Deep Down, Boxing Lifer Don Conley Was a Softy



Deep Down, Boxing Lifer Don Conley Was a Softy

Arrested for burglary at age 10 when police found him hiding under the bar at the Southside Club on Stockton Boulevard, Don Conley never knew his biological father.

He did know, however, two step-fathers before he and his brother left home when Don was 12.

“The streets were not a good place for me to grow up.” Conley said. “It’s not a good place for anyone to grow up.”

Conley eventually found work on a dairy farm south of town. He was paid $5 a week plus room and board for milking 80 cows a day, morning and night.

The owner of the dairy also enrolled Conley in Elk Grove High School, and drove him back and forth every day.

He played shortstop on the baseball team and ran the mile in track until leaving school before graduating.

Conley had a tough-guy attitude and not many friends. One student, however, Jackie Halcos, in her words, “couldn’t resist him.”

“He was terribly handsome,” Jackie said. “And plus, I liked the tough guys. I know Don was a tough guy on top, but deep down I also knew he was a softy.”

Don and Jackie would be married for 48 years until he died in 2006.

The Conleys

Not everyone says their marriage was the best thing that ever happened to them, but that was clearly the case for Conley.

His father-in-law, John Halcos, worked at the Southern Pacific railyard – where Conley would find employment, too – and also trained boxers, including the once highly-ranked Bobby Scanlon, when Scanlon had relocated to Sacramento to jump-start his career.

Halcos became the father Conley had never known. “He was very special to me,” Conely said. “We were inseparable. I learned a lot from him.”

The education included learning how to fight.

Conley trained daily for two years, eventually sparring with top local lightweights – including Scanlon and world champion Joe Brown, when Brown was in town to fight Joey Lopes – before entering the Golden Gloves.

Conley won the Gloves in the spring of 1962.

That August, Halcos would die, 47 years old. “It was like I lost my own father,” Conley said.

He did not box for a while, but returned to win three professional fights in 1963. Then he stopped once more, this time for good.

“I tried to box again,” Conley said, “but it wasn’t the same. All I know is that I didn’t want to box anymore. I lost my desire to fight after that.”

“It was a shame,” Conley’s friend and long-time Sacramento boxing figure Will Edgington said.

“A helluva a fighter. A great prospect…managed by his father-in-law. When his father-in-law died, he dropped out of boxing.”

Don and Jackie had three children. They also bowled competitively, occasionally being mentioned in the papers for that, or for catching a big fish in the Sacramento River.

Teaching a neighborhood kid a few things about boxing in the 1970s rekindled a spark in Conley, and he began training boxers at the Capitol Gym, run by Ernie Guevara.

Garza trained here with Conley

“I was happy again,” Conley said, “but then there was still something missing. I wanted my own place. I had always dreamed of being a coach in my own gym.”

Conley met Fred Castano at a Sacramento City College show, where Castano was a student.

Castano needed a cornerman, and Conley was willing to help.

Castano, who worked out at the Washington Neighborhood Center at the corner of 16th and D, then asked Conley to become his fulltime trainer.

The Neighborhood Center was an educational and athletic outlet that operated as an after school hangout for kids in the Alkali Flats area, and Conley began meeting Castaneda there every weekday.

Castano wanted to fight in the Golden Gloves, but at 185 pounds was too heavy to be competitive.

“I told him to lose 40 pounds and we’d talk about it,” Conley said.

That next year, with Conley’s coaching, Castano won the junior division of the Gloves as a welterweight.

Center officials were impressed with how Conley treated everyone the same, from the smallest kid with no interest in boxing who only wanted to escape the streets for a few hours to the most gifted athlete, reeking of potential.

This was a trait of Conley’s that would not change, even when he was training world-champion boxers.

Conley was granted permission to operate a fully-functioning boxing gym at the Center, and his program flourished.

He coached national amateur champions and his boxers regularly competed in national and international competitions. Conley was selected as a coach for international events.

“I always wanted to be the lightweight champion of the world,” Coney said, after establishing himself as a trainer. “But it doesn’t matter anymore. The happiness of being a world champion couldn’t compare with the happiness these young men bring me.”

