He has appeared in over twenty films and several television shows. And Carlos Palomino could also box. The former WBC welterweight champion took time out to discuss how his journey started. “My mother came to the United States when she was six months old. Her mother had passed away, and her father brought her and the family to the United States. She grew up here, in southern California. My father was on a work program, where Mexicans were allowed to come in, work the fields, and then, after the season, they would go back to Mexico. My mom never wanted to be in Mexico and begged him, again and again, to take her back to the States and stay. Finally, despite being a very proud Mexican, he gave in and emigrated the whole family to the United States in 1960. I was ten at the time.”
Despite boxing being important to his father, young Carlos wasn’t convinced about the sport. “My dad was a huge boxing fan. In his eyes, there was no sport except boxing. Although he wasn’t a fighter himself, he watched the game very closely and learned. When me and my brother were about five or six years old in Mexico, he bought us boxing gloves and made us spar. We were his entertainment for years and years.
“When I came to the United States, I started playing baseball and that was my dream, to play professional baseball. It got to the point where I was about twelve years old, and I said, ‘I didn’t want to box anymore. I’m not putting the gloves on again.’ That was basically it.”
Through a twist of fate, Palomino did put the gloves on again, only to realize he’d untapped a hidden talent. “I was going to the army. My brother got drafted in 1968 and, when he got out, I asked him, ‘How hard was basic training?’ He told me, ‘You better get into shape, because they’re going to kick your butt.’ There was a boxing gym about a mile from our house in Westminster, California, where I grew up, so I joined the gym just to get ready for basic training.
“While I was there just hitting the bags on my own, a couple of coaches kept asking if I would spar. I kept saying, ‘No. I’m not a boxer. I’m just getting in shape for the army.’ I had about three months before I needed to report to the military and decided one day, okay, I’ll spar. I got in the ring with this one guy who was getting ready to fight in the Golden Gloves and sparred him for three rounds. He beat the crap out of me.
“When I got out of the ring, one of the coaches said, ‘You’ve got to do this, man. You’re a natural. You can box.’ I said, ‘What? No way.’ Then one of the other coaches said, ‘You know, you can box in the army. We have a guy who trained in the army last year, was on the army boxing team, and he’s a pro now. His name is Armando Muniz. He’ll be here in a second. Why don’t you wait and talk to him?’
“Armando comes in and the coach introduced me. Armando asked where I was doing basic training and I told him. He said, ‘There might be a boxing trainer there, and if you do well they might send you to the All-Army Boxing Championships. If you can make the team, you get treated really well.’ I said, ‘Wow. That sounds good.’” Ironically, Palomino and Muniz would cross paths twice as pros down the line.
“I did my basic training at Fort Hood, Texas. The second day there, I see a gym, walk in, and it said, ‘Fort Hood Boxing Championships.’ I signed up and ended up winning the tournament.”
Palomino went on to fight thirty-eight times as an amateur, winning thirty-five contests. During that time, he became the All-Army champion in 1971 and 1972, and also the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) champion in 1972, beating eventual Munich Olympic gold medalist, “Sugar” Ray Seales.
Palomino still wasn’t sold on the sport of boxing, though. “I wasn’t thinking about a professional career. My dream was to get out of the army and go to college, but once I won the national AAU championships, a lot of people kept coming up to me and handing me their cards, saying they wanted to manage or train me. I kept saying, ‘No, thank you.’ Then when I got out of the army and I got home I thought, ‘Maybe you’ve got a shot at something here,’ so I went back to the old gym in Westminster and spoke to the trainer who introduced me to Muniz and said, ‘I’m thinking of turning pro. Will you train me?’ He said, ‘Absolutely.’ His name was Noe Cruz, and he’d been working with amateur and pro boxers for maybe thirty years, but he’d never had anybody reaching the top-ten in the rankings. He got Jackie McCoy to manage me, who had four world champions—Armando Muniz, Mando Ramos, Raul Rojas, and Rodolfo Gonzalez. Jackie was the main guy in Southern California at the time. “I called Jackie, had lunch with him, and he asked me to tell him about myself. I said I was the number-one amateur in the United States, and he said, ‘That doesn’t mean anything in the pro ranks.’ I said, ‘Well, what do I need to do then?’ He replied, ‘Mando Ramos is getting ready to defend his [WBC world] lightweight title. Come to camp and spar with him, and I’ll let you know if I’ll manage you or not.’
