Voice of The City: San Francisco bids a fighter farewell

A lot of people were never the same after they faced Pat Valentino, and the same was true for me, except for a different reason.

The others were punished in a boxing ring. The things I learned from him happened mostly across a dining table.

And valuable lessons they were. I found out in one day that the only thing worth fighting Valentino over was a lunch check. And that the only place more dangerous to be with him outside of a boxing arena was to be a passenger in his car.

Valentino died two weeks ago after a battle with pneumonia. He was 88.

For those who don’t know their San Francisco trivia, Valentino was the last man from The City to fight for the world’s heavyweight championship. For a long period, he was one of the biggest names in a town that once embraced the sweet science.

And I can say with some assurance that Valentino was the most gentle, scary-looking individual I ever came across, because with the straightest of faces, he would tell stories about a guy named Big Boy Brown, coming in at 265 pounds, grinning at him across the ring as if Valentino was about to become canvas fodder.

“The crowd started laughing when we came into the ring, because I must have looked like a stick next to him,” he told me once. “But once I sunk some right hands into his body, they weren’t laughing anymore.”

Laughter never entered the ring with Valentino because he took to boxing out of a childhood filled with fear — afraid of the dark, afraid of his father, afraid of failing in school. He was a high school dropout totally lacking in confidence who just happened to live on the same block in the Excelsior as a guy named Ray Actis, who in the late ’30s, rose to become one of the best light-heavyweight boxers in the world.

Actis’ nickname was the “Excelsior Assassin,’’ a moniker he earned by throwing one of the most vicious punches in the sport’s history. As they came from the same neighborhood, Actis’ achievements inspired Valentino in his boxing goals.

And so it was that Valentino came to boxing, training at Paddy Ryan’s gym in the Tenderloin, trying to gain something he couldn’t find anywhere else in his life — respect.

“I never fought for the money,’’ he said. “I did it to get rid of my fear. But even then, it was tough. Before a fight, I’d be so scared that I had to hold my legs to stop them from shaking. But once I started fighting, I was OK — until the next fight.’’

It was the other guys who should have been scared. Valentino — named for the movie legend because people had trouble pronouncing his real name, Gugliemi — was known as one of the most fierce body punchers in boxing. He said he knows of at least 13 boxers whose ribs he broke. His hands, 30 years after retiring, looked like they could still smash cement.

And that’s about the time I met him, when he insisted on picking me up one day to have lunch. When I got in the car, his craggy face turned to me, one eye dark, one eye the faintest of blue — the result of being thumbed in the eye by a heavyweight named Tony Bosnich, another city product.

He had a detached retina, blind in one eye. Yet, under the boxing standards of the day, he was still allowed to fight for the heavyweight championship at the Cow Palace in 1949 against Ezzard Charles, who knocked him out in the eighth round after Valentino had handed him a savage beating for much of the bout. A few months later, Valentino fought the legendary Joe Louis in his last official match.

I can tell you for the record that his eyesight did not improve his driving skills, and that I tried to convince him to let me take a taxi back to work. But when Valentino insisted that he drive me to the door, I felt the same as a lot of his opponents did — helpless.

“I took up boxing because I wanted to be good at something and I didn’t know anything,’’ he told me. “I didn’t achieve everything I wanted, but it helped me get over my fear.”

Not bad for a neighborhood kid who couldn’t write and couldn’t spell. Next Sunday, they’ll be hoisting a few in his name at Molloy’s Tavern in South San Francisco. Think of it as Pat Valentino’s final round.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Examiner. E-mail him at kgarcia@sfexaminer.com or call him
at (415) 359-2663.

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