How did you get into boxing? Did it run in your family? Who were your influences?
I remember watching the old Gillette Friday Night Fights with my father when I was kid in the late 50's. That was probably my first introduction to boxing. My father was a former boxer in the army and stayed a fan all of his life. He understood the sport. Almost by default, I became a fan too. He taught me the basic skills of boxing. My father and I would visit the Main Street Gym whenever we were in Downtown Los Angeles. He will always be my first and biggest influence. My uncle Gilbert was also a boxer so there was some family influence. Also, my cousins from Las Cruces, New Mexico, Louie and Rocky Burke turned pro after successful amateur careers, so boxing does seem to run in our family. Louie is a trainer now with one world champion (Austin Trout) under his belt. Louie was recently inducted into the California Boxing Hall of Fame in recognition of his outstanding career. Rocky Burke is now a world class referee from New Mexico.
When I was a kid I read a biography on Jack Dempsey. He was my first real boxing idol, despite the fact that he was decades before my time. I still feel that he was and is the epitome of a heavyweight boxer. I grew up during the Muhammad Ali years so there was some influence from that too. My father would tell me about the old school fighters around L.A. during the years that he was growing up, fighters like Art Aragon, Lauro Salas and Enrique Bolanos. He would also talk about Sugar Ray Robinson, whom he believed, as most do, was the best pound for pound fighter of all time.
Talk about your fight experiences as an amateur and professional? What was your usual workout routine and diet?
I never fought amateur. Perhaps things might have been different if I had. Despite his love of boxing my father never wanted me to be a boxer. It was most likely my mother, who loved watching the fights but hated the thought of one of her sons fighting in the ring. I walked into the Main Street Gym one day, some time near the end of 1974 or the early part of 1975. I wanted to fight and I wanted a trainer. That's how I met Mel Epstein who became my manager/trainer.
As I mentioned above, I never fought amateur. It's just the way things worked out. When I met Mel Epstein, even with what I had learned from my father, I was green as could be but I was willing. He made it clear that he didn't work with amateurs. That's how I started out. To be perfectly honest though, I didn't have much of a career. Early on it was hard getting fights; I had a couple of fights scheduled at the Olympic Auditorium that fell through, literally minutes before I was scheduled to fight. Another time, at the Forum in Inglewood, I was scheduled to fight Chris Gonzales on the under-card of Danny "Little Red" Lopez and Art Hafey, again just minutes before I was to fight it was canceled. It was frustrating. I ended up watching the Lopez-Hafey fight with Mel. Danny stopped Hafey in the 7th round. He was just too much for Hafey that day.
Still, I continued to train every day. I wanted to be ready in case something came up. I would start out my workout by loosening up for a round or two, stretching, twisting at the waist, touching my toes and constantly moving. I would work up a little sweat. Next I would skip rope for two rounds, always with my chin down, so that it became a habit. I wasn't a fancy rope skipper but I was fast and consistent. Then I would shadow box for two rounds in front of one of the mirrors. I learned from my father the value of a good jab and Mel reinforced that. Mel would usually watch as I was shadowboxing and would walk up to me and let me know if I was doing something he didn't like. Next I would move on to the speed bag for two to three rounds and then on to the heavy bag. The heavy bags at the Main Street Gym hung from the rafters so the bottom of the bags were at about waist high. This allowed me to move with the bag or go underneath it. I generally sparred every day. I sparred with some good fighters during my time at the Main Street Gym, guys like middleweight Renato Garcia, Felipe Torres, Zovek Barajas and light heavyweight contender Mike Quarry.
I did all my roadwork in the morning, usually 5 miles a day, mixing in some sprinting, and running backwards at times. I also stayed in good shape by eating right. Now this was before it became popular to have a nutritionist working with a fighter, so common sense eating and portions was the way to stay in shape; good lean beef, fish, chicken, staying away from too much fried foods, lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, and whole wheat breads. I kept alcohol to a minimum. I tried to get to bed early but being a young man, it was difficult to do that on the weekends.
