Saturday, September 25, 2010

Was There A Combat Zone Strangler?

By Don L. Stradley
Witnesses remembered 17-year-old Judy Belfrey because she was such an ordinary girl.  Boston police learned that on Tuesday night, June 7, 1977, Judy was seen among the aging street walkers at the 663 Lounge on Washington Street. She was probably the youngest girl in the place, and she left with a man more than twice her age. Approximately two hours later, at 10:30 PM., she was found dead in her Back Bay apartment. Her roommate discovered the body; still fully clothed, Judy had been badly beaten and strangled.

The case made both local and national news. The headlines that accompanied the story were right out of the worst pulp fiction, including Popular Girl Dies In Dump, and Everything To Live for, She’s Dead.  The photo accompanying the Associated Press coverage showed an unhappy looking girl, with wide-set eyes, and straight brown hair to her shoulders. Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School superintendent David Levington described Judy as “beautiful, terrific. She was a fine student, popular with friends. I think she was on the field hockey team…It doesn’t make any sense for us to believe. We’re all distraught.” 
Judy was the youngest of four children born to Charles and Shirley Belfrey. Charles supported the family by working as a carpenter. Judy’s two older sisters, Barbara and Jean, had already moved out, while Judy and her brother Christopher lived at home. Judy was a junior in high school when she learned of a program that involved living in Boston for a semester. Although the project was aimed at seniors, Judy signed up along with 20 other students.

Once in the city, Judy lived with the family of a Boston banker, worked three days a week at a clothing store in Harvard Square, and volunteered two days a week at Boston’s Children’s Museum. She was good with kids. She told people she wanted to pursue a career as a teacher or a daycare worker. Other museum workers remembered her as a nice girl, friendly, always on time. When the semester was over, she joined the program’s other students on a bicycle tour of Cape Cod.

Judy returned to Sudbury in late May, surprising her family with the news that she was moving permanently to Boston. She borrowed bus fare from her mother for the 17-mile trip back to the city, where she moved into a shabby Back Bay apartment with 21-year-old Carol MacDonald, an unemployed woman she barely knew.

It was also around this time that witnesses began seeing Judy at a topless lounge known for being a hang-out for prostitutes. Detective Robert Hudson tried to downplay the prurient aspect of the story, saying at the time, “Look, she was a 17-year-old high school girl learning about the city.”
The story vanished from the news after the revelation that Judy had become a familiar face in Boston’s adult entertainment district. A story about an innocent young girl being murdered could sell newspapers; the plight of a budding barfly was less appealing.

But if readers forgot her, Boston detectives feared Judy might be the latest victim in what seemed to be the area’s worst killing spree since The Boston Strangler had terrorized the city over a dozen years earlier.

The recent murders were linked in that they all were rooted in Boston’s notorious Combat Zone, the 12-acre neighborhood of X-rated cinemas, prostitution, adult bookshops, and nudie bars.

Around the time of Judy's murder, a woman named Ann Serrano was shot to death after leaving a Combat Zone bar. Her body was found in a parked car. (Several months earlier, another young woman, 21-year-old Patricia Dempsey, was found naked and stabbed to death in her Brockton home. Police wondered if there was a connection, but never established one.)
There also had been 16-year-old Kathleen Williams, whose naked body was found in December 1974 in a rest area off Massachusetts 125 in Andover; Holly Davidson, 22, was found dead in a grassy area near Route 495 in Methuen in March 1975; and Melodie Stankiewicz, 26, was found in Captain’s Pond in Salem, New Hampshire in July 1975. The first two women had been strangled; the third was stabbed to death. Williams, Davidson, and Stankiewicz, were all prostitutes, known to find clients in the same lounge that Judy had visited on the night of her murder. Although the term “Combat Zone Strangler,” wasn't being used, Boston's homicide division openly wondered if a maniac was seeking victims in the Zone, and if Judy’s death was connected.  Judy’s apartment had been less than a mile away.

* * *

The Zone no longer exists, having been replaced by high rise condos and trendy coffee shops, but it was at the height of its sinister glamour when Judy Belfrey arrived in Boston in February 1977. Although the neighborhood’s reputation had been colorful and risqué since the mid-60s, the grimy three-block area was officially centralized by city officials during the mid-70s in an effort to keep prostitution out of the other Boston neighborhoods. This coincided with the Government relaxing its obscenity laws, which meant an explosion of porn-theaters and sexually-oriented entertainment.  

Centering on Washington Street between Boylston and Kneeland, and extending up Stuart Street to Park Square, The Combat Zone was Boston's dark Oz.  Rising up among Boston’s classic movie palaces that had been built in the 1920s, the Zone was visible to people traveling through the city by bus, the billboards and arc-sodium lights beckoning. For a city mostly known for blue collar sports fans and provincial politics, the Zone provided a shadowy alter-ego. A Boston businessman on his lunch hour could walk through the neighborhood, stop somewhere for a drink, flirt with a stripper, and be back at his desk by 2:00 PM. Mayor Kevin White once said, “My idea of a city has room for these places. What harm are they doing?”

But it was inevitable that the neighborhood’s tone would transcend the designated parameters. Families coming into Boston to do their weekend shopping would see drug-addled hookers arguing with pimps right outside Filene's Basement. If you drove through the Zone and stopped at a red light, a prostitute might run out to your car, reach in through the driver’s side window and grab for your cock; before the light changed your wallet was gone, baby, gone.

