By Fiona Manning
Success has no come easily to California-born 140 pound slugger Raul Franco. He is however, the perfect example of what happens when you keep the pedal to the metal and refuse to give up: on Friday night, he faces durable Johnny Casas for the Fecarbox championship title in a bout to be held at the Gold Country Casino in Oroville, California.
Franco has become something of a fighter’s fighter during his personal path to boxing glory. A one time hot welter prospect, he sparred the likes of Vernon Forrest earning a fearsome reputation as a serious puncher.
To watch the good-looking, personable Franco in the gym is like watching an excited kid,. it’s not until you are up close and very personal that you see minor scar tissue near his eye. Nothing else marks him as a fighter.
Then you see him fight and he’s entranced by the sweet science. Yeah, he’s a fighter all right.
Paired badly in his own early pro bouts by his former managers, a discouraged Franco walked away from the business for a year before returning to the ring under the new management of LA criminal defense attorney Norman Kaplan and businessman Mike Jacoby.
Franco has since dropped down to the 140 division from 147, racked up a steady record, 21-4, 14 K0s and is still giving those sparring partners strife.
“Man he hits hard,” said IBF 130 pound champ Carlos “Famoso” Hernandez who has ben working with Franco during training for his first title defense on October 4. “He gives new meaning to the experession ‘he packs a whallop.’ “
“This is a fighter’s gym,” he said. “It’s very motivating to work here and everybody’s very supportive.”
His managers are as supportive as the fighters. Jacoby and Kaplan can be seen frequently popping in for sparring sessions, juggling English-language and Spanish newspapers during down times.
Part of that team for Franco is new trainer Al Lira, who worked previously with Franco during fights as a cut man. Franco feels comfortable with Lira and teammate, 130 pounder Yoni Vargas prepping him for the big night.
Rounding out the tight-knit crew will be Pepper Roach, brother to trainer Freddy Roach. Pep helps out everybody in the gym but has a special place in his heart for Franco.
“He loves the game,” said Pepper who loves it too, despite the fact it pretty much tore up his body and he walks with a limp.
Lira was drafted to training duty when Franco and Vargas’ former trainer Manuel “Chato” Robles failed to show up to the gym in the final days of Vargas’ training camp for the biggest fight os his career: he faced South Africa’s Phillip Ndou in the main undercard event of Lennox Lewis vs Vitali Klitscko.
Franco worked Vargas’ corner as he did when Vargas fought Joel Casamayor.Even at the 11th hour, neither man believed that Robles would do the unthinkable. But he did: he never even showed up for the fight. Nor has he since contacted either Franco or Vargas, with whom he had cemented close relationships.
“He’s dead to me now,” said Franco, his normally warm brown eyes turning into little charcoal briquettes. “There’s nothing he can say to me now but there’s plenty I might have to say to him I ever see his face again.”
Franco has hunkered down with Lira, a mild-mannered, quietly authoritive type who doesn’t miss a trick in the gym. It’s a testament to Lira, Franco and Vargas’ dedication to their sport that all three men drive from three very far-flung locations each day and meet off the 60 Freeway to journey together to the gym.
The fighter, coming off four showy KO wins over Miguel Angel Ruiz, Carlos Barragan, Pedro Garcia and Eduardo Lalo Perez, shouldn’t have too much trouble with Casas - but he is not expecting an easy victory.
Life, like success doesn’t come easy to most fighters. Life has handed a few brick bats to Franco who lost most of his family members in a relatively short time span. He therefore felt the loss and defection of Robles very deeply.
“I think boxing is like life,” said Franco. “You don’t know who to trust but ultimately, just as you are in the ring alone, you have to be prepared to deal with things in life alone. I wish my dadcould be here to see me fight and my dad - he was my biggest fan. But I like to think he’s up there somewhere, and he’s rooting for me all the way.”