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Carlos Palomino’s journey from the streets to the main stage

Carlos Palomino
Carlos Palomino thrived in the company of legends. So much so, he became one himself. He talks to Craig Scott

IT’S been 42 years since Carlos Palomino retired – well, for the first time, anyway. Now, 71-years old and still sharp, he speaks about a period mixing it on-screen with Hollywood’s finest actors, and relives his epic bouts with Roberto Duran, Wilfredo Benitez, and a Chino prison inmate.  
Palomino’s introduction to boxing and affinity with absorbing or inflicting punishing damage wasn’t entirely voluntary though. Growing up it was him and his brothers, performing like clowns in a violent circus, defending their father’s honour opposite older and far bigger kids in their Mexican American neighbourhood. “It will be stuck in my head forever; to become a world champion after emerging from my upbringing – we lived in serious poverty – it was a real achievement. My dad worked as a rancher, so we lived on this tiny property. He was a huge boxing fan, so he had these boxing gloves and he started teaching me as much as he knew. It was very basic, but it worked.

“He would pay other kids to come and spar with us on the weekends,” Palomino explained, discussing early and modest purses. “A pretzel or a coke, and they’d put the gloves on and spar with us; I hated it. I remember when my dad got the strap out when we were kids if he was angry, and he’d keep whipping us. I just kept taking it. When he got tired of hitting me, I’d just go inside and cry on my own. I just felt like he didn’t like me. He loved me and he was my father, but I didn’t think he liked me. 

“We had to help bring money in so the family could eat; my dad would send us out shining shoes and get us into street fights. It was a hard, knock-down-dragged-up-type life. He continued making us put the gloves on; there were a lot of kids. He would pay them a dollar to put the gloves on. I said to him, ‘You can kill me, but I never wanna do this for a living.’ He said, ‘If you don’t want to box, you get a job.’ So, I ended up working in the fields picking strawberries and chilli peppers.” 

As robustly opposed to a career in boxing as the young Carlos was, boxing vegetables wasn’t all it was cracked up to be either. He’d watched his older brother sign up for national service in 1968, which left the future Hall of Famer pondering his own next move. When one Palomino left the military, another – Carlos – slotted straight in, ready for a life of regular ass-kicking. 

“My brother got out in ’70 and he told me to get in shape. So, I went to the boxing gym. I jumped rope, ran a little, and hit the bags. One of the coaches came over and said, ‘Hey – do you wanna box?’ I told him I was going to the army, but he told me there was a boxing gym in the army, and that I could box there, too. They said I should have a fight before I go, so we went to a ‘smoker.’ You turn up, you put some gloves on, and you have a fight.”

Stories of ‘smokers’ are as old as time, with boys sneaked through working class pubs or nightclubs and fed to other, uncarded fighters for the amusement of the drunks and aspiring coaches or managers in attendance. Mike Tyson famously attended smokers from the age of just 13, usually accompanied by Teddy Atlas. He was only a kid then, struggling to conceal the physique of an angry, omnipotent cartoon character. 

They were designed to test young boxers’ mettle, and Carlos found himself fighting competitively for the first time in particularly intimidating surroundings: “Chino prison was our smoker; every Sunday they would allow people to come in and fight. They put it on as entertainment for the inmates, and some of the inmates were allowed to box. We arrive at Chino prison, I weigh in, and this black guy weighs in, just full of muscle and with the six-pack. My trainer asks, ‘What does this guy weigh?’ He weighed 154lbs, and I was only 148lbs. He said, ‘We’ll take that fight.’ I was thinking, ‘Wow, what do you mean? That guy is in prison!’ 

“Oh my God, all of the inmates were going crazy. The Latinos were at one side of the bleachers; the black guys were at the other side of the bleachers, and then there were a few white guys sprinkled in. These guys were throwing up gang signs at each other and I was just thinking, ‘What’s going here, man?’ I dropped him in the third round.  

“We had to be escorted out as the inmates started to rush the ring. We got surrounded by the police, but I had to take a shower. All of a sudden, in walks this guy that I’ve just fought. He’s asking how many I’ve had, so I told him it was my debut. He said, ‘When you go out, if anybody asks you, don’t tell them it was your first fight. I was supposed to get out in a month and turn pro.’” 

Palomino had shattered one man’s dream: “It was my first smoker; I was thinking, ‘I don’t think you should be turning pro.’ I never heard about the kid again.” Even then, after swaggering out of Chino prison with a reputation, boxing wasn’t for him. He’d go on to win the US Army Championship and then the All-Army tournament, with his coaches describing him as a “true natural.” 

It seemed that, as time passed, boxing wouldn’t let Palomino out of its grasp. He’d discussed a prophecy with Tim DeWitt (brother of Doug) about leaving the army to become champion of the world, accepting that it was written, and that his father had identified his championship calibre amongst the chaos.  

Soon after his professional debut, the fights came thick and fast, just as they had when he was scrapping for small change in the backyard: “Every fight that I had, I always believed that I was in better shape than my opponent. Nobody was working harder than me, and that’s what gave me the confidence to throw punches every round in every fight. Four rounds, six rounds, 10 rounds or 15 rounds. In our day, they didn’t count punches or stats, but if they did, I would have set a few records. 

