Gonsalves, ace boxer in '50s, dies at 76
By Dave Newhouse, STAFF WRITER
Article Last Updated: 01/18/2007 06:57:06 AM PST
Boxing was easy for Oakland's Johnny Gonsalves. Maybe too easy.
"You couldn't hit Johnny," Ted Such, Gonsalves' best friend, said Wednesday. "He was so clever, he'd make you look bad."
Gonsalves resembled former bantamweight champion Willie Pep in the ring. Every night was a boxing clinic as the stylish Gonsalves moved up the ladder to become the world's No.1-ranked lightweight in the 1950s. "Johnny had one problem — training," Such said. "He liked women, and he was bad on roadwork. He never worked out too hard. When he did, there was no sweat on his face, and his hair was never mussed.
"But if it was a four-rounder, Sugar Ray Robinson couldn't have beaten him."
Gonsalves, 76, died Tuesday in Castro Valley of pneumonia after failing health. He was a bartender after leaving boxing in the 1960s with a record of 88-19-2. Most of those losses came after he pushed his career too far past its prime.
Gonsalves turned pro in 1949 and quickly rose to No.1 status at 20, a ranking he held for two years. He stayed in the top 10 of his weight class for 11 of his 14 years as a professional.
Though he never received a title shot, he had no regrets. "I had a good life," he said of his pugilistic career during a 1995 interview. "I never thought I'd go that far."
He was a classic boxer who knocked out only seven opponents, but wasn't ever knocked out himself.
"I had a good chin," he said. "From the time I was 9, they told me to box all
the time and 'Don't get hit, don't get hit.' I look at boxing as the art of self-defense. I was strictly a counter-puncher. I never had the killer instinct. If I did, I would have been a better boxer."
He was good enough to defeat three world champions — lightweights Wallace "Bud" Smith and Paddy DeMarco as pros, and future middleweight Gene Fullmer as an amateur in the 1948 Olympic Trials.
"All I can remember was that he was a good fighter, and that they all hit back," Fullmer said Wednesday from his home in West Jordan, Utah.
Don Chargin promoted many of Gonsalves' fights in Oakland.
"He was one of the best pure boxers there's ever been," Chargin said from his home in Cambria, on the California coast near San Luis Obispo. "He was the best fighter to ever come out of Oakland."
After Gonsalves retired, he asked Willie Ketchum, manager of lightweight champ Jimmy Carter, why he was denied a title bid.
"He told me, 'Because Johnny, you'd have beaten my boy,'" said Gonsalves.
There was another way to get a title shot, but that meant hooking up with such underworld types as Frankie Carbo and Blinky Palermo.
"If I signed a contract to fight for the title," Gonsalves said 12 years ago, "then they'd control me."
Such was Gonsalves' business partner at the Marina Bar and Grill in San Leandro. The two became friends at 13 when Gonsalves was a local Golden Gloves champion. He was a national Golden Gloves champ at 16, and at 18 lost in the finals of the Olympic Trials to Bud Smith.
"Johnny was the kindest man I ever knew," said Such, 76, who lives in Reno, Nev. "He would never talk bad about nobody. If you needed some money, he'd give you everything he had."
Gonsalves was married three times. His three children, Jeff, John Jr. and Cheryl, stepchildren Marty and Jodi, a brother, Ray, and sisters Patsy and Gayle survive him.
A memorial service will be held at the Chapel of the Chimes in Hayward on Saturday, Jan.27 at 10:30 a.m.