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The Making of Joey Lopes

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The Making of Joey Lopes

When California governor Goodwin Knight’s investigation of corruption in professional boxing and wrestling moved from Los Angeles to Sacramento, lead investigator James Cox focused his attention on the career of lightweight contender Joey Lopes.

These theatrics were performed in 1955, barely a decade after California’s last corruption investigation, which resulted in no findings but a nice-sized bill for the taxpayer to pick up. This most recent crusade was more extensive, though, more heavily-funded, with good money saying that somebody’s head would have to roll, the question being, of course, whose head.

Who would be chosen as the sacrificial victim to appease the crusading gods, so the boxing industry and those who control it could continue their business unimpeded while the politicians could compliment themselves on a job well done and the public could convince itself of the legitimacy of the sport it supported.

The verbal sparring between lawyers and investigators and managers and promoters – and even Lopes himself – was almost comical, the investigation as misguided as it was well-intentioned.

Although never becoming a world champion, Joey Lopes was a beloved and widely known contender, regularly fighting at Madison Square Garden, proudly entering the ring wearing a robe proclaiming his home of West Sacramento, not to be confused with the capitol of California, set in a different county on the other side of the Sacramento River.

Joey Lopes, a solid pro mid century

They fought more often than they do today. Joey went 56-26-6 as a pro from 1949-1963

Lopes was born in Cape Verde, coming to the U.S. when he was five. His father had been a harpooner on whaling boats at home, but worked as a rancher and dairyman once in California.

Lopes’ brother Johnny said that in the early days of West Sacramento, there was “a lot of gambling houses and houses of prostitution, cockfighting, they had everything….” Life could be rough for kids, too, and Lopes’ friend since childhood, Raul De Anda, said that a bully picked on Lopes every day on the school bus, racially slurring him about his ancestry.

“Joe was proud,” De Anda said, and he would regularly get off the bus with the bully so they could settle their differences. Half the kids on the bus would get off, too, having to walk the rest of the way home a fair enough price to see a good fight.

The bully was bigger than Lopes, who realized he “needed to learn how to fight.” This is how Lopes and De Anda ended up at the Dreamland Dance Hall on Sixth Street, where Phil Garcia taught kids how to box.

Both boys loved boxing, but Lopes was more gifted. He would eventually become an alternate on the 1948 Olympic team, turning professional in 1949. Before the fame, though, (“Joey” was the celebrity version of Lopes – he was “Joe” to those who grew up with him) Lopes and De Anda were teenage boys who would sneak through a gap in the rear fence of the El Rancho Drive-In, where they would occasionally be caught by ticket-taker Buddy Greer.

Buddy (who later in life would become my brother-in-law when I married his wife’s younger sister) was a good football player at Grant High School in Sacramento. He was not a large man, but was fast, quick, agile, and very sure of himself.

Buddy told Lopes and De Anda that if he caught them sneaking in again he was going to “kick their asses.” De Anda emphasizes how Lopes was not an aggressive person. He enjoyed boxing but was not a bullying personality who wanted the world to know how tough he was. The next time they were caught, Lopes pleaded with Buddy, “Please just let us go. I don’t want to fight you.”
But Buddy wouldn’t hear it. “I told you guys I would make you pay if I caught you again, and that’s what I’m going to do,” he said. Not one of Buddy’s better decisions.

When the Korean War began, Lopes – 31 fights into a professional career – convinced De Anda to enlist in the Army with him. The recruiter promised the two they could remain together for the entirety of their tour. But, given that military recruiters are the used-car salesmen of the armed forces, that promise lasted all of three days following induction. Lopes was sent to Europe as a boxing instructor, De Anda to the front lines. “My mother never fully forgave Joe for that,” De Anda said.

Get a sense of Lopes’ fighting style and the size of his heart in the video below, lightweight champ Joe Brown TKOs Lopes in round 11 of their December 1957 faceoff:

Before shipping out to Korea, though, De Anda boxed for the Army, hoping to make a travelling tournament team. His coach was a strong, powerfully built man with thick, scarred eyebrows named Gene. De Anda did not realize, until a few years later, safe at home and reading Ring Magazine, that his coach had been the future middleweight champion of the world, Gene Fullmer.

