Popular Columnist Randy De La O Speaks to RSR
Interview by Antonio Santiago-July 3, 2008
Antonio Santiago: When I was a kid, my family and I drove one time to a Chinese restaurant food in Puerto Rico. As we waited for our order to be served, former 2-Time WBA Junior Lightweight Champion, Samuel Serrano, entered with two friends. I went to his table, and duly introduced myself as a future world champion, shaking hands with Sammy and star struck over the fact this was Samuel Serrano I was talking to. I still was not attending a boxing gym, so the only times I had seen a world boxing champion in person were during live fights, far away from my chair.
Soon after running into Serrano, I read an article on one of the American boxing magazines about the boxing scene in L.A., and how one could meet multiple world boxing Champions and other famous boxers in person just by hanging around Los Angeles gyms. People like Pipino Cuevas, Danny Lopez and Bobby Chacon. And I began to dream that someday perhaps I could be part of a boxing scene like that.
While eventually I moved to Arizona, in the Southwest United States, and I met several famous boxers in person there, I did not become part of that grandiose boxing circle aforementioned. Randy De La O, on the other hand, did. And because he did, today, he hosts a popular internet webpage dedicated to boxing and to the Los Angeles boxing scene. De La O’s story is not unlike those told by others involved in the sport: he had a couple of professional boxing fights himself, then refocused on serving the sport in another area. De La O is on a mission to keep the times when Chacon, Ruben Olivares and Chucho Castillo, for example, were staples in Los Angeles, by remembering those moments on his internet page.
“Boxing changed my life.”--Randy De La O
It is a pleasure to bring you Randy De La O, former professional boxer and currently an internet boxing historian.
AS: Tell us about your childhood.
I was born in Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, but for the most part I grew up in Pico Rivera. My childhood was fairly typical for the times. Life was a lot different than it is now. During the summer I would get up at about six in the morning, hook up with my friends and would be home when it got dark. We got into mischief but I don’t think we ever got into any real trouble. I do have the distinction of being one of the few to survive being buried alive. I became somewhat of a local celebrity for a few years just for surviving. I was eleven at that time.
AS: How did you get involved in boxing?
I fell in love with boxing at an early age. My father was a boxer in the army and remained a fan for life. He did train one fighter briefly sometime around 1970. He was really my first trainer. He taught me the basics when I was young. We would go to the Main Street Gym from time to time to watch the boxers train. He also took me to the Olympic Auditorium, the Forum and the Los Angeles Sports Arena. This was at a time when there was at least one fight going on somewhere in town. My mother hated boxing. She didn’t mind watching the fights with my father but she was dead set against her sons become boxers. My father, who usually always did what he wanted, never challenged that. I think it was because deep down he didn’t want that for me either.
Boxing in general is in our family DNA, and along with my father, my Uncle Gilbert was a fighter in the Army, and also fought briefly as an amateur. My uncle through marriage, Ray “Red” Robles fought in the late 1940’s and early1950’s. He was stabbed to death in a bar fight. I believe it was 1951. My cousin Louie Burke from Las Cruces, New Mexico, had a very prominent career. He fought and beat Freddie Roach twice and fought Hector Camacho on January 19, 1985, in Atlantic City and lost by a fifth round TKO. Louie is a trainer now. His two most notable fighters are Austin Trout and David “Nino” Rodriguez. Louie’s older brother Rocky Burke was also a fighter and is now one of New Mexico’s top referee.
While growing up, one of my best friends was Mike Teran, nephew of boxer Keeny Teran. He idolized his uncle and all of us guys recognized him as something special. Mike had some of his uncle’s old fight gloves and every once in a while we would do a little back yard boxing. Nothing serious.
As I got older I got involved in Martial Arts for a number of years. I was a student of Frank Woolsey’s San Soo Kung Fu and later at the Filipino Kali Academy in Torrance, California, which was owned and run by Danny Inosanto and Richard Bustillo, both students of Bruce Lee. I was learning stick fighting, knife fighting and Insanto’s interpretation of Jeet Kune Do. I was also friends with Robert Lujan who was another student of Bruce Lee and we sparred a few times. At some point I began to lose interest in martial arts and decided that I wanted to box. I went to the Main Street Gym, met Mel Epstein, who became my manager and trainer, and began training as a boxer. I never fought amateur, something that I now regret.
AS: Who was your favorite boxer growing up?
