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Sunday, November 19, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Still A Warrior: Paul Banke In The Fight Of His Life

Los Angeles Times

VENICE BEACH, Calif. - Paul Banke, who used to grin when opponents landed their best punches, who still roars in approval when he watches a tape of one his savage struggles with Daniel Zaragoza, now worries when the wind blows.

He lives a block from the ocean, though, and here the wind blows hard. At night, when he is in bed, awake, and frozen by fear, it seems it will never stop.

On this day, as the salt air pushes softly through the curtains of the second-floor Venice Beach, Calif., apartment that he shares with his mother, Banke points at the window and laughs, shaking off another blow.

"One day, we had the window open, and we were getting a good breeze," Banke says. "God, it was a nice breeze. But I told my mom, `Close that window!' I'm paranoid. We're in her car, and I say, `You've got to roll up that window.' It's weird, but I'm scared to get sick now. Do you understand that?"

Banke, 31, a former WBC super-bantamweight champion with a reputation for wild fights and wild living, has AIDS. He does not look sick and has no symptoms, but on Aug. 21 he was told he has AIDS. Not just HIV, which causes AIDS, but the disease itself.

Although he has his bad days and although his T-cell count is down to 80 - very low - when he sits down for the interview he has been preparing to give for days, his energy level is high and his words come rapidly.

He has written a three-page statement, which he stands to read. His older brother, Steve, and his mother, Yolanda Miranda, a longtime union organizer, stand by his side in the living room of the one-bedroom apartment. When he reads, his hands shake and his voice stumbles:

"I've had many battles during my career as amateur and professional boxer, but nothing compares to the fight that challenges my life today. . . . "

When he is finished reading, he glances at his mother, and almost sags to the floor. But it is time to shake off another punch.

"That's hard to say," Banke says about the statement, almost silently. "My mom said, `Practice it,' but I don't like saying it. You know why? You keep thinking, `You're going to be sick. You are going to be sick.' When you find out you have cancer, you die quicker.

"Even though I don't feel sick, and I know there will be a time I get sick, I don't want to get sick. I don't want to say I'm sick."

But from the day he learned he had AIDS, which was only a few months after learning he was HIV-positive, Banke and his mother were determined not to hide it from anybody, hoping that his status as a former world champion still admired by much of the boxing public will allow him to become a spokesman and a symbol.

His mother says later, "This is kind of like his last hurrah. You know what I'm saying?"

A journey of healing

"I've begun a journey of healing, accepting and learning to live with AIDS, including the misconception I once had - that the virus only affects someone else, but it can't happen to me. . . ."

It happened to him, Banke thinks, in the last few years, probably as a result of his frequent drug use and careless sexual activity.

Although he never officially retired, Banke's last fight was Dec. 6, 1993. He fought listlessly and lost a decision to Juan Soto at the Inglewood (Calif.) Forum. That was while he was separating from his wife, Christina, who now lives in San Bernardino, Calif., with their children - Marty, 7, whom Banke considers his own although he is a stepson, and his two children, Paula, 5, and Bobby Jay, 3.

Banke, who says his former wife has already tested negative for HIV since hearing the news and will continue to be tested, moved to Las Vegas after the separation. He got a job in construction, and rejoined the world of drugs and sex that he had embraced as a young fighter and never really left.

"Was it drugs that was the cause? I want to say no, but yes," Banke says. "It was the start of it. And I've done my share of going out on my wife, four or five times.

"I was just a dipper, like that guy (actor) River Phoenix. A dipper's someone who just dips into it. I snorted the speed up my nose. I never shot my veins. And I did have a lot of sex. I was very popular in my young life."

He started fighting at 12 and quickly became one of the hottest amateur fighters in Southern California, traveling all over the world with international teams. By the time he was 16, he had been to Russia, been on national television.

"Paul was raised in front of a mirror," Yolanda Miranda says. "The gym was a second home, the ring was his playground, the other boxers were his playmates. He was constantly trained and told what to do.

"But outside the ring, and outside that environment, he lacked the skills to live life. He was very, very sheltered. For him to come out and socialize, it was like a candy store."

Banke failed to make the star-laden 1984 Olympic team, and as a young professional, joined Bob Richardson's All-Heart Gym in Riverside, Calif., where his left-handed, face-first, slug-it-out style became the fulfillment of the gym's name.

He became a Forum and Jerry Buss favorite, winning $100,000 in a super-bantamweight tournament in 1988, then working his way to a WBC title shot against Zaragoza at the Forum, on June 22, 1989. In perhaps the most memorable, fiercest Forum fight ever, Banke knocked Zaragoza down in the ninth, but lost a split-decision when Zaragoza surged back at him during the last three rounds.

In the rematch 10 months later, Banke and Zaragoza battered each other for eight rounds at the Forum. Then Banke trapped the taller Zargoza early in the ninth, put him down once, then knocked him out.