Sometimes street entrances were blocked so unwitting tourists wouldn’t end up in the Zone where they might see something horrifying. One night, a woman's body was dumped in a parking lot near the Golden Nugget. She'd been burned to death and was unrecognizable. When the medical examiner tried to fingerprint her, the blackened skin peeled off.

Yet, there was much campy entertainment to be found in the Zone. Burlesque superstars Chesty Morgan and Blaze Starr performed at the old Pilgrim Theater on lower Washington Street.  Exotic dancers like Panama Red, Machine Gun Kelly, and Princess Cheyenne developed loyal local followings. Many of the Zone’s retired strippers and musicians recall with affection The Mousetrap, The Pink Pussycat, Good Time Charlie’s, The Sugar Shack, The Tam, The Two O’clock Lounge, and a dozen other places where middle-aged men, college kids, hippies, and hookers, wasted away the wee hours. For many years, Roger Pace and The Pacemakers, an amphetamine-fueled R&B group, provided the Zone with a jumping Soul soundtrack. Known as “the white James Brown,” Pace is still remembered for his high powered dance moves, and the time some local wiseguys stuck him pompadour-first into a barroom toilet.

“Life in the Combat Zone was a highly charged cocktail... dangerous, exhilarating and absolutely unforgettable,” said Jonathan Tudan, author of Lovers, Muggers & Thieves, A Boston Memoir. Tudan told me the Zone was “dangerous... people got hurt bad on a regular basis; exhilarating... the fast action never dragged; unforgettable... impossible to put behind us what happened. The retrospect fondness comes from having drank that cocktail and survived.”

Male students from Boston College or Boston University often took jobs in the Zone, tending bar, or clerking at adult bookstores. It wasn't uncommon for the Harvard football team to celebrate a win by heading to the Zone and downing a few beers. “I was an 18-year old, virginal, white kid from the suburbs,” said Tudan, who worked as a flophouse manager in the Zone. “I was not the youngest, whitest, most virginal kid in the crowd. The woods were full of them.”

Occasionally, though, the ugliness of the neighborhood trumped whatever fun was to be had. Award winning photographer and musician Jerry Berndt recalled the night he saved the life of a prostitute outside of the Golden Nugget.

“I had been playing with the band, and after the last number the bass player and part-time pimp flew into a rage at one of ‘his girls.’ He grabbed a microphone stand and started for the door, yelling he was gonna kill the ‘hoe.’ I got in the way, yelling he was nuts, that he'd never get away with it, that he'd go to jail, that there were too many people around.”
The action flowed into the street, where Berndt physically restrained the bass playing pimp.

“Suddenly he calmed down,” said Berndt. “He said he’d kill her later.”

By the ‘90s, most of the entertainment venues were gone, and the Zone had become a dank, boarded up area, with crack-whores turning tricks in abandoned buildings. Throughout the changes, the Zone remained a playground for sadists:
- In 1979, Beverly Trumble was a 26-year-old telephone operator who moonlighted as a Combat Zone prostitute. George Hughes, a 35-year-old alcoholic prone to violent behavior and blackouts brought her to a hotel room where they argued over money until Hughes stabbed her 35 times. 

- Tufts professor William Douglas made headlines when he was convicted of killing Zone escort Robin Benedict in 1983.

- In 1988 a New Hampshire man, Ronald Spiewak, was convicted of killing two Combat Zone prostitutes.

-  In 1994, three men picked up a teenage prostitute named Sonia Leal in the Zone; when she argued with them over her payment, she was beaten, raped, killed, and hidden in the granite Rail Quarry in Quincy. Her body was found wrapped in a blanket, weighted down with cinder blocks.

- As late in the Zone’s existence as 1995, computer programmer William Palmer picked up Chanelle Pickett at Playland, took her to his apartment where they smoked $180-dollars worth of crack, and then strangled her to death when he realized Pickett was a transvestite.

But these cases were solved, the murderers sentenced to prison. Not so for Judy Belfrey, although Detective Juan Torres told HUB that Judy's is the type of case that may one day be reopened.

 “We're looking back at a lot of cases from the 1970s and 80s, to see if there’s something we can do with forensics. A woman strangled certainly fits the type of cases we’d look at,” said Torres.

The cases of Stankiewicz, Davidson, and Williams were reopened last year after former Suffolk County prosecutor Timothy Burke's 2008 book, The Paradiso Files: Boston's Unknown Serial Killer, suggested they were killed by Lenny “The Quahog” Paradiso of East Boston. The three women were killed and dumped in the same manner that Paradiso disposed of other victims.

Judy Belfrey, though, was never linked to Paradiso. For one thing, Paradiso was in the Salem House of Correction at the time of her murder. Paradiso was occasionally granted furloughs during the summer of 1977, but it's doubtful he killed Judy.  Also, Paradiso was an obese 300-pounder, and police reports mention nothing about Judy being seen with a fat man. Finally, Judy was killed in her apartment, which wasn't Paradiso's style. He was a body dumper, conniving enough to lure a woman into his car, but not daring enough to enter a woman's home.

But if Paradiso didn't kill Judy, who did?

