Palomino's unlikely career leads to Hall of Fame

Carlos Palomino never particularly liked to fight.

He did so only out of necessity … for his father's amusement, to mark his turf as a Tijuana shoeshine boy, to defend himself at the schoolyard.

It seems like the beginnings of a tale that has become familiar over the years: A Mexican kid takes up boxing to escape the hardscrabble barrio and becomes a world champion.

Palomino's journey was much different.

Vietnam forced him into the sport late. A passion for acting lured him away early. He didn't make nearly as much money as he could have, but he accomplished enough to become a Hall of Famer -- even before the fistic sophisticate made a strangely admirable comeback at 47 years old.

"Boxing was never enjoyable. The best part for me was fight night because I knew when it was over I'd get a break," said Palomino, who will be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame this weekend in Canastota, N.Y.

Palomino, the college graduate who became a popular welterweight champ and star of Miller Lite's famous commercials, will be enshrined with featherweight Azumah Nelson, light heavyweight Dwight Muhammad Qawi and super bantamweight Daniel Zaragoza.

Palomino's record doesn't demand Hall of Fame consideration at first glance. He finished the vital portion of his career with a record of 27-3-3 and 15 knockouts. He defeated only one former, current or future champion (John Stracey). He lost each time he fought a Hall of Fame-caliber fighter (Wilfred Benitez and Roberto Duran). He didn't fight Pipino Cuevas, the other significant welterweight champion of his era.

But Palomino is a Hall of Famer when surveyed en total.

He did more than throw punches. He brought a sense of dignity to a sordid sport. He walked away rather than hang around for one payday too many. He has remained one of boxing's top ambassadors through his tireless dedication to youth groups and charities, and he served three years with the California State Athletic Commission.

"It's a great honor and totally unexpected,'' Palomino said of his induction. "Boxing wasn't something that I dreamed of doing as a kid, and the Hall of Fame was a goal I really didn't envision accomplishing when I started my career."

When Palomino seriously laced up his gloves for the first time in 1970, he couldn't envision much aside from the deadly jungles of Vietnam.

He was 20 years old when he stopped playing Mexican semipro baseball, surrendering his childhood dream of manning second base in the majors. Six months after he returned home to the Los Angeles area, where his family had immigrated a decade earlier, he received his U.S. Army draft notice.

He decided to get in some kind of shape for boot camp and signed up at a local gym, where he ran into Armando Muniz, an aspiring welterweight freshly discharged from the Army. Muniz told Palomino boxers receive special treatment in the service. Palomino, afraid of returning home in a flag-draped casket, listened intently and tried to absorb as much boxing knowledge as he could from resident trainer Noe Cruz.

"That was the goal: to get out of going to Vietnam," Palomino said. "I didn't envision fighting as a pro."

Palomino, however, discovered a gift through his desperation. Once he reported for duty he let it be known he could box. His 5-foot-10 frame naturally carried 147 pounds, a weight he still hovers around today. But the Army didn't need any welterweights for its squad.

"The coach told me he wanted me to fight at 139 pounds, and I had to make weight in a month," Palomino recalled. "I told him, 'There's no possible way I can get down to 139 pounds.' He said, 'If you don't go down to 139 pounds, you'll have to go back to your base.'

"Within a month I was down to 139 pounds."

Palomino learned the sport quickly enough to become an All-Army champion in 1971 and 1972. He also won the National AAU title in 1972, defeating eventual Olympic gold medalist Ray Seales.

Palomino was discharged later that year and turned pro -- not to chase pugilistic glory, but to bankroll his college education. He enrolled at Orange Coast College and later Long Beach State, where he obtained his degree in recreation in 1976.

The bicentennial was quite a year for Palomino. That's also when the reluctant warrior became an unlikely world champion.

Palomino had only 23 pro fights in less than four years when he met WBC welterweight champion Stracey in London. Palomino had become a fan favorite at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles, but he was anonymous virtually everywhere else. His performances had been erratic and sometimes underwhelming.

