The first thing you look for on the kid is a bulge, or a bump, or something that might look vaguely like a muscle. What you find instead is a body built like a mailman's arches. The guy doesn't even have knobby knees, and the only things skinnier than his legs are his arms. It just doesn't seem right. If Danny (Little Red) Lopez were not the WBC featherweight champion of the world, you would probably call him scrawny, even if you wouldn't say it to his face.
Not that there is a rule that says all boxers have to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Sandy Saddler, who was the featherweight champ off and on from 1948 to 1957, was built to have sand kicked in his face. There is also no rule that equates physique with power. Saddler knocked out 103 of 162 opponents, and Lopez may well be one of the hardest hitters in the game. "Pound for pound, Danny is the hardest puncher in all of boxing today," says Don Chargin, the veteran matchmaker at Los Angeles' Olympic Auditorium. Lopez has 39 victories in 42 fights, 36 of them by knockout. Even more remarkable is his ability to absorb punishment. By his own manager's estimate, Little Red has been knocked down in as many as a dozen fights—and then has gotten up and knocked out his opponent.
The hoary "pound for pound" claim is admittedly impossible to prove. For one thing, 126-pound featherweights and 220-pound heavyweights never get into the ring together. World lightweight champion Roberto Duran, he of the fabled stone hands, has knocked out 79.6% of his opponents compared with 85.7% for Lopez. Bantamweight champ Carlos Zarate has knocked out 52 opponents in 53 fights, but it has been suggested that Zarate has fattened his record on an assortment of adagio dancers and tamale makers. "A lot of the experts rate Danny as the third or fourth alltime greatest puncher—based on knockouts—and he ain't finished yet," says Bennie Georgino, Lopez' manager and trainer. "He don't fight stiffs off the street the way Zarate does. Danny fights legitimate challengers, and he sends 'em to the hospital."
Lopez first began packing them off to the wards in 1971 at the Olympic, the venerable downtown boxing cathedral that sits beside the San Bernardino Freeway like some squat stucco troll. The Olympic is a sanctuary for the hundreds of pepperpot Latin fighters who come out of the Los Angeles barrios. After a good fight at the Olympic, coins rain down on the ring from the stands, and both the victor and the vanquished kneel to retrieve their tribute. These are boxing's little guys, and in this country Danny Lopez is their proud little monarch.
It didn't take Lopez long to build his following. By his 11th professional fight he was already so popular that the Olympic sold out its 10,000 seats in one day, and had to turn away 5,000 more customers at the door. Lopez has always been a favorite of the Latin fight fans, many of whom may have mistakenly assumed because of his name that he is of Mexican descent. More than that, however, his popularity derives from his toe-to-toe slugging style.
"The little guys are the great fighters," says Georgino, who handles six fighters, all in the lighter weight classes. "They punch fast, hit hard," he says. "The heavyweights don't do that; usually they give you the worst show. People in these local arenas love the little guys, but the TV networks don't understand that."
Georgino first saw Lopez fight as a 16-year-old amateur in Las Vegas, and even then Bennie's brother, the late Al Georgino, could see the kid had potential. "Danny was just a puny 115-pounder then," Bennie says, "but Al could see something in him nobody else could see, that someday he was going to be a champion." Then as now, the big punch and the revolving-door defense set Lopez apart, and if the refinement of his boxing skills at age 26 is any indication, he must have been a total brawler at 16.
One of seven brothers and sisters, Lopez grew up on a Ute Indian reservation in Fort Duquesne, Utah. His father, who left home when Lopez was young, was a Mission Indian from northern California. Lopez' maternal grandmother was three-quarters Ute, and his maternal grandfather was part Irish.
The family lived in a two-bedroom shack with only a wood-burning stove to stave off the cold of the Utah winters. Danny hunted rabbits and other small game with a bow and arrow (Hollywood, are you listening?); with only a government welfare check to be spread eight ways, rabbit meat was often a luxury. "I remember eating mostly powdered eggs," Lopez says. "My sister Carol and I used to eat sugar sandwiches. We thought that was a great delicacy."
