Our Pursuit of Fame in the Boxing Ring
IT WAS January 21, 1966. As I sat on the stool in my corner of the boxing ring, I felt that I was at last on the threshold of fame and fortune. All I had to do was win this fight and Francisco San José would be proclaimed the Spanish heavyweight boxing champion. The next step would be the European championship.
My thoughts were abruptly interrupted by the sound of the gong, and the first round began. My opponent, Mariano Echevarría, obviously had similar ambitions, and we entered into a punishing duel that lasted 12 rounds. We were both strong and no quarter was given. That day I became the Spanish heavyweight champion—a victory on points.
As a boy, in my hometown, Toro, Zamora, in northwest Spain, I was known as a street fighter. Though I was educated at a Catholic college, my schooling did not change me. From school I went into a life of delinquency and immorality.
In time I fell in love with a local girl, but she would not accept me unless I changed my ways. So I began to reform somewhat, but I still wanted to fight. Since the only legal and “noble” way was as a boxer, I started boxing. In 1963 I represented Spain in the Mediterranean Games held in Naples, Italy, and won a bronze medal. However, instead of trying to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics the following year, I decided to turn professional. After all, I thought, if I was taking risks I might as well get paid for it.
But where did it get me? Six months after I had won the Spanish heavyweight crown, my rival, Echevarría, beat me in six rounds. I was no longer the champion. During the next four years I fought 23 contests, won 11, lost nine and drew three. Gradually I began to realize that I was being manipulated by the promoters and managers to further the careers of others. By 1969 one sports writer wrote me off as a “propitiatory sacrifice.” Because I needed the money, on two occasions I collaborated in what we call in Spanish a tongo, which means a rigged fight. When I refused to cooperate in a similar deal in 1967, the referee made sure I lost. It finally sunk in that in many cases championships are decided in promoters’ offices and not in the ring.
Early in my career I persuaded my younger brother, Carlos, to try his hand at boxing. Here is his side of the story:
While Francisco was succeeding as an amateur boxer I was winning cross-country races. However, I tended to look up to Francisco and follow his example.
One day in 1963 Francisco arrived at home and announced that he had arranged my first fight. With the approval of the Valladolid Boxing Federation I was to fight against a boxer called Sanchez in a contest in our hometown. I felt nervous, but I could not let down my own townsfolk. As it turned out, I won by a knockout in the second round. The crowd went wild and carried me shoulder high through the town. I was heady with success. With that first taste of victory I was bitten by the boxing “bug,” and I too began to dream of fame and fortune in the ring.
I moved to Madrid to get the right kind of training and fights. In 1965 and again the following year I became the Spanish amateur champion in my weight class. I was selected for the Spanish national team to fight against France, and at regional level against teams in Germany and Portugal. All these amateur contests were stepping-stones on the way to a professional career.
At last the long-awaited day arrived—November 23, 1966. My professional debut in Madrid was against Ben Bachir. I won by a KO. Little did I realize then that I would meet Ben years later under far different circumstances. Now, a string of international opponents began to fall before my fists, some by KO and others on points. But the fight that had the deepest impact took place in Barcelona on December 30, 1969, against Bernard Daudu, an experienced Nigerian boxer.
Although I was a quiet, reserved person outside the ring, once the fight had started I was transformed into a savage punching machine, intent only on knocking out my rival. I remember the words of a trainer in my amateur days: “When you enter the ring remember that you have got to finish off your adversary any way you can. Go out there with hate in your heart and smash him to pieces. He is your enemy. Have no pity on him.”
As the fight got under way my blows were missing the mark. The crowd got impatient. They wanted blood. It was an eight-round fight with only one round left. I was in my corner listening to my second’s hasty advice: “Finish him off in this round or else you will lose the fight!” With that my blood was up, and at the sound of the gong I went out full of fury and hate. Suddenly, about halfway through the round, I caught him with a left hook to the jaw, followed by a right to the liver. He folded up on the ropes and I hit him again. He went down for the count.
With the brief victory formalities over, I quickly left the ring, changed clothes and caught the train back to Bilbao. When I got off the train my wife and my sister were there to greet me, but they looked strained. What was the matter? They broke the news. Daudu had died of a brain hemorrhage!
It is difficult to describe my reactions on hearing that news. I wept long and bitterly. I could not believe that my fists had caused another man’s death.