My favorite fighter when I was growing up, without a doubt was Muhammad Ali. His personality was outrageous at that time. He talked a lot of smack and he backed up every word. He really was the greatest. I had the opportunity to meet Ali later in life and it’s not something I’ll soon forget. He knew how to lose too. He always found a way to comeback. I miss the days when he was fighting.
From a historical standpoint, I had two other favorite fighters: Jack Dempsey and Sugar Ray Robinson. I read a biography on Dempsey while I was in grade school and was really taken by his story. I don’t think he was the greatest heavyweight champion but I do think he was one of its great ones, and in his era, only Babe Ruth rivaled him as a superstar athlete. As far as Robinson is concerned, he was one of my father’s favorite fighters and he believed until his dying day that Robinson was pound for pound the greatest fighter that ever lived. So I kind of inherited that notion. I was lucky enough to meet him later in life as well, when I was training at the Main Street Gym. He was generous with his friendship, his time and with advice...a class act.
AS: On your website, I noticed photos with many fighters. Tell us about the California boxing scene and your experiences with some of the fighters.
I was lucky to be growing up, and later, boxing at a time when boxing in Los Angeles was really booming. Guys like Jerry and Mike Quarry, Joey Orbillo, Scrap Iron Johnson, Mando Ramos, Raul Rojas, Ernie “Indian Red” Lopez, Hedgemon Lewis, were all fighting locally. Big name fighters like Muhammed Ali, Joe Frazier and Archie Moore also fought in Los Angeles during the 1960’s.
Mexican fighters like Ruben Olivares, Chucho Castillo made Los Angeles their second home. In the 70’s it was all about Bobby Chacon and Danny “Little Red” Lopez, two genuine cross town rivals. Bobby stopped Danny in the 9th round of their fight at the Los Angeles Sports Arena in 1974. A few years later I was present at a heated but friendly sparring session. Both of these fighters epitomized the word “heart”. Most of the fighters trained at the Main Street Gym, and that includes fighters from out of town like Alexis Arguello, Roberto Duran, Carlos Zarate and Alfonso Zamora. Sugar Ray Robinson was a regular there for a time and even the legendary Henry Armstrong would pop in from time to time, not to train but to chat with the fighters and trainers.
At the Main Street Gym, which was always packed with fighters training, I was sparring with top main event fighters like Zovek Barajas, Mike Quarry, Vincente Zaldivar (the second), Tury Pineda and Renato Garcia. I was a sparring partner for Garcia when he was training for his fight with Pete Ranzany at the Olympic Auditorium. There was a fighter by the name of Felipe Torres that was unbelievably tough. I sparred with him for two weeks while training for my fight at the Aladdin hotel in Las Vegas. It was a battle for survival every time I stepped into the ring with him. There was a heavyweight from Argentina named Pedro Lovell that came to the gym at the same time I did and usually left at the same time, we became pretty good friends for a while and would grab a bite at one of the downtown cafes. He ended up playing Spider Rico in the Rocky movies.
Speaking of the Rocky movies, I was an extra in the first Rocky, along with Mando Ramos, Raul Rojas and Monroe Brooks, and my stable mate Gary Pittman. There were others but it’s hard to remember all the names, it was so long ago. The Main Street Gym itself has been used for so many movies and television shows that it would be impossible to list them all. It should have its own star on Hollywood Boulevard. There were other gyms around town at the time but the most prominent were the Hoover Street gym in Los Angeles and Jake Shagrue’s Gym in Long Beach. I worked out briefly in both gyms. At Jake’s gym I learned what it meant to “have your clock cleaned” when I was sparring with young fighter from that gym. It was a humbling experience.
The Main Street Gym, as you know, was owned by Howie Steindler, he also managed Danny Lopez and Alberto Davila. He was rough and gruff and ran that gym with an iron fist. When he let his guard down he was a genuinely nice guy. He was murdered in 1977. I attended the funeral with Mel. It seems like every living boxer, trainer and sportswriter at the time attended the funeral. Sugar Ray Robinson gave the eulogy. It was in some ways, the end of an era. Steindler, along with Aileen Eaten, the promoter at the Olympic Auditorium personified boxing in Southern California.
