Happy Birthday Wilfredo: Bazooka turns 60
“I played baseball, basketball, and I even played shortstop. But I was too short and I decided to go for boxing…”
A Champ is Born
“I was born to be a fighter”—Wilfredo Gomez
Born on 29 October 1956 in Barrio Las Monjas (Santurce), Wilfredo Gomez Rivera was one of two siblings. His mother and father, Paula and Jacobo, were good, hard-working parents who instilled a sense of pride and worth within their children. Despite the difficulties of growing up in an impoverished district of San Juan, young Wilfredo never felt that he was poor. The love he received from his parents taught him that he would never feel that sorrow or a resentment toward them despite the suffering that he would get used to as a child. Gomez, who was known as “Papo,” helped take care of his deaf and mute sister, Laura, whom he loved and would later help immensely when he became champion.
“It was a rough neighborhood and I had to look out for her,” said Gomez.
According to those who knew young Wilfredo intimately, he was an active young boy who played all sports, but eventually would realize his ability as a boxer. He sold little coconut candies on the streets to help himself, but that was not always profitable. “I would end up eating them all,” he would admit years later. “I liked all kinds of music and television shows. I played baseball, basketball, and I even played shortstop. But I was too short and I decided to go for boxing.”
His aunt, who still lives in Las Monjas, recalled a mischievous child, who always was getting into something. What Gomez could not avoid was fighting in the streets of Las Monjas. Everything that he did revolved around boxing. Jacobo didn’t question his son’s newfound passion. Surviving in Las Monjas was not easy as Gomez slept on a mattress on the floor, and by the age of nine started going to the local boxing gym — the Sixto Escobar Boxing Gym — more regularly and never stopped.
It was not uncommon back in the early 1960s to have a little store and sell candies and other sundry items to the neighbors. In Santurce, Jacobo ran one out of his home. Although he was not home often because of his hours as a taxi driver, Jacobo always found time to be around family and friends.
“The way Papo had to grow up was hard,” said Nitsa Marquez Gomez, Wilfredo’s cousin. “I remember this store that Jacobo had and he would sell little things out of it. He would buy things, keep them at home, and then sell them to the neighbors. You know, candies and other things out of a room in his house.”
There was nothing pretentious. Jacobo and family members fondly remember that the party didn’t start until he arrived.
“He was always the life of the party,” said Nitsa. “Nothing started until he showed up. He was such a good guy, a lot of fun, always laughing.”
Jacobo wanted what was best for the family and never strayed from that goal. It was a tight-knit family where familiar faces and a cup of coffee or a piece of cake were minutes away. Young Wilfredo looked to his father for guidance, but did not always make the best decisions.
“My dad tried to give me a lot of advice,” said Wilfredo. “At times it was tough. Boxing helped me stay out of trouble.”
Nitsa, who is eight years younger than Wilfredo, fondly remembers the days when her cousin used to drive up the street in his fancy white Chevy Monte Carlo. However, Nitsa also recalls the time they spent together at the home of Mafela, Nitsa’s grandmother, which was two minutes from her own house, just passing the time drinking coffee or eating snacks. Back then, Wilfredo would joke about how big Nitsa’s nose was or pick on her about something else.
“Mafela, my grandmother on my father’s side, used to joke with us and say, ‘I am Gomez!’ She was very proud about that,” said Nitsa. “We used to like to play jokes all the time. Wilfredo and I spent our youth together. We used to live two minutes’ walking distance from each other. And on our way home we would stop at Mafela’s to drink coffee and make jokes.”
Wilfredo concurred, “She was my great aunt on my mother’s side. We would go to her house to gather to talk and laugh. We talked about life and our experiences. I used to joke around with Nitsa a lot.”
If Jacobo was the outgoing father who worked hard to make ends meet and was rarely home, Paula stayed home and took excellent care of Laura and Wilfredo. The neighbors also helped take care of the children and would often help Paula and Jacobo. Anything that the children needed, Paula went out of her way to provide. When Wilfredo became champion of the world, he never forgot the sacrifices his mother made.
Author: A Fire Burns Within: The Miraculous Journey of Wilfredo Gomez
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Christian Giudice on Wilfredo Gomez: https://vimeo.com/178852105/61dede0945