Between them, Carlos Palomino and his manager, Jackie McCoy, a part-time longshoreman whose real moniker is Warren Spaw, had come up with a plan to protect the WBC welterweight champion's title. The strategy was secret, of course, not to be revealed until the opening minutes of last Saturday night's defense against rugged Mando Mu√±iz. "Once the fight starts," said McCoy, "it will be pretty apparent what we are trying to do."
There were many in Los Angeles' Olympic Auditorium who felt that all the champion, a 10-to-8 favorite, would be trying to do would be to survive the back-alley assaults of Mu√±iz, whose style is equal parts buzz saw and mugger. "The only fundamental I ever mastered," says Mu√±iz, "is to wade straight in and hit whatever is in front of me."
Such tactics had given the 30-year-old college graduate 40 wins in 51 fights, but most of them had been wars, and it was said that Mu√±iz' age coupled with all those tough fights would lead to Mando's downfall. Palomino's secret, decided Vein Head, a local boxing character, would turn out to be patience. "He'll run, which isn't his style, and make the other guy chase him. They figure Mando's legs will go."
Still, Mu√±iz was the last guy McCoy had wanted for Palomino's first title defense since winning the championship from John Stracey in London last June. But then he had no choice. In order to get the Stracey fight, McCoy had to promise to give London promoter Mickey Duff the options to Palomino's first two title bouts. If he won. With Palomino going in as a 10-to-1 underdog, it was merely a formality.
"We were looking for a nice easy fight for Stracey," says Duff, still shaking his head. "I saw three of Palomino's fights. I figured he had to be one of the easiest guys around."
What Duff thought he saw was a good club fighter working his way through Long Beach State, from which Palomino, 27, graduated last December with a degree in recreation. His record (20-1-3) was impressive; the way he won was not. Hardly famous for his punching power, he was a stand-up boxer with a good jab who liked to stay on top of his opponent. Unlike Mu√±iz, Palomino gave some thought to defense.
"His first seven or eight fights, about all I could say about him was that he was a nice kid," says McCoy, who has managed four other world champions. "Then he broke his collarbone and laid off for a year. I don't know what happened. Before he was hurt he looked like a typical AAU fighter. When he came back he started punching a lot harder, looked a lot better."
Moved into the rankings as the No. 9 contender early last year, Palomino got the call from Duff. McCoy admits he wasn't too optimistic. Palomino told him not to worry; the title would be theirs.
"It was amazing," says McCoy. "Just to think that he was good enough to get a title fight gave him tremendous confidence. Then I got confident. I told Duff we were going to win."
"Oh, my God," said Duff, "I hope not." He hoped wrong.
"Stracey's style was perfect for me," says Palomino. "He stood straight up with his hands held high. I just went to the body. By the fourth round I knew it was just a matter of time."
Dropped twice by hooks to the body, Stracey's time came in the 12th round.
Still in shock, Duff and Terry Lawless, Stracey's manager, rushed off to take another look at tapes of previous Palomino fights. They figured McCoy had slipped in a ringer. "It was Palomino," said Duff, "but it wasn't the Palomino on those tapes. Fighting for the championship just made him a better fighter in his mind. Boxing is much more confidence than it is ability."
If that is true, it applies equally to Mu√±iz, who figured he had been a world champion since March 1975, the night in Acapulco when he stopped Jose Napoles, then the welterweight titleholder, only to lose the fight. A 10-to-1 underdog, Mu√±iz had Napoles bleeding from both eyes, the nose and the mouth and out on his feet in the 12th round.
"Then came the greatest disappointment of my life," says Vic Weiss, who now co-manages Mu√±iz with Harry Kabakoff. "Instead of raising Mando's hand, the referee, Ramon Berumen, goes over and starts conferring with the officials."
"They were looking for a way to give it to Napoles," says Mu√±iz.
"And they found it," says Weiss. "They claimed Mando had butted him in the third round. The third! Here it is 10 rounds later. So they disqualify Mando and give it to Napoles. Later I ran into José Sulaiman, the president of WBC, and he compliments me on being such a gentleman after such a great disappointment. Gentleman, hell. I was in shock."
Later that year, under orders from Sulaiman, Napoles gave Mu√±iz another chance. This time the champion was better prepared and, while severely cut, he won an honest decision. After the announcement, Yolanda, Mu√±iz' wife and now the mother of three children, felt a hand at her elbow. The brother of then President Echeverría of Mexico was removing a silver watch from his wrist.
"This is a gift for Armando," he said. "It is my appreciation for the gallant battle he just waged."
"And I thought that was it," says Mu√±iz, a former L.A. State wrestling champion. "I thought I would never again get a title fight."
Then last summer Duff called McCoy and asked him whom he would like to have for Palomino's first title defense.
"How about somebody in Japan?"