“So there I was, in my first pro camp, training with a world champion. I learned very fast! After the second day of sparring, Jackie said, ‘Okay. I’ll sign you.’”
Palomino turned professional later that year, beating Javier Martinez on points on September 14, 1972. After eleven fights, on August 2, 1974, he was up against Andy Price. “That was probably the hardest fight in my career. I was 10-0-1, and he was 12-1-3. I was originally supposed to fight someone else, but he got hurt. I’d been in the gym six weeks training, and it was going to be my first ten-rounder, so I was going to make around $1,200, and that was more money than I had seen in a long time. Andy Price stepped in, and Jackie didn’t want me fighting him. I said, ‘I’ll beat him, don’t worry.’
“It was stand-up war. It was a little arena [The Coliseum] in San Diego, but the fans were standing for all ten of those rounds. I thought I had won the fight at the end of the ninth round, but my trainer said it was even, and whoever won the last round could well win the fight. I got up and threw everything. I had him on the ropes and thought I was going to knock him out; then he spun off and hit me with a left hook by the ear, and I wobbled. They gave me a standing-eight-count, and I knew that was not going to be good on the scorecards.” Palomino picked up his first loss by split decision. “I was in college at the time. My face was badly swollen up. Eyes, lips, cheeks. The fight was on a Thursday night, and I went to school on Friday. I was at the back of the class, and the teacher says, ‘Take your sunglasses off,’ and I was like, Nah, I’ll keep them on.’ ‘Come on! Let’s see,’ the teacher says. I took my glasses off, and everybody went green. My teachers knew I was boxing, but, after that, they thought I was crazy.”
Palomino bounced back with gusto after his first loss, going undefeated in his next eight outings. On November 22, 1975, he fought three-time world title challenger Hedgemon Lewis, a fifty-nine-fight veteran (53-6), and came away with a draw. “He was amazing. Such an exceptional boxer and such fast hands. I was coming on really hard towards the last three rounds, but I kind of got a boxing lesson. After that fight, I went back to the gym and learned how to cut off the ring a little bit better and use my brain a little more.”
“King” Carlos clocked up a further two victories before heading to London, England, and challenging the WBC welterweight world champion John H Stracey on June 22, 1976. Stracey had beaten Jose Napoles to gain the title and then went on to defend it against Lewis, knocking him out in ten rounds. “I sparred with Napoles when I was an amateur. Funny enough, he was my dad’s favorite fighter. He was getting ready for a fight, and they called my trainer and said, ‘We’re paying twenty dollars a round.’ My trainer said no, because he knew Napoles’s reputation of liking to hurt his sparring partners. I said, ‘I could use the twenty bucks!’
“We get there, and Napoles was trying to knock me out every round. I was supposed to go six rounds, but in the third, he hit me with a really hard uppercut, and my trainer pulled me out. Napoles said after in front of a bunch of people, ‘My wife gives me better sparring!’
“I was supposed to have a rematch with Hedgemon, but instead I was paid $2,000 step-aside money to let him fight for the title against Stracey, with me fighting the winner. I watched the fight with my manager and trainer, as Stracey destroyed Lewis [at the Empire Pool, Wembley, London], and I could tell he was real strong. My trainer said, ‘I have an idea. I know how to get ready for this guy. You’re going to do wrestling training.’ We did that every day after my training was over, we’d do three or four rounds of tussling inside the ring, standing up, pushing each other around the ring. My legs got so strong from that.
“On the night, Stracey came in, putting pressure on me, but I didn’t feel it because of what I’d been working on in camp for six weeks. I was able to stay in there and exchange with him for the whole fight. I worked on body shots for this one more than my other fights because John had that straight up and down European style, with his hands held up high. The strategy worked to perfection.” Palomino stopped Stracey in the twelfth round to become WBC welterweight champion and would stay unbeaten in seven title defenses over the next two and a half years.
