Boxing Champion Bobby Chacon Fights on in the Shadow of a Dark Family Tragedy

updated 05/30/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/30/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Valerie Chacon did what she could to miss her husband's third fight with Rafael "Bazooka" Limon, spending that spring evening three years ago in a tavern in Barstow, Calif. But she hadn't figured on the late TV news. "First, the loser," the sportscaster said, and Bazooka's unmarked nut-brown face appeared on the screen. "And now, believe it or not, the winner!" There was a gasp along the bar. Bobby Chacon was ripped above the eyes, and the eyes themselves looked like rotten fruit.

Valerie came home and told her battered warrior, "I'm not going to take no more, Bobby. You're going to quit, or I'm getting out." Bobby bought a motor home and agreed to move north out of the San Fernando Valley to a 20-acre spread in tiny Palermo, where Valerie's brother lived. Then, late in 1980, he tried to talk away her fears about fighting. "Just one more year," he said.

Two years later, on Dec. 11, 1982, Bobby Chacon fought Limon for the fourth time—this time for Bazooka's World Boxing Council 130-pound title. Knocked down in the third and 10th rounds, butted in the fourth and bleeding thereafter, Chacon nonetheless won the championship. Leaning into the network microphone, he said, "This is dedicated to my wife."

Valerie did not hear. Nine months earlier she had put a .22 rifle to her head and blown away the pain. She had told a friend that Bobby would fight again "over my dead body." And so, finally, he did. "I had to fight to keep my mind together," he explained. "I love my Valerie so much. Maybe I'll catch up with her someday."

Today the 31-year-old Chacon is a hot property, what followers of "The Fancy" call a "pleasing" fighter: His fights are marked by those abrupt shifts in fortune that sometimes make boxing seem a metaphor for life. A year ago Chacon was fighting journeymen for $7,000 a set-to; earlier this month, in Las Vegas, he earned $450,000 for a bloody unanimous decision over Cornelius Boza-Edwards of Uganda. Soon he is expected to fight Hector Camacho for $1 million. Chacon is a champion, but what gets him the big paydays is the story he shares with Valerie, a story in which the ironies nest like Chinese boxes.

Bobby remembers exactly when he met her. It was the first day of school in 1968 at San Fernando High. "She had long brown hair and long lashes and those big eyes," he recalls. "All I wanted to do was be with her." Valerie Ginn had transferred from Sylmar High School. Soon she was in trouble with her new teacher and ticketed for another homeroom. "If she goes," said Bobby, "I go too." He got no argument from the teacher, who couldn't believe his luck in getting rid of two problems.

"Actually," says Bobby, "we didn't go back to school at all. We were having too much fun." They were at the beach, or "low-riding" through the Valley in Bobby's souped-up '55 Chevy, or partying with Bobby's Chicano gang, the Group. Yet though Valerie dallied somewhat on the wild side, she came from a solid family. Bobby's father left the family when Bobby was 1. He lived in a tract house in Pacoima with his hot-blooded mother and taciturn stepfather, who made no effort to rein his stepson in. By the time Bobby met Valerie, he'd been busted for possession of "reds" (Seconal) and for assault and battery.

The terrible irony is that it was Valerie who urged Bobby to take his fists off the streets and into a gym. Bobby went down to the Johnny Flores gym in Pacoima because "the only thing in the world I was afraid of was losing her." One day in 1970 he watched the other fighters and finally asked, "How do you start?" A man said, "You got to have $5 a month." "I wasn't going to fight," Bobby remembers. "I had my excuse—the money. But this other guy caught me going out. He said, 'Hey, I got a gym in my house. You ain't got to pay me a thing. And I know a trainer named Joe Ponce.' "

An ex-pug with a lived-in face, Ponce fitted his new charge with a jab, taught him to throw the right hand, and tried to get him to move side-to-side as he came in. Above all, Joe, now 70, was a father figure to Bobby. "He made me feel like a puppy," Bobby says. "When Joe looked at me, I felt like wetting the paper."

Within a few months Bobby married Valerie, who gave birth in November to their daughter, Johna. Then he began a brief amateur career. In April 1972 he turned professional and roared through the featherweight (126-pound) division: 12 months, 19 straight wins, 17 knockouts. In June 1973 he challenged veteran Ruben Olivares and received a boxing lesson, losing by a knockout in the ninth round. No big deal. He was young, he'd just made $40,000. Valerie, pregnant with their second child, Chi-co, was still having fun. They went on a TV game show; their prize was a trip to Hawaii. For Valerie, Hawaii would always be a place where fresh beginnings seemed imaginable.

Trouble raised its head in 1974 when Bobby knocked out Alfredo Marcano to win the WBC featherweight crown. Soon after, he fired Joe Ponce and started indulging in women and food. Suddenly he had but two weeks in which to lose 16 pounds for a rematch with Olivares. He made the weight by starving himself but was stopped in the second round. Again, no big deal. He and Valerie went off to Hawaii, $167,000 richer.

In December 1975, five months after the birth of his third child, Jayme, Bobby fought Limon for the first time. Afterward, he urinated blood. On Feb. 25, 1976 he woke up in his dressing room to find out he'd just beaten David Sotelo. The doctor was stitching his head and Valerie was in tears. "Please, Bobby, please quit now." He retired, at the time, for nine months. "But I was just a 23-year-old kid," he remembers. "I loved sports. What was I going to do? Work on the railroad?"

Beginning late in 1976, for two years, Bobby fought nobodies for nothing. In 1979 the opposition improved. Then came the bloody third war with Limon and Valerie's renewed insistence that he quit. In 1981, following this second retirement, he returned to the ring, only to lose to then WBC junior lightweight champion Boza-Edwards. The only moral he drew from the beating was that he needed Joe Ponce in his corner again.

One day early in 1982 Valerie told the kids, "I'm going to take a nap and don't let nobody wake me up." But her mother came by, broke into the bedroom and rushed her to the hospital, where Valerie had her stomach pumped. Her attempted suicide was kept from Bobby, who was training out of town, until after Valerie left once more for Hawaii—alone. On Wednesday, March 10, Valerie was discovered wandering about Sacramento Metro Airport, raving about guns. "It was cold," Bobby remembers. "I took her home and I lay down with her in front of the fireplace. At first she wouldn't talk. Then she started being nice."

By Friday, Bobby had to go to camp to fight the following Tuesday. They argued over the phone on Sunday. Monday, each spent the morning waiting for the other to call. At exactly a minute before 1, Valerie's mother was on the line. Her daughter had found peace at last.

"Life, it ain't the friendliest place to be," says Bobby, sitting in the kitchen of his home in Palermo. "But where else you going to be?" Melissa Mendonsa, 26, his live-in girlfriend, has "brightened up" Bobby's outlook again, he says, but for the moment he must dwell on dark ironies. "You know, Valerie knew this would throw me into the limelight. They say she said so before she did it." The final irony goes unsaid: Within a matter of months Bobby probably really will quit.

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