* * *
Police claimed to have a suspect in 1977, but no charges were made. During the days following the murder, police interviewed many informants. Carol MacDonald wasn't much help because she’d barely known Judy - they'd been roommates for less than two weeks. The witnesses in the Zone described Judy’s male companion as “average,” in his 40s, wearing a maroon or red sports blazer, and blue slacks, the standard garb of a 1970s Boston lounge lizard. Judy had been visiting the 663 for about three weeks, witnesses said. Some suggested she had met a pimp and was taking her own first steps into prostitution. The idea was harsh, but some thought it had merit.

“You come to the Combat Zone if you want to prematurely emancipate yourself,” said Tufts psychiatrist Dr. Arthur Z. Mutter, who spearheaded a movement to council young girls rescued from the Zone within weeks after Judy Belfrey’s death. Mutter told the Associated Press in 1977, “You can act out your pseudo-adult roles; you can pretend you’re an adult, that you don’t need your parents. These kids become susceptible to these guys who say they care.”  

The year of Judy Belfrey’s death, police arrested 97 girls under the age of 17 for soliciting men in the Zone. Some were as young as 12; many had been in the city for only a short time. “These kids, from middle or lower class homes, feel emotionally so deprived, if you put them into a situation where someone is concerned about them, caters to them, protects them, well, it’s a set up,” said Mutter.

In a way, this sudden wave of teen-girl hookers may have been an indirect result of another murder that took place just four months before Judy Belfrey’s arrival in Boston.

In November of ‘76, Harvard Crimson defensive back Andrew Puopolo was partying in the Zone when a prostitute picked his friend’s pocket. Puopolo chased her into the street only to be stabbed by three of her male friends. Puopolo died as a result of the attack, inspiring a massive crackdown on Combat Zone prostitution. That it took the death of a white male to alarm the locals, rather than the death of several females, says much about Boston in the 1970s.

Within weeks of Puopolo’s murder, police routed Zone prostitutes on to Cambridge, and in some cases, out of state. To remedy this, local pimps may have started recruiting a new generation of prostitutes from the pool of teen runaways.

It never was certain that Judy had become a prostitute, although a teenage girl with no money was an obvious target for pimps.

We tried to find the original police report that was filled out the night Judy Belfrey was killed. The Boston Police Department came up empty-handed.

“We’re in the process of reorganizing,” said Detective Torres. “It’s daunting. We’re only up to the year 2000. Anything before that is difficult to find. A lot of it will be destroyed. Most of it is stolen bicycle reports.”

And just like that, Judy Belfrey was forgotten again.


This story was illustrated with photos by Jerry Berndt. His "Combat Zone" series has been exhibited around the world, most recently at the IN CAMERA Galerie in Paris.

The picture of Judy Belfrey originally appeared in the Lowell Sun, June 1977.

For another of my tales of the zone, read:

The Meaning of The Cage

Sometime after the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001, a disenfranchised generation of young American males began searching for a new kind of masculine role model. They looked at the superstars of boxing but didn’t like what they saw. They looked elsewhere, until finally they found what they were looking for in mixed martial arts, or more specifically, The Ultimate Fighting Championship.

It’s fitting that UFC seemed to rise out of the ruins of 9/11, for boxing’s own first Golden Age happened after the horrors of the First World War. In both cases, it was as if the insanity of world events begged for a controlled version of violence that could be sold as entertainment.

It’s also fitting that Norman Mailer died during this recent era, for the man who suggested the heavyweight champion of boxing was emblematically the toughest man in the world might have grown ill if he saw former heavyweight contender James Toney lose so easily to UFC favorite Randy Couture. While the bout, which took place in Boston as part of UFC 118, was nothing more than the “freak show” UFC president Dana White deemed it to be, it was still unsettling to see a previous era’s concept of rugged manhood stranded on his back like a beached sea cow, while Couture choked him until his eyes bulged.

It might’ve been depressing if it hadn’t looked so ridiculous.

 * * *
There was a time when athletes from other sports tried boxing. Bob Arum likes telling a story about football’s Jim Brown wanting to try Muhammad Ali. Out of curiosity, Arum arranged for the two to spar in a secluded area. Ali slapped Brown three times quickly before Arum called the business off. Football’s Lyle Alzado once boxed an eight-round charity exhibition with a faded and flabby Ali. Nothing much happened, but Alzado said later that getting hit with Ali’s jab was like being lashed across the face with a rope.

Now, since boxing has lost much of its cachet, the arena for athletes wanting to show their toughness is MMA. Even washed up fighters have gravitated to it the way washed up actresses gravitate to porn. “Butterbean” Esch has had mixed success in various MMA leagues, and in 2009 former UFC champion Tim Silvia vanished on the wings of a single punch thrown by veteran boxer Ray Mercer. Most MMA followers dismissed Mercer’s win as a fluke, but we’ll bet Mercer inspired Toney to try his luck in the cage.

Despite Toney’s boasting that he was going “to let everybody know what boxers can do,” he wasn’t in Boston last August to represent boxing. Toney, his career flagging like Esch and Mercer’s, approached UFC to make a little money. When Toney hit the scales at an unflattering 237, it was clear that his game plan wouldn’t involve speed. Coutore, a fit but weathered 47-year-old whose resume included four National Championships in Greco Roman wrestling, needed just a bit over three minutes to dump Toney on his back and make him submit.

