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Hands-Down Win

Paul Gonzales won light-flyweight gold in a walkover because his opponent was injured -- a break for the East L.A. native, who was hurt even worse

August 01, 2004|Steve Springer | Times Staff Writer

How do you walk away from the gold-medal round of the Olympic boxing tournament and hand the glittering prize to your opponent without a fight?

There didn't seem to be an alternative for Salvatore Todisco of Italy, because he had earlier sustained a broken thumb on his right hand.

But if he had had X-ray vision and could have beamed it on Paul Gonzales -- his opponent for that final match in the light-flyweight division at the 1984 Olympics -- Todisco might have answered the bell after all.

Broken thumb? Gonzales would have been happy if that was all he had suffered from.

The East Los Angeles native stepped into the ring that day at the Los Angeles Sports Arena with a hairline fracture of his right hand, sustained the previous summer at the Pan Am Games, a broken toe caused by stepping on a rock while doing road work, a hyperextended elbow and a bruised shoulder.

"It was a crazy time," said Gonzales, now 40 and working as a car salesman in Monterey Park. "When I threw a punch, it was like an electric shock going through my arm. One time, I bit through my mouthpiece from the pain. But I just figured, if I have to win with one hand, I have to win with one hand."

As it turned out, Gonzales didn't need either hand.

It had been announced the day before that Todisco would not be able to fight in the gold-medal round, but Gonzales wasn't convinced as he entered the ring on Aug. 11 to be crowned the winner.

"I was ready to fight. I was as nervous as can be when I was outside the ring," Gonzales said.

"Once I stepped onto the apron, boom, I was on automatic pilot.

"[Todisco] came over and said, 'Congratulations.' But then, I thought I was going to fight the alternate. My mind was like, 'OK, I got to fight somebody I'm sure.'

"They put you through that whole preparation. I had my mouthpiece in. Next thing, the announcer comes out and says, 'In the 48-kilo division, the winner, from the United States, Paul Gonzales on a walkover.'

"I was like, wow, I couldn't believe it. I was in tears. Even to think about it now, I get choked up."

Gonzales' eyes welled up as much at the memory of actually receiving the medal he had been fixated on for so long as they did at the thought of being declared the winner.

"You're there on the podium," he said, "and they play the national anthem and you're the first one they honor. There ain't nothing like it. It's like seeing your first child being born. It's a miracle. I was on Cloud Nine. No, really I was on Cloud 20.

"My life started flashing before me, all those people who doubted me. Everything that I went through, the pain. I just kept praying that it was real.

"And it was."

Gonzales was the first Mexican-American to win a gold medal, the Golden Boy before Oscar De La Hoya had even reached his teens.

Yet another honor awaited Gonzales. He was named outstanding fighter of the Olympics, quite a distinction in a year in which nine American fighters won gold.

The euphoria of the U.S. boxing program was tempered by the fact that neither the Soviet Union nor Cuba, perennial boxing powerhouses, was in L.A. They were honoring a boycott of those Games in retaliation for the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow.

But nothing could dim the glow in Gonzales' eyes as he handed his medal to his mother, Anita.

"My mom was in tears," Gonzales recalled. "She kept saying, 'You did it! You did it! All those years.' She knew my dream."

It seemed an unlikely dream for someone who first spent his time and energy fighting on the streets. And that's where the saga of Paul Gonzales would have probably ended had it not been for a policeman named Al Stankie.

Stankie broke up a street fight involving an 8-year-old Gonzales and challenged the kid to come down to a police department gym and test his boxing skills with a pair of gloves on.

"I remember walking in there," Gonzales said, "hearing the speed bag going. My heart was pounding."

And soon Gonzales was pounding away under the tutelage of Stankie, who became his coach, manager and mentor.

As Gonzales' stature as an amateur fighter grew, so did his conviction that he would achieve the ultimate at that level.

In 1983, on a wall in his mother's apartment in the Aliso Village housing projects, Gonzales drew a pair of boxing gloves, and above them wrote, "Paul Gonzales, Olympic gold medal in 1984."

The rest of his boxing life didn't work out as well. Plagued by injuries he couldn't shrug off as he did in the Olympics, Gonzales had only 20 pro fights, going 16-4 with three knockouts over a seven-year period ending in 1991.

Since then, he has been a motivational speaker and television commentator, boxed with youngsters at the Hollenbeck Youth Center, served on a youth commission and made an unsuccessful run for an L.A. City Council seat last year.

Wherever he goes, however, the main topic is still that gold medal. So where is it?

"In a vault," Gonzales said. "I don't want anybody to take it. I worked too hard for that medal.

"People say, 'How much is that medal worth?' I say, 'My life. That's what I put into it.' "

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