BOXING FIGHTS FOR A FUTURE (San Jose Mercury News, April 20, 1998) By Michael Martinez Boxing's best days might be gone forever, but the old fight fans the ones who used to attend bouts every weekend in the '50s and '60s still remember how it used to be. You didn't need cable TV to find a good show. San Jose usually had one. So did Oakland and San Francisco and Richmond. On a Friday night, it was easier finding a boxing card than a drive-in movie. "Just about every week there were fights going on somewhere,'' said Rudy Ortega, a former referee and resident of San Francisco. "Now, they're all gone.'' Gone, but not forgotten. When Hector Lizarraga, the International Boxing Federation featherweight champion, meets challenger Manuel Medina at San Jose Arena on Friday night, it will mark the return of boxing to the South Bay for the first time in four years. It could also signal a rebirth of the sport or another failure for promoter Joe Gagliardi. "This is going to show me if boxing is still alive here in San Jose,'' said Gagliardi, who must draw 6,000 patrons to judge the six-bout card a success. That won't be easy, if past performance is an indication. Although Gagliardi's shows attracted good crowds to the Civic Auditorium in the early 1980s, his last two cards were enough to drive him away, almost for good: In February 1994, a paid crowd of 1,925 barely half of what Gagliardi needed to break even saw IBF bantamweight champion Orlando Canizales score a second-round knockout of San Jose's Gerardo Martinez at the Event Center. Three months later, about 300 fans showed up for a card at the Civic Auditorium featuring a promising heavyweight, Johnny Tupu. Gagliardi, a successful closed-circuit exhibitor of boxing events, stepped away from live shows after that. Lacking local boxers to showcase and unable to find enough fans willing to pay to see his shows, he simply stopped trying. "We didn't have any local talent, so why should I promote?'' he asked. "Unless I can really bring in a championship fight of the caliber that will be accepted by the community, I won't entertain it. It's taken me four years.'' Even so, Gagliardi knows there are no guarantees. Lizarraga, although he lives in Fresno and trains at Garden City Boxing Club in San Jose, is not a household name to local fans. And Medina, who once held the IBF and World Boxing Council featherweight belts, is recognizable only to those who follow the sport closely. But if the show is a success, boxing just might rise again in San Jose. "With that arena and the population in San Jose and the surrounding areas, there's no reason it shouldn't,'' said veteran promoter Don Chargin, who puts together cards in Los Angeles and Sacramento. "It's going to take time, but starting off with a title fight could really help.'' Chargin recalls a time when fights were held throughout the Bay Area regularly, including Oakland, which was considered among the biggest and best fight towns. When Muhammad Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title in 1967 for refusing to be inducted into the army, Oakland was picked as a site for the semifinals and finals of the tournament to determine his successor and drew more than 13,000 to the Coliseum Arena in 1968 for the title fight between Jimmy Ellis and Jerry Quarry. "And before that, in the '40s, San Francisco and Oakland were two of the top fight towns in the country,'' Chargin said. "San Jose, Stockton, Fresno, Sacramento were all good towns, too.'' San Jose developed several good boxers over the years, Gagliardi said, among them Stevie and Albert Romero, Pinky Rivera, Mitchell Julian, Lupe Gutierrez, Maui Diaz and Martinez. But as crowds grew smaller, Gagliardi was less inclined to promote. "We were putting on shows, sometimes twice a month, at the Civic Auditorium, the Circle Star (Theater), Oakland,'' Gagliardi said. "That's when you couldn't even get in the building in San Francisco. We tried numerous places until our local talent just kind of dwindled down. Gerardo Martinez was one of the last locals who had some notoriety and was a very good contender.'' Local boxing also suffered at the hands of Las Vegas and, to a lesser extent, Indian reservation casinos, which staged cards with big names (sometimes on television) and helped make the local shows obsolete. But when Gagliardi sold almost 20,000 tickets to the closed-circuit viewing of the Oscar De La Hoya-Julio Cesar Chavez title fight in 1996 including a sellout of San Jose Arena he proved there were still plenty of boxing followers in the area. "You've got to give the fight fan the product he wants,'' promoter Bob Arum said. "Essentially, the boxing fans in California are largely Hispanic, and they're very avid. We always do extremely well on pay-per-view with Oscar's fights, and Chavez also does well.'' The trouble with Friday's show, however, is that neither Lizarraga nor Medina, who is from Tijuana, has the name recognition or the charisma of De La Hoya. Without that, Gagliardi can't be sure how many tickets he'll sell. "There's a certain reality to that,'' said New York promoter Cedric Kushner, who will have boxers fighting for two lesser-known World Boxing Union titles Friday. "I'm not being disrespectful if I say the reality is that Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson aren't coming to San Jose any sooner than they're