"How about Mu√±iz?" said Duff.
"No way," said McCoy. "That's too tough a fight the first time out. How about something easier?"
Said Duff, "Even if you don't want to fight Mu√±iz, the bottom line is that you have to."
"O.K., I have to."
And so the fight was made: Palomino and Mu√±iz on Sept. 11. Palomino to get $60,000, which is three times what he made for winning the title; Mu√±iz to get $20,000. Then Palomino bruised some ribs sparring and the fight was postponed until Nov. 6. That one didn't make it either. This time the champion fractured a finger hitting the heavy bag. A third date, last Saturday night, was set.
Despite McCoy's early objections, this was a fascinating match. For one thing, never before have two college graduates fought for a world championship. Both fighters are Mexican born—Palomino came to the U.S. at the age of 10, Mu√±iz at seven. Both have become U.S. citizens, both are from the Los Angeles area and both fought for the U.S. Army team at Fort Bragg, although at different times.
A call by Mu√±iz to some old friends at Fort Bragg got Palomino on the Army team. "But I really didn't do it for him," Mu√±iz says. "I did it for his trainer who was a friend of mine. I'm always reading where Carlos and I are close friends. Actually, we just know each other. With similar backgrounds and being in the same business, naturally we've met. But we've never gone anywhere together. But it's a nice story."
When Palomino was asked about Mu√±iz he smiled. It is said that he never fought a man he hasn't liked. "It wouldn't matter anyway. I like Mando, but we're in a tough business. And when you get in the ring you're just a guy going to work. You do your job, you don't think about friendships."
Saturday night things began bleakly for the Weiss-Kabakoff combine. In a 10-round preliminary, they went in with Abel Cordoba and high hopes against Pete Ranzani, the No. 5 welter out of Sacramento. A 3-to-1 underdog, Cordoba started quickly, cut Ranzani under the right eye in the second round and then, strangely, all but stopped fighting. Stung by the cut and worried the fight would be stopped, Ranzani took command and knocked out Cordoba with 33 seconds to go in the seventh round.
Ten minutes later Weiss and Kabakoff returned with Mu√±iz to test Palomino's secret, which, as McCoy noted later, was somewhat less than an overwhelming success. In an effort to neutralize Mu√±iz' single-minded and punishing straight-ahead attack, McCoy wanted Palomino anywhere but directly in front of Mando. He was either to turn back the challenger or, failing that, to slide away sideways.
They should have told Mu√±iz. Not knowing he had been neutralized, he came out banging and, with 19 seconds to go in the first round, dropped Palomino with a hook flush on the jaw. Palomino was up at nine, danced out of danger the last few seconds of the round, then went back to his corner and told McCoy he was fine. In the other corner, Weiss and Kabakoff were saying the same thing to Mu√±iz. "He's not hurt that badly," Mu√±iz was told. "Take your time."
Plodding on, ripping powerful punches to the head, Mu√±iz staggered Palomino in the third round, won the first four. Then Palomino went to work. When he throws them, which isn't often enough, his two-handed combinations from long range are devastating. Slowly he changed the complexion of the fight, winning the next three rounds, losing the eighth and ninth and winning the 10th. It had become as rough as McCoy had predicted.
At the end of 12 rounds, McCoy told Palomino. "If you want to keep the title you're going to have to win the last three rounds. It's that close."
Nodding, Palomino went out and won the 13th against a tiring Mu√±iz, then had a big 14th, his best round.
While patching up a slight cut on the right side of Mu√±iz' nose, Kabakoff told the challenger, "I've got it figured dead even. You need a big round. Win this one and you'll be champion."
Both McCoy and Kabakoff had scored the fight right on the nose. After 14 rounds, Judge Dick Young had it even: 133-133. Judge Frank Rustich had Palomino ahead 135-133 and Referee John Thomas had Mu√±iz in front 133-132.
Palomino rushed out to open the 15th, dug a hook to the body and fired an overhead right to the head. Mu√±iz staggered and Palomino was on him, pouring in punches from every angle. With 1:15 to go, Mu√±iz was felled by a hook. He was up at nine, but badly hurt. Again Palomino swarmed over him. Although unable to defend himself, Mu√±iz stayed on his feet. With 22 seconds to go, Thomas stepped in and stopped it.
"So much for our plan," said McCoy. "Carlos won because he just outfought the other guy. Now with this under his belt there is no telling how good he can be. I expect he'll go right on improving during his next 10 fights."
And now Mickey Duff has one more option. Most likely he will give Stracey another shot at Palomino in London in March or April.
"This time it won't matter who Duff picks," McCoy said. "He's already given us the tough one. Stracey? I can't see what he can do that he didn't do in the first fight. Carlos doesn't care. He doesn't think there is a welterweight in the world who can beat him now. I just wish I knew what it was that broken collarbone did for him."