But how strange human nature is! How easily we rationalize! I soon began to find excuses to justify my continuing to box. Others who had an interest in my career offered their advice: “It was an accident. Boxing is a sport. You are not to blame. The damage was probably done in the previous fight.” “Now is your chance to make capital out of the fame you have achieved.” But deep down inside, none of this pleased me. I knew that boxing had killed him, but I had been the executioner who had administered the coup de grace.
Three months later I was back in the ring, in Madrid. On TV they wanted to know how I felt about my career after the tragic experience. I answered that I was determined to continue in boxing.
One victory after another finally led to my great opportunity on December 25, 1970. It was the contest for the Spanish heavy-welterweight crown. The place: Bilbao, Vizcaya. My rival: José María Madrazo, an experienced man. But I was younger and stronger, and in the sixth round I had him down twice on the canvas. He was taking a lot of punishment, so finally the referee interrupted the contest and awarded me a technical KO. At last I had achieved what my brother had done over four years earlier. I had become a Spanish champion.
But over a year before I attained this goal, my brother Francisco had retired from boxing. Why? Let him tell you.
Although I considered myself to be more of an atheist than a Catholic, when Jehovah’s Witnesses visited me I was curious to know what they believed. I admired their courage. They were obviously sincere. Though I did not believe everything they taught, I was interested in knowing and understanding the Bible. With the weekly help of the Witnesses, I studied the Bible along with the textbook The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life. The Witnesses never mentioned boxing. But when we studied chapter 14, “How to Identify the True Religion,” I realized that the outstanding identifying mark of a Christian should be love. I learned that Jesus had said: “By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love among yourselves.” (John 13:35) The book went on to explain: “It must be love that deeply affects every aspect of one’s daily living.” In my case, that included boxing.
A special fight was coming up. My brother Carlos and I were going to appear on the same program, San José I and San José II, as we were known professionally. I meditated deeply about my situation, asking, in prayer, for God’s guidance. Should I and could I continue to box and still call myself a Christian? After much soul-searching I decided that my fight in the Bilbao Bull Ring on October 17, 1969, would be my last.
When I announced to the press my retirement from the ring on grounds of religious conscience, it was a real bombshell. Carlos could not believe that four months of Bible study could cause such a change in me. My “friends” in the boxing world tried to get me to go back on my decision. They offered me the opportunity to go for the European crown, with a big purse at stake. Although I needed the money I did not waver in my decision.
I retired with my family to my hometown of Toro, where I have since waged a different kind of fight, the Christian contest. Bible truth has changed my personality. To illustrate what I mean, some time ago as I was making calls from house to house to discuss the Bible, a hefty fellow threatened to throw me down the stairs. In the past that would have been the signal for me to lay him out with a pair of uppercuts to the jaw. Instead, I talked him out of his bad mood and terminated the conversation peacefully.—2 Tim. 2:24-26.
It has not been easy to transform my personality, to exchange the use of fists for the power of reason. But I am certainly more content to be with my family, working the land, tending animals and serving God in some small way. What a contrast with the glaring lights of the boxing arena, and the blood lust of the fickle crowd!—Rom. 12:1, 2; Col. 3:10, 12.
Although my decision to quit the ring puzzled Carlos, he continued in his career. Let him tell what happened:
About a year after Francisco’s retirement, a knock came at my door. It was the same Witness that had visited him. I asked him in and after a conversation he invited me to study the Bible. My thought was, “Knowledge occupies no space,” and in any case I was curious to know what had so greatly influenced my brother. So I accepted a study, but made it clear that I would never give up boxing for religion.
I think my first big surprise was when I checked the Ten Commandments in the Bible book of Exodus. I thought I knew them by heart from my school days, but these commandments in the Bible differed from the ecclesiastical version. For example, I had never heard of the second commandment, which prohibits the use of images for worship. That omission was covered in the church version by forming two commandments from the tenth. That fraud was an eye-opener for me.—Ex. 20:4-6.
After just a few Bible studies I began to have a real fight with my conscience. My wife was accepting Christian truth, and I could see the handwriting on the wall for my boxing days if I continued to study the Bible. So some weeks I excused myself from the study, and others I just hoped the Witness would forget to come. Nevertheless, the Bible was affecting my thinking. I realized that when I defended my heavy-welterweight crown on October 10, 1971, against Angel Guinaldo from Salamanca.
When I stepped into the ring the crowd shouted: “Give it to him, San José! Finish him off quickly!” “Bash him with your left,” and suchlike expressions. My adversary was over in his corner awaiting his chance to strip me of my crown. Meanwhile, my conscience was pounding away at me. Words from the Bible, at 1 John 4:20, came to my mind: “He who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot be loving God, whom he has not seen.” A flood of other texts also invaded my mind, condemning my action, while I tried to rationalize what I was about to do.
