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Touching Gloves with... Rodolfo Gonzalez
By Dan Hanley
I saw Rodolfo Gonzalez fight for the first time against a fighter named Nick Aghai back in '71 when I was just 14. I thought at the time, "Eh, nice boxer, able to put his punches together nice", and nothing more. In '72 I saw his first fight with Ruben Navarro and my eyebrows perked up at the strong, hard banging fighter who crowded Navarro for ten rounds, and was pleasantly impressed. I suppose I was surprised as others to hear he beat Chango Carmona for the title, so, with bated breath, I had my chance to watch his first title defense against Navarro and to see what else he brought to the table which I apparently missed. I sat in awe watching, that summer of '73, as he dismantled Ruben Navarro and Antonio Puddu in defense of his WBC lightweight title and made it look too easy.
Ten years ticked by, and at the age of 26, I finally had my chance to view Gonzalez' title winning bout against Carmona on a Spanish language network, which was airing great bouts of the early to mid '70s. Conceding before the bout that it was my youthful exuberance of a decade earlier that possibly jumped the gun on the Gonzalez talent grid, I watched the '72 title bout in order to properly gauge what Rodolfo Gonzalez had under the hood. And, after watching twelve of the most brutal rounds I had ever seen, while pushing my slack jaw back into place, I came away with one undeniable fact. I underestimated him.
DH: Rodolfo, where were you born?
RG: A little town outside Guadalajara called Jalisco.
DH: Did your family have a background in boxing?
RG: My cousin got me into boxing. He was the bantamweight champion of the world, Jose Becerra.
DH: Jose Becerra was your cousin?
RG: Also my first manager and trainer. But eventually, Jose wanted to enjoy life, so I was taken over then by Angel Casillas.
DH: You were quite young when you turned pro. I'm going to assume you had little amateur experience.
RG: That's right, I was 14 when I turned pro in 1959, with no amateur experience at all. My first pro fight, which was scheduled for 6 rounds, was against a fellow who was 27. I was so nervous, I thought I was going to get killed. But Jose told me, "Don't worry, he hasn't been trained by the champion of the world". And I knocked him out in the first round.
DH: The record book says you went on a 31 bout unbeaten streak. How accurate is that?
RG: Actually, it was 55 bouts straight. The little towns I fought in didn't keep records. I ended up with a total of 88 fights, only 7 losses and a draw with 70 by KO.
DH: You had a nice KO streak going at the beginning of your career.
RG: It's funny, my stablemate, 'Alacran' Torres, who went on to win the world flyweight title, and me had a race for the KO's going. We were tied at 28 when he won a decision and I knocked out my opponent for number 29. I won the race.
DH: When you ventured north for the first time to LA, you suffered your first loss.
RG: I was 17, came into LA and couldn't even write my name. I put an 'X' on the contract. It was so embarassing. I fought the top contender at featherweight, Licho Guerrero. I had him down early, but he won the fight.
DH: You drifted from the game after that, for about 3 years. Tell me about that.
RG: Shortly after that, I developed a form of liver cancer and was given one year to live. I continued seeing doctors, the last one telling me I had two months to live, and I was already half dead when I saw him. They sent me home to die at my mother's house in Tijuana. One night, I had a dream of the Virgin of Guadalupe, who told me to visit her church in Tijuana. I made my way there, of course I could hardly breathe at that point I was so loaded with morphine. But, I knelt down at the feet of the Virgin and said, "Here I am, do with me what you will!" And about 25 minutes later, with me still kneeling there, I began to feel better. By the time I left the church, I felt so good I began shaking hands with everyone I met. They thought I was crazy, but I was so happy.
DH: That's an incredible story. A leap of faith brought you back. What did the doctors say?
RG: They couldn't find a trace of it. It doesn't hurt to have a little faith in God.
DH: After your illness, you relocated permanently up north?
RG: Yes, but it took a long time to recover my strength.
DH: Who was your manager now on the coast?
RG: I signed on with Bill Seales, who ran the Seaside gym in Long Beach. In fact, I lived in the gym, things were tough then.
