With so many boxers these days figuratively and, not infrequently, literally too big for their britches, it's refreshing to know there is one who is too small for his title belt. World champion Joey Olivo of Los Angeles can easily hold his weight at 107, one pound below the limit for the junior flyweight division, although he stands a relatively lofty 5'8". "The belt is too big," says Olivo's trainer, Rudy Tellez. "We went to the last hole in it and still had to keep pulling it around him."
"Even as a jockey—and he's about the right weight—he'd be tall," says Don Fraser, a veteran Southern California boxing promoter. "He'd be one of the few jockeys whose wife wouldn't tower over him."
Olivo is unique in an even more significant way: When he won his WBA title on March 29 with a 15-round decision over Francisco Quiroz of the Dominican Republic, he became the first U.S. fighter to wear the crown in boxing's lightest weight class. Olivo, 27, celebrated his breakthrough modestly. "I went out to eat," Olivo says. "I had a hamburger and a malt." A burger and a malt? "I had a hamburger, malt and French fries," Olivo confesses the second time around. A regular party animal.
Olivo isn't given to drawing attention to himself, but he does admit that one drawback of being light is that his purses have been even lighter. In his nine-year professional career, he has fought 39 times, winning 35 and losing four. All for about $50,000. He took home only $2,600 along with the title belt from his bout with Quiroz. Heavyweights pay their sparring partners better. This is, after all, a nation of Big Macs and Cadillacs, the Big Bopper and Home of the Whopper. Heavyweights get to live on easy street and drive Coupe de Villes. Olivo, his wife, Christina, and daughter, Enedina, live with his parents and a sister in West Covina; he drives a '79 Chevy Monza.
Olivo will finally be paid more than gas money when he fights Choi Moon Jin, the No. 5 contender, in Seoul on July 28. For that bout he'll earn $60,000, plus $5,000 for expenses. Even with his first big pay-day in sight, Olivo still works three to four days a week at Rudy's Dental Lab in Monterey Park. Rudy is Tellez, Olivo's trainer for the past 12 years and for 10 years his manager or co-manager (Norman Kaplan, a Los Angeles attorney, currently is Olivo's other manager). Olivo makes and repairs dentures and is the only world champion who can fashion his own mouthpiece. Curiously, in this respect Olivo has not set another historical precedent for boxing—former WBA heavyweight champ Gerrie Coetzee is also a dental craftsman.
But it has been like pulling teeth to find Olivo fights, particularly at home. One problem is that so few Americans fight professionally as junior flyweights—a handful at most. But in the Orient and in Latin America there are no shortages of junior flys. Another problem is that fighters on the way up, even in the flyweight (112-pound) division, haven't been eager to get into the ring against Olivo. "There aren't many guys around who want to fight him," says promoter Fraser. "The average flyweight is about five-foot-two." Olivo is not only 5'8", but he also has a 73-inch reach. That's just two inches less than the wingspan of middleweight champion Marvelous Marvin Hagler. Of course, Hagler also has 15-inch biceps, while Olivo's are 11 inches.
If opponents have shied away from the righthander's long-distance left jab, promoters have been turned off by his boxing skills. They want windmillers in this division, lots of frantic action, not stick-and-move specialists who impress judges while putting paying customers to sleep. The knock against Olivo is that he has scored only 12 knockouts.
As well, in a country that roots for David but pays to watch Goliath. Olivo is just too small. "The TV networks, which are the pulse of boxing in this country, don't pick up the little guys," Fraser says. "It's just unfortunate that he has to go out of the country to get work now."
All four of Olivo's losses have come in bouts outside of the U.S. He had fought 22 times straight without a defeat before he first ventured out of the country to fight Martin Vargas in Santiago, Chile in November 1979. Says Olivo, "I beat that guy so easily...." And lost on a decision. After the fight Vargas shrugged and told Olivo, "You're in my country. What can I tell you."
Olivo did not have such a difficult time finding fights when he was growing up in the Ramona Gardens housing project in Boyle Heights. That East L.A. barrio is the turf of some of the city's oldest street gangs. Tattooed across Olivo's left forearm are the words LA HAZARD GRANDE. The Big Hazard. It is the name of the gang Olivo once ran with.
Olivo tried on his first pair of gloves at a youth center when he was 10 and has been boxing ever since, turning pro before he graduated from Pueblo De Los Angeles High School, a continuation school where he had studied metal crafting. "When I started taking up boxing, some of my friends got kind of sore," Olivo says. "They wanted me to spend time with them, not at the gym. When I got off the bus, guys would be hanging around the house. I used to go in the back door and pretend like I wasn't home."
Olivo says that he would like to make five or six title defenses and then retire. His goal, he says, is to provide financial security for his baby daughter. Then he wants to begin another career back in the barrio. "I would like to counsel youths," he says. "I'd like to work with kids who came from where I came from. The hard-core kids."
What would he tell them? "To do their own thinking," he says. "Be independent. If you want to succeed in life, you can't follow your friends. You have to do your own thing."
Even now Olivo frequently goes back to the streets. "A lot of guys there come up to me and say, 'Joey, I got a good job, but it's too hard.' I say, 'It's too hard? I have to fight for my paycheck.' "
And he usually has to fight someone heavier than he is. Early in his career Olivo often fought flyweights, and he usually spars against fighters who outweigh him by at least 10 pounds.
After Olivo won the title, the Spanish-language edition of The Ring headlined its fight story JOEY OLIVO, CAMPEÓN FRAGIL (Joey Olivo, frail champion). Mexican fans call Olivo El Palo Que No Quiebra (The Stick That Doesn't Break). He has never been knocked down, although he did fail to answer the bell for the 14th round of his fight with then WBC champ Hilario Zapata. Olivo went into the ring for that bout, his first title shot, suffering from the flu.
Olivo, who has a 25-inch waist and buys his pants in the boys' department, has never had a weight problem. "I eat what I like," he says. And that includes pie and ice cream even when he's in heavy training. Olivo says he gets his physique from his mother, Terry. From his father, Joe Sr., he gets something else: good advice. Olivo was already in Venezuela for the Quiroz bout when he learned how much his purse would be.
"I called my father from Maracaibo and told him they were going to pay me only $2,600," Olivo says. "He said, 'It's O.K., son. Fight him. You've worked too hard and waited too long. You're already down there, come back with something.' That's all I wanted to hear. I hung up and went and told the promoter, 'I don't want your money. I'll fight for free.' I turned to Quiroz's manager and said, 'I just want your fighter's belt.' He laughed at me. He thought I was crazy."
Olivo got the belt. Now he plans to add a few notches to it.
At his height Olivo dwarfs most of his opponents in the 108-pound division.
Light purses in his class keep the champ busy in the dental lab Tellez (above) owns.