One bit of trouble Lopes had before being transferred to Germany occurred while stationed at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. The cook on base constantly referred to Lopes as a “boy,” kept calling him “boy” even after Lopes said to stop. Most always personable, Lopes was sensitive about racial matters, especially when being racially insulted.

He told the cook, “My name is Joey Lopes,” and that if the cook called him something other than that there would be trouble. The cook proved to not be very intelligent and kept insulting Lopes until getting laid out.

The highly-thought of Bobby Woods was Lopes’ first opponent upon discharge from the military, stopping Lopes on a cut in the fifth round. He was soon back in form, however, but couldn’t get a fight.

For six straight scheduled bouts, Lopes’ opponent would mysteriously suffer an injury two or three days before the fight. At the same time, Oakland manager Harry Fine and Jim Murray, Bay Area promoter as well as west coast representative of the International Boxing Club (IBC), were in regular contact with Lopes’ manager and trainer Phil Garcia – whose Lopes had been with since his first day in the gym.

Fine and Murray wanted control of Lopes, also wanting Garcia out of the picture. Garcia refused their advances, the consequence being that Lopes was kept “inactive.” This was a regular enough practice that the papers knew exactly what was going on. The Sacramento Bee’s Wilbur Adams wondered “…if that’s what happened to Joey.” Other reporters wrote that “[Lopes] may find it increasingly hard to get bouts with top notch men in his division,” that “…if he can’t beat ‘em he will have to join ‘em…[t]hat is, if he wants to get any place in the lightweight class.”

Eventually, Fine, accompanied by Lopes, knocked on Garcia’s door, with Lopes telling Garcia to take the thousand dollars Fine was offering, which Garcia did, fading into the background. The reporters’ tone changed after this. “He [Lopes] has been taken under the wing of Harry Fine, top flight west coast boxing manager who has headquarters at the bay,” the Bee printed.

Garcia saw the writing on the wall, backed off and Lopes had a new manager

“That hurt Joe a lot,” De Anda said. “Garcia had taught Joe everything he knew and they were very close. But Joe also knew he was going to die on the vine if he didn’t leave.

“Boxing is a rough business,” De Anda maintains, “what happened wasn’t right. But Joe stayed with an aunt in Oakland, training in Fine’s gym, sparring with all those guys in the Bay Area. Leaving here was the best thing that ever happened to him.”

A good local fighter in West Sacramento, he became a world-class boxer training in Oakland with Dick Saddler. Fine was the manager on paper, but Murray called the shots.

Lopes became more widely known, too, fighting in New, York, Chicago, and Detroit. His draw with lightweight champion Joe Brown led to a title shot.

“Joe was a nice guy, very friendly,” De Anda said. “He enjoyed being Joey Lopes.” Running around with Stu Nahan – who was later to make a name for himself in Los Angeles, but in the 1950s was a local television personality and sportscaster – and wealthy Bay Area businessmen, Lopes married and divorced a couple times before his third marriage to Sally in 1964 would last until her death in 1996.

The protection and promotion Lopes received from Fine and Murray came at a price. They were not doing what they were doing for Lopes out of the goodness of their hearts. During the investigation, Fine couldn’t explain certain deductions that were made from Lopes’ purse. He couldn’t explain under oath, anyway.

Interrogator Cox was trying to nail Fine and Murray, as well as Sacramento promoters Fred Pearl and Jackie King, to the wall, as if they were trophies. He might as well have tried nailing water.

Murray testified that he had no interest in Lopes. Fine testified that he thought Murray was acting as Phil Garcia’s agent and claimed to be unaware of Lopes having difficulty getting a fight until moving to Oakland.

Murray admitted he may have loaned Fine the money to “buy” Lopes’ contract,” but said he loaned money to everybody. “You have to do a lot of things to stay in the boxing business.”

Upon discovery that Murray was receiving 5% of the gate for some Sacramento fights, Cox asked Murray why he received money for a fight he had not promoted. “Oh, I helped promote the fight,” Murray answered.

Promoter King said of Murray’s cut of local fights, “I just happen to like the guy and he has done me numerous favors.” Cox asked, “You mean you gave him a present?” to which King answered that the money was “for something he did in the past or will do in the future.”

Fine testified that Lopes did not look at his fight contracts and “asks few questions,” but had a “general awareness” of the “contract conditions.” Lopes’ testimony supported Fine.