After the debacle, Couture encouraged the Boston fans to give Toney some applause. They did so half-heartedly, as if Toney’s fat presence was an insult to the sport they loved. During the travesty they’d chanted “UFC! UFC!” as if Boston’s TD Garden was their home arena and Toney was the visiting team. Dana White concluded that drafting boxers into his little empire was a bad idea.

“It’s unfair to bring a guy in with one discipline, no matter if he’s trained for eight or nine months,” White said after the bout. White, a boxing fan, added, “I wasn't the guy going out there and trying to badmouth boxing and take boxing down and hurt the sport of boxing. James Toney picked a fight, and he got one.” But White gave Toney kudos. “You know what? He stepped up. He wanted to do it, and he did it. He hung in there longer than I thought he would.”

It would be interesting to see someone like UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar put on the big gloves and face Wladimir Klitschko, but UFC fighters know they’d fail under boxing rules. Even Coutore acknowledged that if he met Toney in a boxing ring, “James would probably knock me out in the first round.” If only boxers understood this.

Boosters of MMA conveniently forgot Mercer’s stoppage of Sylvia and crowed that Toney’s loss was evidence of where boxing stands nowadays. Of course, some people enjoy both boxing and MMA, but for the most part there’s a “line in the sand” mentality that exists between advocates of either sport. The rivalry has become tiresome.

For one thing, if this were another era, you might be reading about MMA in the very pages of The Ring. Our magazine’s founder, Nat Fleischer, often showed interest in combat sports other than boxing. Until readers complained, Fleischer filled The Ring with plenty of wrestling coverage. After visiting Thailand, Fleischer wrote a lengthy appreciation of Muay Thai (kick-boxing), and in 1971 The Ring presented a feature on American karate legend Joe Lewis. So who is to say that at some point in The Ring’s past we wouldn’t have backed MMA?

Besides, MMA is more like boxing than many will admit. While some fans delight in the submission holds that can end a match, the loudest cheers of the evening usually come when the fighters stand and trade blows. The UFC style of punching is sloppy, but because the combatants wear small gloves and leave their chins exposed, there are occasional knockouts in the cage that even a hardcore boxing junkie would appreciate.

MMA also resembles boxing in the way it has fought for legitimacy, earning recognition state by state, just as boxing did more than a century ago. Even the shaved heads and cauliflowered ears of the typical MMA fighter harkens back to the days of bareknuckle pugilists.

UFC's healthy squad of white fighters also mirrors a time in boxing’s past. Granted, UFC is made up of fighters from varying backgrounds, but the group’s roster is undeniably stacked with white American fighters, and there is a correspondingly large white audience. UFC supporters don’t like to hear this – they’ll usually shrug and say something along the lines of, “I just like to see people beat each other up,” or as MMA icon Robert Miletech told Sports Illustrated in 2007, “Two guys are stripped down. One wins, one loses. Where else do you get that anymore?” Still, only the naïve would deny that UFC’s success is partly due to the group’s whiteness. People enjoy watching their own kind excel, and UFC has plenty of white athletes to tap into white wallets.

The fact that UFC’s stars don’t earn windfalls of cash adds to their appeal; UFC’s fighting men seem like working class warriors in comparison to the millionaires who populate boxing. The paradox is that many UFC fighters have college backgrounds, while the average boxer is still no more educated than Rocky Graziano. Perception is everything, though, and the impression is that Dana White gives UFC fans exactly what they want, and the UFC fighters are ready to throw down at a moment’s notice.

Meanwhile, boxing’s elite are viewed as spoiled rich brats, aided by boxing promoters who seem like doddering patriarchs, content to give us one or two big fights per year. Again, the impression is that boxing is trapped in a spider’s web of its own making, while UFC feels like a runaway freight car. It’s no wonder a lot of fans are drawn to the octagon. The minute they heard WBC,WBA, WBO, IBF, NABO, WBF, interim, super, junior, etc., they ran screaming towards something that made a little more sense.

Where MMA and boxing differ most is that boxing sometimes fails to deliver entirely, while even the worst UFC events offer at least a few moments of sheer, mind-blowing violence. The irony here is almost unbearable. Boxing, derided for decades as being too cruel, and according to some reports still averaging six ring deaths per year worldwide, is simply not vicious enough for some people. In a way, the success of MMA was inevitable, its audience having been conditioned during the 1990s by violent video games, martial arts movies, and the high flying mayhem of professional wrestling.

 “The kids wanted to graduate to something real,” said boxing historian Bert Sugar. “This (MMA) is like a video game come to life.”

And like video games, the specter of annihilation is ever present.

There have been no fatalities in UFC, and several medical experts, including longtime Ring contributor Dr. Margaret Goodman, have said on record that MMA is actually safer than boxing. However, there have been two documented MMA deaths since 2007, and MMA is heavy on what we’ll call “the death tease,” where every choke-out victory is like watching a man lean into the abyss only to be pulled back at the last second. 

