Remembering Enrique Bolanos, An L.A. Boxing Icon of 1940s
Johnny Ortiz (left) poses with Enrique Bolanos.
Enrique Bolanos packed stadiums and arenas in Los Angeles with raucous and loyal fans during his fighting days in the 1940s and 50s. He was a boxing icon in an era when other sports could not compete with prizefighting.
Those days have passed and last week the gentleman Bolanos also passed at age 87 in Pasadena.
Bolanos fought numerous boxing legends, including perhaps the greatest lightweight of all time, Ike Williams, a total of three times. Many say he beat Williams once, but that’s a debate that the “greatest generation” has taken with them. All total he engaged in more than 100 prizefights, winning 79.
Born in Durango, Mexico, the light skinned Mexican boxer was one of the first to migrate north of the border and successfully grab the attention of fervent boxing fans at the Olympic Auditorium and Wrigley Field. Sell outs became a trademark of Bolanos and fans flocked wherever he fought.
“My father used to drop me off in the morning to buy tickets to Enrique Bolanos fights,” said Amado Avila, who has since passed away. “People would try to cut in front of me and I wouldn’t let them. I would wait for hours in line to buy tickets at the Olympic.”
World War 2
Known as the “Durango Dropper,” Bolanos arrived during World War II when it was difficult to find boxers not enlisted in the military. Mexico was neutral during the war and aside from sending workers to the United States it also sent prizefighters with Bolanos leading the group in 1943. He stayed in the United States and raised a family in the Los Angeles area.
The amiable boxer quickly became a fan favorite with his blend of stylish boxing mixed with potent punching power. Mexican fans living in California loved Bolanos who fought all of the best fighters from the “Swing era” such as Manuel Ortiz, who many experts consider the greatest bantamweight world champion of all time. They met in the prize ring in Aug. 29, 1944. Ortiz was the bantamweight world champion at the time and both met in a non-title fight set at the featherweight limit. Bolanos was floored twice in the sixth round and his corner wisely stopped the fight.
“He could hit very hard,” Bolanos told me when we met in 1994. “Manuel Ortiz was a great fighter.”
Of course the fight was a sell out.
Bolanos was a big ticket seller at the old Hollywood Legion Stadium, which is now a fitness center on Gower Street. Soon he would be lured to the Olympic Auditorium again and fought another Hall of Fame fighter Chalky Wright. He lost the first encounter by split decision in August 1945 but avenged that defeat in two later encounters.
“He surprised me when he spoke Spanish to me,” said Bolanos of his first encounter with Wright, who was an African American fluent in Spanish. “The first time we fought he used his experience to beat me. He was never easy to fight.”
Other fighters he beat were Jackie Wilson, Joey Barnum, and John Thomas.
“Enrique Bolanos was a magnificent boxer,” said Luis Magana, a former publicist for the Olympic Auditorium.
Magana died several years ago and had introduced me to Bolanos in 1994. We met for lunch at a small diner on Melrose Avenue and discussed the world of boxing during the 40s and 50s. The three of us spent three hours comparing boxing from that era to the 1990s before Oscar De La Hoya would burst on the scene and obliterate box office records.
“Best I ever faced”
Bolanos spoke graciously about his two greatest foes, Ike Williams and the original “Golden Boy” Art Aragon. He said Williams was “a magnificent boxer with tremendous power” and a killer in the ring. I tried to set up another lunch meeting with Bolanos and include his old nemesis Williams, who was living in Los Angeles. Both agreed but before the meeting could take place Williams died on September 5, 1994. He was 71.
Bolanos was very saddened that he would never see Williams again.
Bolanos and I met again at Senor Magana’s house in the Fairfax district and looked over photos and other boxing memorabilia stored in a backroom. That day we saw an 8-millimeter tape of the third and final prizefight between Bolanos and Williams that took place at Wrigley Field on July 21, 1949 for the lightweight world championship. On the scratchy looking film Bolanos can be seen using his jab like a spear to keep Williams from setting up his power shots. The referee that night was the former great heavyweight world champion Jack Dempsey. Bolanos only used his left hook and left jab for three rounds as Williams seemed ready to counter the right. The Mexican fighter used that “educated left” as Magana described it to keep the dangerous Williams from unloading.
In round four Williams unloaded and knocked out Bolanos. It was their last encounter.
“Many people say that Enrique won the second fight,” said Magana, adding that he did not have a tape of that encounter that ended in a split decision. “Ike Willliams was a tremendous boxer.”
Bolanos agreed and called Williams the “best I ever faced.”
One other boxer who rivaled Bolanos for fan frenzy was Art Aragon, the boxer from Boyle Heights. The colorful Aragon had a cockiness that many fans abhorred and whenever he fought the aisles of the Olympic Auditorium were packed with fans eager to see him lose or win.
When Aragon signed to fight the immensely popular Bolanos it was a fight fans delight. Their first clash occurred on Valentine’s Day in 1950. People lined up for blocks to buy tickets for the event.
“Enrique Bolanos was a real nice guy,” Aragon told me in an interview in 1995. “I really liked Enrique. When we fought I was too strong for him.”
The first fight ended in a 12th round technical knockout win for Aragon.
Johnny Ortiz, a boxing journalist and former owner of the famous Main Street Gym, recalls the fight that saw his idol Bolanos lose.
“Enrique Bolanos was far and away the most popular fighter Los Angeles ever knew, no one has ever come close, Oscar De La Hoya included. I may have been young, but I remember it all like it were yesterday. He had a ‘look’ like no other, you would have had to see it to know what I mean. It was the ‘look’ his fans saw and loved. There will never be another like him,” said Ortiz, whose book Life Among the Icons describes Los Angeles from the 50s to the present. “Enrique never had an amateur fight. Promoter George Parnassus turned him pro when he brought him from México. Enrique Bolanos was known as “The Durango Kid.”
Ortiz’s brother Phil Ortiz trained in the Main Street Gym alongside Bolanos and introduced them. He witnessed the Mexican fighter train numerous times.
“He had the greatest footwork I have ever seen or will ever see, he and Sugar Ray Robinson. After watching him workout, I would go home, go into my garage and try to emulate everything I saw him do during his workouts, especially his footwork. I used all of it in all of my amateur fights,” says Ortiz, who lives in the San Fernando Valley. “Los Angeles fight fans were crazy about him, there was something about him that was kind of mesmerizing, he always fought before sold out crowds. After he lost the second of his three fights with the great Ike Williams, he kind of lost interest, he was just never the same. His days as a serious contender were over for the most part. He began drinking, putting an end to a once brilliant career.”
Aragon fought Bolanos again five months after the first loss and quickly dispatched of the popular Mexican prizefighter in three rounds.
“He really was a nice guy,” said Aragon, who died in 2008. “People thought we hated each other but I really liked the guy.”
Everyone liked Bolanos.
The last time I saw Bolanos was during a Bernard Hopkins media day training session in downtown Los Angeles. He was introduced to the “Executioner” who was very gracious to the old master.
Many of the “greatest generation” have passed on and Bolanos was one of its super novas. He passed away on June 4.