DH: Now let me get this right. You had 56 fights behind you, just recovered from what doctors say was a terminal illness, coming back after almost 3 years out of the ring, and you were still only 20 years old?
RG: (laughs) That's right.
DH: Life was tough! And you didn't exactly choose an easy target to come back against in Bobby Valdez.
RG: Oh, Bobby Valdez was good. A top contender. We fought 3 times. The last fight he stopped me on a cut.
DH: I see another name on your record early in your comeback, Alton Colter. Didn't he beat Fighting Harada?
RG: Yeah, I fought Colter in Las Vegas, and he was good. But the best I fought during my comeback was Ray Adigun. He was a top contender and, my God, he hit so hard!
DH: Tell me about that fight.
RG: Well, according to the press, nobody wanted to fight him, so I guess I was the only dummy around. Adigun won the first 9 rounds, and then I knocked him out in the tenth. The fight was so good, the ring was showered with money from appreciative fans, which the fighters split. My purse for the fight was $700. My half of what ended up in the ring was $1000. So, I made more from the fans than I did from the purse.
DH: Throwing money in the ring seems to be a lost tradition. You don't see that anymore.
RG: I'll tell you another thing. Once during a fight, I was working over my opponent, when some loco threw a rattlesnake in the ring. My opponent and I jumped up on the top ropes and the referee was there with a broomstick trying to kill it. That's something you don't see much of anymore, either.
(After regaining control of my bladder, the interview continued)
DH: Tell me a little about the Mexican rings compared to the U.S.
RG: Oh, they're a rough crowd down there. You don't say 'no mas' in those rings. To tell you how they can be, in one of my last fights, I stopped the top Mexican lightweight, Clemente Mucino in 2 rounds down in Tijuana. And they rioted because they didn't see much of a fight.
DH: After regaining your footing, you went on a 12 bout unbeaten streak until you ran into one of the greats of the game in '70, Antonio Cervantes. Tell me about this fight.
RG: The fight with Cervantes was called quickly. The previous fight on the card must have ended early because I was told to get the gloves on and get out to the ring. And I hadn't even warmed up yet. I paid the price for being cold in the first round when he caught me with a straight jab that put me down. But then he thumbed me, and believe me, that warmed me up because I didn't like that at all. In the second round I caught him solid and I didn't think he was going to get up. His feet were up in the air by the time he landed. But he got up, stayed away, and stopped me on a cut in the 8th round. I was mad over that. I asked him for a rematch but he wanted nothing to do with it. If you ever run into him, you ask him who hit him the hardest in his career. He'll tell you.
DH: When did Jackie McCoy enter the picture?
RG: The end of '71, beginning of '72. I was having alot of managerial problems. Here I was a top lightweight and seeing only $400-500 a fight. I signed with Jackie and my first fight I received $6,000.
DH: What fight put you at the forefront of the division? I'm going to guess, Jimmy Robertson.
RG: I believe it was. It was huge on the coast. What made it such a big fight was Robertson's record against Mexicans at that time.
DH: Right, he was going through his, "No Mexican in the world can beat me", routine.
RG: He had beaten 17 Mexicans and I was supposed to be number 18. But, it didn't work out that way.
DH: McCoy had some big names in his stable when you signed on, did you feel overshadowed or neglected?
RG: Oh no, Jackie was very fair in everything he did. When I came onboard, I hadn't been making much money, so Jackie loaned me money to buy a car and told me to pay him when I could. And I started making real money with him. We had a mutual trust. You don't see that today. And I benefitted with Raul Rojas and Mando Ramos in the gym.
DH: I heard you and Ramos engaged in some real gym wars.
RG: (laughs) Mando and I have alot of respect for one another. I hear from him all the time, he e-mails me 2 or 3 times a week. But we used to spar and go at it. You'll have to ask him who was the first person to deck him with a left hook to the liver.
DH: That did seem to be your favored weapon.
RG: I knocked out Ernie Villaflor, the brother of Ben Villaflor, over in Honolulu with that punch. The press labeled me, 'the liver killer'.
