By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Pete Vital Jr. was inducted into the California Boxing Hall of Fame, highlighting a career cut short by tragedy when he lost his left arm, which then changed his perspective on life.
Vital, 61, was among a class last month with several high-profile names, including Rocky Marciano, Joe Frazier, Floyd Patterson, Kid Gavilan, Bobo Olson and television commentator Jim Lampley.
“I got the induction call a year ago from Rick Farris. He was my teammate on the Golden Gloves, we were together on that team in Kansas City. He said I got inducted into the Hall of Fame,” said Vital, who lives in Pahoa. “My wife Vickie and I were driving to Hot Ponds on a Sunday. We stopped the car and I said, ‘Who’s this?’ The rest of the day I was in shock. I’ve never been a pro champion.
“I thought they’d get my dad in first. He trained many champions like Jesus Castillo (WBA and WBC bantamweight champ in 1970) and Rafael Herrera (same titles in 1972). They said my dad would get in next year.”
Vital made his name as a 135-pound lightweight contender in the 1970s, racking up a 19-10-4 record, according to boxrec.com, a website dedicated to keeping updated records. He retired as the third-ranked lightweight at the time.
Growing up on the rough streets of East Los Angeles, Vital found an outlet in boxing, learning the sport called the sweet science not from his dad, Pete Vital Sr., a trainer with big-name connections from Don King to Muhammad Ali to Sugar Ray Robinson, but from his mom, Delia.
“My mom taught me how to jab,” Vital said. “My dad didn’t want me to follow in his footsteps. He wanted me to be a doctor or lawyer. My dad used to train people for Don King. My dad and him were good friends.
“Sugar Ray Robinson used to come to the (Main Street) gym when I was a kid. Ali used to use my dad’s dressing room and I would wrap his hands. I knew Joe Frazier really well and I used to box with Roberto Duran. He and I were good friends.”
Despite over 100 amateur bouts, including Junior Golden Gloves and AAU championships, Vital’s memory is sharp as his old jab.
For every well-known name, there’s a good tale to be told, including one of Duran, known as the boxer with the “hands of stone.”
In his second-to-last fight, Vital fought No. 1 lightweight contender Ray Lampkin in March, 1974. The winner would face Duran for his title.
Lampkin won, but with consequence, losing sixth months later in the 14th round to Duran by brutal knockout. The “hands of stone” connected a devastating left hook to the head that hospitalized Lampkin for four days.
“We used to spar,” Vital said. “After we trained, we’d go shower and Roberto would light up a cigarette.”
One of Vital’s closest friends was Mike Quarry, the light heavyweight boxer with a 63-13-6 record, whose death in 2006 was attributed to pugilistic dementia. His dad, Jack Quarry, was Vital’s trainer. Vital not only grew up with Mike Quarry, but also lived at his house when trouble stirred in East L.A.
The trip down memory lane eventually made its way to the subject of pugilistic dementia, the disease that also afflicted Vital’s dad. Vital acknowledges he was on that road, willing to fight until there was no fight left in him. His career was over at 27 years old, only because he lost his left arm.
“My dad died four years ago,” Vital said. “He had pugilistic dementia. Hell yeah, I would have kept fighting if I didn’t lose my left arm. I didn’t know how to do anything else. That’s how I made my living.”
After his last loss to Rogelio Castaneda in August, 1975. He went through a divorce and decided to step back from boxing. He was in his boxing prime, but his mileage was already high.
“I was 24 years old,” Vital said. “But I started at 17 years old. I was already tired.”
Then he was revitalized after marrying Vickie. Vital decided to jump back into the boxing ring. He was scheduled to fight Jan. 19, 1978.
He was working at Dairy Queen, when he lost his left hand in an accident. It was Dec. 19. Then on Christmas Eve he was flown to a hospital after his arm turned gangrene.
“I passed away in the helicopter and they revived me,” Vital said. “I woke up in a hyperbaric chamber and heard ‘Michelle’ by the Beatles. I thought I was in heaven because only in heaven would they play the Beatles. After I woke up from a coma, I saw that I lost my left arm.
“I was depressed and I contemplated suicide. But I didn’t have the guts. I would have fought King Kong, but I couldn’t kill myself.”
Then it was compassion from a young child that changed his outlook.
“One day, out of the hospital, I was walking down the street and feeling bad,” Vital said. “This little boy was crying and I hugged him and asked the mom, ‘Why is he crying?’ She said, ‘He feels sorry for you.’
“I was humbled and that changed my whole thinking. That changed my life. I saw other people who had no legs and here I am and I got no arm and couldn’t feel sorry for myself.”
Vital eventually went to work for the Los Angeles Department of Parks and Recreation, organizing boxing programs in various neighborhoods.
One of the planted seeds of hope was the El Monte Boxing Club, which produced Joseph Diaz Jr. He lost in the London Olympics to Cuban world champion Lazaro Alvarez in the round of 16.
It was a proud moment for Vital, much like his Hall of Fame induction.
During a recent interview at Sirius Coffee in Pahoa, it was a proud moment for his son, Petey Vital III, as well. The local mixed martial arts fighter and boxer glowed while his father recounted his accomplishments and boxing tales.
“After my dad lost his arm, he went into a hole,” Petey Vital said. “After he got the reward, I’ve seen life in him again.”
Pete Vital Jr. will soon carry his grandson on May 22. His name will be Pete Vital IV, in honor of his California Boxing Hall of Fame grandfather.