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
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
I SHALL ENDURE!
I WILL ENDURE!”
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 gifts...gifts of love and dedication...love 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)