DH: Your next fight was against Ruben Navarro. Was there bad blood between you two?
RG: I won a decision in our first fight and everyone agreed except Ruben. So, the talking didn't really begin until our next fight.
DH: Holding that thought, that was in July of '72. In September, Chango Carmona brutalized Mando Ramos for the WBC title. How did you get the call for the title fight?
RG: I was there in the Coliseum the night they took Mando out on a stretcher, and I challenged Carmona in the ring. Now, managers have let me down before. I tried for a title shot against Teo Cruz, nothing doing. I tried for a title shot against Ismael Laguna, nothing doing. But, Jackie called me in one day and said he had a surprise for me. And he presented me with the contract to fight Carmona for the title. He was a good manager.
DH: With the Ramos beating still fresh in everyone's mind, how many people actually gave you a chance against Carmona?
RG: Not too many. He was a 3-1 favorite, but I watched him in a public training session about a week before the fight and I said to Jackie, "Did you see that?", and he said, "You saw it too, huh?" We both saw a weakness.
DH: What was it?
RG: When he was pushed back, he was lost. But, if you let him do the pushing, you'd better get out of the ring.
DH: I saw the fight, you kept him on the back heel the whole fight.
RG: It was one of my easiest fights. He didn't come out for the 13th round and I was the new champ.
DH: You were a naturally strong lightweight, so this plan was tailor-made for you.
RG: Well, one of my stablemates was Carlos Palomino, a welterweight, and I was able to push him back, so...
DH: What was it like being crowned champ after 13 years in the game?
RG: It was unbelievable! In the dressing room after the fight, everyone was in there congratulating me. Suddenly, this guy is crawling on the floor trying to get through the crowd to me. It turned out to be Peter Falk, the actor. He came to all my fights.
DH: You had an interesting following.
RG: I also had to contend with Joey Bishop and Frank Sinatra trying to buy my contract from Jackie.
DH: I noticed a real change in your style by this time. It seemed to be a combination of your natural strength, relentless combinations and that left hook to the body employed concurrently rather than just one or the other. I wasn't the only one to notice this. McCoy was quoted after the Carmona fight as saying, "I never knew he was this good!" And Ruben Navarro screamed after your second fight with him, "This is not the same man I fought in Anaheim!" It seems you had hit your stride.
RG: I suppose, but I think I was just trying to adapt.
DH: I heard for your first defense they were trying to sign Pedro Carrasco?
RG: Yes, but nothing came of it. They were also talking about Ken Buchanan. They even had an option on Chango Carmona, but he didn't want that.
DH: So then it was the grudge match with Ruben Navarro. I remember the press clippings at the time. They were playing it up as the Maravilla Kid vs. Mr. Clean.
RG: Jackie always said if I got into some bar fights I would generate more publicity. I guess I just wasn't a big talker. But Ruben was telling the press that after he knocked me out, he was going to throw me in a trash can in the alley. It didn't turn out quite that way. I stopped him in 9.
DH: On the undercard of that bout, WBA lightweight champ Roberto Duran fought a non-title ten rounder against Javier Ayala. About 3 weeks earlier he took out Juan Medina, also in LA. This had all the earmarks of a unification match in the making, with Duran familiarizing himself with the LA fight crowd. What happened?
RG: Jackie challenged Duran's people to a unification match, and they were actually negotiating. But, in the end, Duran's manager, I can't remember his name, said, "You keep your title, we'll keep ours." And that was it. I met up with Duran about 2 years ago. We have a good relationship.
DH: It would've been some war.
RG: Oh, God, yes! It would've been some payday too. I also wanted to go up to welterweight to challenge my friend, 'Mantequilla' Napoles, but we got no response there either.
DH: Would you have been able to carry the weight?
RG: Oh yeah, in fact, lightweight was getting difficult at that point. It wouldn't have been a problem.
