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."
Any other big-time fighters working out at the gym while you were there?
"Well, of course Kenny Norton trained there at the start of his career when he was being handled by Wes Wambold. Wes also managed other big-time boxers like Bobo Olson and the Filipino champion, Flash Elorde. Elorde fought Sandy Sadler for the featherweight championship.
"Kenny came here in the Marines and was the nicest young man you'd ever want to meet. I believe he came from a solid, middle-class background. Kenny had a tremendous physique, but I always thought he would have done better if he'd been meaner. Art Rivkin, who owned the local Coca-Cola bottling franchise, bought Kenny's contract from Wambold and took Kenny to L.A., but Kenny was still billed as the Fighting Marine from San Diego. Everyone remembers his fight against Ali, but Kenny also had two epic bouts at the 15th and E Coliseum against the Boston Behemoth, Jack O'Halloran. Jack retired after that, lived in La Jolla for a while, and had a movie career. He was one of the three ogres in that Superman movie with Christopher Reeves.
"Archie Moore used to come by the gym, and I would talk to him every so often. Archie was a great man who did a lot for disadvantaged kids, especially with his ABC club: Any Boy Can.
"They closed the gym in late '72, and we moved to a place in East San Diego on Polk Street. I kept fighting until 1973 when I got my degree from State. After that I took two years off for graduate school. Got an MA in political science, because my experience in Nam had kind of radicalized me, and I became very interested in the political process. I mean, I didn't march or anything, but I wore my hair long and talked the talk. Don't get me wrong. I'm proud of my service in Nam and of the men I fought alongside. I was just very mistrustful of our government. My master's thesis was titled, 'Jack London -- American Socialist.'
"I went back to the ring in 1976 because I couldn't get a full-time job teaching -- just part-time work at community colleges. I had another son by then and needed some quick money, but I could tell my best days were behind me. I had my last fight in the Philippines on 2 August 1976. Beat a guy named Ruben Montoya in a four rounder at Subic Bay."
Joe pauses to drink his espresso. We're quiet for a while, and in the silence I think of a Hemingway short story called "The Battler." The story is about a punch-drunk former champ named Ad Francis who has fallen into the hobo's life during the Depression. In one of his annoying fits of repetition, Hemingway describes Ad as a "little man" throughout the story. But Ad (for "addled," get it?) retains his physical strength, if not his mental acuity or handsome face. Although Joe's face is unmistakably that of a former fighter, it's much less mangled than Ad's. Joe also has two recognizable ears.
The biggest difference between Joe and Ad, however, is that boxing has clearly not addled Joe. But like the Battler, Joe faces an uncertain economic future. He's now in the fight of his life: The Military Sealift Command is about to fire him after more than ten years of service because he refused to take an anthrax shot. I reluctantly bring Joe back to the reason for our meeting.
How did you come to work for MSC?
"I needed a steady job with benefits and retirement. I spent ten years of contract teaching without benefits and also worked month-to-month for a firm that supplied equipment to MSC. MSC runs ships that carry beans and bullets and other cargo for the Department of Defense. An MSC ship has a civilian crew with a small Navy contingent. Pay is good with lots of overtime and full benefits. My last ship was the Kilauea homeported here in San Diego over at Point Loma. The Kilauea is an ammo ship, which meant I received hazardous-duty pay whenever I handled explosives. Fifty bucks an hour. Like I said, the money was good, and I was within a few years of retirement when they removed me."
Tell me about that.
"The whole affair began last November. We were in Japan to offload when we received orders to proceed to Ulsan, Korea, for a 30-day yard period -- had to put into a shipyard for repairs. That was very bad news for me and a few other crewmembers. We'd heard scuttlebutt -- rumors -- that civilian crew as well as military would have to take a six-shot series of the anthrax vaccine. The military requires its personnel to take the shots if they deploy to the Persian Gulf or Korean Peninsula, where they say the threat of germ warfare is great.
"When I heard we might have to be vaccinated, I began reading up on the vaccine and learned the prevention could be worse than the disease...and probably wasn't even effective. Here, let me show you."