Occasionally an MMA fighter refuses to tap out and simply loses consciousness, leading to a few eerie moments as the customers wait for him to regain his senses. Of course, the same could be said about the knockout in boxing, but a boxer knocked unconscious is rare, while MMA fans watch men strangled into near oblivion and revived almost regularly. What it amounts to is a kind of ongoing death and rebirth ritual.
Boxing may not be able to match the show-stopping effect of cutting off an opponent’s oxygen, or for that matter, sitting on a guy’s chest and punching his face in, but boxing can definitely learn a few things from UFC as far as marketing. As White told SI, “I don't care if you're a f------ sheepherder in the middle of nowhere. You better have heard of the UFC!”

The weekend of UFC 118, Boston hosted an impressive UFC Fan Expo where fans could mingle with their favorite stars. Boston’s Back Bay area was teeming with obvious UFC fans hauling shopping bags bursting with UFC toys, games, clothes, and other products. UFC fans get to bring a little of the UFC home with them. Granted, boxing fans are probably not interested in toys, but they might enjoy mixing with the fighters, and they’d probably like to be shown some appreciation.

Unlike most boxing venues that remain empty until the main event, Boston’s TD Garden was packed hours before UFC 118’s first bout. Part of this was because UFC 118 was Massachusetts’ first UFC event, but also because the ceaseless marketing strategy of UFC has created an enviable bond between the group and its fandom. In this regard, UFC fans are not far removed from fans of WWE, or Star Wars, or heavy metal bands. To see a mass of UFC devotees dripping with merchandise is to be reminded of KISS fans dressed out in leather and face paint. And even though there were murmurs along press row that the show was sub-par, the crowd roared with every takedown.

The sound was unusual, though. It wasn’t like the nationalistic fervor of Puerto Rican fans cheering for Felix Trinidad, or of Celtics fans cheering a great performance on the court. It was more like the sound of a political rally, a collective cry of gratitude for promises kept. An age group that constantly reads about its own grim future may be finding inspiration in this underground sport that has crashed the mainstream.

One particular fellow caught our attention during the weekend of UFC 118. He was a burly white man in his early 30s, his arms and neck covered in ink drawings of devils and crows. He came charging into a food court next to the convention center to meet his buddies, his voice shaking with emotion. Under the bill of his Tapout cap, his eyes were moist.

“I just bumped fists with Chuck Liddell,” he said.

He was a kid again, and his heroes walked the earth.

Don Stradley is a freelance writer from Massachusetts and a regular contributor to The Ring.

Sunday, September 19, 2010




Corky Gonzales - “He taught us to dream.”   By Don L. Stradley

Doctors told Corky Gonzales he was dying. Among a host of ailments, his mighty heart was failing. By that late winter day in 2005, he’d already been through a few decades worth of physical problems, not to mention bombings, death threats, jail time, and riots. Maybe this time there was no battling back. Maybe this was the end.

As he had often done in his long, sometimes stormy life, Corky considered the facts and then marched to his own beat. He told the doctors he was refusing treatment.  He was going home to be with his family. And what a family it was – a wife, two sons and six daughters, 22 grandchildren, and many great-grandchildren. The doctors shouldn't have been surprised at Corky's decision. Fading out in a hospital wasn’t for Corky Gonzales, a former featherweight contender who would later be known as "The Fist of the Chicano Movement."

Some have said that Corky Gonzales was to Mexican-Americans what Muhammad Ali was to young African-Americans. That may seem like a stretch for those who grew up in the Ali era, but in terms of actually inspiring his people, Corky was, pound for pound, at least the equal of Ali, if not greater. 

Born Rodolfo Gonzales in Denver on June 18, 1928, Corky was the youngest of eight children born to Federico and Indalesia Gonzales. Corky's mother died when he was two years old. Federico never re-married, but kept the family together in the tough eastside barrio of Denver during the Depression. The Gonzales clan was constantly on the move, sometimes living in condemned homes. "Though the Depression was devastating to so many,” Gonzales said, “We, as children, were so poor that it was hardly noticed."

Gonzales was known for his fiery temper – he was called “Corky” because of his tendency to “pop his cork.” Still, he was a humorous kid, growing up in an environment that included everyone from Mexicans and Japanese, to Irish priests. He did the usual teenage stuff, playing the 'dozens' with his friends, but he also worked throughout high school, often in beet fields for long hours, saving money for college. After a quarter at The University of Denver, Gonzales realized he couldn't afford to finish his studies. Instead, he pursued a boxing career, winning several amateur tournaments before turning professional.

From 1947 to 1950, fighting mostly in Colorado and Minnesota, Gonzales became a fixture in the featherweight division.  He was a clever, entertaining fighter with neat footwork and a good right hand. He was also a colorful character, known for wearing a cape made from his wife Geraldine's wedding dress. The cape was adorned with what Gonzales described as a family crest - an old English G with two lightning bolts. In ‘49 Gonzales headlined at Hollywood’s Legion Stadium, beating Mario “Chico” Morales over 10-rounds. The real sign of his blossoming talents, though, were two wins over former bantamweight champion Harold Dade. In a short time, Corky was recognized by The Ring magazine as one of the top 10 featherweights in the world.

Corky rang up a fine 41-2 record before a skiing accident put him out of commission for a few months in 1950. Gonzales then ran into disaster at the hands of hard-swinging Cuban featherweight Luis Galvani. Before his hometown Denver fans, Corky was stopped in nine rounds, knocked clear out of the ring for a 10-count. The loss was a shocker, but as Gonzales' son Rudy recalled, Corky's heroic effort won over the Denver crowd.