I had two scheduled fights at the Olympic that were canceled minutes before I was to step into the ring. One of those fights was to be on the undercard of the Javier Muniz and Rudy Hernandez fight. As soon as I found out I wasn’t fighting, I got dressed and went upstairs to watch the fight. You might not hear too much about it but it was a classic boxing match. Both Rudy and Javier were very technical fighters. It was a textbook boxing match. Hernandez won a ten round decision. I had a fight scheduled with a local fighter by the name of Chris Gonzales. Chris is the brother of Zeferino Gonzales who fought and lost to Roberto Duran. I don’t recall exactly, but I believe that Chris got news at the last minute of a death in the family. So again, at the last minute the fight was canceled. We sparred a few months later at the gym and my jaw was out of whack for about a week.
One of the standout trainers at the gym was former fighter Gil Cadilli, he was free with his advice and concern. Cadilli fought Keeny Teran at the Hollywood Legion in 1951, in what many consider the greatest six round fight ever. The fight ended in a draw. In 1955, he fought Willie Pep, winning the first and losing the second.
In 1980 after Mel passed away Larry Soto trained me for a while. A couple of years later he trained my brother Dennis for a short time.
I’m grateful for those days. There was a time in my life when I rubbed elbows with some of the best fighters in the world.
AS: You are good friends with the Baltazar brothers, Frankie and Tony. Can you tell us anything about them?
Frank Baltazar and I have become good friends. It’s true, but believe it or not we have only known each about a year. We seem to like a lot of the same fighters. He contacted me when he read something I wrote on Keeny Teran and we have been good friends since. I have yet to meet his sons Frankie and Tony, but I followed their careers when they were fighting. Both of them had respectable careers. They earned their place in Los Angeles’ rich boxing history. Frank will be at the California Boxing Hall of Fame this month, on the 21st, and I believe his sons will be there as well. I’m looking forward to meeting them.
AS: Your webpage is very popular. What drove you into writing about boxing on the internet?
In 2004, I was looking for some information on Roberto Duran on the internet. I stumbled upon a website called Rateitall.com. The website belongs to Lawrence Coburn of San Francisco, and it allows you to rate anything, and everything, such as; hotels, restaurants, food products, movies, boxers, etc. I wrote a review on Duran. At that time I thought it was strictly a boxing site. As time when on, and my reviews were well received, I became a little more confident in expressing my opinions. Now, I have always been somewhat opinionated but putting that opinion into written words was something new to me. Well, actually I had written a few things before but never shared it with anyone, so this took getting used to.
What drove me to write about boxing of course is my love for the sport, but beyond that it seemed to me that certain fighters were fading into obscurity. Places like the Main Street Gym and the Olympic Auditorium, and the Forum were becoming distant memories. Using the sparring match with Bobby Chacon and Danny Lopez for example, does anyone else but me remember that day? I have never heard any one write or speak of it. Or Felipe Torres, a tough fighter that deserves to be remembered. I wanted to honor guys like that. They deserve it. I have always believed, in boxing, you have to be great just to be mediocre. It takes a lot to step in to the ring.
Also, I have always had my own perspective on boxing. I didn’t want to report on a fight. There are just too many other real sports writers that can give you a blow by blow detail and they can do it a heck of lot better than I can. The things that I enjoy writing about are the intangibles. Aside from the obvious, I look at what’s going on inside a fighter. For example, in the Miguel Cotto vs. Alfonso Gomez fight, how easy would it have been for Cotto to humiliate Gomez, torment him, mock him, the way so many boxers do today. Instead he showed mercy. I don’t mean he let Gomez off the hook either. He fought the way a champion should fight, with dignity. He stopped Gomez but he allowed Gomez to walk away with his pride thoroughly intact. That’s what I saw. Cotto made a fan out of me that night. So I try to write about the why’s and the how’s and everything in between.
I also wanted to leave my kids with some written documentation about a time in my life, before they were born, that was very important to me. Writing it down helps centralize it and helps bring those days back to life for them. It becomes something they can reach out and touch.
AS: Talking about other things, for the fans, what are you listening to as far as music now? What is your favorite movie, your favorite vacation spot, your favorite food and drink?
My musical taste is all over the map. The music that really grabbed me when I was growing up was rock and roll. I grew up with hard rock, what is generally considered “Classic Rock” nowadays. I still consider Led Zeppelin the greatest rock group of all time, and “Stairway to Heaven” the best rock song. Alvin Lee and Ten Years After gave the single greatest live performance with “I’m Going Home” at Woodstock. But I also love R and B, Soul, Jazz and the Blues. I listen to country music as well, especially Merle Haggard. For the most part, my music taste is stuck in the seventies. Speaking of the seventies, I hated disco, still do.