Conley understood that “Every kid wants to be a champion,” but “unfortunately, they all can’t be one. But as long as we can keep them off the streets and out of trouble all I’m doing is well worth the effort.”

The highlight of Conley’s involvement with boxing began, however, when a “scrawny, awkward-looking 17-year old walks through the door,” and asks a skinny, shirtless, long-haired man smoking a cigarette where the coach was.

“You’re looking at him,” Conley said. This was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, as Loreto Garza – who can still claim at age 61 to have never smoked, drank, or sworn – became the kindred spirit of Conley, who was proficient in all three vices.

Loreto Garza trained with Don Conley

Castano, who , by this time, no longer boxed but assisted Coney with training duties, described Garza as “an ugly duckling – quiet and shy, not too aggressive. Many people didn’t think he had it. But he…developed into a beautiful swan, a beautiful fighter.”

Conley said of Garza, “I started him as an amateur, and his dedication to boxing is one of the best I have ever seen.”

Long before Garza was world-rated, Conley appreciated what he had on his hands. “I’m very lucky to have a kid like this one. He is in the ring almost every day. All I can say is to have him around the gym is a pleasure.”

Garza fought one weight class heavier than Conley had, but was noticeably taller. He learned to use his reach, with a spearing left jab, to set-up a whip-like right hand.

With good lateral movement and snake-like weaving of his upper body, Garza would seek angles that allowed for openings through which he could snap the right, much like kids will snap towels at one another in the locker room.

What I found most striking about Garza was how similarly to Conley he moved, even though Garza was taller and had much more range. He worked to the same root beat as did his teacher.

All boxers move to a beat, a basic rhythm. When two good boxers face each other, one of the more interesting aspects of the confrontation is the struggle for the boxers to impose their rhythm upon one another as they determine to whose music the fight will be fought.

In a competitive fight, the dominance of music will ebb and flow, with each boxer intermittingly asserting himself before his opponent takes control, which he will then relinquish – this is a violent version of dueling banjos.

Garza’s music clearly had been influenced by Conley.

I saw in Garza the same root rhythm with which Conley moved as he would attempt to install a sense of cadence in the young kids he coached.

Garza’s beat was longer, a more of a held-out note than Conley’s, and he had sub-beats that worked in harmony with the main beat.

He created variations in movement that can’t be taught in a gym, in the same way a musician can be taught to play the piano, but cannot be taught how to bring goosebumps on the arms of those listening to the music. That comes from the gods.

Don Conley in action, teaching Durán

Success in boxing requires more than a dedicated, gifted fighter and a talented teacher. In the byzantine world of boxing business, Garza benefited greatly from promoter Don Chargin.

Chargin was involved with Garza from his apprenticeship days to his retirement. Garza put in a lot of work but, as Conley said, “We really owe a lot to Don. Getting the [title] fight was the hard part.”

When Chargin was involved with a fighter, he was molding a future champion, at least a potential future champion, as much as a sculptor creates a work of art from a block of marble or a piece of clay.

“So many young, talented fighters are impatient,” Chargin said. “But if you are willing to listen, like Garza has, one who will have faith in a promoter who has stuck with him, he can usually get somewhere.”

Patience is a good word to describe Garza’s demeanor. In the course of a fight, certainly, but also outside of the ring, as well.

“He’s very patient,” Conley said. “He’s patient about everything. He doesn’t get overanxious about fights. He doesn’t get overanxious in the ring or out.”

“There were fights in Garza’s career that were offered – big fights – but I wouldn’t take them,” Chargin said. “At the time, I just didn’t think they were right for what I projected for him.”

If Chargin saw his prospect progressing, he wasn’t going to become enticed by quick money, and he hoped his fighter would not, either.

Larger paydays loomed in the future.

“You certainly don’t want to make a bad judgement because of money and ruin the whole thing.”

Chargin’s experience in the trenches of boxing negotiations is what made Garza’s challenge of Juan Coggi for Coggi’s WBA 140-pound title in Paris, France.

