Monday, June 11, 2012

Joey Velez, Prize Fighter and Artist

Every boxer needs a compelling back story that demonstrates toughness, perseverance overcoming bad luck and something that shows the soft side of a tough guy’s personality, best if accompanied by tears.  It is helpful if the stories are true. 

Joey Velez
Box Rec Encyclopedia
Joey Velez, a Seattle boxer in the late 40s and 50s and a fixture in the Pacific Northwest boxing culture for long after that, had all the stories and then some and they were all true.  A lightweight, he boxed at a time when every city had a clutch of tough guys and it was a big deal for a kid from Portland to come up to Seattle and fight one of our tough guys.  And, if the fight was a good one, they’d reprise it in two or three weeks in Portland. Mostly, Velez fought at around 135 pounds.

I’m thinking of Velez because boxing seems to be coming back as a regional sport, in part because the Native American casinos are programming boxing into their entertainment calendars.  And I’m not talking about mixed marshal arts played out in cages, but real boxing with gloves, satin pants and tassels on high top shoes.  But it turns out I'm wrong about that.  Boxing in Washington state has a few peaks over the past ten years, but mostly valleys.  In 2000, according to the Department of Licensing, there were 33 licensed matches in the state, declining to half that until a peak in 2005 with 28.  Last year, there were just seven boxing events in the state.
Despite a persistent decline, the Golden Gloves remains a strong brand and the Olympics, especially now that women will fight in London, are also raising boxing’s profile.  Tacoma, in particular, remains a center of regional boxing excellence, the Tacoma Boxing Club having produced Sugar Ray Seales who took the Golden Gloves and Olympic Gold in 1972 and performed well year after year.  There are still plenty of boxing clubs in the state, partly because boxing has always had a perceived restorative aspect to it.  There are some Christian clubs and a couple of boxing clubs focused on drug or alcohol rehab. 

The Velez story is tough to beat.  His Dad was Puerto Rican and his Mom an Alaska Native and there was a big family.  He contracted poliomyelitis at seventeen months and didn’t walk until he was five, and then with crutches.  At ten he barely survived pneumonia and a few months later, came down with tuberculosis, spending 18 months in bed at Firlands Sanitarium.  People liked to say that Joey Velez had the biggest fight of his career long before he ever put on a glove.

He went to Broadway High School, now the site of Seattle Community College, and was not allowed to play sports though he was a terrific athlete.  He won the school championship in table tennis and was a top jitterbug dancer.  Those years on the crutches gave him powerful shoulders, biceps and forearms.  My Dad was that way.  He spent many years on crutches as a young man as well, and though a normal sized guy otherwise, he had Popeye arms and great upper body strength. 

When the Japanese invaded Pearl Harbor, Velez was just 16 but wanted to join.  It would have been tough given his age, but everyone told him not to bother trying with that leg. 
Joey was a natural gym rat and started hanging out where young boxers were at the YMCA and began working the bags and the jump rope.  He convinced his colleagues that he wasn’t going to get hurt if he mixed it up in the ring and his first match was with the previous years’ Northwest Golden Gloves Champion.  Velez dropped him in the first round.

The coach at the Y was suitably impressed and Velez began fighting at the many matches organized around the military bases at Bremerton, Fort Lawton and Fort Lewis.  Fighting almost every week, Velez pounded his way through a lot of America’s best youth, picking up war bonds in a victory, a bit of professionalism largely overlooked among amateurs here.  ‘Don’t you know there’s a war on?’  He had 106 bouts as an amateur and lost only three, all to lefthanders, whom he couldn’t handle because of the bad leg.

Velez vs Mexican Joe Ortega
Cyber Boxing Zone
By now he has a name, ‘Lil’ Joe’ though several other handles found their way into his corner – ‘Seattle Scrapper,’ and ‘The Gamester with the Gimpy Leg’ – but it was ‘Lil’ Joe’ that was sewn on the back of his robe.  In 1947 he won the Washington State Amateur Athletic Union Lightweight championship and the Golden Gloves and made his way to the finals in Boston, where he lost a decision.

The boxer in him successfully fought the artist in him.  He had a fine hand, a knack for portraiture and a three year scholarship offer to the Los Angeles School of Art.  But he became a professional boxer just after the war.  He also longed to make some money and thought his best payday would be in Los Angeles and he took the train there and started hanging out at the famous Main Street Gym, just like he had at the YMCA in Seattle.

His first professional fight was June 5, 1947 in the town of South Gate, about 11 miles south and east of LA.  His opponent was 133 pound Chamaco Garcia whom Velez handled easily, winning a four rounder on points.  Something significant may have happened to Garcia that night.  Velez was his first and last professional opponent.  Lil’ Joey picked up $35.

Never one to lounge around, Joey had a fight four days later, against Featherweight Ozzie Biggie in Santa Monica’s Ocean Park Arena.  This one was called a draw. 

