PAUL BANKE picks up my video call at 4.45am Los Angeles time. As an insomniac his day is already a couple of hours old. His house is alive with the sound of his nine pet birds along with the three dogs which keep him company. I’d heard about his struggles but had no idea what to expect, no idea how tough times may have taken their toll. But today, looking younger than his 53 years with a bright and healthy appearance, Banke could hardly be used as a gnarled poster boy for anti-drugs campaigns. Bearing no outward signs of years battling addiction and HIV, it’s unmistakeably the good-looking west coast kid who produced fireworks during his life as a boxer. In retirement however, Paul Banke entered a whole new world of pain.
Banke was raised by his aunt and uncle in Asuza, California and as a teenager his amateur career took off. Fighting internationally for the USA saw him in with high calibre opposition, although he was eventually denied at the Olympic trials.
“My dream was to go to the Olympic Games in 1984,” Banke says. “I lost to Steve McCrory who won the gold medal [at flyweight] representing the United States. When you play sports in California you’re lucky to get to the next state over, but I started travelling, I fought in 12 countries and went to New Zealand when I was 17. Boxing brought the discipline out in me, it brought the goodness out in me. I didn’t ever think I would travel like that. I went to Britain and beat Paul Hodkinson.”
Describing a traditional sporting dinner show perfectly, Banke recalls: “I’ll never forget we walked into the arena and everyone was in a tuxedo. And it was all men. No women. The only women were the waitresses!
“We fought in Russia and the whole American team was nervous against the Russians. I was so scared, man. They showed it on ABC’s Wide World of Sports and I was so nervous so I didn’t stop punching. I won my fight because I just kept throwing. It was my best form of defence.”
Despite possessing speed and technique, Banke was always partial to a war. Asked why he changed style as a professional to become more of a pressure fighter, he laughs: “You’re right, I was a boxer – I had 176 amateur fights, I knew how to box. But as a pro it’s more about power so I started banging. I was not a pretty fighter like Oscar De La Hoya or Roy Jones, but I was very exciting to watch.”
Despite some early pro losses, Banke gained a name for himself as an action fighter and entered the Great Western Forum’s super bantamweight tournament in 1988. He walked away as the winner and $100,000 richer, knocking out Carlos Romero in the final. One more stoppage win, in a shootout against Ramiro Adames, earned Paul a chance at the WBC world 122lb strap. Standing in his way was Mexican warrior and fellow southpaw Daniel Zaragoza.
“I fought for the title first time, on June 22 1989. Knocked him down in the ninth round but I lost the fight. He was so tough.” After an excellent 12-round clash, Banke was declared the loser by split decision. His relative inexperience proved costly, as while he was showboating, Zaragoza kept on punching, rallying after the knockdown to capture the victory. His second shot would come the following year.
“I knew I was gonna win this time. I knew it. I felt so good. I was nervous but when you’re nervous the best comes out. I was hungry and I’d trained for it.”
In an astonishing coronation, Banke destroyed Zaragoza in nine rounds. “I accomplished a dream at 26 years old. I felt like something popped in my head. Like a relief. I was world champion, the highlight of my life.
“I was there when Daniel Zaragoza got inducted into the Hall of Fame. His son told me that when he was little his dad used to chase him around the house, he was gonna spank him or something so he’d tell his dad ‘I’m gonna get Paul Banke to beat you up!’ They don’t give him [Zaragoza] the exposure like they do [Julio Cesar] Chavez or [Salvador] Sanchez. But he won the title three times. That’s really something.”
A first defence in South Korea ended with a 12th round knockout of Ki Joon Lee before Banke returned to L.A. against the aggressive but limited Pedro Decima from Argentina. In a nightmare performance, Banke was second best all the way before being floored three times and blasted out in the fourth round. “Decima was around for a while and I really wasn’t that keen on fighting him” he admits. “I didn’t like the way his style was, I knew it would give me trouble. But I’d had three tough fights back-to-back, all three were wars. It caught up with me.”
