By John J. Raspanti
In 1992, retired boxer Randy Shields was minding his own business at a local diner in the San Fernando Valley, CA.
It was nearing midnight, the cafe half-full of regulars. Shields was a regular as well. He was seated near the back of the establishment writing a screenplay when three gunmen burst in, one waving a shotgun that he fired into the ceiling.
Shields hit the floor and crawled to a darkened room at the back. One of the gunmen spotted him and fired. Shields felt a stabbing pain in his upper leg. He managed to back himself into the room. Bullets whizzed past him in the darkness. In all the commotion, Shields, who occasionally worked as a bodyguard at the time, remembered he had a gun.
The robbers wanted money. When Shields heard a waitress threatened, followed by another shot, he made a decision.
“I had to do something,” he told this writer a few weeks ago.
Shields did. He stepped out from the backroom, spotted the bad-guys, and fired.
“It was something out of a John Wayne movie,” recalled Shields.
The gunmen fled with Shields in pursuit. In the exchange of gunfire that followed, Shields managed to shoot and injure two of the suspects. Hours later, they were captured by the Los Angeles Police Department.
Dodging and ducking has always been an important part of Shields life. He took up boxing as a youngster, imitating his father Sonny, who boxed and worked in the movies as an actor and stuntman.
“As long as you’re serious,” the elder Shields told his son.
He worked hard before competing in amateur fights. His was a natural talent, it seemed. At 15, Shields was sparring with professional fighters. He went to war with world title challenger Frankie Crawford on a daily basis.
“Frankie was tough,” remembers Shields who also sparred with legendary Roberto Duran.
Over the course of his amateur career, Shields captured the California state championship six times. He compiled a record 88-3-1, with 67 knockouts, among them, a decisive victory over future legend, Sugar Ray Leonard, that earned him the 1973 National Amateur Athletic Union junior welterweight title.
“Fighting Randy Shields is like fighting a shadow,” said Leonard a few years ago. “You think he’s there but he’s not.”
At 19, Shields turned professional. His debut at the Olympic Auditorium was hardly a gimme. Victor Abraham was a tough egg from San Diego. On the night of the fight, Shields was battling a 102-degree fever. Illness and multiple injuries would conspire against him his entire career.
"I had this cold and I couldn’t breathe," Shields recalled in a story for the LA Times.
Sick or not, Shields had to fight. He won the bout by unanimous decision.
His first year in the pro game he was off and running. Fighting in the lightweight division, the 5’11’ string bean fought an incredible 18 times, winning them all, and scoring 11 knockouts.
“My dad liked to keep me busy,” said Shields.
In 1975, he stopped Carlos Barajos, defeated veteran Miguel Mayan twice, and won a hard-fought 10-round fight over Arturo “Tury” Pineda, who two years before, had knocked out two-time world champion Mando Ramos.
Many considered his victory over Pineda, ranked as the second best lightweight at the time, an upset. Shields had climbed to number six in the world. His resilience would be tested in his next two fights.
Shields was 26-0 when he met tough Vicente Mijares of Mexico. Shields was the favorite, but Mijares won the fight on cuts. The rematch went down a little over two months later, Shields got off to a lead, but Mijares won the fight by close decision.
Shields took some time off. Within two years, he had fought 28 times. The rest did him good.
He returned to the Olympic to face veteran Ramiro Bolanos, a veteran of 61 fights. Shields boxed well, winning the match by a wide decision. Next up was super-quick Ray Lampkin, who the year before, had given the great Roberto Duran a fight until succumbing by knockout in round 14.
Lampkin was anxious for a rematch with Duran. He’d won his last two bouts and would be fighting for the sixth time at the Multnomah County Expo Center in Portland, Oregon.
Shields dominated from the onset. He floored Lampkin in the second round and knocked him cold with a right cross a few minutes later. Two more victories followed, setting up a bout with a NABF welterweight champion Pete Ranzany of Sacramento,CA.
The fight was over quickly due to an accidental head butt. They went at again three months later. Shields and Ranzany battled it out until a bad cut over Shields left eye forced the referee to stop the contest in round 11.
A few months later, Shields was fighting future Hall of Famers Wilifred Benitez, and, in something of a grudge match, Leonard, who was anxious to avenge his amateur loss. The Leonard fight was competitive. To this day, Shields believes that Leonard received a hometown decision.
With no rest for the weary, two months later he was back in the ring.