As far as food and drinks go, I consider myself a fair cook, in fact, I was s short order cook years ago. My passion for food almost equals my passion for boxing. I enjoy foods that have a little spice. I love Italian, Cajun/Creole, Soul Food and BBQ, but like most people the food I love more than anything is the food I grew up with, Mexican Food. My own signature dish is Chile Verde. Arroz con Pollo is a close second. Nowadays, I rarely have an alcoholic drink with the exception of a cold beer from time to time. I rarely drink soda. With my meals I usually have glass of water.
I’m sure it’s no secret to anyone that knows me that Rocky is my favorite movie and not just because I’m an extra in the movie. All the Rocky movies are about heart, and heart is the quality that I respect in a fighter more than any other. The other two movies that I really enjoy are the Quiet Man with John Wayne and Casablanca with Humphrey Bogart.
My favorite vacation would be camping and fishing. I love the outdoors. I love fishing, and breakfast is never better that when eaten on a cold crisp morning, in a secluded spot near the water. That’s my idea of a vacation.
AS: Do you have any funny anecdote that boxing fans would be interested to find out about?
I don’t know if this qualifies as a funny anecdote, but my Trainer Mel Epstein, who was born in 1900, would say to anyone and everyone when shaking their hand for the first time “Shake the hand of the man that shook the hand of John L. Sullivan.” Because of his history in boxing he was my living link to the past. He knew them all. I used to laugh when he said that but now I understand.
For my part I have shaken hands with some of the greatest names in boxing. From Muhammad Ali, to Sugar Ray Robinson, to Trainer Eddie Futch, to Oscar De La Hoya, and Sugar Shane Mosley, and Sylvester Stallone. So when you shake my hand you are just one handshake away from some of boxing’s greatest and two handshakes away from the great John L. Sullivan.
AS: How do you see boxing in the wider picture of life as a whole?
That is a question that I can really sink my teeth into. I have always believed that boxing is a microcosm of life. There is no other sport where a man is so naked and so exposed. So many metaphors for life are drawn from boxing. “Down but not out” or “You can’t keep a good man down” refers to someone who refuses to give up, despite getting knocked down. In life, who hasn’t been knocked down? Life is the ultimate opponent. In life as in the ring, we learn to “roll with the punches” and “Go the distance.” Overused maybe, I know, but they’re true, that’s why they stay around.
Boxing changed my life. It gave me a confidence in myself that I might not otherwise have had. Mel would tell me: “What’s he got that you don’t? He has a head with a brain, a body, two arms, and two legs, same as you!” I still believe those words. When you have stepped into the ring in front of thousands of people, win, lose or draw, and fight your heart out, what else do you have to fear? Because of boxing I overcame my own racial insecurities. It allowed me to become a better father and teach my kids to succeed in life. I learned to be accountable and to place the blame squarely on my shoulders when things go wrong. I was able to pass that on to my kids. Boxing is a great equalizer. I learned to endure.
As my good friend Brian Schiff from Detroit likes to say: “Boxing is the Art of Fair Fighting.” My father would say: “Fighting your equal is the hardest thing to do.” He was right. Some say that boxing has limitations that MMA doesn’t have but I prefer to think of it as removing the limitations. Boxing is not street fighting. When you do something in boxing that you shouldn’t the fans will boo you. The hardest thing in the world is to beat a man fair and square. Boxing, like most sports, teaches you about fair play. That might be passé but I still believe it.
AS: Do you have anything to say in closing?
My life has always been an open book, but for those that don’t know me personally you should know that with all that boxing has given to me. Whatever success I have had in life, I give all glory to God.
I am married with children. My wife Jeri and I have four daughters, DeeDee , Lori, Meranda and Savannah and one son, Andrew. We are proud of all our kids and they are the apple of my eye! We have six grandchildren Mariah, Maddie, Nathan, McKayla, Sidney and Trevor.
I only had a couple of fights and I am proud when I think back to those days. I did something that most would never do. I find satisfaction with that. I wouldn’t trade my family for a real career in boxing.
Also, my son returned from Iraq last year. With all the great fighters in boxing and with all the praise we give them, I believe that the real heroes are my son and all the men in women serving our country in any capacity.
Antonio, thank you so much for this interview. I am humbled and honored.