"I recall he had a dozen fights or so and was impressive in one and not as impressive in the next," said Hall of Fame promoter Don Chargin, who was the Olympic Auditorium's matchmaker from 1964-84. "So there was a hotshot named Nelson Ruiz, who was an up-and-coming sensation. I told (Palomino's manager) Jackie McCoy, 'Let's find out about Carlos and fight this guy.' Carlos was incredible (winning via sixth-round knockout). I remember walking up to Jackie afterward and said, 'A star is born.' "

Palomino's ability remained a secret until he fought Stracey. The understanding was Palomino would be a foil for the first British welterweight champ since Ted "Kid" Lewis in 1919. Palomino was listed as a 10-to-1 underdog.

"I happened to be in London, covering Wimbledon for HBO, when he fought Stracey," said HBO boxing analyst Larry Merchant. "I had never heard of Palomino, much less seen him. Stracey had dethroned (long-reigning WBC champ) Jose Napoles and was considered very strong. Palomino was just supposed to be an opponent."

The match didn't proceed according to plan.

Stracey was a typical British fighter; he stood tall and overly protected his head. Palomino's strategy was to hammer away at the body with impunity. Blow after blow thundered off Stracey's exposed ribs. He managed to hang on until the 12th round, when a left hook to the liver finally knocked him down. Stracey got up, but Palomino sent him back to the canvas a second time. The fight was stopped.

Palomino broke down his opponent physically, mentally and spiritually. Stracey wept in the ring.

"He beat Stracey up," Merchant said. "I remember a British boxing writer asked me what I knew about Palomino. I said 'I've never seen him, but I've seen him,' meaning I've seen tough Mexican-American fighters who fought just like he did."

Palomino successfully defended his title seven times. He beat Muniz twice -- their initial encounter was billed as the first world title fight between two college graduates -- as well as relative pedestrians Dave Green, Everaldo Azevedo, Jose Palacios, Ryu Sorimachi and Mimoun Mohatar.

"He's the kind of guy who could have more than held his own in any era," future Hall of Fame matchmaker Bruce Trampler said of Palomino. "He was a solid fighter, and in today's market you gotta say he would be competitive, and he would have beaten some of the champions from the past."

Palomino lost the title in 1979 to Wilfredo Benitez on a controversial split decision in Puerto Rico. Palomino also lost his next fight, a one-sided affair with Roberto Duran.

Two months later, on his 30th birthday, Palomino retired after earning less than $1 million. He walked away at a highly lucrative time for welterweights. He made a record $450,000 to fight Benitez, but that purse was soon dwarfed as Sugar Ray Leonard, Duran and Thomas Hearns then took over the division.

Palomino doesn't regret retiring when he did.

"My biggest fear was the effects of being in the ring," Palomino said. "I used to watch fights and see fighters with their flat noses and scar tissue. My father would tell me about the greats of his day and how they were broke, busted up or punch drunk. Then I started meeting fighters that were like that. The damage from getting hit in the head … I didn't want to hang around there too long."

Palomino, however, eventually succumbed to boxing's siren song. Only he wasn't merely the latest entry to boxing's sad comeback cliché. He went way beyond that, ending a 17½-year retirement at the age of 47.

It happened somewhat by accident. He stopped by the old Westminster Boxing Club, where he used to train, in search of familiar faces. He was hurting from the recent death of his father, a man who supported his 11 children by pushing an ice cream cart, working in a flower shop or doing construction.

"When my father died I was just devastated," Palomino said. "When I was fighting, that was the closest my father and I ever got. When I won the title was the proudest moment of his life. When I went to the gym, it was because my heart was hurting."

Palomino also was still haunted by the death of his younger brother, Paul, in 1980. Paul was a boxer and wanted to turn pro, but Palomino told him to shoot for the Olympics instead. Palomino remembered making $80 in his pro debut, and he wanted his brother to win a medal and perhaps land a substantial signing bonus from a major promoter.

Paul was with the U.S. boxing team on its way to Poland for a competition. The plane crashed.

"I forced him on the trip," Palomino said. "He didn't really want to go. I kept telling him, 'You have to do this for your career.'

