Alberto Davila's best night in boxing was also his worst.
It was Sept. 1, 1983, and the Pomona Garey High graduate was fighting for the bantamweight championship for the fourth time, having disappointedly walked away from his previous three title bouts without a belt.
He'd been boxing for 17 years.
"Twelve years old when I started," remembers Davila, now a 53-year-old father of six living in Upland. "I walked into a gym one day and got the crap beat out of me, but I loved it. I went back every day for the next six years."
The top-ranked contender had hoped to draw on that experience as he fought for the World Boxing Council's recently vacated title in the 118-pound division, but going into the 12th round against No. 3-ranked Kiko Bejines, Davila trailed on points.
In 58 previous fights, the stylish boxer had won only 20 by knockout. Davila, described as more of a craftsman than a brawler, was "a boxer who embodies all the best aspects of the so-called sweet science," Times reporter Richard Hoffer wrote at the time, with "no instincts for the brutality" of the sport.
But, with another title shot seemingly slipping away, the usually defensive boxer transformed himself. Turning aggressor, Davila caught Bejines flush on the jaw with a right hand less than 30 seconds into the final round. He landed two left punches, backing the Guadalajara fighter against the ropes, and then another solid right.
Bejines, a popular attraction at the Olympic Auditorium because of his macho style, sank to the canvas. The oldest of three boxing brothers, he started to get up, bracing himself on his fists. But then he collapsed again, unconscious.
Finally, after failed attempts in 1978, 1980 and 1982, plus a brief retirement from the sport to take a job delivering beer, Davila was a champion.
Finally, he could rejoice.
But, to Davila's horror, Bejines wasn't moving. Dragged into his corner, where cornermen and doctors tried to revive him, Bejines later was carried out on a stretcher and, still unconscious, taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital. From there, a helicopter transported him to another hospital. The next day, he underwent a 3 1/2 -hour operation to relieve pressure on his brain.
Two days after that, Bejines was pronounced dead.
The new champion, meanwhile, stood by in anguish.
"I never celebrated that victory," says Davila, who works as a laborer for a property maintenance company in Irvine. "I remember being real proud that night, but yet when we left the Olympic we went straight to the hospital, where he was, and stayed there into the wee hours of the night and into the early morning.
"I couldn't enjoy the victory."
Adds Davila, "It's something that will never leave me."
But Davila's luck was better than Bejines', and Davila never lost sight of that. He continued striving to make a better life for his family.
"You ask questions of yourself, like, 'Why did this happen?' " Davila says. "You win the biggest fight of your life and it's a tragedy. But the way I look at it is, we risk everything in life every day when we walk out the door. You never know what's going to happen, or why things happen. God only knows."
Davila and his high school sweetheart, Roberta, have been married 32 years. Though neither graduated from college, their three sons and three daughters all are college graduates or working toward undergraduate degrees. Daughter Brianne is working on a doctorate and son Gabriel is working on a master's.
The two youngest, 18-year-old twins Alyssa and Albert, won college athletic scholarships. Alyssa is a freshman soccer player at USC, Albert a freshman distance runner at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio.
"My wife stressed that very much to the kids," Davila says of the family's emphasis on education. "She's the one that did most of that."
Davila successfully defended his title once, knocking out Enrique Sanchez in a rainstorm in Miami, then blew out a disk in his back while gardening.
Davila, whose real name is Albert but who fought under the name Alberto to make himself more marketable to a Latino audience, launched another comeback after that and fought twice more for the title, losing both times to Happy Lora.
In 1988, after losing to Lora at the Forum, he retired.
"I loved the sport," says Davila, who stayed involved as a trainer for several years before untangling himself altogether. "I loved competing. I loved what it did for me. Boxing was good to me. It gave me a sense of pride and it let me see parts of the world that I might never have seen if I hadn't been a fighter."
Of course, it also provided its share of heartache.
Davila wasn't sorry when his kids showed little interest in it.
"It's a hard sport," he says. "You've got to love it and I did. As dirty as it is, I miss it dearly. But I'm very happy away from it -- the corruption, the bad people."
And the triumphant nights that can turn to tragedy.