At 26, Ernie Magdaleno began his professional boxing career late and unspectacularly after only 11 amateur fights. In a sport that rewards big punchers and flashy boxers, Magdaleno was slow, awkward and not an extremely powerful light-heavyweight.
Magdaleno, of Westminster, was beaten only once in his 23 fights, and Thursday night at the Irvine Marriott, he got what would be his last victory, a 10-round unanimous decision over Roman Santos.
The sellout crowd, including 150 of his family and friends, saw what might have been one of his most effective showings.
Three days later, Magdaleno, who turned 33 on Dec. 29, was dead. He was killed in a car accident in Huntington Beach, thrown from his vehicle in a three-car collision caused by a motorist being chased by police. Magdaleno's wife, Carrie, and two children, Joshua and Samantha, were also hurt, but not severely.
"Thursday night was almost like a final tribute to Ernie," Marriott promoter Roy Englebrecht said. "Little did we know it was his last fight, but at least he wasn't fighting somewhere around the world where nobody knew him."
Dean Lohuis, an inspector for the California State Athletic Commission who has seen all but five of Magdaleno's fights, said he had never seen Magdaleno in better form.
"I really thought his last performance was one of his most impressive," Lohuis said.
"The way he was fighting he was certainly going to have another chance to fight for a title, and maybe this time he would have won it."
Magdaleno's only loss was in March 1994 to Henry Maske in Dortmund, Germany, for the International Boxing Federation title. Magdaleno, the IBF's No. 1 contender at the time, was behind on points in the ninth round when he accidentally butted heads with Maske. Magdaleno was badly cut above the eye and the bout was stopped.
Although Magdaleno made about $100,000 for the Maske bout, he had been struggling to get fights and to make a living since. He had been under a promotional contract to Don King since 1993, but Magdaleno and his longtime trainer and manager, Clyde Armijo, often complained that Magdaleno wasn't getting enough fights.
Scott Woodworth, an associate of King's, said King was shocked by the news of Magdaleno's death and told him, "I'm going to do whatever I can to help Ernie's family."
Magdaleno, ranked fifth by the World Boxing Council and ninth by the IBF, often supported himself by working with his three brothers as a carpenter and carpet layer. Early this year, he considered retiring from boxing and working full time as a carpenter. But his brothers persuaded him to wait until the end of the year before deciding anything.
After the Santos fight Magdaleno talked of fighting World Boxing Assn. champion Virgil Hill.
"His wife told me they were flat broke," Armijo said. "They had no medical insurance and no life insurance. . . . He was always looking for that big-money fight so he could get ahead."
Two weeks before he died, Magdaleno said: "If I was quick or if I had the big punch, I'd be fun to watch and I'd be on TV a lot. Instead, I have to do it the hard way. That's OK with me. I just need a break."
Richard DeCuir, executive officer of the state athletic commission, said he did not know if Magdaleno's family is eligible for any relief from the commission's pension plan or death benefit plan, adding that he would check into a $250,000 welfare fund for wrestlers and boxers.
"He was one of the good guys in the sport," said Englebrecht, who is asking the 2,500 people on the Marriott mailing list about contributions.
"You wish there were more like him."