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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.