Six months after Stracey, on January 21, 1977, Armando Muniz challenged Palomino for his title. The fight made history because it was the first time two college graduates had fought for a world title. “I sparred Armando when I was an amateur, and he was an up-and-coming pro. He used to beat the crap out of me. He was absolutely sure he was going to beat me in that fight, but I’d improved a lot since the amateur days. He was so sure he was going to beat me that he’d said he’d knock me out and already had the party organized to celebrate his victory.
“Muniz was a very good fighter whose head was attached to his shoulders. He had no neck! He was very hard to hurt and was in your chest nonstop, every second of every round. I got dropped in the second round, and my trainer started telling me around the seventh round, ‘You’ve got to do something, because he’s winning every round.’ I was way behind because I fought his fight on the inside. We had trained to box him, move side to side, use angles, and I wasn’t doing that. My trainer said, ‘You’re going to lose your title in your first defense,’ and I said, ‘No way.’ I went out in the eighth and started to box and move, exactly the way we had trained. I started landing and landing punches.
“I went back to the corner in the fourteenth round and my trainer said, ‘Whoever wins the last round is the champion of the world.’ I went out in the fifteenth and had a lot more gas left and dropped him. I hit him with two straight left hooks as he was falling, and I couldn’t believe he got up.” Palomino won by TKO in the fifteenth round, and The Ring magazine described it as one of the best fights of 1977.
In the middle of his world-title reign, opportunity knocked on his door, but in a different guise this time. “When I was in college, I needed to clock up credits, which meant I needed to choose a class, any class, and I decided to go for the theater option. You learned about backstage lighting, stage order, acting, reading scripts, but I never really took any notice of it. Then, in 1978 I got a call from the TV show, Taxi, that the actor Tony Danza was on, and they wanted me to come and be on it. I said, ‘I’m not an actor, and right now, I’m training for a fight.’ They said, ‘We’re looking for someone to play a world champion, and you’d play yourself.’ I said, ‘Oh. Okay!’
“I went to the set, met Danza and the crew, and they told me about the scenes, one of which we were going to spar. Remember, Tony was a fighter and had nine wins, all by knockout and three losses. He said, ‘I’d like to spar for real with you. Not all out, because I don’t want you to knock me out, but I’d like to make it look good.’ I said, ‘That would be great.’
“We rehearsed for a week, and it was shown on a Friday night. I enjoyed the experience and talking to the cast, most of whom went on to become big stars. They gave me advice like, ‘You need to get an agent and some acting classes.’ That sort of thing. I started taking private classes with an acting coach who was a teacher at UCLA, and it went from there.”
On January 14, 1979, Palomino fought Wilfred Benitez on his home turf of Puerto Rico. “It was really upsetting to me that I had to fight in Puerto Rico and defend the title, because Benitez was ranked number one in the world. I asked for a neutral site, but they said Puerto Rico won the bids. I was going to get paid $450,000, and I don’t think any welterweight at that time had ever got that kind of payday. I said, ‘I don’t care about the money. Let’s do the fight in New York or Vegas instead of his hometown.’ Unfortunately, nobody listened. I was forced to go to Puerto Rico.
“I thought I won the fight, but they gave him the split decision. There was a rematch clause, and I was told the fight was definitely happening, but then Benitez signed the fight with Sugar Ray Leonard, and that was that.”
Five months later, on June 22, 1979, Palomino took on a peak Roberto Duran on the undercard of Larry Holmes‒Mike Weaver, losing a unanimous decision at Madison Square Garden. Duran was 67-1 at the time. “My plan was to retire in August 1979 on my thirtieth birthday. Back then, Roberto Duran was considered to be pound for pound one of the best. I tell you, though, it wasn’t the hardest fight I ever had. That fight against Andy Price was a lot harder. Duran was knocking everybody out at 135 pounds, and I didn’t think his power could come up to 147 pounds. I thought, I am bigger, stronger, and able to put some pressure on him, perhaps overpower him. It didn’t work out that way. Technically, I’d say the precision of Duran’s punching and his movement was the best I’d ever seen in a ring. He did some things that were simply amazing, and his foot and hand speed really surprised me. He was beating me to the punch inside, so I took the fight to the outside, but I was pretty much outhustled in every round of that fight.”
