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Boxer 'Indian Red' Lopez wandered for years after losing world title bouts. Now, he will be reunited with his family and inducted into Hall of Fame.

March 04, 2004|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

FORT WORTH — Ernie "Indian Red" Lopez was lost, and now he is found.

That is the short version of how it has come to be that Lopez, a boxer of some popularity in Southern California in the 1960s and '70s, will be inducted Saturday into the California Boxing Hall of Fame.

It is an honor that Lopez's tenacious and loving family had feared might be a posthumous one. But after 12 years out of contact with relatives, the former welterweight contender turned up in a homeless shelter here last month, setting the stage for a long-awaited reunion today.

Lopez -- son of Lucille May Hackford Lopez, a Ute Indian, and Ernest Paul Lopez, a Juaneno Mission Indian -- was born with flaming red hair and stubborn courage, strong legs and knuckles of steel. So Lopez became a boxer, as his father had been and his older brother Leonard was and his younger brother Danny would become. And Lopez came upon his nickname because of his red hair and Native American heritage.

Twice Lopez fought for the world welterweight title in front of sellout crowds of more than 14,000 at the Forum, and twice he was laid out by Jose "Mantequilla" Napoles. Napoles, a tough Cuban who had found his way to Mexico, beat Lopez once in 15 rounds and once on a seventh-round knockout.

That knockout hurt more than any other. By all accounts, Lopez had won the first six rounds. He had cut Napoles over and under the eye and on the bridge of the nose. But at the start of the seventh, Napoles, hardly able to see, caught Lopez flush on the face. It was a knockout punch. Lopez lay unmoving on the canvas for three minutes while Napoles cradled Lopez's head and wailed, "Please wake up. Please wake up."

Lopez woke up, but his life was never quite the same.

"I think Ernie lost his self-esteem when he didn't win the title," said Marcia Iannone, his former wife.

"It was the losses to Napoles and the divorce that sent Ernie into a tailspin," said Ernie's brother Danny "Little Red" Lopez. "He was a hurt man."


Lopez sat in the cluttered office of Dennis Pennington, program manager for the Presbyterian Night Shelter here, earlier this week. Although the shelter is closed during the day, Lopez remained inside. Pennington did not want to lose track of Lopez, who until two weeks ago had been lost track of for 12 years.

After his boxing career ended in 1974, and after his divorce, Lopez became a wanderer.

He would show up to visit his four children -- daughters Cindy, Kami and Tracy and son Lance -- every few months. He would work construction and odd jobs for a while, then he would go away.

In 1992, Lopez came to stay with Cindy in San Bernardino, where he was visited by his other three children and some of his seven brothers and sisters. He eventually left, but his pattern had been to call someone in the family, a child or a sibling, at least once a year.

A year, two, three went by and Lopez never called anyone.

Even though she was remarried to R.H. Iannone, a school superintendent, and living happily in Alta Loma, Marcia said she never lost her affection for Lopez. Her children, now grown and with their own families, always ached to have their father in their lives.

So every couple of years, Iannone would contact police, asking for help in tracking down Lopez. But it isn't the job of detectives to find adults who wander.

As the years passed, his children began to think the worst.

"I feared he was dead," said Lance Lopez, 38, who lives in Utah with his five children.

A few months ago, Tracy Hadaway, 35, Lopez's youngest daughter, saw an item in the Los Angeles Times that mentioned her father as well as Don Fraser, president of the California Boxing Hall of Fame and promoter of many of Lopez's fights.

Hadaway called Fraser, telling him about Lopez's disappearance and wondering whether he could help. While he did not think he could do much to find Lopez, Fraser recalled in an interview this week, he realized that Lopez belonged in the Hall of Fame.

Determined either to find Lopez or to learn for certain that he was dead, the children and Iannone made another call to the Los Angeles police. "I told them there really wasn't much we could do," said Det. Christine Beltran. "This typically isn't what we consider a missing person. Their father was a man who went away."

But Beltran was also touched by the circumstance. "They told me about the honor of the Hall of Fame," she said. "It seemed like we should make an effort."

Her checks of arrest and death records turned up nothing.

While Beltran said she could not disclose how she located Lopez, Iannone said she received a phone call about two weeks ago from the detective. Beltran said Lopez's Social Security number had come up in association with the Presbyterian Night Shelter.

Iannone called the shelter. Yes, she was told, Ernie Lopez was there.

"Ernie, you've been lost for a long time," Iannone told him.

"I'm not lost," Lopez replied. "I'm right here."

Over the last week, joyous phone calls have been exchanged among father and children.

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