in a tough neighborhood.' Well, you've gotta remember that all those years ago nearly every neighborhood was fairly tough." Latka's certainly qualified, since he grew up in the shadow of a steel mill in Pueblo, Colo., where his Slovak Gypsy father worked. "You've heard the story about the company store by Tennessee Ernie Ford ("16 Tons"). Well, we lived that damn song. My folks owed everything to the company store."

With his small build, Latka was an easy target, and he estimates that he had nearly a hundred fistfights in his youth, which compelled him to get pretty good with his fists. "By the time I was in high school, no one messed with me. Big guys loved me because I was a scrapper."

It wasn't all bloody noses. "In retrospect I had the greatest childhood in the world, but I didn't know that until I came to the cities. But until I was 15 I grew up in Pueblo, and we didn't have paved streets. It was just plain old mud out there," Latka recalled, saying he and his friends would engage in cost-free street games with names like pump-pump-pullaway and hide-the-switch, the object of the latter being "the one that finds the switch gets to whack the hell out of everybody." Other days he'd head to a nearby lake and shoot frogs with a homemade slingshot. "I'd start the day off with a pocket full of rocks, and as it emptied, I'd fill the other pocket with frog legs." "And I thought I had a horrible lifetime," he continued, "mainly because at Christmas I'd never get anything but candy and maybe fruit, a big apple or something. So I'd feel sorry for myself because of those rich kids on the other side of town. They weren't really rich, but they were well-off. Kids think people are rich because they got a sled, they got a wagon, they got a bicycle. So I stole a sled. I stole a bike."

When he was 15 he moved to Gary, Ind., which he described as "another tough place. I got baptized real quick in Gary. About the third week I was there, bam! I got hit over the head with a two-by-four."

It was there that Latka began boxing. A coach made him and another boy take a schoolyard fight into the gym, where, once gloved, Latka recalls, "I slaughtered the guy." He was encouraged to enter the Golden Gloves and his career took off.

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