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He walked away from boxing at 23, a champion at 28, forced to retire at 31: The amazing boxing life of Zack Padilla

Zachary Padilla didn’t even like boxing that much, but you know what, the man was a fighter

By John J. Raspanti

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Zack Padilla poster
Zack Padilla poster

Most people who fight for a living take to it at an early age.


It’s their calling.


But not all.


Take Zack Padilla, who one day would be a world champion. Boxing didn’t really appeal to him.


“I was into baseball and basketball,” Padilla told this writer on the phone a few weeks ago. “I wasn’t real good and didn’t like those sports much either. I was doing it ’cause everyone was doing it at school.”


But someone else in his house loved boxing.


“My dad was a die-hard boxing fan,” said Padilla. “He boxed during World War II and was a junior champion. He loved it. I used to watch old fights with him. He went to a bunch of fights at the Olympic.”


Things changed when Padilla was about 13 years old.


“My cousin was into boxing,” Padilla said. “I sucked, but I started going to gym all the time and getting some fights.”


His career did not get off to a promising start.


“I lost my first twelve amateur fights,” said Padilla. “Shit, I was bad. Every time my dad saw me, I lost.”


That got old fast. Padilla’s dad was nice about it, but it didn’t sit well with the young fighter. He was tired of losing.


“I finally started paying attention and put my heart and soul into it,” Padilla said. “I started doing my work, and doing better. I did what my trainer told me and I started winning. I thought, ‘maybe I can be good at this’."


Padilla’s trainer was a sage who, back in the day, sparred with the legendary Henry Armstrong. From 1936 to 1940, Armstrong was arguably the greatest fighter on the planet, winning 59 of 60 fights and, in a span of nine months, holding the featherweight, lightweight, and welterweight world titles simultaneously. He’s the only fighter in history to achieve this.


When his trainer spoke, Padilla listened.


“He was a good trainer. Sparred with Armstrong and knew a lot of things.” Padilla said. “That’s how old he was. He was old when I met him, and died old. He was like Mickey from the Rocky movies.”


Padilla engaged in 80 or so fights after hooking up with his new trainer, losing a few. People were noticing. But words from his dad inspired him to do better.


“My dad told me to train harder before he died,” Padilla said. “I did what he said and decided, I ain’t good at anything else. I guess I’ll be a boxer. I stopped partying and drank water instead of beer. I was getting good sleep. I’ll stick with this and see how far I can get. Maybe I’m good at this.”


Good he was, winning numerous amateur titles, and a national championship in 1983, and more tournaments in ’84.


Padilla turned professional in 1985, winning his first seven fights by knockout. Then something shocking happened.


He lost.


“My head got big and I switched trainers,” remembered Padilla. “I thought I knew more than my trainer. I went with this other guy. I should have never left my old trainer. If I had trained right I would have won the fight. You can learn from losing,”


Padilla walked away from boxing after his loss. He was 23. He couldn’t afford to wait for another fight. A baby was on the way. He had to work - got a job at a factory loading trucks. He’d leave in the early morning and return when it was dark. Boxing was in the rear-view mirror, at least for a while.


“I started seeing my friends (from the 1984 team) at a training camp in Colorado Springs,” Padilla said. “They’re winning world titles. I was like, I could have done that and everybody was like, ‘Yeah..Yeah’…shutup, you couldn’t do shit’."


“Everybody was telling me that. I was fat, two hundred and forty pounds. So I went to my old trainer, the one I had left, and said I wanted to start training again. He asked me if I was sure. I said yes.”


Padilla started doing roadwork. He’d work all day and hit the gym at a night. A year later, he had lost one hundred pounds and was ready to return to the ring. Five years and two months had elapsed. Padilla was 28.


His opponent was Cesar Valez, a loser of one fight in eight, and the venue was the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, CA.


“I knocked him down, but he got up,” remembered Padilla, “I was like,’I’m tired man…don’t get up.’”


Less than three months later, he faced future world champion James Page at the Civic Auditorium in San Francisco. Padilla prevailed by unanimous decision in an exciting fight. He beat contender, Danny Perez, stopped Jose Castro, and Jesus Cardenas, and defeated Miguel Gonzalez, and Rickey Meyers.


Then he received an offer he couldn’t refuse.


“I was asked if I wanted to fight (former two-division world champion) Roger Mayweather,” Padilla said. “I said yes immediately. It was the only way to get to the top was fight the top guys.”


Mayweather weighed in three pounds over the agreed upon limit. Padilla let it go. He was shocked by how big Mayweather looked when he saw him in the ring.


“I could feel the weight,” said Padilla. “He was probably two divisions (147 pounds) above me. “But I stayed on him and pressured him and won.”


The win over Mayweather earned Padilla a title shot against WBO super lightweight world champion, Carlos Gonzalez. The dangerous Gonzalez was undefeated in 36 fights, with 33 big knockouts. In his last fight, he starched popular Tony Baltazar in the opening stanza.


Gonzalez was favored, but Padilla was determined.


“During the whole fight, I was psyching myself up,” Padilla said. “He can’t hurt me…I’m a badass. You (Gonzalez) want more?”


Padilla outworked Gonzalez on the inside and outside, winning the bout by unanimous decision. The man, who as a boy wasn’t sure he even liked boxing, or was very good at it, was now a world champion.


“I was in shock,” remembered Padilla. “I couldn’t believe it. Was I really a champion?”


He was. His first defense was against slick Efrem Calamati. He won the fight by stoppage in round eight.


“I was a good inside fighter,” Padilla said. “I cut off the ring pretty well. My trainer taught me well.” A month later he made another successful defense of his crown, decisioning Ray Oliveria. Ring Magazine named Padilla “Comeback Fighter of the Year.”


In early 1994, he defeated Harold Miller, and former champion Juan Laporte. A big money fight with Pernall Whitaker was in the works, but Padilla felt something wasn’t right.

“I didn’t feel that good when I fought Miller,” said Padilla.” My left eye felt weird. It felt worse when I fought Laporte.”


Padilla says now he should have seen a doctor, but he didn’t. Instead, he kept training and waiting on word of the Whitaker fight. He was sparing Shane Mosley when everything changed.


“When I sparred Mosley, they were hard,” said Padilla. “Ten hard rounds, every day. They were ring wars. We were going at it. My left eye felt like broken glass. I started getting dizzy. I told Jack (Mosley) I didn’t feel well. He put towels on me. I threw up”

Padilla made an appointment with a doctor. The news was devastating.


“The doctor told me I had a brain aneurysm and I couldn’t box anymore,” Padilla said. “I went and got a second opinion from a doctor in Beverly Hills. He told me the same thing. I can’t fight. He sent a letter, and I was banned from boxing.


“I felt like I got fired from my job.”


Padilla was 31 years old. His boxing career was over.


He didn’t stay down for long. He had bills to pay. He did what he always did, found another job. It was part-time at first but eventually became a full-time position.


Now retired, he volunteers at a gym in Duarte, CA—teaching kids how to box. He looks back at his boxing career fondly.


“No regrets,” Padilla said. “Just was bummed I had to retire early.”


Zachery "Zack Attack" Padilla made the most of his short-lived time in the ring. With no movie-like calling of what he was supposed to do with his life, Padilla achieved something very special.


He’s a world champion.

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