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Gonzales: Will He Be Sitting Pretty Again? : After Personal and Professional Setbacks, '84 Olympic Champ Is Ready to Return to the Ring

August 22, 1993|CHARLES SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For Paul Gonzales, vanity was the secret to his success in the boxing ring.

"I like to go in the ring, hit and move and come out looking pretty," said the 28-year-old East Los Angeles native. "I've been criticized for not slugging it out with people, but my trainer always told me to leave the game the way I came in . . . handsome."

Gonzales looked his best when he donned his flyweight and bantamweight championship belts and his 1984 Olympic gold medal. His victories continued as a professional from 1985 to 1991, when he went 17-4 with three knockouts.

He came out of the ring each time looking pretty. But then his life got ugly.

There were disputes with his trainer, Al Stankie, that led to a five-year split. There was a 1987 car accident that resulted in knee surgery to repair torn cartilage and forced Gonzales to take an extended layoff from fighting and training. He was poised to return to the ring early last year, but suffered yet another setback with the untimely death of his young niece.

"My niece's death was really devastating to me and my family," Gonzales said. "But I knew I would return."

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Now, after a two-year hiatus from boxing, Gonzales has returned. And he hopes to once again attain the success inspired by his childhood heroes.

"I got my confidence and moves from Muhammad Ali," Gonzales said. "Alexis Arguello was my idol because he was tall, skinny and gentlemanly. I saw a lot of myself in him."

Gonzales also adopted the winning ways of these legendary boxers. In the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, he won a gold medal in the 118-122-pound weight class. Gonzales, who was awarded the Val Barker Cup as the most outstanding Olympic boxer, became the first Mexican-American to win a gold medal in the Olympics.

"There was no greater feeling than standing on that podium because I was representing the Alisos Housing Projects where I grew up, my coach, Al Stankie, and my race," Gonzales said.

That moment was also particularly satisfying for Gonzales because, in winning a gold medal, he had kept a childhood promise made to his mother. "When he was 8, he promised me that he would win a gold medal and buy me a big house with phones in every room," said Anita Gonzales. "And he made it come true 10 years later."

Hampered with numerous injuries, perhaps Gonzales' most amazing accomplishment of the Olympics was that he lasted to the gold-medal round.

In his first bout, against Kim Kuan Sun of South Korea, Gonzales broke the first, second and third metacarpal bones in his right hand. In his second bout, against William Boganzo of Uganda, he dislocated his right elbow and shoulder.

"After that, (Paul) was a one-handed fighter," Stankie said.

In the third bout, against Jim Lyon of Great Britain, Gonzales broke a toe that he had bruised jogging.

"I told Paul, 'If you have to box through the Games with one hand, then that's what you do. Conceive it, believe it and achieve it. Anything a person can conceive, he can achieve,' " Stankie said.

Gonzales remarkably won his next three fights, including a gold-medal victory over Salvatore Todisco of Italy.

After those Olympic triumphs, Gonzales' future seemed bright. He won the 1986 North American Boxing Federation Championship as a flyweight against Alonzo Strongbow and the 1988 World Boxing Assn. Intercontinental Title as a bantamweight against Armando Castro.

However, the Castro fight marked the beginning of a five-year split between Stankie and Gonzales.

Stankie, who had been Gonzales' trainer for 15 years, was fired for allegedly arriving intoxicated to the fight. That proved to be the final straw in a haystack of continuing problems between the two.

"Paul and I had run-ins. We would argue over fights with promoters and managers," Stankie said.

Added Gonzales: "Al thought people were trying to take me from him and he tried to keep me from them."

The decision to part from Stankie was not an easy one.

Stankie, a retired 20-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department, was responsible for keeping Gonzales, one of seven children, away from the drugs and violence that plagued his neighborhood.

"Al challenged me to come down to the Hollenbeck police station and fight for trophies instead of gangs," Gonzales said.

Ray Mail, who was also a Hollenbeck police officer at the time, worked with Gonzales on the technical aspects of boxing while Stankie worked on his conditioning.

"I taught Paul to stick to the basic fundamentals--jab, stick and move and counterpunch--and to never take unnecessary punishment," Mail said. "That's why he is still pretty."

Stankie and Gonzales were not communicating until Hollenbeck Youth Center executive director Danny Hernandez intervened earlier this year.

"It was strange because all three of us had dreams around the same time about Al and Paul getting back together," Hernandez said.

"Paul wanted to win a championship, so he needed Al. Al agreed to train him and I promised to be the middleman. If Al has any gripes about Paul or his management or vice versa, they talk to me first."

Gonzales' conversation now centers around regaining his former glory. While he said he is ready for all comers, he is still wary of what has been his toughest opponent: injury.

"The injuries I sustained in the Olympics caught up to me during my pro career because I didn't give my body sufficient time to heal," Gonzales said. "I never lost my titles (of flyweight and bantamweight champion) in the ring. I would still be champion if my career wasn't injury-plagued. That's why I have to revive it."

Perhaps the only thing more important to him than his comeback is his 9-year-old son, Christopher Eric Gonzales. "He is definitely the joy of my life," Gonzales said.

"And he is pretty, just like his dad."

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