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Beyond the boxing ring

Danny Lopez is headed to boxing's Hall of Fame

The champ says he's fine, but his voice sounds like sandpaper on rust. Danny Lopez says he must have caught a cold. Yet you wonder as you hear him on the phone. Boxing exacts a frightful toll, especially on those who almost always get up after being knocked down.

You wonder about his work after boxing, too.

Times are good, but not flush for the former featherweight world champ who called himself "Little Red." On the good side, the Fort Duchesne native will be in Canastota, N.Y., this week to be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. He'll join a list that already includes immortals such as Muhammad Ali, Larry Holmes, Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Leonard and Utah's Gene Fullmer.

He remains married to Bonnie, his bride of more than three decades, and has three grown children. He has his health and his mind, he says, which can't be said of all ex-boxers.

In another sense, though, he's covering up on the ropes. Despite being a champ for three-plus years, and successfully defending his title eight times, he's still doing hard manual labor at age 57.

"He stays pretty active," says his wife, who handles human resources at the Walnut Valley (California) School District. "But he's tired when he gets home from work, whatever he does that day."

Lopez made money, but not enough to sail into the sunset. So he now works for a construction company, laying water and sewer lines and installing storm drains.

"Some of those places in Beverly Hills and out in west L.A. have the sewer in the back," says Lopez. "I have to go back and hand dig down to the right place."

Still, it's not his nature to complain. It can be backbreaking work, he allows, but on a day he is home to answer the phone, "I'd rather be working."

With the bad economy he's down to three days a week.

Lopez never did aspire to a life of ease. He was noted as a relentless trainer. A contractor he met 15 years ago said if Lopez ever needed a job, give him a call — which he did.

"I'm used to hard work," he says.

The job isn't glamorous, but Lopez wasn't a glamorous fighter. He had hair the color of new copper, a droopy mustache and freckled arms. Of Ute and Mission Indian, Mexican and Irish extraction, his appearance was that of a somewhat scrawny and scruffy kid.

In the ring and out, he was serious and unpretentious, known for his ability to both deliver and absorb punishment. Recalling the way he waded into punches, his wife says she "had to close my eyes a couple of times" to avoid seeing her husband's eyes closing with cuts.

Even through his highest earning years, the Lopezes didn't buy gaudy cars or luxury homes. "He just stayed the way he was at first. We never were extravagant or anything," says Bonnie. "We just stayed plain old people. We had no desire to be another way."

They now live in a modern but unpretentious house in an upper middle class section of Chino Hills, Calif. Unlike many boxers, Lopez has a pension, set up by a diligent business manager. But like many pensions, it wasn't enough for him to entirely quit working.

"The house is almost paid for, so we're fine," he says.

People still recognize him when they find him working in a yard, having seen him on TV, in the papers or on the cover of a 1979 Sports Illustrated.

"I've had a few people who ask," he says. "I just tell 'em, yeah, I was the champion, until Salvador Sanchez came along."

The unassuming Lopez reigned as the featherweight champ for 39 months until Sanchez (also a Hall of Famer) opened several cuts over Lopez's eye in a February 1980 title bout. Though Lopez lasted 13 rounds, he couldn't get close enough to strike. Four months later, Sanchez was even more cagey in the rematch, moving and attacking early to offset Lopez's sodden punches. Sanchez won on a 14th-round TKO.

"If I could hit a guy, I could knock him out," says Lopez, who, with a 42-6 record KO'd 39 opponents. "Sanchez, I fought him, but I never did hit him. He, in turn, peppered me with a thousand punches."

Lopez's story is no worse than many fighters', but it's not a fairy tale, either. His parents split when he was an infant, leaving his mother to raise seven kids on odd jobs and welfare checks. She sent him to a foster family at age 8. By 16, he had also lived with an aunt and uncle, then moved to Orem to stay with a sister. It was there he followed his brother Ernie's path into the ring.

By the time he was 24, Lopez was a popular champ in Los Angeles, attracting sellout crowds and increasingly large paychecks. In 1978, he made a reported $500,000. By comparison, Darrell Griffith, drafted No. 2 overall by the Jazz in 1980, made roughly half that much his rookie season.

Fans couldn't get enough of Lopez's relentless, straight-ahead style. What appeared a simple setup tap often ended with his opponent buckling. There was voltage in those spindly arms. The Ring magazine has rated him the 26th-hardest puncher — in any weight division — in history.

"I took a few of my own shots, but I was pretty much a puncher," says Lopez. "I wasn't that great of a boxer — I could box a little, but if I could hit a guy, I knew I could knock him out."

His only pro fight in Utah was in March 1979 at the Salt Palace. Lopez dropped Roberto Castanon with a knee-weakening overhand right in the second round.

But by the time he was 27, Lopez's career was over. The arrival of Sanchez shook him like a howling uppercut. He mounted a one-bout comeback attempt 12 years after retirement, but was stopped in the second round.

"It was something I had to know," he says, "or I'd have been kicking myself ever since, if I didn't try it."

Though Lopez avoided filling the tragic boxer's role, his brother wasn't so lucky. The elder Lopez fought twice for the welterweight belt but lost. He landed in a Texas homeless shelter after his career ended, then moved in with their sister and died last year of complications related to dementia. For Danny, it has been a much gentler story. Next Sunday's Hall of Fame ceremony will be the stamp of approval on a fine career. He will be inducted along with Howard Cosell, Jung-Koo Chang, Shelly Finkel, Larry Hazzard, Wilfried Sauerland, Bruce Trampler and Ed Schuyler.

"It feels real good," says the seldom expansive Lopez. "I flew back there four years in a row to see everybody else inducted — it was just not my time. So when I got the invitation this year, it was a big thrill for me."

Lopez's voice is fading fast on the line. He's willing to continue talking, but his voice isn't.

Besides, the boss might be calling to say there's a line leak in Covina.

If only he could have laid a glove on Sanchez, he says before hanging up, he could have taken him out. On the other hand, boxing hasn't taken out Lopez.

e-mail: rock@desnews.com