The gong sounded. I found myself face to face with my opponent. As we fought, my conscience would not leave me in peace. I found myself asking: “What am I doing here? Dear God, please forgive me!”
It all seemed to last an eternity. But I dearly wanted to retire from the ring as reigning champion. My personal pride was involved. I wanted people to know that I gave up boxing for love of God and not because I lost my title.
At last the fight ended, but not with my usual KO punch. Had I won or lost? I waited anxiously for the decision. The referee announced . . . a draw. I was still the champion!
I was now officially considered a contender for the European title. For years I had worked and fought for that chance. I was under pressure from all sides—from my conscience and from my boxing handlers. I was constantly studying the Bible and attending Christian meetings. As a consequence, there was a force impelling my mind. In boxing terms, the Bible had me against the ropes and I was about to hit the canvas. How could I resist scriptures such as: “I pummel my body and lead it as a slave, that, after I have preached to others, I myself should not become disapproved somehow,” and, “Love does not work evil to one’s neighbor”?—1 Cor. 9:27; Rom. 13:10.
I managed to let several months pass by without accepting another fight. Then in February 1972 I received a letter from the boxing federation advising me that I had 15 days in which to defend my title or forfeit it. I went to Jehovah in prayer and asked for help and guidance. That help came and I announced my retirement from the ring on the basis of my religious principles.
That certainly provoked a reaction in the news media. I was interviewed twice on TV to explain my motives. Many sports followers criticized my decision. But at last I was at peace with myself. I had won a true victory.
Sometimes I am asked if I am sorry I quit boxing. It makes me recall the caption of a press photo of Francisco and me, in boxing shorts, with our hands bandaged up for combat. It read: “Carlos and Francisco San José, face to face. Although in distinct weight divisions, both brothers seek a compensation for their efforts in the ephemeral glory of the ring.” Notice, “ephemeral glory.” “Ephemeral” comes from a Greek root that literally means lasting just one day. How true that is in the boxing world!
I have come in contact with some once-famous ex-boxers. They are a pitiful sight. They are always looking back to their brief and faded glory. Where are their “friends” now? How often I saw that a boxer has “friends” only when he is winning, and when those “friends” are winning money as a result of his victories. Start losing, and the “friends” disappear.
As for fortune—I certainly did not make one in boxing. About a third of the purse goes to cover training and management expenses. And for months between fights the rest goes to support one’s family.
However, since I became a Witness I have gained much more in other ways. I now have genuine friends whose friendship is based on true and lasting values, rather than on the reflected glory of an idol. They are my spiritual brothers with whom I share the preaching of the “good news” in San Salvador del Valle, Vizcaya, here in northern Spain. And as I share in this work I have the privilege of being a witness for the grandest person in the universe, Jehovah God.
When I attend Christian assemblies, there are often memories of my boxing days, simply because they are held in sports arenas where years ago I fought as a boxer. Such was the case in 1978 at the international assembly in Barcelona, which included the Municipal Sports Palace, where I had been instrumental in terminating the life of the Nigerian boxer Daudu. What a contrast! Instead of a bloodthirsty crowd screaming for a KO, there was a peace-loving multitude listening to the Word of God in an atmosphere that breathed love and tranquillity.
Earlier, in 1974, when I attended the district convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses at the Salamanca football ground, I saw walking in my direction a hefty Witness who seemed familiar. He looked at me, walked past and then turned around to look again, even as I was double-checking him. Astonished, we exclaimed simultaneously, “But you must be Ben Bachir/San José II!” Sure enough. We who had formerly been enemies in the ring were now united as Christian brothers!
Francisco and I are glad to have abandoned the sordid world of boxing, with its cruelty and violence, avarice, manipulation and exploitation. We have found a better way of life, the Christian way of love, one that offers a lasting reward, God’s approval and everlasting life.—Heb. 11:6; Rom. 6:23.
[Blurb on page 17]
“It finally sunk in that in many cases championships are decided in promoters’ offices and not in the ring”
[Blurb on page 18]
“I knew that boxing had killed him, but I had been the executioner”
[Blurb on page 19]
‘I learned that a Christian should have love that deeply affects his daily life. In my case, that included boxing’
[Blurb on page 20]
“In boxing terms, the Bible had me against the ropes and I was about to hit the canvas”
[Blurb on page 21]
‘Ephemeral glory—lasting just one day. How true that is in the boxing world!’