San Diego Joe Mazares, at 57, still has the trim, muscled body of the lightweight boxer he once was. "I boxed," he tells me, "under the name 'Joey Vincent' during the late '60s and early '70s. Most of my bouts were here and in Las Vegas. Started after I got back from a year on river-patrol boats in Vietnam as a gunner's mate. My manager was Danny Milsap. He's still around. Works at a flower shop up on Fifth Avenue."
We sit near an outdoor coffee cart on Orange Avenue in Coronado. Joe wears blue slacks, a pullover with horizontal maroon-and-black stripes, and tasseled loafers with maroon socks. The loafers have a high shine.
A fire engine wails past on its way south toward IB. Joe turns his head, distracted by the Doppler effect. Sunlight flashes in the jeweled stud fastened to his left earlobe. If it weren't for his rearranged nose and scarring around the eyes, you wouldn't take him for a former professional boxer, let alone an able-bodied seaman -- or deck ape -- for the Military Sealift Command. He speaks with a strong New Jersey accent, but his sentences are focused and display the occasional word from the bright lexicon of higher education -- as you might expect from a person with a master's degree in political science who has taught at community colleges.
"I wanted to be a boxer since about the age of 14, when my dad took me to an all-Army match in Germany. He was a civilian working overseas with the PX system. I think maybe he took me because I had issues with my size. I was a little guy, and maybe he thought if I saw that little guys -- like bantam or featherweights -- could take care of themselves, then it might give me some hope. Watching those fights did more than that. I was absolutely transfixed. I had never seen anything so beautiful. I know that seems strange, but I saw fighting as pure art. A few years later when I was a freshman at NYU I saw film of the Emile Griffith-Benny 'Kid' Paret fight. I told a guy in one of my classes that I was sorry Griffith had killed Paret, but the fight had been a work of art despite the terrible result. Guy gave me this strange look, got up, and walked away. Never talked to me again. He just didn't understand.
"I didn't box in high school. Dreamed about it all the time and worked out, but I was still too little. I wrestled instead. Then I had a growth spurt -- not much, but enough to get into the ring. Had my first pro fight in New York while I was in college. Got knocked out early. Only true knockout of my career. Only got knocked down a few times. Fought the number-one ranked lightweight in South Africa in 1973 and went the distance. Ten rounder. He only really tagged me once, and that was just a flash knockdown.
"Don't get me wrong. I was never a contender, but I was always a good opponent. I gave the crowd their money's worth, and not many fighters had an easy night with me. I took two top-ten lightweights, Gallardo and Nunez, to decisions. Yeah, I loved boxing more than life -- hell, it was life. Made me feel like I was somebody, was part of something wonderful, was one of 'the few, the happy few.'
"I left college after that first pro fight and joined the Navy rather than get drafted into the Army. Although I was technically a pro, I fought a few amateur bouts as a sailor and was pretty successful. Won the 11th Naval District championship while I was going to PBR school in Coronado. By PBR, I mean river-patrol boat. Then I went to Nam and took a hiatus from the sport.
"After the war I had another reason to fight: I needed the money. I had a wife and baby boy and was attending [San Diego] State on the GI bill, which just didn't pay the tab. Worked a night shift at Convair, too.
"I trained in a gym on the top floor of a downtown building at Third and E. The Rodney Stokes Blueprint Company was on the ground floor. Bradley's Restaurant, the Knickerbocker Hotel, and the Hollywood Burlesque were catty-corner across the street.
"To get to the gym, you entered the Rodney Stokes building off E Street opposite the old San Diego Union loading docks. You took an elevator to the third or fourth floor, then climbed these rickety steps to the gym. The gym had one ring and heavy bags and speed bags. I started working out there in '67 before I went to Nam. Sparred a lot with a featherweight contender named Bobby Valdez. Real good fighter who had to give it up in the early '70s because of a detached retina.
"After I returned from Nam I really got into the pro game. Sparred with guys like Valdez and another number-one featherweight contender named Art Hafey, who was from Nova Scotia. The Canadian light-heavyweight champion, Burke Emery, brought Art here and managed him. Burke lived in PB.
"Sid Flaherty ran the gym, and his trainer was Danny Rodriguez. Sid was always on the lookout for up-and-comers from Mexico. He'd house these fighters dormitory style at a place on Golden Hill, where he also kept kennels for his show dogs. Sid would pair me with fighters from places like Guaymas and Sonora to see if they had what it took. If I beat them, they were gone.
"Sid used to provide the entire card for the Bill Miller shows at the Silver Slipper in Vegas. He'd call me maybe a day or two in advance and say, 'Pick up your ticket at Lindbergh.' I'd fly to Vegas, fight the Mexican, and be back in San Diego in time for my classes and work at Convair. Once Sid chartered a private jet that flew me to Tahoe. It was a good life but pretty exhausting."