DH: Your next defense was against Italy's Antonio Puddu. His press clippings were phenomenal. As an amateur, he was the World Military Games lightweight champ. Going into your fight he was the European lightweight titleholder with a record of 49-1-1 with 34 by KO. On top of that, the highly critical LA press was so impressed with him in training, the odds dropped to only 2-1 in your favor. Tell me about the fight.
RG: Puddu was a bit of a wild fighter, but a hard puncher. As for the fight, I had a 103 degree fever the morning of the fight. Now, McCoy didn't like canceling fights, so he had a doctor give me a shot to bring my temperature down. In the second round I dropped Puddu hard with a left hook. He got up, got scared, and ran the rest of the fight. And believe me, that was a blessing, because I had no strength. I finally stopped him in the 11th.
DH: What kind of money were you looking at as champ?
RG: I only made about $10,000 for the Carmona fight, and a third of that went to Jackie. But I made $43,000 for the Navarro fight, $65,000 for Puddu, and $80,000 for Suzuki.
DH: So there was 80,000 incentives for you to head over to Japan? About that fight, you looked very weak in that bout. It was reported that you had a flu leading up to the match and you were on some kind of water diet of your own creation in order to shed the last few pounds. How true was this?
RG: (laughs) No! No flu. I was just having problems making the weight. I had to lose 25 pounds to make 135 and I lost the first 20 no problem. But the last 5 I had nowhere to lose it. I was skin and bones. The fight was on Good Friday and on Holy Thursday Jackie and me set out to find a steam bath. Unfortunately there was a labor strike in Tokyo at the time and it took us quite awhile to find one open. Anyway, we found one and I went into the steamroom. The next thing I remember was two Japanese guys holding me up in front of a cold shower. I had passed out in the steamroom. And I was still 1 pound overweight. I had nothing that night and I was stopped in the 8th.
DH: How difficult was the rematch?
RG: I was better prepared and was having no problem with him. But then I got cut in the 5th and by the 7th I was having a hard time seeing out of my left eye with the blood.
DH: Were you prone to cuts?
RG: Yeah, late in my career. I developed a callous over my left eye and it would split easy.
DH: In the Suzuki rematch, I noticed you starting to walk into right hands late in the fight. What about the right hand that decked you in the 12th?
RG: Too much blood, I never saw it coming.
DH: Suzuki never impressed me, so it was a bit of a shock over here when you lost to him. I thought he was very strong, threw a 'Hail Mary' right hand, and that was it.
RG: A big right hand, that's all. I was still ahead on points at the time it was stopped, in both fights. But that was it for me, I called it quits after that.
DH: What do you consider your greatest achievement in the sport?
RG: My greatest moment was when I took the championship belt that I won for beating Chango Carmona and repaid a debt. I took that belt, returned to that little church in Tijuana, and laid it at the feet of the Virgin. Today, that belt is at the shrine in Mexico City for all to see.
DH: Did you stay in the game in any capacity?
RG: I always followed the sport, but right now I'm co-managing a couple of up and comers with Tony Martinez.
DH: What else have you been doing in boxing retirement?
RG: After what happened to me, I've been doing alot of motivational speaking. Also, alot of acting. I'm headed down to Mexico in May when shooting begins for a Mexican 'Rocky' movie. Also, Zebra Productions is working on a film project based on my life story.
DH: What's it called?
RG: 'El Gato', my nickname. As a matter of fact, they're talking to Peter Falk about playing the part of Jackie McCoy.
DH: El Gato, the Cat! Why the Cat?
RG: Because I used to play with my opponent before I knocked him out.
Roberto Duran was, of course, the greatest lightweight I have seen. His lightweight peak from '76-'78 was a remarkable blend of gloved savagery tempered by sublime boxing skills and a subtle, underrated defense. However, the rambunctious Roberto Duran, still in his incubation period from '72-'74, was a bit of a tearaway, and nobody could have convinced me, at 16, that Rodolfo Gonzalez didn't have the beating of Roberto Duran in him. I believed then that Gonzalez could have handled the wild rushes of this young Panamanian, while making him pay for impertinence...and I still do.
See ya next round
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