I finally got a fight on August 13, 1976 at the Coliseum in San Diego, a four round bout with a fighter by the name of Ignacio "Nacho" Cota. It wasn't an easy fight. Cota was really tough, He was a non stop slugger and any thoughts
I had of boxing went right out the window. The only way I was going to beat this guy was to out slug him and that's what I did. When the first round ended my trainer, Mel Epstein said to me "What the hell are you doing? I want you to box! I went back in and it was more of the same but once the round went on I began to feel like I had a little more going on than he did. He had no concept of defense. I found that his punches didn't hurt me. At one point I threw a right hand that opened up a cut over his left eye. It seemed to splatter in slow motion. I seemed to have the crowd on my side despite the fact that Cota fought out of San Diego. The fight went the full four rounds. When the fight was over the crowd cheered us both, we put on a good show. I think both of us fought our hearts out. Mel says to me "You won the fight, get ready to go shake his hand" When the fight was declared a draw Mel went ballistic. The crowd didn't like it either. I was just glad it was over. Mel said he was going to file a complaint with the commission but I can't really remember if he did or not. As I climbed out of the ring several fans were touching me on the back, telling me I won the fight. I remember one old Hispanic man patting my back and following me almost all the way back to the dressing room. "You won the fight, you won the fight! Mel had to chase him away. Later, when we went to pick up our checks, Cota never looked me in the eye. I think that he felt he lost the fight and was embarrassed by the decision. That's just my guess. My honest feeling's about that fight? I felt I won. I never complained about it though. I figure getting a draw against Cota in San Diego was as good as a win.
Mel called me at home and said to me "There's a fight for you in Vegas if you want it, on the under-card of the Mike Quarry-Tom Bethea fight at the Aladdin Hotel, it's going to be on the Wide World of Sports". Yeah, okay" I said. "The only thing is though that it's a six round fight. The guy you're fighting is a ten round fighter. He's been fighting main events. You only have two weeks to get in proper shape". So I ended up fighting a main event fighter in a six round bout for my second fight. His name was Eduardo Barba. I did pretty good against him too. The referee for our fight was Joey Giambra. This time I made it a point to box. I knew he would have a lot more experience than me and most likely would be in better shape being a ten round fighter. I was the aggressor in the fight. I came forward and used my jab to set up my right. He wasn't that hard to hit. I didn't want to wait for him to punch and then counter. Still, he got his shots in too but his punches never really hurt me. He thumbed me twice in the fight but I never said a word to Mel. He never knew it but he landed a right hand in my solar plexus that knocked the wind completely out of me. It would have been easy for me to go down, but I refused. In the last rounds I did everything I could to knock him out but I just couldn't do it. When the fight was over Mel said to me "He won the fight, go over and shake his hand". He wanted me to do it before the decision was announced. To show good sportsmanship I suppose. The scores were read and he won the fight. A man knows when he wins and when he loses. I gave Barba a good fight and I gave the fans a good show. I'm proud of my performance that day. That fight took place on October 30, 1976.
A few last words on Mel Epstein. He was my connection to a long gone era in boxing. He was born in 1900 and knew everyone from that early age, including John L. Sullivan and Jack Dempsey. He was a manager, trainer and promoter at different times in his life. Boxing was his entire life. He had no time or need of women in his life. He trained Guido Bardelli, AKA Young Firpo, the Wild Bull of Idaho, the uncrowned champion and one of the greatest and most avoided fighter never to win a title. He also trained Mike Nixon, Rick Farris and Gary Pittman and many others whose names have been lost to time.
Tell me everything you can remember about the 'Main Street Gym'?
For decades the Main Street Gym was the place to be, this is where "West Coast" fighters trained but it wasn't just the west coast boxers that trained here. Some of the greatest fighters from across the country and the world trained here. Jerry Quarry trained here, so did Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali, Alexis Arguello, Roberto Duran, Bobby Chacon, Ruben Olivares and so many more that I could never list them all. The gym was located at 318 1/2 Main Street in downtown Los Angeles. It wasn't pretty by anyone's standard yet in some ways it was a thing of beauty, in the same way that they say "He has a face only a mother could love". The Main Street Gym was what all boxing gyms should be, a place to stay hungry, a constant reminder of what you are trying so hard to get away from. It was a grim and no-nonsense gym with the minimal amount of equipment. The smell of wintergreen, alcohol, sweat and who knows what else permeated the gym. The sounds of leather ropes hitting the floor, the speed bags being hit, the grunts of the fighters hitting the heavy bags and the sounds of gloves hitting flesh, filled the air inside the gym but the most prominent sound was the bell that would let you know when the round began and ended. It was a place like no other. I miss that old smelly gym to this day.