coming to Pittsburgh. The reality is that the casinos have a different motivation than the promoter does. The casino doesn't mind losing money on ticket sales because they're going to make it up on gambling. The promoter, on the other hand, can only make a profit if he has a houseful of people. "We all know who De La Hoya is. More people know him and Chavez than know Lizarraga. But by the same token, we're not looking for 15,000 people.'' Gagliardi, in fact, isn't trying to sell out the arena, and he wasn't necessarily trying to sell out the Event Center four years ago. But he does acknowledge mistakes were made. The biggest, he said, was holding the card on the San Jose State campus when scheduling conflicts prevented him from using the arena. There was insufficient parking available near the center, and he staged the card on a Saturday afternoon, when many of the Hispanic fans he was hoping to attract were still working. "I was pretty disappointed,'' Gagliardi said. "I really wanted to be at the arena. I thought Canizales would draw here, but he was raised in Texas, he's a Mexican-American and he didn't have that acclaim, although he was a great boxer. I guessed wrong.'' Gagliardi believes the local following for Mexican fighters is much stronger than for Mexican-Americans; at the De La Hoya-Chavez showing, he said, Chavez backers can substantially outnumbered those for De La Hoya. "There will be more Medina fans in that building than Lizarraga fans,'' he said. ``That's why I really jumped on this when I knew we could get Medina.'' But Gagliardi conceded it won't help the sport on a local level if he doesn't sell enough tickets to at least break even. He has no boxing shows scheduled for San Jose this summer. "If we end up doing just four or five thousand (fans), I'm going to take a hit for 100 grand or so, but I knew that going into the deal,'' he said. "But it's the kind of thing where, if boxing is going to do something at this time of year, we need an event like this to get out to the public.'' And he needs the public to show up -- just like it used to in the old days. WHATEVER HAPPENED TO AARON PRYOR? (Cincinnati Enquirer, Monday, May 4, 1998) By Geoff Hobson Ricardo Williams Jr. is supposed to be the next Ezzard Charles. The next Cincinnati Kid. A classy boxer. Slipping into immortality by sticking and jabbing and moving. A kid with a father for a coach and a rock for a mother, poised to dance into America's living rooms at the 2000 Olympics. Complete with a Sugar Ray Leonard smile and wink. But that's not Sugar Ray the kid put up on the wall. That's not old Ezzard staring back at Rick Williams from a wall of the gym at the Millvale Community Center. The autograph on the black-and-white poster doesn't say Tony Tubbs or Larry Donald. A long time ago, Aaron Pryor wrote his name on the poster, the one with the world junior welterweight championship belt around his waist. "Yeah, I put it up there. He's an inspiration to all the fighters down here," Williams says. "Not just to me. It shows fighters what we can do. When I'm out doing my running, I see him in my mind." This week in Biloxi, Miss., Williams, 16, a 139-pounder, hopes to do what Pryor did -- win a national Golden Gloves open championship. Williams won his first entry into the open division a few weeks ago at the U.S. nationals. He is a two-time Junior Olympic champion. What waits is something Pryor was supposed to do but never did. Make the U.S. Olympic team. "Hey," says Aaron Pryor, staring at himself on the wall. "That's nice. I don't even have one like that." Pryor doesn't have much these days, except his sobriety, his Lord, and the sweetness of a deacon, a job he holds at the New Friendship Baptist Church. He says it has been five years since he gave up cocaine, after it exploded in his stomach and nearly killed him in the hallway of a Walnut Hills crack house. His boss, Buddy LaRosa, the pizza baron and his old boxing manager who went to court against Pryor frequently in the 1980s, should know. He gives Pryor a random drug test about once a month, and Pryor has been clean. Clean enough to be a $150-a-week assistant coach for Cincinnati Golden Gloves, helping head coach Mike Stafford. Clean enough to put on his Sunday best and speak to about 10 kids at the Salvation Army about the evils of pushing. Clean enough to drive an Olympic hopeful like 17-year-old James Helms to the gym while warning him about how making the wrong choices in life can take a world champion worth millions and put him in a 10-year old car that can't go faster than 30 miles an hour. Clean enough to meet you at 9 a.m. for a two-mile run around the Taft High School track. Clean enough to admit he has no money left, lives in a West End apartment with no phone, and says the only job he wants is in boxing as a coach and referee. "That's OK," Pryor says of submitting to drug tests. "I'm the one who had the problem." For years, Pryor had a problem dealing with the 1976 Olympic Trials. Never mind the cocaine haze, the lawsuits against promoters, getting shot by his wife, the entourage that sucked him dry, flushing $5.2 million down the drain. Before all that he was supposed to be on Rolly Schwartz's Dream Team that went to the Montreal Olympics in 1976, with Sugar Ray and the Spinks brothers. Schwartz, a Cincinnatian, was the little man with the white hair