Shields was only 22 years old but had already engaged in 36 fights. Childhood illnesses weakened him. Injuries hampered him. Arguments, with his contentious father nagged at him.
Shields found solace in writing poetry and short stories. He wrote for himself, allowing his imagination to run wild. He didn’t consider himself much of a writer – throwing away his work like one would a discarded old newspaper. That all changed when his mother discovered something he wrote tossed in the garbage.
“Randy,” she said. “Don’t throw this away, it’s good.”
Shields listened. He started writing screenplays. People who read his work agreed with his mother. He had talent. Boxing paid the bills, but writing was his passion.
“I fought because it was something I could do,” Shields said. “I write because I love it.”
Returning to the ring wars in 1979, he faced Jose Palacious, who, 15 months before, had upset highly ranked welterweight, Armando Muniz. Shields used his spearing jab to win the fight by unanimous decision.
His next fight would be against the reigning welterweight champion of the world, Pipino Cuevas in Chicago, Ill. Cuevas had defended his title eight times, winning them all by knockout. He entered the fight as a 10-1 favorite.
The fight was a barnburner from the opening bell.
Both fighters hurt their hands pounding on each other. Cuevas, in the second round, Shields soon after.
“I kept hitting him with my right hand,” Shields told the Chicago writers after the fight. “I don’t care. I’ll keep throwing it when its broken. I make no excuses.”
The match was razor-close. Shields was the better boxer, but Cuevas was more powerful. A number of rounds could have gone either way. Shields had a cut over his left eye. Cuevas was bleeding from his nose. The bout was a grueling affair that went the distance. One judge had Cuevas winning by six points, while the other two had the champion the victor by a single point.
Shields came up one round short of winning the world championship.
He shook off the loss and won his next five fights in a row-including capturing the vacant NABF welterweight title by knocking Jose Figueroa at the Forum in Inglewood, CA. The victory earned Shields a shot at murderous puncher, Thomas “The Hitman” Hearns, who had won the WBA world title by knocking out Cuevas six months before.
Shields tore his rotator cuff a few weeks before the fight was scheduled to go down in Phoenix, AZ. His father wouldn’t postpone the bout. Shields could barely move his left arm. A shot of cortisone numbed it before the fight. His shoulder was never the same.
Hearns had knocked out 28 of 30 opponents. He expected to knock out Shields. He didn’t.
Totally outgunned, Shields hung in like grim death, absorbing punishment but refusing to go down. By round eight, blood was leaking from cuts around both eyes.
Shields refused to quit.
“Not all acts of courage are performed on the battlefield,” said Howard Cosell, who was calling the fight for ABC Sports. “This is a battlefield of its own, and the acts of courage by Randy Shields are just tremendous.”
The fight was stopped before round 13 commenced. Shields’ career was winding down. He fought five more times, his body rarely given time to heal properly. His father insisted.
“My dad was an asshole,” said Shields.
After fighting Hearns, his father matched him against another undefeated Detroit puncher, Milt McCrory. Shields fought hard but was stopped. The injuries were piling up. His father wouldn’t acknowledge what was happening.
“He didn’t care,” said Shields. “He said his job was to get me the fights. To him, it was all about money.”
“You were my brother, you should have looked after me a little bit,” says Terry Malloy to his brother Charlie in the classic film On the Waterfront.
Change the word brother to father and the dynamic between Shields and his father is complete.
After losing to McCrory, Shields didn’t fight for nine months. He returned to defeat rising prospect Jeff Morgan. He dropped down in weight to face future junior welterweight champion Johnny Bumphus in 1983. Bumphus was young and hungry. He won the fight by TKO.
Shields was tired of the constant pain. He fought one more time seven years later, winning the bout by decision but also sustaining a broken jaw in the second round. This time his retirement was permanent. And unlike so many other fighters before him, he never felt the urge to come back.
“It was easy really,” Shields said. “I was tired of being a pawn, instead of a king.”
Since then, whenever he has any free time, he writes. He’s completed a number of screenplays and treatments. A movie based on one of his scripts could be produced in the next few months.
Nobody ever questioned Shields’ courage, toughness, and honesty when he boxed. The same sentiment applies outside of the ring. He’s a good man, who just happened to fight once upon a time.
Though he accomplished a lot in his amateur and professional boxing careers, Shields is hardly impressed. He moves through life at his own speed, rarely looking back.
For Shields, the memories are fine, but it’s his writing that sustains him.
Full disclosure: Over the past few months, I’ve become good friends with Randy Shields. John