When his mother could no longer afford to support the family, she was forced to place several of her children in foster homes. Along with his brother Larry and Carol, Danny went to a family named Moon in Jensen, Utah. The Moons eventually adopted him legally, so from the time he was eight until he was 13, Little Red Lopez was legally Danny Moon. Later he would have his name changed back to Lopez.
Life was seldom peaceful for Danny, and sometimes it was downright harrowing. When he was 13, he was confronted in a shattering way with the dark side of the Moons. The Moons' son-in-law had beaten him severely for a trifling offense, and during a subsequent argument with Mrs. Moon, Danny heard his foster mother tell Larry to go fetch her son-in-law. Danny raced upstairs and pulled out a .22-caliber rifle, then announced that if the son-in-law came up after him there would be trouble. "I didn't have any shells in the gun," Danny says, "and my brother never went to get Mrs. Moon's son-in-law, so I never actually held the gun on anybody."
Mrs. Moon did call the cops, however, and the next day Danny was arrested for assault and battery. "They put me in jail for a month with a lot of older criminals," he says. "They shoved my food in through a hole in the door. It really began working on my mind, and I started to hear voices." Eventually, the charges were dropped, but by that time Lopez had become so embittered toward the Moons that he decided he could never go back to live with them, and moved in with an aunt and uncle on the reservation. Lopez has had a change of heart; he now considers the Moons to be his parents, and has even paid to fly them in to some of his fights.
Life did not go a great deal more smoothly for Lopez when he was living with his aunt and uncle, who tried to forcibly convert him from Mormonism to the Jehovah's Witnesses. Not surprisingly, Lopez was becoming slightly rebellious and soon began to get into trouble. "When I was in junior high everybody thought I was pretty tough even though I didn't weigh much," he says. "I started hanging around with all the mean guys. We'd get an old Indian to buy us some beer, then we'd go get drunk and cause trouble."
Once, after a street fight, he was hauled into court and told that if he were caught fighting again he wouldn't be allowed to box as an amateur in the town of Orem anymore. When word went out that Lopez was on probation, a local tough tried to take advantage of the situation by socking him in the face. "Before I knew what I was doing, I had hauled off and broken the guy's nose," Lopez says. Luckily, a friendly teacher happened by and got Lopez away from his stunned victim before the police arrived. "I guess I was a little hard to get along with in my younger days," he says.
Even between fights Lopez doesn't weigh much more than 130 pounds, but he walks thickly, his feet set apart and his shoulders rocking from side to side. His head is wedge-shaped, like the head of a tomahawk, and his face is lightly but earnestly freckled. Lopez' hair is more than just a little red and he parts it down the middle, like Mickey Walker, ex-middleweight champ. Lopez looks less like an Indian than the guy the cavalry used to send out to scout for Indians. When he vouchsafes one of his three-word speeches, he dishes it up tonelessly, smiles as if he's not sure he's glad he said anything, then nods his head once or twice as if to leave a couple of emphatic ellipses hanging in the air.
Lopez lives like a little guy, even though Georgino says his fighter earned more than half a million dollars in 1978. There is a little house in San Gabriel Valley, a little wife and three little sons. Danny even drives a 1977 Mustang, and has somehow resisted the most basic California extravagance, a vanity license plate. The only big thing on the premises is the trophy head of a six-point elk he shot last year in Colorado.
There are almost no marks on Lopez' face, which is astonishing in view of his style. "You look at his features," says Georgino. "He's had 42 pro fights, but his face ain't that messed up." Even Danny's hands are fragile-looking; like clouds, they seem wispy and frail, but within them lies the Lopez thunder. There is a small scar on the inside of his right index finger; it was operated on to remove bone chips after he won the title from David Kotey in Ghana in 1976. Some of Little Red's later victims have reason enough to believe the surgeon left his scalpel in the hand.