"Denver was a racist town in those days," said Rudy. "Dad always said he earned more respect with that loss than in any of his wins, because he kept getting knocked down and getting up." For years, this was the only bout Gonzales owned on film; one of his young daughters chewed on it and there went the Corky Gonzales fight archive.

What seemed like the chance of a lifetime came in Sept. 1951. Willie Pep, having lost the featherweight title to Sandy Saddler for the second time, was looking for a tune up. The legendary Pep met Gonzales for a 10-rounder at the Municipal Auditorium in New Orleans. A win would vault Gonzales into the stratosphere of championship contests and big money. But Pep breezed to an easy decision win, giving Gonzales what the Associated Press called “a boxing lesson.” The United Press called it “little more than a workout for Pep,” and mentioned that the 3,113 fans in attendance “booed Pep for not opening up.” Gonzales had some moments in the third, landing a good left hook that appeared to shake the ex-champion, but Pep danced out of range to avoid further damage. It was the only round Gonzales won on the official scorecards.

The loss to Pep hurt his momentum, although he continued with some success. He won two out of three over Charley Riley, split a pair with Gene Smith, and won twice over popular veteran Jackie Graves.  Still, losses cropped up on his record at this time, including a 1953 decision loss to young Bronx belter Lulu Perez, a bout that many observers considered an upset. After splitting a pair of bouts in Panama, Gonzales was inactive for all of 1954 and most of ’55. He returned for one last bout in Denver, a 10-round points win over the unheralded Paul Smith. Gonzales never fought again, leaving behind a record of 63-11-1 (11 knockouts).

Corky Gonzales would find his real strength as the defender of a culture, as a man who fought against racism and apathy. Willie Pep got away from him, but Gonzales would never stop stalking injustice.  Not long after he’d quit his boxing career, Gonzales became the first Mexican-American district captain for the Democratic Party in Denver. When he realized the Party wanted Chicano votes but not Chicano candidates, he moved on. "Corky was doing something in a very articulate, unabashed way that few others were doing at that time," Juan Gomez-Quinones, professor of history at UCLA, told The LA Times. "He was reminding the country that there was a Mexican-American minority whose needs were being unmet."

Gonzales had always been enchanted by the magic of words.  Corky’s father, who had emigrated from Mexico to Colorado during the Mexican Revolution in 1910, filled Corky's head with tales of Mexico’s history, and Corky’s brother Bob was an avid reader who  introduced Corky to books.  Corky would often pump himself up before fights by sitting in his dressing room and reading “The Charge of The Light Brigade," or the works of Federico Garcia Lorca.  Perhaps spurred by these epic narratives, Corky began writing his own poetry. In the mid-Sixties, he unleashed "I Am Joaquin," a 1,917 word opus of blood, rage, history and hope. The piece revealed his vision of the "Chicano," an ethnic distinction that was neither Indian nor European, neither Mexican nor American, but a mixture of all the conflicting identities. The poem is narrated by a young Chicano who is proud of his heritage, but fears he may have to abandon it in order to enjoy the luxuries of America. The fictional narrator recalls the many battles throughout Mexican history, including those fought in the squared circle:

I bleed as the vicious gloves of hunger
cut my face and eyes,
as I fight my way from stinking Barrios
to the glamour of the ring
and lights of fame
or mutilated sorrow.”

The poem concludes with the narrator’s call to action:

We start to MOVE.
La Raza! Mejicano!
or whatever I call myself,
I look the same
I feel the same
I cry
Sing the same
I am the masses of my people and I refuse to be absorbed.
I am Joaquin
The odds are great but my spirit is strong
My faith unbreakable
My blood is pure
I am Aztec Prince and Christian Christ


The poem was a pioneering work in the Chicano Art Movement. UC Riverside professor Juan Felipe Herrera said of it, “Here, finally, was our collective song, and it arrived like thunder crashing down from the heavens. Every little barrio newspaper from Albuquerque to Berkeley published it. People slapped mimeographed copies up on walls and telephone poles."  “I Am Joaquin” was so influential that it was turned into a film by Luis Valdez's Teatro Campesino, a national touring company. Gonzales would later tell the Greeley Tribune that “there are no revolutions without poets.”

The successes of “I Am Joaquin” lead to Gonzales' most fruitful period. Along with publishing poetry and essays, he was writing plays, organizing mass demonstrations against the war in Vietnam, publishing a newspaper (El Gallo), and being mentioned alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez. In 1966 Gonzales established the Crusade for Justice, a cultural center created in Denver to eliminate poverty and racial unfairness. In 1968, after an unsuccessful bid for Mayor of Denver, Gonzales led a Chicano contingent to the Poor People’s March on Washington D.C. and issued a "plan of the Barrio" which demanded better housing, education and reimbursement of pueblo lands.

Gonzales was also an organizer of the Annual Chicano Youth Liberation Conference which sought to create unity among Chicano youth. The second Chicano Youth Conference in 1970 lead to the formation of the Colorado Raza Unida Party. That same year Gonzales founded Escuela Tlatelolco Centro de Estudios, a nonprofit school and health care center. The school was named after Tlatelolco, an area of Mexico City where the Aztecs had their last stand. That was so like Gonzales, to combine altruism with history. The school was his greatest and longest lasting contribution to Denver's Chicano culture.