Nine months later, on March 14, 1980, Palomino had a much bigger loss to contend with. The aircraft taking the USA boxing team to Poland crashed, killing all eighty-seven people on board, including fourteen boxers and eight coaches. Among the casualties was his brother, Paul. “He wasn’t even eighteen years old yet, had fought sixty times, with forty knockouts. He wanted to turn pro when he hit eighteen. I used to say he could fight in the Olympics. I told him how, as the number one in the country when I turned pro, I made eighty dollars. Sugar Ray Leonard turned pro after winning the gold medal and made one hundred and fifty thousand bucks. I told him, ‘That’s the difference.’ I told him he’d go to Poland and knock out his opponent and be a sure starter for the Olympics. I took him to the airport and put him on the plane, and as he’s walking away, he says, ‘I’m doing this for you.’ That’s been a strain on my heart ever since.
“After I retired, I never stopped running. I was in training for a marathon at the time and was on my way back home. From a distance, I could see someone in front of my house, and when I got closer, I saw it was a representative from a management company I’d signed with for my acting. However, it was seven in the morning, so I didn’t understand why she was there. This lady had just seen the news about the plane crash and told me when I got to the front door. I sobbed my heart out.
“I then drove from Los Angeles to my parents’ house in Westminster. That drive was atrocious, and when I got down there, the house was full of family, and everybody was crying. It’s something that still hurts my heart.”
Seventeen years after the Duran fight, on January 10, 1997, at the age of forty-seven, Palomino was back in the ring. “My dad passed away in 1995, and I was with him. The best times me and my dad had was when he’d come to the gym and watch me train and spar. So, in 1996, I went back to my boxing club, and my same trainer and manager were still there. When I walked in, they gave me a hug. They asked why I was there, and I said I wanted to hang out because my heart was hurting.
“Hector Camacho was in the ring sparring with Jesse Reid working the corner. Jesse was a fighter before, and my manager Jackie used to manage him, so I knew Jesse very well. I’m standing there, and something in my head said, ‘You should get a couple of rounds of sparring.’ I hadn’t been in the ring in seventeen years, but I was running marathons and still doing fifteen hundred sit-ups every day. I asked Jesse if I could do a couple of rounds. Jesse looks at Hector, and he says, ‘Absolutely, man.’
“I borrowed some trunks, put on some gloves, and jumped in the ring and did three rounds with him. Jackie said, ‘If we were keeping scores, you won all three rounds.’
“I kept coming back to the gym, just working out. Gerrie Coetzee was looking to make a comeback, and his promoter said to me, ‘You should make a comeback.’ I wasn’t sure at first but agreed to do it as they were offering me good money.”
After four victories in nine months, Palomino had his farewell contest. “The last fight on May 30, 1998, was against Wilfredo Rivera. At the time, Oscar De La Hoya was world champion, and he had fought Rivera [on December 6, 1997] and stopped him in eight rounds. I saw the fight and thought, ‘I can beat this guy.’ Bob Arum gave me a call, we signed the fight, and I went ten rounds. I thought I had him out in the eighth round. I hit him with a left hook, and he wobbled. Next round, I was going out to finish him. I had just turned forty-eight years old and he was twenty-seven. I rushed out to finish him in the ninth, but he’d completely recovered.
“In my mind, before, I thought ‘No way I’d fight Oscar De La Hoya!’, but in the fight I thought, if I knock out Rivera, I’d take the fight with Oscar. As soon as they announced Rivera had won the decision, I knew it was time to retire for good.”
Palomino was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame on June 13, 2004. He retired with a record of 31-4-3. “I stepped away from boxing at the right time. I feel really healthy, have all my faculties, and feel blessed.”