There also have been six Mexican-American champions: Richie Lemos, Manuel Ortiz, Mando Ramos, Raul Rojas, Bobby Chacon and now Carlos Palomino, born in Luis B. Sanchez, a small town 60 miles from Mexicali. He was 10 and unable to speak English when his family moved to California. At the moment he is both the WBC welterweight champion and a senior at Long Beach State. Says Palomino, "School is my hedge against the worst mistake a fighter can make. It's called a comeback."
Carlos Zarate is tall (5'9") for a bantamweight (118-pounds), and so is thin, as a barracuda is considered thin. He would carry the look of a hawk except that his prominent nose has been hit more than once. Legend has it that Zarate took his first step while trying to attack a boy who was two years his senior.
"And he took his second step trying to get away from the police," says the champion's older brother Jorge, an ex-cop who grew tired of seeing his fellow officers haul Carlos off to jail, turned in his badge and began training his violent brother for the ring. "I knew nothing could make him stop fighting, so I decided he should do it someplace where he wouldn't be arrested."
Zarate was born on May 23, 1951 in the Tepito barrio of Mexico City, the youngest of five brothers and three sisters. Tepito is 10 square blocks of ugliness, a low-rise Bedford-Stuyvesant where the only escape is the juice of the cactus or the grass that doesn't grow on lawns, and the meeting place is a teeming open-air market on Costa Rica Street where anything can be bought and most of it has been stolen.
Before Zarate was out of the cradle his father died. When he was two, he and his mother Luz moved to a public school in nearby Ramos Millan, in which they lived. Mrs. Zarate became a combination custodian and the server of the government-sponsored breakfasts, and on the side she operated a small concession stand. As he grew older, it became young Carlos' contribution to maintain order during the bedlam of the free breakfast as well as to see that everything taken from the concession stand was paid for.
"I loved it," he says happily. "There were always three or four guys trying to hustle an extra breakfast or trying to steal a candy bar. I never needed an excuse to fight."
In his first fight in the ring he knocked out a veteran Golden Glover in the second round. The veteran claimed he was not in shape. Train, Zarate told him, and come back. The veteran did both and was knocked out in less than a minute. That was when Jorge dragged Carlos to a gym and ordered him to fight.
"He gave me 10 pesos a day to eat with," Zarate says. "It was enough. I came from a very humble family, but I had eggs and corn to eat at home. I used Jorge's money to buy meat and salads."
As an amateur Zarate was undefeated, winning 30 fights by knockouts, three on decisions. In 1970 he was the national Golden Gloves flyweight champion. Soon after, he became a professional under the experienced handling of Cuyo Hernandez, one of Mexico's more famous managers. Jorge became his full-time trainer. His first fight was in Guernieva, a scheduled 10-rounder which Zarate won by a knockout in two rounds and for which he was paid 800 pesos. That fight set a pattern: Zarate won his next 21 fights, all by knockouts.
"I made a lot of money," Zarate says. "I also had a lot of wild friends. I would go to Tepito, drink a little pulque and get into trouble with the police. I was the only one with money so I had to pay for everybody. It was no good. Then one time Jorge came to take me from the jail, and it hit me that what I was doing was wrong. If you don't change the first two times in jail, it is because you are born to be a killer. Most people change. I did because I knew I had been born to be a champion. I left my wild friends."