Joe opens a briefcase and hands me a sheaf of papers. On top is a report from a website named "Soldiers for the Truth." I rifle through the papers and note headings such as "GAO Findings on the Safety and Efficacy of the Anthrax Vaccine," "Anthrax Vaccine Facts the Government Doesn't Want You to Know," and "Ten Questions to Ask Your Doctor Before You Take the Anthrax Vaccine." I don't see anything extolling the virtues of the vaccine or describing the terrors of anthrax. I ask Joe about this.
"Oh, I've got propaganda MSC handed out before they ordered us to take the shots. It's just crap. Insults your intelligence. For example, they make a big deal out of this so-called study from the '50s where they claim nine wool workers took the vaccine and didn't get anthrax, which can be transmitted from sheep to humans. The virus attacks the nervous system and is almost always fatal. But what kind of statistically valid study can you get with a sample size of nine? I mean, gimme a break!"
Joe warms to the task, as if he's countering with a quick hook over a feeble jab.
"And the pharmaceutical company up in Michigan that manufactures the vaccine has repeatedly failed FDA inspections. They're putting out shit that civilian medical facilities could never use on patients...only the military can inoculate their members. And what really pisses me off is that I'm not in the military. I raised my hand once, went to Vietnam, got doused with Agent Orange and God knows what else without complaint because I figured, what the hell, I'm in the Navy, and I got to follow orders. But I'm not in the Navy anymore. I'm a civilian, and if I'd known when I signed on with MSC that I'd have to let them poison my body, I'd still be toiling in the classroom, going from contract to contract. You know, MSC and the military are worried crazy about what you got in your body -- make you piss in a bottle to find out -- but they could care less about what they put in your body. I mean, you got to consider this anthrax program in the context of other medical disasters the government has foisted upon its citizens: the syphilis experiments in Alabama, the nuclear-radiation exposures after World War II, the CIA experiments with LSD, swine-flu vaccinations, Agent Orange in Vietnam, God knows what in the Gulf."
Joe goes through the litany of horrors as if he's working a speed bag. I interrupt to ask about his actual refusal to take the shots and the aftermath.
"They waited until we'd finished our offload in Japan, naturally, then gave us a form to sign saying we'd take or refuse the vaccine. Three of us refused."
The Kilauea Three?
"You could say that. The captain gave us a week to think about it, and when we still refused, MSC flew us back to San Diego. We've been at the headquarters in Point Loma ever since. See, I think they're trying to wear us down, put us in a financial squeeze, force us to take the shots. MSC is chronically undermanned and wants to do all it can to make us comply. It's worked with some, but I'm not throwing in the towel."
What do you stand to lose?
"Financially, everything. My wages have already dropped by more than half because I'm not going to sea or getting hazardous-duty pay. Before I refused I was making about four grand a month. Once my administrative appeal within MSC is finished -- and that's less than a few weeks away -- I stop getting a paycheck, benefits, and lose my retirement. But I've hired a former Navy lawyer, Tim McClain, who makes his living suing the government. I've decided to go the distance on this -- right into federal court if necessary. Of course, lawyers cost money, and that's just one more expense at a time when I'm running out of cash."
What are you doing now besides waiting for the next bureaucratic hammer to fall?
"I've taken a job as a night janitor in the Mission Valley mall. I go around picking up papers. I have my little broom and my little mop. I can't accept anything permanent while I'm pursuing my case against MSC. I go to the gym every day."
"The old Navy gym at 32nd Street where I won the 11th Naval District championship. I do dips on the bars, push-ups, pull-ups, and other exercises. Then I lift weights and work the heavy bag."
Make you feel good?
"Makes me feel great."
After we part, I go home and rummage through boxes of books in my garage that never seem to get shelved despite good intentions. Finally I find it: In Our Time, the Hemingway short-story collection with "The Battler." The story is brief -- no more than ten pages with a lot of dialogue. I'm not sure why critics consider it a classic any more than I understand why they like "The Killers." Maybe it's because both stories hint at so much more than their few pages contain. The Ol' Iceberg school of writing. Still, I probably haven't read "The Battler" in more than 30 years, yet my conversation with Joe summoned the memory. I read it now and reread the passage that reminds me most of Joe and his battle with the bureaucracy. Hemingway's alter ego, the young Nick Adams, happens upon Ad Francis alone at a campfire near a swamp cut by railroad tracks: "The little man's wrist was thick," Hemingway writes, "and the muscles bulged above the bone.... 'They all bust their hands on me,' the little man said. 'They couldn't hurt me.' "