But despite his noble efforts, a negative vibe grew around Gonzales and his supporters.  The downside of being an electric demagogue included skirmishes in the street, being labeled in the media as a “militant,” and being sued at least once for assault. Rolling Stone writer Hunter S. Thompson described the Crusade as “one of the few viable Chicano political organizations in the country,” but portrayed Corky’s followers as an unpredictable bunch.

“Gonzales has a very intense following in the barrio,” Thompson wrote. “His supporters are mostly young; Students, dropouts, artists, poets, crazies – the people who respect Cesar Chavez, but who can’t really relate to church-going farmworkers.” Corky’s attorney, the boisterous Oscar Acosta, complained to Rolling Stone about the zoo-like atmosphere created by Gonzales' public appearances.  Nita Gonzales, Corky's daughter, admitted to Boxing World that there were problems, but that the Chicanos never started them.

"Several demonstrations held over the years of the Chicano Movement were disrupted by police with tear gas, billy clubs, and guns. While there were certainly those individuals who felt the need to act out with violence, at no time did my dad condone violence out of anger...he absolutely supported self-defense. All confrontations I experienced were always initiated by the police and/or very racist folks," Nita said.

"It was a tumultuous time," added Rudy Gonzales. "Any man in that position will inspire great love and great hate.” Corky was no pushover; he encouraged his children to be ready for anything. “He trained us all in weaponry. We all became pretty good marksmen."

Gonzales was a magnet for political tension. In August 1971 Gonzales was invited to East L.A. to speak at an anti-war rally. An aggressive police intervention turned the event into a tsunami of unrest that went on for days and resulted in three deaths, including the mysterious killing of Latin journalist Ruben Salazar. Rudy compared the scene in East LA to “running with the bulls in Pamplona."  When a truck roared by and collected people trying to escape the pandemonium, Gonzales jumped aboard. When the truck was stopped by police, Gonzales was arrested and charged with carrying a concealed weapon and suspicion of robbery.

Acosta failed to save Gonzales from a misdemeanor weapons charge. Corky was sentenced to 40 days in jail. He just shrugged. He was going to jail because he was a Chicano with $300-dollars in his pocket. The money had been for bus tickets and meals while he was in L.A. The police assumed he'd stolen it. As for the gun, Rudy recalled there being a case of mistaken identity; the gun had been found under a seat.

The dangerous atmosphere peaked in 1973. An altercation between Chicano protesters and the Denver police resulted in a bomb exploding at Crusade headquarters, killing a man and injuring 19 others. During the next year, there were 20 separate bombing incidents in Colorado involving Chicanos.

Whether the escalating violence worried him, or he secretly feared what he believed was a right-wing conspiracy against Chicanos, Gonzales began a gradual drift away from public life. Nearing 50, he may have felt that revolution, like boxing, was a younger man's game. According to Rudy, Corky never completely withdrew from the cause. "He lectured in universities across the country. They especially loved him in California; he could speak in front of 10,000 people."

By the time doctors told Corky he was dying, he had already lived through enough for 10 men. There'd been a catastrophic car crash in 1987, and a multitude of health problems. Still, he had enough left to tell his doctors, "I'm indigenous. I'm going to die at home among my family." Corky Gonzales died at age 76 on April 12, 2005, with his loved ones at his bedside.

Rudy told Boxing World, "The doctors said ‘We can operate and prolong your life.’ But dad said 'I want to die like my ancestors, with dignity.' Fifty of us bunked with him during those two weeks. A thousand people must've come through the door to see him. He was like a king visited by his court.  He was having a great time, laughing and enjoying himself. He loved it. We thought he was looking better. Then one Saturday night when we were all laid out on our cots and mattresses, he went into a coma. He stayed in that condition for three days, and then he passed. We barely had a chance to grieve. There was so much attention, memorials, and all that. We had 5,000 people march in tribute."

Jorge Mariscal of La Prenza San Diego wrote, "The deeds of Corky Gonzales can never be dismissed or erased and his spirit will live on in young people who are selflessly working for a more just society and a world governed by international cooperation. And in Spanish-speaking homes across the nation, Chicano parents will teach their children that they owe a great debt of gratitude to Corky Gonzales, for he was a man who taught us to be proud of who we are and to demand the equality our families have earned."

Minnesota columnist Robert Rodriguez, who described Gonzales as a kind of "mythic hero," and "an incredible man,” compared him favorably to Cesar Chavez, saying "people remain alive, because their ideas will remain alive." Others compared Gonzales to Emiliano Zapata, the revolutionary.

Nita Gonzales, who now serves as President and CEO at the school founded by her father, added, "He was the spark to the resurgence of art, theater, and literature for Chicanos. He also empowered us to stand tall, take pride in our contributions to this place and world. Through his writings, organizing, and speeches we embraced our indigenous ancestry instead of trying to be more ‘Spanish.’ I celebrate each day his incredible contributions and life. At Escuela we remember his leadership...his actions...his words. He left us beautiful of love and of family...dedication to our people, ‘nuestra Raza Indigena.’ He taught us to dream, to embrace our humanity with integrity, and to have the confidence to speak out against injustice. His legacy of social justice lives on in each time we stand for human rights...each time we rally for equality for all people...each time we march for dignity. His love of life and quick humor lives on in our memories and is seen in his most valued treasures...his wife, his children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren."