Drug problems which had blighted his early days as a professional returned. His life began a downward spiral. In his final world title fight in 1991, a rubber match with Zaragoza who had subsequently regained the WBC belt, was arranged. Banke dropped a wide decision. “I was back on drugs by then. I fought Kennedy McKinney and I was on drugs. He said the same thing [McKinney’s substance abuse problems are also well-documented], that he was messed up too but he kicked my butt. For my last fight I lost to somebody whose record was really bad [Juan Francisco Soto, who was 0-8 going in]. I thought I’m not gonna embarrass myself no more.”
But Banke’s descent accelerated away from boxing.
“I did my drugs for 29 years … a needle stuck in me for 29 years, man,” he says, momentarily composing himself, almost as if the gravity of what he’s just said has hit him again. “I’d never go back.”
In his acclaimed protest song Sam Stone, John Prine sang ‘There’s a hole in daddy’s arm, where all the money goes…’ Banke lost everything, including his dignity.
“I made like half-a-million dollars in my boxing career. After the glory I got strung out on dope. I ate out of trash cans. I was homeless for a while, slept on the streets. You know the story of when someone gets on drugs? I went that way. It was hard times.” But unlike Prine’s eponymous Vietnam veteran, Banke survived: “I was in and out of my kids’ lives because of my drug use. I’ve apologised to my kids hundreds of times and they’re cool with me now.”
He remembers the moment he feared he would never see those kids grow up: “July 10, 1995, I got told I was HIV positive. I said I couldn’t be, I got a baby back at home. A month later I went back and I really thought they were gonna tell me I was healthy – that they got the test wrong. They said ‘you got full-blown AIDS’. That scared me. People were dying back then.”
I mention an interview from 20 years ago where an emotional Banke was accepting he wasn’t going to see the age of 40, wasn’t going to see his children grow up: “I came home with the virus in ‘95 and people were still scared of it. They didn’t want to be around me. I went to my family’s house one time at Christmas. Everyone was drinking eggnog out of a glass. Then my grandma gave me mine but it was in a Styrofoam cup… I was like why don’t I get a glass like everybody else? Back then you may have had a year or two [to live]. CNN did a story on me – they thought I was on death row. But it’s different now – look at Magic Johnson.
“I haven’t got sick. I think it’s God, or maybe my boxing conditioning helped me, I don’t know. I feel great. Thank God for HIV medication. I used to take 13 pills, now I take one pill a day. I got some [extra] weight but I’m 53 – my body don’t go like it used to!”
Not so long ago, such positivity was absent.
“I was 50 years old sat drinking beer at 9 o’clock in the morning. I thought ‘you know what, this is not cool’. I got depressed. I had to sober up. I got my house, I got my dogs. I’ve been married three times and I got a girlfriend now. I’m happy when she comes over and I’m happy when she leaves, I like my own space!” he smiles. Banke does a lot of smiling and laughing, testament to the good place he’s now in.
While boxing may not be his panacea exactly, it still provides Banke with positivity and purpose: “I’m not fighting anymore but I got a gym and I got fighters. I’m happy I’m back in my sport.” His gym is in Rialto, California, 45 minutes away from his Pasadena home.
“I go over there three times a week. I’m gonna keep it real – I used to think I might make some money training people. But going in thinking you’ll make money – you’re already screwed. There’s little kids who come and I show them how to throw a punch or how to move their feet. I don’t know exactly what’s going on with them but you can tell they’re bad kids. Tough kids. But they come in the gym and they look at me and listen to me. I can see their eyes get wider and they remember what I told them to do. That is my reward right there. I’m not gonna lie, I’d like to make money… but it can’t be that way. “
Paul Banke has made his real comeback, and like the champion he is, he battles on.
“I’m still here…been clean and sober for three years now. I turned my life around.”