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The Streets, the Ring and the Demons of Al Stankie : Big Heart, Big Mouth, an ex-Cop Burns With the Fire to Make Champions Out of Kids From the Projects

August 22, 1993|DAVID FERRELL | David Ferrell is a Times staff writer who reports on urban problems and life in L.A. His last article for the magazine concerned the plight of AIDS patients seeking care in L.A. County

IN A VIOLENT SPORT, IN A VIOLENT CITY, AL STANKIE HANGS ON. HE IS a man of sweat and physical force, a trainer of young boxers. He understands pain, fatigue and the human spirit. At 53, Stankie has known the exultant rush of triumph in the Olympic Games, the heartache of abysmal failure, even jail.

Now if he can only figure himself out, maybe there is time, maybe a way, to live out the fairy tale he imagines for himself. Then Stankie could ascend to his rightful place--a great figure, creator of champions, astride the world with arms outstretched to the stars. The dream fills him, drives him through the miles, from the gyms to the fights; it propels him through the barriers of his own agony. He can see it, almost believe it, and yet that one rub: Stankie remains an enigma, even to Stankie. He is, and has been, his own fiercest enemy.

For all he preached discipline, Stankie lost his wife and home for lack of it. For all his soft-hearted generosity--he has given away thousands to poor families in L.A.'s dismal housing projects--the former cop is remembered most, by some in boxing, for his explosive side: the barroom fights, the tantrums, the drunken binges that have driven away friends and promising fighters.

That is his history, and Stankie is out to change it. He has sworn off the alcohol. He is taking medication to control a metabolism that used to rage like a tropical storm. Despite his troubles, he is relentlessly positive. When holding court in the corners of slick-walled rooms emblazoned with boxing posters, his charisma electrifies the air. He talks the street rap of the projects. He flashes his leering grin, tells ribald stories, stirs young minds with war whoops and kick-ass bravado. Yet he struggles. Immense inner forces show themselves in his eyes--defiant, sad, kindly, angry, laughing eyes.

Street-bred fighters, some of them former gang members, hang on his words, and Stankie seems to tower over them, not only physically, at 6-foot-2, but also in dramatic presence. The gestures are ungainly, a series of lurches and contorted hand movements, as if he is reining back enormous power. His dark hair, graying at the temples, is pulled back in a short ponytail, and he wears a dangling earring, a rebel look. The voice is like leather, roughened by years of hard use.

"I've got the ability to build and make champions," Stankie says. Two Olympic gold medalists--Paul Gonzales, in 1984, and Oscar De La Hoya, in 1992--are evidence to support the claim. "I've got the ability to motivate. The bottom line is making champions. I can make champions."

Gonzales believes. He won the gold fighting four bouts with a broken hand, in such searing pain that he bit a hole in his mouthpiece. What gave him that grit? "He had an Al Stankie (training him)," Gonzales says now. "To me, he's the best in the business, by far. Anywhere."

But Stankie let De La Hoya slip away by landing in jail for 84 days, 83 of them in solitary. So while his former protege scales the heights of a brilliant young professional career, Stankie toils in the shadows, on a level below the media darlings. He is seen in myriad different lights. Loony. A Damon Runyon character. A screw-up. A Mother Teresa figure. A great man. A loser. A Robin Hood. A misguided missile.

"Al Stankie is a legend," says Alex Sherer, trainer of Thomas (Hitman) Hearns. "He's had his demons to battle, but I think Stankie's back on the rise. He's a stand-up guy. If you were in a fight and had 50 guys chasing you down an alley, Al Stankie's the one guy you would want to be there with you."

Tales of Stankie's largess loom larger than life. Adrian Arreola, who would become a national Golden Gloves champion, remembers one rainy winter day, years ago, when Stankie was walking with him near the Aliso Village housing project in East L.A. They encountered a transient, cold and barefoot. Stankie stopped and gave him the shoes off his feet. "I said, 'Al, why did you do that?' " Arreola recalls. "He said, 'Someday God will do something nice for me.' "

Stankie was a cop then, working the projects and training teen-agers as part of a boxing program run by the L.A. Police Department. But the wobble of some broken inner gear already was twisting him. He began running wild at all hours--drinking, fighting, lashing out against the family members and friends who would try to corral him, yielding to all those same evils he fought to quell.

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