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Recalling the day when Bobby Chacon had no idea where he was

Bobby Chacon, left, punches Carlton Sparrow in a June 6, 1984 bout. Chacon won via technical knockout.
Bobby Chacon, left, punches Carlton Sparrow in a June 6, 1984 bout. Chacon won via technical knockout. Sacramento Bee file

Bobby Chacon wobbled through the room in the clutch of a caregiver. On leave from the convalescent hospital where he lived in Hemet, the fighter who was one of California’s best ever and certainly in the top rank of its most exciting had long suffered from dementia.

But in the Taix restaurant in Los Angeles, at a meeting of the Golden State Boxers Association in early June, it wasn’t hard to see the long-term damage inflicted on Chacon, even from fights like the thriller he won the December afternoon in 1982 when he beat Rafael “Bazooka” Limon at the Memorial Auditorium for the World Boxing Council super-featherweight championship.

Chacon fans who idolized him in his prime found him unintelligible amid awkward introductions 34 years later, like the luncheon afternoon in L.A. What do you say to a guy who you once saw climb into the ring with Ruben Olivares and bring a crowd to its feet roaring his name during a middle-rounds rally – “Bobby! Bobby! Bobby!” – before he finally succumbed to one of the greatest punchers of all time? What do you say to a guy like Chacon, who twice won world titles but now had no idea where he was?

You tell him how much you appreciated his courage in the ring and the thrills he gave you, and you see his little smile of appreciation, and you accept his condition as a consequence of his giving you everything he had while you shouted his name with thousands of others in the spectacle of bloody ring warfare. You try to rationalize your responsibility for this man’s condition. It is futile.

2 World titles won by Bobby Chacon

It was not surprising to learn Wednesday that Chacon, 64, died as the result of a fall in his convalescent hospital. His 67 professional fights and 431 rounds left him punch drunk, as boxing left so many of the greats, including The Greatest, Muhammad Ali.

Even if his own memory had been beaten out of him, Chacon will be remembered for the nine fights he had at the Memorial Auditorium in the 1980s that made Sacramento a big-time fight town, in an era when the sport rode sky-high behind fighters such as Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns, Larry Holmes and Julio Cesar Chavez at their peak.

“He was it,” former lightweight champion Tony Lopez said Thursday of Chacon, with whom he sparred for three years before winning three titles himself. “Back then, what was Sacramento, especially in the sports world? He gave a lot of recognition for Sacramento. Who doesn’t remember, ‘Bobby! Bobby! Bobby!’?”

The Limon fight in Sacramento might have represented Chacon’s greatest moment in the ring. Bleeding and knocked down twice in earlier rounds, Chacon, in front of a roaring capacity crowd at 16th and J, began to figure out the southpaw from Mexico in the final rounds. Chacon took control in the 15th round and floored Limon with back-to-back straight right hands just before the bell to end the fight. The knockdown ultimately decided the contest in Chacon’s favor when he came out on top on two of the three judges’ scorecards by a single point. Ring Magazine called it the Fight of the Year, as it did Chacon’s 1983 victory over Cornelius Boza-Edwards in Las Vegas.

By the time Chacon moved to Northern California in 1982, he already had fought three times against the legendary Olivares – and beat him once. He’d beaten tough former bantamweight champion Chucho Castillo and other big names such as Frankie Crawford and Arturo Pineda. He’d also stepped in against Alexis Arguello in 1979 and lost his first shot at a WBC championship to maybe the greatest fighter ever to come out of Nicaragua. He knocked out future longtime featherweight champ Danny “Little Red” Lopez in a 1974 epic that filled the L.A. Sports Arena and could have drawn 45,000 had they waited a few months and held it outside in the Coliseum, according to promoter Don Chargin.

The tragic turn in Chacon’s life came in March 1982, just before his second fight in Sacramento, against Salvador Ugalde. Chacon’s wife, Valerie, already had begun to notice the mental slippage in her man, who was only 31 years old at the time. She implored him to quit fighting. He did not. Chacon’s decision to keep fighting left his wife distraught, and she took a rifle to her head on their ranch in Oroville and pulled the trigger.

Chacon’s decision to keep fighting left his wife distraught, and she took a rifle to her head on their ranch in Oroville and pulled the trigger.

“He had started forgetting things,” Chargin said. “She was calling either me or my wife (Lorraine) three or four times a week, in the last month before she took her life. ‘Don, make him quit,’ She said, ‘I can’t stand to look at him like this. He doesn’t sleep; he walks around at night.’ But he just wouldn’t quit.”

Chacon insisted on going through with the Ugalde fight.

“He went into the ring crying,” Chargin said. “He cried during the fight, and he left the ring crying.”

The fighter’s spirit pushed Chacon beyond his wife’s suicide, to the glory of his triumphs over Bazooka Limon and Boza-Edwards. Chacon beat Freddie Roach at Memorial before anybody heard of Manny Pacquiao, whom Roach would later train. Chacon defeated Arturo Frias and Rafael Solis. He suffered a terrible knockout loss to Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini in Reno for the World Boxing Association lightweight championship, which sealed the deal on his broken brain.

“When Bobby started, he was the most beautiful little boxer,” Chargin said. “You couldn’t hit him. You couldn’t touch him. He used to sit down with me, and I’d say, ‘Keep doing that. You’re not supposed to get hit.’ But he said, ‘I like that crowd screaming for me.’ 

Decades after Limon, Bobby Chacon showed up at the restaurant in Los Angeles. When somebody popped in front of him with a camera, his eyes beamed wattage as he instinctively broke into the pose every fighter takes, his fist clenched to your chin. After the camera snapped, Chacon’s eyes went dark, the spark of coherence retreating into his battered brain, like the head of a turtle burrowing back into its shell.

Andy Furillo: 916-321-1141, @andyfurillo