“I went 11-0 with one draw and I was supposed to fight a guy who’d been ranked number eight in the world; it was like one of those, ‘Okay – let’s see what he’s got,’ type fights, but he got hurt before it. I needed the money. It was $80 for a four-round fight and $160 for a six-round fight. This was supposed to be my first 10-rounder, which could have been anything up to $1,000, so they called a promoter in San Diego and we got Andy “The Hawk” Price.  

Carlos clearly recalled the bitter taste of defeat, even now, 47 years later: “He was 18-0, but I knew I could beat Andy. I thought I had the fight won; I threw everything at him. He spun off the ropes and hit me with a hook on the side of the ear. It wobbled me, and my glove touched the matt. They called that a knockdown and I lost the split decision. I couldn’t get a fight for eight months after that – it was tough to take.” 

He describes his next fight with Nelson Ruiz as “all or nothing”. Sure, Ruiz lacked the professional experience of his opponent, but a victory for the underdog would have rendered Palomino one of boxing’s vagabonds. Thankfully, after six rounds, he was back on track without a hitch. And just 22 months (nine wins and two draws) after suffering defeat to Price, it was time to fulfil that prophecy. 

“There must have been a lot of Scots in the arena who wanted to see John go down, because I had a lot of British fans come up and congratulate me. Maybe they were all Scottish,” Carlos laughs, hearing my accent as I question his experience challenging Bethnal Green’s John H Stracey for the WBC welterweight world title at the Empire Pool, Wembley in 1976. 

“When he finally went down, it was a devastating liver shot. I’ve seen fighters get hit like that; I’ve seen them rolling around on the canvas crying. John Stracey got up, so I hit him again. His corner was telling him to stay down, but he got up twice. I just knew, no matter what happened, John couldn’t move me that night. I’ve don’t think I fought many tougher guys than John Stracey. I went right back and fought Dave “Boy” Green. That was a tough fight until I caught him with that hook. 

“That’s what’s so frustrating: the champions today, they get to pick who they fight – the WBC told me who I had to fight. I fought four number-one contenders in my seven title defences, who does that now? When I won the title, I came back to my hometown and I was invited to lunch in Hollywood. It was a group of ex-champions and they met and raised funds for charities. I’m sitting between two world champions from the 40s; they ask me, ‘How many fights you got? You’re the champ?’ I say, ‘Yeah, I won the title in London: 24 fights.’ They laughed, ‘Aw, hell, anybody can win a title nowadays.’”

Fights 32 and 33 are the highest profile of Palomino’s career, as he tackled “El Radar” Wilfredo Benitez (l sd 15) in Puerto Rico before squaring off against the great Panamanian puncher, Roberto Duran (l ud 15). “I was really confident I would beat [Wilfredo] Benitez. I’d seen people go to Puerto Rico and get robbed. I knew I had to knock him out. After the fourth round, I looked over at his corner and you could see his coach was talking to him, almost waving his arms [to quit], but then his father leaned through the ring and slapped Benitez across the face like a kid. Just BANG! So, I started winging in some big punches.

“I felt I was pressuring him; I was landing a lot of stuff to the body. That referee didn’t let me fight. Every single time I got close, and I was trying to work, he would come in and break us up. Bob Arum did come to my hotel room hours later. He sat with me and put his arm around me; he said, ‘You’re one of the best kids I’ve worked with, and I promise you that you’ll get a rematch.’ But I didn’t get it.” 

Roberto Duran lands his right against Carlos Palomino at Madison Square Garden. (Photo: The Ring Magazine via Getty Images)

“As much of a defensive genius as Benitez was, Roberto Duran was much better,” admitted the welterweight star. “He was the best by far. He was a street fighter that grew refined in the art of boxing. He hit me with a shot I couldn’t believe. He started to throw the right hand, I saw the right hand coming, but he stopped it half-way as I’ve went to roll out of there – and he’s hit me with this left hook. It was right on the button! That was the knockdown that he scored. His variety was just amazing.”

I got the sense Carlos could talk about “Manos de Piedra” for hours but he was resolute in his assessment of the superstar’s ability.  He turned his back on boxing after that fight with Duran, pursuing a career on-screen which has spanned five decades and saw him appear in Tony Danza’s hit show Taxi! and the Apache resistance hit, Geronimo. Even now, he’s rehearsing for his next role, playing a priest in a new cartel flick.

He briefly returned to the sport some 18 years after hanging up his gloves, but it had become less reliable and flooded with broken promises. His father passed away in ’95 and their relationship remained fractured until the end: “He never said, ‘I love you.’ I put a chair next to him one day and I said, ‘I gotta talk to you. When I was a kid, you would beat me,’ and he looked at me and said, ‘What did I do wrong? Look at you; everything you’ve done is because of me.’ 

“I kissed him on the head before he died, and I said, ‘I love you.’ He didn’t say it back. I went home that night and I thought, ‘Everything I did in boxing was because I wanted to prove myself to him – to make him proud of me.’”

Carlos wandered into a local boxing gym with his old manager shortly after the passing of his father and caught a glimpse of the enigmatic Hector “Macho” Camacho strutting around the ring, like a king in his courtyard. Palomino, 47 at the time, was in a pair of jeans and a heavy t-shirt but fancied a few rounds with the popular world champion. Whispers from the gym had the elder statesmen winning all four of their sessions.

He boxed professionally – and retired – for the last time 23 years ago. Until the end, his involvement in the sport was pure Hollywood, and although his sequel failed to live up to its billing, he finally fought for himself and for the family that loved him back.

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