Before former fighter Hector Lopez died several weeks ago in Mexico City he’d served two California prison terms -- about ten years in all. After making it out the second time he was kicked out of the country as a troublesome alien resident. But he was really a product of L.A.’s meaner streets. In fact Hector, who’d been smuggled over the border from Mexico around age five, could barely get along in Spanish.
He was 45 when he died, an intelligent, charming colorful, dangerous sociopath -- also a graceful Olympic silver medalist, a gangster and family man who was even more complicated than Mario Puzo’s Godfather, except Hector was real.
He was such a magnetic being that characters based on him appeared prominently in at least two works of fiction. One was Hoolie in F.X. Toole’s Rope Burns (2000), and the other was Felix Oliveira in my novel The Barfighter (2009). At the beginning of a work of fiction your publisher always prints a disclaimer that says the characters and events aren’t real and that any similarity to any person living or dead is coincidental. That’s probably never completely true, although characters taken from life are often altered significantly or hybrids combining different people and imagination. When you’re a writer and you know a guy like Hector, you use him as material, period. You couldn’t pass him up.
The now-deceased Toole, whose real name was Jerry Boyd, was a writer who worked as a cutman out of the L.A. Boxing Club, a gym on the ragged edge of downtown Los Angeles that’s since been refashioned into a Korean church. He’d worked Hector’s corner. Jerry found deserving success as a writer just a few years before he died. Clint Eastwood’s Million-Dollar Baby was based on Rope Burns stories. I knew Jerry and Hector through my work as a columnist at Ring magazine. Also, for awhile Hector was trained by my good friend Charlie Gergen. I spent many hours with Hector in a variety of situations, and, like Boyd, went on the road with him for out-of-town fights.
It was pretty clear that Boyd had at some point come to despise Hector and portrayed him as a nasty, conniving cheat with no discernible redeeming virtues in his short story “The Monkey Look.” Hector had probably screwed Boyd on deals and contracts, which is exactly what Hoolie does to his cutman in Boyd’s story, although in the story, probably wishful thinking on Boyd’s part, the cutman gets his revenge. I saw Hector as far more complex, but Boyd wrote fiction, not history, and his character Hoolie and the story around him made for excellent reading.
Toward the end of his life Hector worked as a coach on Mexico’s amateur team. He may or may not have been fired, depending on who you talk to. He may or may not have O.D.’d on crystal meth, also depending on who you talk to. The Mexico City morgue doesn’t automatically do a post-mortem on bodies, especially when they’re covered with prison tattoos and show track marks.
Hector had a lot of enemies, but most of them were back in Glendale on the northern edge of L.A., where he’d been an active street fighter and gang enforcer. He once did a few-months stretch in L.A. County Jail, where he was stabbed on seven different occasions. I never asked him about his responses. I didn't want to know. Hector's street name was Boxer. Before working for Mexico's team, I doubt that he ever held a job in his life. He was a menace.
There’s an episode in The Barfighter in which the character Felix, just before the biggest fight of his life, escapes from Cheskis, who was supposed to keep him clean. I wrote it pretty much the way it happened. I took him out of a bar, where fans had been buying him shots, and back to Charlie’s. Hector started up the steps, and I drove away satisfied. He turned up days later after a terrible binge, ruined. He could have won that fight, but I think a voice inside him told him he didn’t deserve to be a champion.
Causes Ivan Goldman Supports
American Heart Association
National Alliance on Mental Illness
Beit T'Shuvah Recovery Program