The boxing press paid little attention when Corky Gonzales died, but Rudy Gonzales spoke recently to Boxing World about his father's ring career:

"Denver would come to a stop when Corky was fighting. The city would shut down. He was immensely popular. He opened many of the Denver venues when they were new. People were fascinated by this young guy who fought his way out of abject poverty.

"He was self-taught. He had some amateur coaching, but he grew up in East Denver which was dirt poor. If you weren't a good fighter, God help you. He fought in the street, and it came naturally to him. I saw him in a few street fights when he was an older man, and he kicked ass. When he learned the craft and science of boxing, there was no stopping him. He also had wrestled in high school in East Denver. He was a natural athlete, with dexterity and agility.

“During his early amateur career, Corky rented a room from Champ Thomas, a well-known boxing figure who published the book, “The Five Killer Punches in Boxing.” Champ coached and mentored my dad for a time. But my dad also learned by sparring with professionals. He took bits and pieces from everywhere. He sparred once with Sugar Ray Robinson; he liked to say, 'I got him with the left hook.'

“Dad told me, 'When I was fighting, I didn't even have to train, because I was fighting so often.' He never took anything, not even aspirin. He was disciplined, he had heart, hunger, focus, and he was cat-like quick. The old guys would say that dad would hit you three or four times and be gone. One day we were watching a fight on TV, and dad was very excited by one particular fighter. He said, ‘That’s how I fought.’ It was Macho Camacho.

“Regarding the fight with Willie Pep, from dad’s perspective, it was boring. He said, ‘You had two cuties in the ring. It was dull and I lost.'  Pep's camp was all Mafioso, they owned Pep. Pep's manager told dad, 'You are here to get Pep ready for his next big fight, you are not here to win, do not mark him up, you are here to tune him up and nothing else.' The whole two weeks dad was training in New Orleans, he thought someone was putting pills in his milk. He never got any good sleep before that fight.

“Psychologically, the loss to Pep may have hurt him. He felt he let people down. He felt he could beat Pep. I'm just speculating, but I think he was bothered by the whole experience. Even though my dad ultimately proved to be a fearless man in the ring and fighting the forces of corruptness, racism and evil in this society, at this point he was a young man who was alone and out of his element in New Orleans, completely vulnerable to murderers and thugs. I am sure he wanted to get out of New Orleans alive and not maimed.

“Corky managed himself. During his pro career, Corky often employed managers to represent him due to requisites by the local boxing commissions. But these managers were just fronts. One manager he employed was Del Hanlon who he befriended when Hanlon was released from a Colorado Prison. During his incarceration Hanlon made newspaper headlines when he escaped from prison using a spoon. Hanlon was a former stick-up artist. He was a good and loyal friend to Corky. Another manager of Corky’s was Izzy Rosenbloom. Izzy was a downtown Denver tavern owner and Corky also tended bar for him in between fights. But these so-called managers had nothing to do with dad's career. He made his own decisions.  

“Pep's manager wanted to sign my dad to a contract, but dad said, 'I didn't want to be a piece of meat'. People thought he was a rube, but in a corrupt and brutal era, this little guy from Denver managed himself and was able to win more than 60 fights against the best bantamweights and featherweights of the day. That's amazing. He had no scars. The only cut he ever had was from a lace, maybe a quarter inch scar. And he was colorful; he wasn't no square, man. He could jitterbug with the best of them.

“Manuel Ortiz, the great bantamweight champion, wanted to fight Corky. Ortiz was getting on in years, and said if he lost he wanted to lose to a Mexican. The fight could've happened in Denver, which would've been huge, but Eddie Bohn, commissioner of boxing in Colorado, said 'No spics or niggers will fight for a title in my state.' That was the era, man. Saddler wanted to defend the featherweight championship against him, but dad was sick at the time. So he didn't get a title shot. Keep in mind, back then there were only eight weight classes, with one champion in each class. Nowadays, dad would've been a champion easily.

“My dad became this incredible iconic leader, he lived many lives and he excelled at them all, but his first love, other than his wife and children, was boxing. Even in the 1980s he was involved with amateur boxing. I remember him sparring with guys well into his 40s. We'd be watching HBO fights, and he would say 'Shit, there's no action! One of these guys is scared, and the other one is glad.' That's how he put it. "

* * *
As Corky Gonzales slips into history, one wonders how he will be remembered.  Time can be ruthless; so can place. Had Gonzales been a New York fighter, his virtues would’ve been extolled in death by writers like Pete Hamill and Jimmy Breslin.  But Denver's reach is not quite as vast as the New York media horn.  Perhaps Gonzales would be more well-known if he had been African-American, or Italian, or Irish, touchstones for Baby Boomer sports fans.  For some reason, there remains a disconnect between Mexican-Americans and the American mainstream.  Still, a film archivist at UCLA has recently found the original negative of Gonzales’ 1953 bout with Gene Smith, and there has been some talk that Gonzales’ life may be turned into a movie.  Our guess is that Gonzales' story shall endure. He will endure.

(This story originally appeared in Boxing World, April 2013)