Six years later, watching a tape of that bout, Banke nods in admiration of Zaragoza, whose face was a mat of blood well before the knockout.

"I love that guy," Banke says. "Look at him. That guy is just a warrior."

Banke lost the title to unheralded Pedro Decima in November 1990, in his second defense, and never really got the fire back. Zaragoza, someone points out, is still fighting at 37. But so, in a far different arena, is Banke.

Banke is believed to be the first major American boxer to publicly acknowledge that he has AIDS. A few years ago, before a scheduled title challenge in Las Vegas, middleweight Lamar Parks refused to take Nevada's mandatory AIDS test, then later was reported to have tested positive for HIV.

Banke, who started calling himself "The Real" Paul Banke in the middle of his career, says he still runs into fans who ask him why he isn't fighting anymore, and that, he says, is one reason he needed to go public. The others have to do with being honest with himself, and with his condition.

"You know what? When I was champion, people listened to me," he says. "Now that I'm a former champion, I've got this thing. . . . If I put the word out, that'd be good."

`It happened like that'

"I have found a spiritual peace and it's exactly what I was searching for. I've turned my life over to Jesus Christ and have become a member of Victory Outreach Ministries."

He suspected he was sick in May, when a strange cough did not go away. But it took a brief jail stint for a traffic violation in Las Vegas - and Nevada's AIDS-testing of prisoners - to find what was wrong.

After the test, Banke says he was told that he had to take another one. That one said he was HIV-positive.

And like a true fighter, all Banke wanted was a rematch.

"That's the boxer's dream, right?" he says. "Do it again! Do it again! And this time it'll be right."

When he came home to Los Angeles to be with his mother, he took a third test at Harbor UCLA Hospital on Aug. 21. He was told that if he had a T-cell count of 500, he would need to start on medication immediately. And if he had a count of 200, he had AIDS.

"So what do I have? She says, `8-0.' What? Boom! I jumped up," Banke says. "I wasn't ready to hear it. Because I was walking in feeling strong. I was, man, I'm going to beat this. I'm going to have, like, 2,000 T-cells. I'm going to blow these doctors away. I was strong.

"But I had full-blown AIDS, and it happened like that. I got up, three doctors tried to hold me down, and I was ready to fight right there. I'll never forget how that hurt. I ran out crying. I think that's where God turned me around, because I turned around. I said, `You know what? I'm tired of running. It's time to take care of my problems.' "

With the help of his brother, Steve, who has been involved in the evangelical Victory Outreach Ministries for more than a decade, Banke embraced religion. For him, the disease became the ultimate sign to change his life - and to get off drugs.

"Thank you, Jesus. I guess he put me in this spot," Banke says. "He tried everything else to get me clean. I couldn't get clean. I am now because I'm scared. I heard people say they're not afraid to die. Well, I'm afraid to die.

"God brought me all this way, and He's not going to let me get to the end, you know what I'm saying? I have to go through this to go straight."

At his lowest moments, Banke has turned to Bill Roberts, a 62-year-old friend of Miranda's who has lived with AIDS for 10 years, has never slowed down, and runs a nonprofit program "Fight Back Against HIV and AIDS."

Roberts sees tremendous potential for Banke as a bridge to the Latino community. Although he is of mixed ancestry and does not speak Spanish, Banke claims Mexican-American as his strongest ethnic link.

"I think he's in a very valuable position because the Hispanic community is so lost with this disease," Roberts says. "There are little or no Hispanics who can stand up and say, `I know what I'm talking about because I have it.' " A jarring contrast

"Please remember me and my children, Marty, Paula and Bobby Jay, in your prayers. They are healthy and, with God's grace, I'll see them grow up and have families of their own. Thank you, (signed) `The Real' Paul Banke."

Banke was silent for 20 seconds when asked if he was afraid that he might one day give up his battle against AIDS and become like the listless, quiet souls he encounters on his visits to the AIDS clinic. A few minutes later, with the Zaragoza bout in mid-rampage, he is quiet again, immersed in the battle.

It's a jarring contrast: The victorious smile in the ring vs. the sadness and doom he describes in the AIDS clinic waiting room.

"I was blessed," Banke says. "I've been very, very lucky. I had a good life. I've done the good, and I've done the bad. I just want to have more time with my kids. Boxing took good care of me. God, I had a good life. But I don't want to go right now. I want more time with my kids. I don't want to give up. Right now, I'm strong. I have no symptoms. But if I get sick. . . ."

Then he turns, and speaks directly to his mother, kneeling on the floor beside him.

"Mom, I know I won't make it. When I get sick, that'll be it. I don't like talking like that. But it's true."

Later, as the bout unwinds on tape, his mother yells to him, "Paul, look at you in that fight and tell me you're going to give up now! Tell me you're not a fighter!"

Banke remains silent, staring at the TV screen in the bedroom. The breeze is still blowing. The fight continues.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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