Southern California and Joey Velez did not mix well or perhaps it was something in his private life, but Velez went back home and didn’t fight for nearly four months.   One of those private things may have been the doctor in King County who supervised the fight game in the county.  Some say he wouldn't certify him to fight as a professional there, so his first seven fights were elsewhere. 

Irish Joe Dolan
Box Rec
There was no official lightweight champion in the Pacific Northwest, unless the promoters called it that, but everyone knew who the champion was, “Irish” Joey Dolan of Spokane was the guy.  An amateur in Spokane, he had turned pro and went to work as a welder in the booming Portland shipyards before moving back to Spokane.  Drafted in 1945, he fought out of Fort Lewis for a while but the Army took him to New York where he had a successful run, even fought at Madison Square Garden once.  While successful in New York, he couldn’t break out of the undercards and decided to come home and became Spokane’s most popular fighter.

On March 2, 1948, Joey Velez -- 6-0-1 -- came to Spokane to fight Dolan at the Spokane Armory.  It was considered the best fight in a generation, with Dolan knocked down seven times, but still coming back to Velez.  The decision went to Velez and there was no question that there would be a rematch.  Fights broke out among the fans of each fighter as security tried to empty the hall.

The Spokane Chronicle description of the fight is a real timepiece. 

“A 22-year-old scrapper with a bum leg and a time bomb in each fist, took his place in the sun today as the Northwest’s newest fistic sensation.”

“He’s Joey Velez of Seattle who battered Spokane’s Joe Dolan for 10 savage rounds at the armory last night in one of the greatest back-alley brawls the local beak-busting fraternity has witnessed in a long, long time.”

Three weeks later Velez won again, but this time in Seattle.  Perhaps what the doctor had heard about Velez-Dolan in Spokane convinced him that there would be no blood on his hands if he allowed Joey to fight in his home town.  Then Velez returned to Spokane to top the April 2, 1948 card at Ferris Field against a real good fighter named Buddy Washington, ‘The Pocatello, Idaho puncher' was Idaho’s best lightweight.  Velez knocked out Washington in three rounds and people couldn’t wait for the Dolan rematch they knew was on the way.

Velez was also talking about moving to Spokane.  His defeat of Dolan made him a big name and he was drawing well there.  Joey thought there might be more money in Spokane. 

But on the way, he ran into Charley Johnson, a spindly lightweight whose reach was nine inches longer than Velez.  Johnson was no great shakes then and would finish a career with more losses than wins, but he solidly beat the hell out of the undefeated Joey Velez on June 2, 1948, with Velez fading badly at the end.

Dolan left and Velez
Courtesy Jodi Velez-Newell
Even with the loss, all things were leading to Spokane and Dolan.  Velez played a big role in his own management and promotion and he knew what he wanted.  First, at Ferris Field in Spokane, Velez beat a good young Oregonian, Joey Ortega.  Then Buddy Washington again, this time in Spokane, though this knockout would be in the first round.  Velez then cleaned up the Charley Johnson defeat with a unanimous decision in Spokane, where they announced after the fight that Velez and Dolan would have their rematch at the Spokane Armory come the end of October. 

"Put the curley head on the floor
for a ten count."  Dolan knocked
out for the first time
Jodi Velez-Newell
In the second fight, Dolan was more cautious and avoided the brawling he was not up to seven months before, but to everyone’s surprise, Velez was out-boxing the more experienced Dolan.  In the seventh, just seconds before the end of the round, Dolan missed with a left hook and Velez countered with a huge bodyshot to the heart that dropped Dolan, who remained unconscious for three minutes.  The Spokane Chronicle said that Velez had done what many great fighters of the time had not been able to do, “put the curley head on the floor for a ten count.”  It was the biggest crowd ever to watch an indoor fight in Spokane and it was also Dolan’s last. 

Velez fought twice more in 1948 and was 10-1, losing only to Charley Johnson, the loss he later avenged.  He established himself as the premier small man in the Northwest and paid taxes on $28,000, a very big number in 1948.  He bought his Mom a house in Renton.  He was nationally ranked, loved in both Spokane and Seattle and going strong.

John L.  Davis
The Chocolate Ice Cube
Box Rec
He started 1949 just as well only with stronger opponents and bigger purses.  His only loss was to Harold Dade, the Seattle-based bantomweight champion.  Velez also had a bout in Philadelphia, a potential turning point in his career.  He won, but somehow didn’t want to stay where national boxing careers are made and came home.  It was all good, but then he booked a fight with John L.  Davis, The Chocolate Ice Cube from Richmond, California.

Davis administered a terrible beating to Velez.  Coming back to his corner after another dreadful round, he leaned over the ropes and said to his younger brother, Bob, who had three professional bouts himself and was working in his corner:

“This is a horrible way to make a living.”