Tell me about any world class fighters you ran into in or out of the gym or any fighter that made an impact on your life?
There are a lot of great memories from my time at the gym, none more memorable than meeting the legendary Sugar Ray Robinson. He was there quite often in the mid 1970’s. My first contact with him was on a weekday afternoon. I was shadowboxing in front of the mirror. Not the mirror by the door when you waked in, the mirror opposite of the doors, by the windows, near the speed bags. If you trained there you know which mirror. I could see Robinson jumping rope behind me as I shadowboxed. He was watching me. He stopped jumping and just stared at me. After a minute or so, he walked over to me and tapped my shoulder and said “Excuse me son, do you mind if I give you a little advice?” I looked over at Mel, knowing how he felt about anyone bothering his fighters. Even he recognized the magnitude of the moment for me. He smiled and nodded to me. Do I mind if Sugar Ray Robinson gives me advice? Do birds fly? He gave me a good piece of advice about not drawing my right hand back when I jabbed with my left. He told me to “think of my right as a catcher’s mitt and the other guys fist as a baseball. Just relax and catch it.” To this day when I pass that advice on to someone and they question it, I tell them that Sugar Ray Robinson told me that.
Talk about Howie Steindler and Bennie Georgino.
Howie Stiendler was the living personification of the gym. Like the gym itself, he had a gruff exterior but underneath he was good decent man that loved his fighters. He was the manager of Ernie "Indian Red" Lopez and his younger brother, Danny "Little Red" Lopez as well as Alberto Davila. During the time I was there Danny was the top gun. He was a humble guy, never showed off and always worked hard in the gym, the same could be said about Davila. With the exception of a comeback fight in which he was stopped in the first round, Ernie Lopez had already retired from the ring, though he would occasionally come by the gym to work out or watch Danny. Howie was the guy that got me the fight at the Aladdin in Las Vegas. Before I left he said to me "You've chosen your profession now get out there and do it right". I'm paraphrasing it but that was the gist of it.
Howie's office was located at the top of the grimy stairs that you had to climb if you wanted to get to the gym. His office was small and unpretentious, with paperwork of some type cluttering the top of his desk. On the walls were old photos of chimpanzees with names of trainers and fighters written on them. Howie's attempt at humor. The office was just outside the gym entrance. The gym was on the other side of the double doors. There was small sliding door that Howie could open and peer through if he wanted to see what was going on in the gym. For the most part Howie ran that gym with an iron fist.
Benny Georgino was a regular at the gym and after Howie was murdered in 1977 he became the manager of Danny Lopez and Alberto Davila and guided them for the rest of their careers. Howie never lived to see Danny fight as a Champion. Benny was the odds-maker for west coast boxing at the time. He paid me the greatest compliment I would ever get when he called me the "Toy Bulldog' which was Mickey Walker's moniker. He said I reminded him of Walker. If you know anything about boxing and Mickey Walker you can see why I cherish that memory. Georgino still shows up at the California Boxing Hall of Fame Banquets.
What do you think of fighters of today?
A lot of people say that boxing isn't what it used to be. Maybe, but I think a lot of it has to do with the trainers. Back in the day, being a trainer was a profession. They carried a little black bag much like a doctor with the tools of the trade inside, available at a moments notice. A lot of trainers these days don't know a left hook from a fishing hook. I see a lot of fighters come out with their chin up and their hands down. No one tells them anything so they never learn. I think that inside, most fighters are still the same, but promoters and managers don't want to risk losing their meal tickets. Guys like my cousin Louie Burke, or Freddie Roach still train fighters the old school way. Another thing is the money. I don't blame anyone for wanting to make the big bucks but a lot of fighters avoid taking a risk because they might lose a shot at a money fight. Who wants to risk losing a shot at Manny Pacquiao, it was the same way a few years ago when Oscar De La Hoya was fighting. The money is important but fans want to see good fighters fight each other.
