Paul Gonzales was raised in the East Los Angeles projects and never imagined when he was a young boy with his seven siblings that he would one day win an Olympic gold medal just four miles or so down the road.
But with the guidance of a local police officer who pulled him off the streets and introduced him to boxing and with a life story that seemed to be written by a movie producer down the road in Hollywood, Gonzales went on to become the city’s golden star when it hosted the Olympic Games in 1984.
Thirty years ago, Gonzales became the first of nine American boxers to win gold medals at the Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games.
“I told myself when I go back home, I’m going to go back with a gold medal and a limousine,” he told reporters leading up to the Games. “I got home with a limousine and a gold medal around my neck.”
The likelihood of Gonzales winning a medal of any color seemed slim, especially considering his upbringing. His father left home when he was about 7. By the time he was 12, he had joined a gang, been shot at and been stabbed.
Yet somehow, with ex-boxer and Los Angeles police officer Al Stankie watching closely, Gonzales was able to turn his life around in the ring. He was small, competing in the flyweight class, but what he lacked in size, he made up for with heart and determination.
“I met Paul when he was 9 years old,” Stankie told the Los Angeles Times. “He was a mischievous kid. A cute kid. He was scrappy, and good and tough. And he had attitude. Paul threw punches even when he was on the ground. I knew he had all the D’s: dedication, desire and determination.”
Even though he had injured his right hand in his opening bout at the Games against Kim Kwang-Sun of South Korea and had to undergo hot wax treatment for his hand throughout the rest of the day, Gonzales cruised through the tournament to the gold medal.
“I felt my hand popped but I was going to box all the way through,” Gonzales said. “My whole right side was messed up but I was on a mission.”
With his family in attendance (including one grandmother who traveled from Texas to be at the Games) Gonzales carried both Mexican and American flags to the medal podium. Born in the United States, he is of Mexican descent and was the first Mexican-American boxer to win an Olympic gold medal.
The United States team was dominant that day, Aug. 11, 1984. In addition to Gonzales, eight other Americans took home gold medals: Steve McCrory (flyweight), Meldrick Taylor (featherweight), Pernell Whitaker (lightweight), Jerry Page (light welterweight), Mark Breland (welterweight), Frank Tate (light middleweight), Henry Tillman (heavyweight) and Tyrell Biggs (super heavyweight). One of the few American boxers who didn’t win a gold medal in those Games was Evander Holyfield, who went on to become a world heavyweight champion. Holyfield, competing in the light heavyweight division in Los Angeles, wound up with a bronze medal after a controversial call during his bout with Kevin Barry.
“He was robbed,” Gonzales said of Holyfield. “That was a political move. It was tough for Evander and tough for all of us.”
Overall, however, the U.S. showcase on American soil was impressive. It was all the more impressive because just four years earlier, on March 14, 1980, 14 U.S. boxers and eight staff members were killed when their plane crashed en route to an international competition in Warsaw, Poland. Among those killed in the crash were Lemuel Steeples, who had just won a Pan American title, and Thomas “Sarge” Johnson, who was a coach for the 1976 U.S. Olympic Boxing Team.
Paul Gonzales arrives at the 27th Anniversary Sports Spectacular benefiting Cedars-Sinai Medical Genetics Institute at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza on May 20, 2012 in Century City, California.
The United States regrouped and rebuilt its boxing program for the Los Angeles Games.
“That plane crash meant a great deal to us,” Gonzales said. “A lot of guys who would have gone to Los Angeles died in that crash. Olympic hopefuls. Great fighters died, great trainers and coaches. We fought for them in Los Angeles.”
In addition, the U.S. team had the pressure of performing in front of a home crowd.
“There was so much pressure on us, not just to be good, but to be great,” Gonzales said.
Gonzales used his hometown to his advantage, becoming one of the most popular athletes at the Games. He earned the Val Barker award as the Games’ best boxer.
Following the Olympic Games, Gonzales continued to give back to his hometown. He continues to live in Los Angeles and even ran for city council. Though he was unsuccessful in his first political race, those who know Gonzales know he should never be counted out of a fight.
“I might try again,” Gonzales said. “I’m a fighter. I pick a fight.”
He works for the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation and mentors young boxers, some who share his Olympic dreams. There are murals with his likeness around town. Young boxers at the Eddie Heredia Boxing Club, located appropriately on Olympic Boulevard in Los Angeles, seek his guidance.
And last month, on the 30th anniversary of the Opening Ceremony for the 1984 Games, Gonzales was reunited with many of his Olympic teammates at a reception at the LA84 Foundation in Los Angeles.
“The thing that stands out to me most about L.A. was the camaraderie we had during those Games,” Gonzales said, adding that he became friends with athletes from a variety of sports during the Games. “I remember watching Greg Louganis dive and it was just beautiful. I was never a fan of diving before but watching him made me a fan. And I remember watching the athletes in track and gymnastics. After the Closing Ceremony, all we did was party. It was just a jubilant time.”
Source: Amy Rosewater, TeamUSA