“I purposely got [Rosenberg] Rosas as his final tune-up fight in February,” Chargin said. “Rosas was a left-hander, as is Coggi, and although he was stopped in the fifth round, he seemed to confuse Garza at times.”

Chargin’s explanation of how he enticed Coggi’s camp into fighting Garza reveals what goes on in the mind of higher level promotions.

“I purposely got Rosas for Garza because I knew he had a stinking style. I did it to help Loreto, but I also knew that Coggi would probably see it. The thing that fight didn’t show was Garza’s quickness. That’s something Coggi’s people could never gauge.”

Coggi underestimated what he was up against in meeting Garza. This is almost solely due to Chargin’s efforts.

As much as Garza and Conley admired and appreciated their promoter, Chargin was equally impressed with Conley’s gym in Sacramento.

“Don was a very underrated trainer,” Chargin said, and thought Conley’s assistant Castano – Conley’s first fighter – was “the best mittman I’ve ever seen.”

Garza’s time as champion was short.

He defended his title against Vinnie Pazienza before being stopped by former lightweight champion Edwin Rosario.

Rosario loaded a right hand over Garza’s left in the first round.

Conley saw from the corner that “as soon as he got hit he didn’t have anything left. I was hoping he could weather the storm.”

He couldn’t, but not for a lack of effort. Valiantly trying to jab and move for the next two rounds, Garza was wounded prey, with Rosario patiently stalking him, finishing him in the fourth.

Conley and Chargin had wanted Garza to postpone this fight due to a virus Garza couldn’t shake, but Garza wouldn’t hear of it.

Rosario, who was resistant to a rematch with Garza, lost to Japan’s Akinobu Hiraraka.

Garza began chasing him. But Hiraraka lost the title to Morris East of the Philippines, and the pursuit continued, only in a new direction.

“Waiting for another title shot has been frustrating,” Garza said. “I just hope East will be willing to defend the title against me a lot sooner than the other guys.”

That, however, was not to be. Regarded as too dangerous of a puncher while not being well-known enough to ensure a large purse, he was successfully avoided.

Garza tired of taking small fights paying only a couple thousand dollars so he could stay in shape.

He took a job as a juvenile corrections officer, and with his growing family, had less time for training.

“Retiring doesn’t bother me,” Garza said. “I’ve had a pretty good career, bought a house and saved some money. My only regret would be not getting a chance to prove that the loss to Rosario came on a night when I wasn’t myself…”

Conley supported Garza’s thinking. “If Loreto doesn’t have time to stay in shape, there is no use fighting.”

“He’s been a pro’s pro,” Chargin added. “I’d respect any decision he made.”

By the late 1990s, following the retirement of Garza and world-title challenger Richard Duran, most newspaper articles in the Sacramento Bee about Conley and the Neighborhood Center were human interest stories and not sports reports.

Funding problems led to the Boys and Girls Club assuming the responsibilities of administration, implementing a new management structure.

Girls were recruited to the boxing program.

“There are a group of girls here who seem to defy gender issues and social expectation,” the Center’s new director said, which did not bother Conley.

But professional boxers not being allowed in the gym did. This is a case of well-intentioned people exacerbating a problem with their ignorance.

Everyone, from the rankest amateur to the Olympic hopeful to other pros looked up to and admired boxers such as Garza and Duran.

Watching the pros is how young people learn, seeing how they work in the gym every day.

Conley left the Center in 1999, citing health concerns, one being arthritis in his shoulders and elbows from the years of mitt work.

“Now, Jackie and I can eat dinner earlier than 9 o’clock every night,” Conley said. “And I’ll have more time to enjoy (three) children and (six) grandchildren.”

And for a few years he did, until dying of lung cancer at 67.

“I started with Don and I finished with him, so winning that title with him made it even more special,” Garza said. “He was more like family than a coach.”

Conley’s wife Jackie agreed. “Don became very close to those who boxed for him.”

“He always looked out for the fighter,” Garza remembers Conley. “He cared about the kids. He taught us about life…show up on time and stick to your word.”