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The tale of José María Gatica

José María Gatica shakes hands with Juan Domingo Perón
José María Gatica shakes hands with Juan Domingo Perón
José María Gatica shakes hands with Juan Domingo Perón
By Dan Edwards
For the Herald

A working-class hero who went from bootblack to Peronist boxing champ

Penniless, lame and broken, legendary Argentine boxer José María Gatica passed away in near-anonymity, forgotten by those who used to cheer him on and ignored by his previously virulent detractors. The working-class hero was an icon of the sport during the 1940s and 50s, but his downfall had little to do with his talents inside the ring.

By all accounts June 16, 1955 was one of the darkest days in the rocky history of Argentina’s democracy. Determined to remove the ailing Juan Domingo Perón during his second presidential mandate, sections of the Armed Forces launched an all-out assault on the citizenry of Buenos Aires. The failed coup d’état culminated in the deadly bombing and strafing of the Plaza de Mayo, leaving a total death toll of over 300 and sounding the end of Perón’s time in office. What followed was a regime that outstripped even the authoritarian general in repression, the inadvertently ironically named “Liberators Revolution” that cracked down on anyone suspected of Peronist sympathies, while ushering in a ban of the party that would last almost two decades.

But the upheaval was not just confined to politics. The de facto government had the stated goal of wiping Perón’s memory off the face of the earth, and that included the realms of culture and leisure. Sport, an area in which the previous president had injected endless resources in his bid to make Argentina a first-class athletic nation, was logically one of the first places the “Liberators” focused their witch-hunt. More than 100 athletes from every sport imaginable were placed on the dictatorship’s blacklist, and banned from ever competing again. One of those was Gatica, a figure who divided sensitivities half a century before the advent of the much-vaunted grieta (“chasm”) that supposedly keeps all Argentines from living in harmony in this new millennium.

The would-be pugilist

Gatica came from one of the countless families who in the first half of the 20th century poured into Buenos Aires to escape grinding poverty in the rural interior. Born in Villa Mercedes, San Luis province, he started working as a bootblack in the square outside Constitución train station when he was still just a child. Competition for trade was fierce, and fights over territory all-too common, which honed the would-be pugilist’s skill from an early age. One such battle caught the eye of businessman Lázaro Koczi, a man who knew talent when he saw it and who took Gatica under his wing. His first taste of the sport came in brutal unlicensed bouts hosted in the Sailor’s Mission for unemployed sailors; such was his adeptness that he was soon convinced to turn professional, finally leaving behind his shoe-shine stand in Constitución.

On February 25, 1946 Gatica made his professional bow, beating Miguel González on points. That same year he would fight for the first time with Alfredo Prada, a man he would go on to face a further five times (Gatica prevailed on points in the opening bout, but the pair would eventually finish tied at three wins a piece). His fast, furious style was not a classic rendition of the “sweet science,” but it was effective: out of 96 fights he won 86, lost seven and drew two.

The working classes located high up in the rafters of venues such as Luna Park were enthralled by his take-no-prisoners attitude, and named him “The Tiger,” while those puffing cigars in their finery ringside were repulsed, referring to Gatica as “The Monkey.” But he did have one ally in high places. Perón, always on the lookout for a way to connect with the masses, took Gatica under his wing, bankrolling a boxing tour to the United States and with Eva Perón even acting as godparents to his daughter, María Eva.

“My old man was like a son for Eva and Juan Domingo Perón, they had adopted him. In fact, I am the only goddaughter officially baptised by Eva, which is recorded in the National Archives,” María Eva told Clarín years later. “They loved him because he was the people’s champion. He wasted all his money, but he did not negotiate anything, he stayed a poor man and a Peronist.”

Out of pocket

Just like legendary Racing Club winger Osmar Oreste Corbatta, another idol of the 1950s, Gatica spent his earnings almost as soon as they entered his pockets.

María Eva recalls that “he was like a child, I liked how he talked,” a characterisation that he shares with the illiterate El Loco of Avellaneda. A famous anecdote, possibly apocryphal, has Corbatta walking into a bicycle shop owned by a former employer and breaking just enough merchandise to compensate for a transfer fee he swindled out of years previously.

Gatica too has his story of poetic justice. A Constitución sandwich-maker, the tale goes, received a visit from the superstar at the height of his fame, and rushed to serve him. The boxer paid his bill, lined up six sandwiches in a row on the counter and proceeded to hurl them to the floor. “Ten years ago I shined shoes out there, I was hungry and you did not give me a sandwich,” he fired at the owner before walking out to his brand-new car, lined garishly in jaguar fur. Even a decade after the slight and at the height of his fame, Gatica felt obliged to set the record straight against his former adversary.

Boxing, however, is an unforgiving sport, with no regard for past reputations. In his final fight against Prado in 1953 a headbutt from his rival shattered his jaw, and though Gatica tried to continue against the wishes of his medical team he was eventually stopped in the fifth round. The bout all but ended his career at a competitive level, although he continued scraping a living until the dictatorship finally hounded him out of the sport.

Blacklisted after the fall of Perón, he tried to continue in underground fights. One such contest in 1956 against Jesús Andreoli ended in chaos when the police entered a packed arena in Lomas de Zamora to break up the spectacle. Gatica won that clash in four rounds, but was arrested for flouting his forced exile from the ring. “It was the defeat that hurt me most,” Andreoli said later, “but then I felt a great sense of shame when he lifted up his little girl in the corner, Gatica was already on the way down.”

It was the last time the great man would ever fight. Reduced to the same poverty in which he had grown up, and unable to work formally, he moved to a shantytown and scraped whatever living he could. The bootblack who had become the people’s champion once more returned to the streets, peddling bric-á-brac to passers-by, his body broken by boxing and his spirit by a political movement he surely could not begin to comprehend.

Worshipped and hated

It was as a penniless street-vendor in Avellaneda that Gatica’s story ends. On November 12, 1963, the 38-year-old had gone to a match in Independiente’s Doble Visera stadium in the hope of selling some of his goods. On his way back home he was hit by a No. 95 bus crossing the street and passed away in the nearby Rawson hospital.

Even then the establishment’s loathing of the popular figure would not abate: the obituary published by La Prensa alludes to his “popularity utilised by a dictatorial regime, which adopted him like others as a propaganda tool. That unsporting publicity and the sycophantic applause of those involved were not free of blame, of course, for the fact that he fell into misbehaviour in and out of the ring.”

Gatica’s fans, however, disagreed, packing the Argentine Boxing Federation at his wake to say goodbye to their idol. He was later immortalised on the silver screen by director Leonardo Favio, who revitalised his image in a dramatised account of the boxer’s life released in 1993.

Worshipped by the working classes, hated and feared by those above: José María Gatica remains to this day a contradictory figure. His life and death is a testament to how political divisions are capable of destroying everything around them, particularly in an atmosphere of hysterical public witch-hunting. But he will also be remembered as one of the finest exponents of his art in Argentine boxing history, and a man who, having pulled his way up from the gutters of Constitución, contrived to make the very most of his time at the top.

“The only misery my brother suffered was a result of his desperate urge to live his life,” Jesús Gatica said of his sibling as he was laid to rest; there is no doubt that in his short time on this earth the pugilist lived every minute of it.


@danedwardsgoal

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Edition No. 5055 - This publication is a property of NEFIR S.A. -RNPI Nº 5343955 - Issn 1852 - 9224 - Te. 4349-1500 - San Juan 141 , (C1063ACY) CABA - Director Perdiodístico: Ricardo Daloia