Learning from a Prizefighter

In 1973, as he was climbing to the top ranks of welterweights in the world, Armando Muñiz accepted my invitation to speak to a masters’ class for high school Spanish teachers at Eastern Washington University. He was a different sort of fighter, combining a professional athletic career with ongoing college studies.

It was very good for us. And the clear air around Priest Lake in North Idaho turned out to be good for him, too. Three weeks later he KO’d the always dangerous Ernie “Indian Red” Lopez in seven rounds.

I recently spoke with one of those teachers, who, now retired, can still turn her hand to deliver a proper right cross—the “preciosa derecho” for which Muñiz became famous. She often recalls her discussion with Armando on the irony of old Don Quixote trying to live an ideal life in “modern” society.

We’re all still learning from “Mando el Hombre” Muñiz.

Chocolate and God in El Paso, 1954

Little Armando was 8 years old and loved the taste of chocolate. His mother sent him to the corner store with just enough money for milk and bread. When the clerk’s back was turned, Armando slipped a Hershey Bar into his pocket. When the man asked, “Is that all son?”, Armando paid and rushed out of the store. He had barely cleared the door—its jingly bell was still ringing—when two cars crashed in the intersection.

“I was white as a sheet when I ran into the kitchen,” he recalls.

His mother asked, “¿qué te pasó?” and he told her about the wreck. She said, “I know that scared you, but what’s really wrong?”

He had to confess. Josefa Muñiz raised her children to fear an all-knowing God, and said the accident would not have happened had he not stolen the candy bar, darted out of the store, and startled one of the drivers.

That moral sense has guided him constantly as a boxer, as a high school teacher, and in his community and family life.

“But I still love chocolate,” he says with a smile.

Courage to Grow Up

Armando’s father, Sabino Muñiz, an old-school construction foreman with roots in Texas and Chihuahua, preached education leads to opportunity, while encouraging his shy second child to grow up and “act like a man!” Armando does a booming impersonation—“¡pórtate como un hombre!, ¡pórtate como un hombre!”

Per his dad’s guidance, he did. He lied about his age (he was 13) and entered a regional Golden Gloves competition. He threw himself into training by pounding a homemade heavy bag for hours—and he quit eating candy.

When forced to ask for a ride to the evening event (he’d have sneaked out on the bus but they quit running at 10 p.m.—and his mom didn’t drive), his dad pointed out that he knew nothing about fighting and would ¡¡¡get killed!!!  This outburst showed he was well aware young Armando was doing precisely what he wanted on his own terms. Dad had been had. But he admired a bold act, so Sabino and his brothers loaded up the car and took Armando to the fights.

Armando’s opponent was 16, much taller and more experienced. “He hit me much more than I hit him, but he had no punch, so I kept moving forward and carried the fight to him inside,” he recalls. Afterward his father and uncles treated him to ice cream—a tradition Armando kept alive with his own kids later.

Armando “lost” that fight on points—but he’d “won.” He did far better than anyone thought he would. He learned to love sport. He learned to love training. He’d found a passion that would drive the first part of his life.

Acting Like a Man

Dad’s work took the family to southern California where Armando’s skills in football and wrestling at Artesia High School led to college degrees in education, Spanish, and math. (To this day he regrets not taking the final exam in one course for a master’s degree in counseling—but a title fight seemed more pressing at the time).

He was 22 years old in 1968, a time of great unrest across the country, with the war in Vietnam. Directions, decisions, risks: career, education, marriage? Armando became a citizen, got his draft notice, and proposed to Yolanda Lamas. His focus stayed firm—he would be a prizefighter, they’d have a family. They did it. Yolanda was and is as fearless as Armando.

Private Muñiz fought for the USA, but not in the usual way. Sent to Kentucky to train with the Army boxing team, he defeated the other service branches’ welterweights and went to the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City.

“The proudest moment of my life was representing my country in the Olympics,” he says.

Dark lessons

Muñiz fought four times for the world welterweight title. He “won” in March 1975 by defeating the great Cuban-Mexican champion, José “Mantequilla” Nápoles in Acapulco. Mando’s “preciosa derecha” got lots of work that night—and the doctor stopped the action in the 12th round. Clearly a technical knockout.

But then things went sideways. The World Boxing Council president at ringside talked to the referee, who awarded the fight to Nápoles. It was a scandal that rocked the boxing world. Mando was proclaimed “campeón sin corona” by enthusiasts all around the globe.

Legendary boxing announcer Jimmy (“It’s Showtime!”) Lennon Jr. has probably witnessed more title fights than anyone on Earth, and he says, “Mando was robbed. It’s not idle talk to say he’s the uncrowned welterweight champion.”

The last irony was Armando’s. He inducted Nápoles into the WBC Hall of Fame saying, “The two best welterweights in the 20th century were Sugar Ray Robinson and José Nápoles. I had the honor of fighting one of them.” Of course, everybody present knew.

The Next Act

The title would have lifted the Muñiz family to a new level of economic prosperity. These days Mando says he’s fine and forgives. But “what ifs” lurk in all of us. He talks of God saving him by not making him world champion, since he’s known successful friends who ruined their lives by giving in to drink, drugs, and fast women.

From the beginning Armando knew prizefighting was temporary. He retired in 1978. His trainer insisted it was time. And he listened.

Armando accepted a teaching and coaching position at Rubidoux High School in Riverside, California, where he worked for 23 years. Mr. Muñiz loved the kids. And it was part of community involvement that he and Yolanda have long enjoyed.

Yolanda and Armando will celebrate their 50th anniversary this year. Armando is in good shape for any 71-year-old. He attributes his health to years of training as a wrestler, to reading, and to studying calculus (his hardest subject in college). “I want to show everybody that an old boxer can do numbers in his head,” he says.

Sunday family get-togethers are joyful, with memories of a favorite movie, Nacho Libre with Jack Black, and of the kids being towed up the hot California canyons on plastic sidewalk trikes, and of dad doing the “Rocky-on-the-steps scene” long before Sylvester Stallone did it on the big screen. Now in his third act, Armando continues to go the distance in everything he does.

Perry Higman was born in Seattle and traveled by car with his parents and grandparents all around the western U.S. He taught Spanish, English, and creative writing at Eastern Washington University and has also worked as a ranch hand and horseshoer. He loves motor racing, rodeo, and the mountains. See a list of his books at highpeaksbooks.com.

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