Talk about the time when 'Rocky' was filmed at the gym.
The guy that I remember most fondly is Monroe Brooks. We met during the filming of Rocky and we share a scene together. During a break from filming Monroe and I sparred for six rounds, most of the crew, including Sylvester Stallone, stopped whatever they were doing and walked over to the ring apron to watch us. The day I was going to fight on the under-card of Lopez-Hafey, Monroe came to the dressing room to wish me luck. He was a decent guy and a class act. I haven't seen him in years but I think of him often, especially when ever I watch Rocky.
Rocky is just one of many movies and television shows that were filmed at the Main Street Gym and it's the most famous. I was lucky to be a part of it in just the smallest way. Great movie. Mel called me one night and said that they were making a movie about Rocky Marciano at the gym and they wanted real boxers as extras. I was more than happy to do it. Of course, it turned out not to be about Rocky Marciano, as Mel thought but about the fictional character Rocky Balboa. In the movie the gym was "Mighty Mick's Gym" run by Burgess Meredith's character Mickey Goldmill. Mel and I had lunch with Meredith and I swear some of Mel Epstein rubbed off on him. He was really picking Mel's brain. A few of the scenes that were shot at the gym were either altered or cut from the movie. I still consider Rocky the greatest boxing movie ever made.
In your opinion and your experiences what does it take nowadays to be a 'World Champion'?
When it comes to being a champion, the ingredients are still the same as they have always been. It's probably different for each fighter but with most it's the refusal to accept defeat. Some guys just want it more. There is no secret to winning but you have to be up to the task. Some guys were over achievers, that fought above and beyond what they might have except for their heart. Evander Holyfield is a good example. He wasn't unbeatable and he wasn't a big heavyweight but it was his huge heart that won the fights for him. Same with Danny Lopez, you almost couldn't miss hitting him or knocking him down but that big heart got him off the canvass and back in the fight. There was no secret formula to their winning, it was visible to anyone paying attention. They believed in themselves and they refused to lose. A championship heart, that's the key, in any era.
Explain why you had to retire from the sport?
I never really meant to get away from boxing but I had a family to support so as the saying goes "A man does what a man has to do". I got into the aircraft industry and have been at it since January 1978. I'll be retiring from Boeing Aircraft in Long Beach, California in a few years. I'm looking forward to it. Nowadays, my only activity as far as boxing is concerned is watching the fights, attending the California Boxing Hall of Fame and the World Boxing Hall of Fame, once a year, and writing about boxing on my blog "Thoughts on Boxing, Boxers and Fights'.
The California Boxing Hall of Fame just recently happened on June 25, 2011. That day was special for you. Share with us something about that.
The reason I attend these events is due to my friendships with Frank Baltazar Sr and Rick Farris. Frank is the father of Frankie Baltazar Jr, Tony "The Tiger" Baltazar and Bobby Baltazar. He is also the vice president of the California Boxing Hall of Fame. Rick Farris was on the Board of Directors on the World Boxing Hall of Fame and is on the selection committee on the California Hall of Fame. Rick was recently inducted into the California Hall of Fame as a boxer. He is a writer and boxing historian and he and Frank are key in keeping the history of West Coast Boxing alive and relevant.
Rick was a stablemate of mine; he was also trained by Mel Epstein, and probably knows more about the Main Street Gym than anyone. Both Rick and Frank knew the Olympic Auditorium inside and out. I met Frank after I started writing on my blog, he really helped me get going, especially with photos. Rick and I got reacquainted after thirty some odd years. I value my friendship with both of them.
This year at the California Boxing Hall of Fame I accepted the posthumous induction for Fritzie Zivic. It was an honor. This year my cousin Louie Burke was inducted so it was a family affair for us.
Talk about your awesome boxing blog.
I started writing about boxing almost by accident. I started my blog in 2005 Thoughts on Boxing, Boxers and Fights and I really didn't know anything about blogs or computers but just like everything else in my life, I learned to do the things that helped me do what I needed or wanted to do. I think of my website as the "Little engine that could".
Randy, if I hadn't bumped into your boxin' blog a few years back I wouldn't have had the pleasure of doing this write-up. I really appreciate your time. Thank you and...Keep punchin' and writing!