Though he stayed conscious for ten rounds, even rallying to win the last three rounds, it was all Ice Cube and Joey first told his friends and then others that he was done with fighting and ready to be an artist. 
One day, in early 1950 while chatting with Ike Williams, the lightweight champion who was going to fight Davis for the title at the Seattle Arena, Velez tells Williams:
"This guy is tough.  He was my last fight."
Williams won a ten round decision.
The Velez retirement didn’t last long.  Three months after his chat with Williams, he was in the ring with undefeated Eddie Chavez in San Francisco and beaten soundly.  
Carlos Chavez
Box Rec
He said he was through then too, but five months later he was boxing again, putting together a series of wins, including a successful rematch with Davis and defeating Carlos Chavez, number four ranked Lightweight then.   

This was what he wanted -- out on a high note.  Back to his art and a plastic surgeon.  “The job I am working on right now would get me a plastic job – nose and ears – when I quit boxing,” he said.
Carlos Chavez, incidentally, was a pretty tough guy who fought 106 bouts and was shot to death in an Oakland street fight when he was 68 years old. 

After that last retirement, Velez would fight 19 more times, losing ten and winning nine.  The economics of boxing were too good for a guy with a story like his and such quick hands.  His professional career lasted just over five years and when he retired for real, in June of 1953, he had made $250,000, worth more than $2,000,000 today. 

KJR Announcer by Joey Velez
Jodi Velez
Though he always came back to his drawing – he worked at Frederick and Nelson and ran the commercial art program at the Seattle Sears store -- it always came in second to boxing and finished poorly as well to his desire to be with people, to teach boxing, to talk about it, to be public about his life, to exercise his real gift -- a terrific personality.  Art was really just one of his tools, like a jab, and hardly the whole package.

The Washington Athletic club hired him to teach boxing, which he did for three years.  Stimson Bullitt, who ran King Broadcasting for a time, managed and developed real estate and who had a Teddy Roosevelt streak in him a mile long, was one of his students. 

He started his own boxing school, the Joey Velez School of Boxing and also had bouts there.  He helped fighters prepare for fights and managed fighters.  He would spar and consult, though word got around that a client of his had taken a body shot during a sparring exercise that broke two of his ribs just before a bout.  Future clients emphasized the consultation part of Joey’s skills at the expense of the sparring.

He held a series of boxing clinics for young people across the city, setting up for several days at a time in neighborhood after neighborhood.  He created a television show, Madison Square Kindergarten, that ran for three years.  Bouts went three rounds, one minute each, with outsized gloves fit for different weight classes, flea, gnat and paper. 

He opened a restaurant and bar on Denny Way, Joey Velez’ Portrait Room, with the walls covered by his drawings of local celebrities, bar regulars and local and national fighters.  Then he opened a place over near the Fremont Bridge, a highly popular tavern where he cashed too many checks and offered too much free product.  He declared bankruptcy.

“I should never be behind a bar,” he said.

When that had all gone down was when I met Joey at my brother’s campaign headquarters in Pioneer Square, Seattle.   It was 1977, my brother was running for Mayor of Seattle and I was his campaign manager.

Joey clearly was trying to get something going and he took a roll of paper from a paper tube he was carrying and showed me a lovely charcoal drawing of my brother.  He said he’d like to present it to him and was asking me to set it up.

I’m as big a sucker for fighters as Velez was for bad checks.  A campaign headquarters always has a lot of food laying around, so we picked up whatever appeared recent and talked about his career, his background, his prospects.  He was interested in reviving his neighborhood boxing program and was hoping, if my brother won, that he’d have a supporter in the Mayor’s Office.  He was still small and likely no more than five or six pounds above his fighting weight.  He had a slight lisp and it was clear that he hadn’t followed up on that plastic surgery.  But he was a wonderfully sweet guy and, when the candidate came in, we continued talking – about Friday Night Fights in our house, Dad going out to the kitchen, where, so we wouldn't know what was going on, he had a pint of bourbon stored in the cupboard and he would loudly unscrew the cap of Old Mr.  Boston’s Spot Bottle and take a swig.  This happened between rounds, mostly. 
We talked about Archie Moore and Yvon Durelle and what an amazing fight that was and the little guys who were so good -- Carl “Bobo” Olsen, Carmen Basilio, Sugar Ray Robinson whom I saw coming out of a Los Angeles Dodgers baseball game and didn't have the guts to say something, Sandy Saddler, whom Velez knew well. 

There wasn’t much business to the conversation, which I’m sure was a disappointment to Joey, but there was certainly a lot of boxing, which was probably enough.

Velez attended a couple of campaign events during that year but I have no recollection seeing him after that.  It’s hard to put together a picture of how he spent the remaining 24 years of his life.  Though I do know that the the first Dolan – Velez fight has amazing staying power in Spokane.  Dolan and Velez re-enacted parts of the fight in a 1983 retirement ceremony at Spokane Community College for the referee who officiated that famous night. The fight was also in the second paragraph of Dolan’s obituary in the Spokane Chronicle of 1992.

I saw Joey's obit in the Seattle Times in 2002.  Trying to jog my memory, I spent some time on the Internet chasing Velez and found the beautiful tribute site I’ve attached, put together by his daughter, Jodi, who is an artist, just like her Dad. 


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