"I took him to the airport and put him on the plane. I hugged him and told him to bring home a medal."

A few weeks after Paul died, President Jimmy Carter announced the U.S. would boycott the 1980 Moscow Games.

"That made it even worse for me," Palomino said. "It all would have been in vain."

So after his father passed away, Palomino popped into his old gym to see his former trainer and manager. He also saw Hector Camacho training for an upcoming fight with Duran.

"Can I get a couple rounds?" Palomino asked.

No one can say for certain if the 34-year-old Camacho was taking it easy on Palomino, but according to several witnesses to the sparring session, the old man was the better fighter that day.

"I felt so good," Palomino said. "I felt so much peace, and I felt my dad's presence in that gym so strong."

Palomino's catharsis turned into a wild mission. Even though he had served on the California State Athletic Commission for three years and rolled his eyes every time some 40-year-old applied for a boxing license, he labeled himself fit to compete.

A promoter -- obviously enamored by the Old Man Mania spurred by the comebacks of George Foreman, Leonard and Duran -- made Palomino a four-fight offer worth $1 million.

This is where another boxing cliché comes in: The money wasn't there.

Palomino received $25,000 for each of his first three fights, all knockout victories in -- even more impressively -- the same weight class he had competed when he turned pro in 1972. But the promotional company, reportedly buoyed by offshore gambling interests, went bankrupt soon thereafter.

Palomino forged ahead with another knockout before realizing, two months shy of his 49th birthday, it was time for a legitimate test. Bob Arum's promotional firm, Top Rank, arranged a bout against Wilfredo Rivera, a ranked welterweight looking to rebound from a loss to WBC champ Oscar De La Hoya.

"I knew I had to beat (Rivera) decisively to know I had a shot to win the title again," Palomino said. "Halfway through that fight I knew it wasn't going to be decisive. Even if I would have gotten the decision -- and lot of fans who were thinking with their hearts thought I should have gotten a decision -- I knew I couldn't fight again."

Palomino held his own against Rivera, rocking a man 20 years his junior with a left hook in the middle rounds. The fight went the 10-round distance, but Rivera won. One judge had Palomino losing by only three points.

Those who cringed at Palomino's decision to fight at such an advanced age at least had to admit he did so with valor.

"I was absolutely against him doing it,'' said Trampler, Top Rank's matchmaker. "I admire him, in retrospect, because he felt that if he couldn't beat Rivera he had to walk away. When he shut it down, when he quit, he was still very competitive."

Said Chargin: "It doesn't diminish his career, but I wish it never happened. I worried about him getting hurt. But you can't blame him for going for a million dollars. He's a competitor."

Both of Palomino's retirements were eased by his main passion in life. In the late 1970s he fell in love with acting after a cameo appearance on "Taxi." He also enjoyed a recurring role in Miller Lite's famous "Tastes Great, Less Filling" commercials, working alongside the likes of Bubba Smith, Dick Butkus, Billy Martin, Boog Powell and Rodney Dangerfield.

Palomino still hears people yell out his signature line: "Don't drink the water!"

He has made guests appearances in major TV series such as "The White Shadow," "Knight Rider," "Hill Street Blues," "NYPD Blue" and "Diagnosis Murder" and has landed roles in several movies you might have trouble finding at Blockbuster.

Two months shy of his 55th birthday, he's still looking for his big Hollywood break.

He has endured countless letdowns over the course of his acting career -- the parts he didn't land, the movies that went straight to video, the projects that got shelved.

But the excitement in his voice is noticeable when he talks about his latest venture, a role as an L.A. detective on a potential series called "Department of Homeland Security." He said filming for a pilot and six episodes will begin in the coming weeks. The hope is that a major network will snap up the show as a mid-summer replacement.

Palomino, a father of three and grandfather of three, also announced he soon will be married for a third time.

A new wife, a new TV show and a Hall of Fame induction all in one summer.

Boxing to avoid that deployment to Vietnam sure turned out to be a fine idea.

Tim Graham covers boxing for The Buffalo News and is a contributor to ESPN.com.