Admitting that he “scrupulously” followed all California State Athletic Commission regulations which the agency enforced, Fine explained he would “ignore the others.”

In the end, Cox’s investigation called for Fine’s banishment from boxing, but the Commission reissued his license, placing him on probation. He and Lopes then extended their contract for three years.

What the investigators failed to understand is that Lopes was the lucky one. Bobby Woods, in contrast, was not. When investigators located Woods for an interview he was residing in a “fourth rate” Eureka hotel, his once promising career in steep decline, less than a year away from absolute ruin. Woods was appreciative of the meal the investigator bought him.

As Lopes’ career neared its end, the celebrities and hangers-on found other playgrounds, but those who had always been friends with Joe Lopes continued as the friends of Joey.

“Joe didn’t get hit much,” De Anda said. “He had good defense and could slip punches really well. It wasn’t until closer to the end when he began taking shots.” This was good because Lopes was not a strong enough fighter to overpower most people. He had to be slick. He wasn’t large enough to be a strong lightweight, but was too big to make the featherweight limit, and so had to fight as a “tweener,” someone whose best weight was between two divisions.

My wife’s first husband lost his life in an automobile accident on the day Lopes lost a decision to Hilario Morales. Lopes attended the funeral with bandaged eyes – evidence of his taking more punches as his career neared its end. My wife, never much interested in sports, had no idea who Lopes was, and thought he might have been hurt in the wreck.

Following boxing, Lopes tried his hand in the restaurant business, worked for the Department of Corrections, and eventually became a sales rep for a liquor distributor. His family owns property in the middle of West Sacramento and a park bearing his name was recently opened.

When amateur star Pete Ranzany became a professional boxer, the corporation Ran-Sac was formed to help fund and support Ranzany’s career. A dozen or so local businessmen and fight followers – including Lopes and De Anda – bought shares in the corporation, the proceeds from the sale of that stock used to pay Ranzany a salary to supplement the small purses he would receive as a beginning, preliminary boxer. Ranzany would not need to work and could attend college courses, as he wanted to do.

Another of the investors, golf pro Tommy LoPresti, wanted Lopes to make all boxing-related decisions, an idea De Anda disagreed with. “What’s the problem?” another investor, Ray Valine, asked De Anda. “I thought you guys were buddies.”

“We are,” De Anda answered. “I know Joe better than the rest of you. That’s why I know what I’m talking about.”

De Anda knew Lopes to be neither shrewd nor manipulative. That he liked to get along with people. “Those are good qualities for a human being,” De Anda said, “but not so good if you are in the boxing business. The world knows of Joe Lopes because shrewd and manipulative people took care of him.”

Herman Carter was brought in to develop Ranzany because Lopes was too busy to be in the gym every day for training. Lopes did serve as manager, and with the help of promoter Babe Griffin built Ranzany into a city hero and world-ranked contender.

Ranzany fought for the world championship once, and had several other opportunities to earn another chance. But De Anda thought a different managerial approach might have gained greater success for him, with a higher level of earnings.

“I said to Joe, ‘Look at all those Italians in San Francisco. Here we have a nice, handsome, intelligent Italian boy who knows how to fight. Do you know how much money we could make over there?’”

“I don’t need San Francisco,” Lopes said.

De Anda though that just as Lopes had benefitted from relocating to the Bay Area for training, with a better quantity and quality of sparring, Ranzany could more fully develop by drilling in a larger city – Oakland, San Francisco, or possibly even Los Angeles.

After losing to Ray Leonard and Wilfred Benitez, realizing he would never become champion, Ranzany severed ties with Ran-Sac and Lopes, hoping to make more money on his own as his career ended.

Lopes hoped to find a heavyweight to work with, knowing that was where the prestige and real money could be found. But this would not be in the cards.

Not yet 60 when De Anda noticed Lopes regularly repeating himself, Lopes’ wife Sally mentioned that he would forget about important events in the lives of friends and family members.

Benefits were held for Lopes, funding Alzheimer’s research.

The annual Joey Lopes crab feed to provide funds for charities became a West Sacramento tradition until interrupted by COVID.

Lopes died on August 19, 1977, 66 years old. “A lot of people get Alzheimer’s,” De Anda said. “But the boxing didn’t help.”

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