running the Olympic team. The same Schwartz whom Pryor approached as a 13-year-old and told him, "Remember my name. Aaron Pryor. I'm going to be world champion." They even had the Trials in Cincinnati. No one had beaten the brawling street kid from Over-the-Rhine internationally. And he never really got over his loss, that close decision to Howard Davis, until last month when he found himself speaking at Schwartz's funeral. "It's been haunting me," Pryor says. "I finally let it go at Rolly's funeral. How I let that nice old man down. They wanted someone who had a mom and dad. I didn't know my dad and my mom, she didn't too much support me boxing. They played (Davis' family) that up through the Olympics. I had a very rough image. I think it hurt me." Tough image? Pryor didn't meet his father until he was 16. He said one day he came home and found his mother had shot his stepfather five times without killing him. Did ABC-TV want to get up close and personal with that? Plus, he wasn't the pretty Olympic boxer over whom Howard Cosell could gush. Williams' coach in the ring is his father. Big Rick. Ricardo Williams Sr. Little Rick turns to Pryor for endurance and exercises, the psychological branch of the game Pryor dominated with iron conditioning and a will to match. He used to run backwards up the Eden Park hills and spar four-minute rounds before burying foes in three. "I get my killer instinct from him," Little Rick says. "Finish a guy off. Go out and get him." Killer instinct? Pryor was 39-1 as a pro, 35 wins by knockout. In the Boxing Hall of Fame only Rocky Marciano has a better percentage. So you can see Pryor bustling around the gym, urging fighters not to stop and talk between drills. "You should train all the way through, no stops," Pryor says. "Three minutes seems like nothing. You should go 40 or 45 minutes straight." Pryor has finally figured out this is where he belongs and where he is needed. Just last week, he received his referee certificate after participating in a day-long clinic. He is practicing what he'll say the night he meets two fighters in the ring before a championship bout: "All I'm going to tell you is three things: Box, break and stop." He is still a proud man, but he no longer immerses himself in it. He says he belongs to Jesus now, so you have to pick up the hints of pride: He was worried last week because he had been pulled over by the police for running a light he thought was yellow on Central Parkway. That was $75 he just didn't have, and he had to pay it before he left for Biloxi today because a no-show in court would get him back in the headlines. He wants to shed at least 20 pounds before going back into the ring as a ref. He's 195 pounds, 55 more than his fighting weight. "The kids made me quit smoking two years ago on those out-of-town trips we were in the car. I paid 27 bucks a week for a (nicotine) patch and I quit in a month." He also wants to get his left eye fixed, the one Alexis Arguello's right hand set fire to early in their 1982 classic, the first of Pryor's two victories over Arguello. Pryor's detached retina was fixed 10 years ago, but the eye is still crossed and he can barely count fingers through the blur. He is tired of it not looking right, and he doesn't want to keep wearing sunglasses all the time. Pryor's outgoing personality used to get him in trouble, but lately it's found him the right kind of friends. Dr. Rick Abrahamson, a Fourth Street eye doctor and boxing fan, has examined him for free and is willing to do the surgery for nothing. He figures a hospital bill would be about $5,000, but he's also hoping some kind of contact lens straightens out the eye and avoids an operation. "A lot of money. $5,000 for an operation. I can't afford that," Pryor says. "I'd really like to see one more time out of my left eye. I'm 42. I want to be able to keep driving back and forth from the gym." That's where he feels most comfortable. He trains a handful of pro fighters but he gets a kick out of the amateurs. He knows they're listening. "I listen to him and think that's not the route to go down," Helms says. "He said he used be to a rich man and lost everything. You have to be careful who your friends are." Helms, 17, of Millvale, shadow-boxes a mirror, but some people think they see a young Pryor on the other side. Helms is making his first appearance in a national open tournament. At 132 pounds -- Pryor's Olympic Trials weight -- he's a straight-ahead fighter who continually puts on the pressure. Ken Hawk, the Wilmington, Ohio, banker who is Pryor's long-time benefactor, got chills when he saw some Golden Glove regional bouts a few weeks back. "All of a sudden, one of these guys would make a move and I'm thinking, "Aaron Pryor's the only fighter I've ever seen do that,' " Hawk said. "It might have been a little feint or something like that, but you can tell they've been listening. It makes you feel good." It makes Pryor feel good, too. "I mean something to these guys," Pryor says. "I might not mean something to people outside boxing, but in boxing I mean something. I feel like my life means something." The Olympics still mean something, too. "I went as high as I could in boxing. I was world champion," he says. "That's my dream, to be associated with somebody who is able to win the Olympics. It's something I missed. I'd like to know the feeling."