Lopez' victory over Kotey was remarkable in several respects, not the least of which was that it was the only time in his career he had gone 15 rounds. He had arrived in Accra, the capital of Ghana, two weeks before the fight, and was immediately dumped into a creaky old hotel with no hot running water, despite the fact that there were several first-class tourist hotels available. Lopez' manager at that time was Howie Steindler, but Steindler was ordered not to make the trip by his doctors, who feared it might bring about another heart attack. Cast almost totally adrift, Lopez trained four rounds a day in the tropical heat, suffered all the intestinal indignities inflicted upon visitors unaccustomed to African fare, and received subtle pressure from his hosts. Shortly before the fight, Ghana's president, General Ignatius Acheampong, told him, "You will not leave Ghana with our title."
"He wasn't fooling around, either," says Lopez. "I just told him, 'We'll see.' "
Lopez had Kotey in trouble at several points during the fight, but each time he did, the Ghandaian timekeeper rang the bell, allowing Kotey time to recover. "Some U.S. Marines who were stationed over there made videotapes of the fight and sent them to me," says Lopez. "I timed the rounds, and every time Kotey was about to go down, that round would be shorter than it was supposed to be. One round was only two minutes long."
Nonetheless, Lopez won the title. It took nearly two days for the word to get back to Steindler in Los Angeles that his fighter was the world champion. Steindler, who was 72, had waited 55 years to have a champion, but he never got to see Lopez defend his title. On March 10, 1977, four months after the Kotey fight, Steindler was kidnapped, beaten and smothered to death, then left in his car on the Ventura Freeway. Lopez heard of Steindler's death at 1 a.m. after the body was discovered by the police.
"At about six o'clock the same morning I got a phone call from a guy who I had thought was my friend," he says. "He said it was terrible what had happened to Howie and all, but that before I talked to anybody else about managing me, he would like me to consider him. I got a lot of calls like that before Howie was even in the ground."
Lopez turned to Georgino, a longtime L.A. fight fan and bail bondsman. Georgino at first hesitated to take on any responsibility that might keep him from flying to the Wednesday night fights in Las Vegas, but he finally relented. He has worked with Lopez on his defense to the point where the champ occasionally ducks a punch.
"In all the years I've been in boxing I've never seen anybody who could knock somebody out with a left hook, a left jab or a right hand the way Danny can," Georgino says. "I've seen him when I would have sworn he just tapped a guy on the chin and—boom!—the guy went down like he'd been shot dead. You can't teach that."
Still, Georgino can't help but be troubled by Lopez' willingness to let a lot of people pound on his face. Among the luminaries who have done the above is one Masanao Toyoshima, who was then the No. 1 man in Japan. In 1974, he had Lopez out on his feet in the third round. Rubber-legged and seemingly barely conscious, Lopez somehow contrived to knock out Toyoshima in the same round.
"Danny don't go into the ring thinking he's going to get hit," insists Georgino, "but there's something within him that you have to wake up somehow before he gets mad enough to fight back. That's why he has to get knocked around for a while before he knows he's in a fight. It's almost as if he needed a slap in the face to wake him up. And if that's what it takes, I may slap him."
It has also been suggested, as a less obvious measure, that Lopez should spar two or three wakeup rounds in his dressing room before going out to do battle. It has now been four months since his last fight, in which Juan Malvarez knocked him down in the first round and staggered him again in the second. Typically, Lopez rallied to knock out his man in the same round. Two weeks ago Lopez began serious training for a March 10 title defense in Salt Lake City against the WBC's No. 2-ranked featherweight, Roberto Castanon of Spain. The serious training includes sneaking away occasionally to the mountains for a bit of skiing. Needless to say, this does not thrill Georgino. "Every time he gets on those skis, I can just see the money flying away," he says. Still, Lopez is one of those rare creatures who trains diligently; he honestly loves gymnasiums.
"Sometimes I'll get Danny a workout in the gym with guys nowhere near him in ability—real amateurs—and they'll knock him around for a while," Georgino says. "Eventually he'll wake up and pound on 'em, but even then he'll come back to the corner and ask me if he's being too rough on a guy." Georgino is puzzled by this temperamental flaw. "Sometimes the kid's just too nice for his own good," he says. And almost all of the time he's too good for the good of his opponents.