Former WBC Champ Paul Banke’s Pride and Joy
In the sports world, there are many famous fathers who swell with pride over their younger namesakes: boxing’s Julio Cesar Chavez and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., Ken Norton and football’s Ken Norton Jr., George Foreman and his five sons all named George, and Paul and Paula Banke. That’s right, boxer Paul Banke’s “junior” namesake is his only daughter, Paula.
Married three times, Paul has three children and one grandchild: Marty, Paula and Bobby Jay. His oldest son, Marty, recently became a parent himself with the birth of Chloe Madison earlier this year. But Paul has always had a soft spot for his sole daughter, and he lights up whenever I ask about her or mention that I’ve spoken to her. And of course, he is like any other dad, protective of his youngster while oftentimes amazed at how grown up she is.
As you can imagine, Paula, a bubbly 19-year-old, is the apple of her father’s eye.
Paul maintains good relationships with all of his kids, but clearly it’s Paula that is the one he tries to please the most. She’s a beautiful girl with an outgoing personality, a twinkle in her eye and a winning smile. But Paul takes no credit for his daughter’s charismatic ways, “She’s like her mom–she’s all of her mom!” he laughs. “And with my boys, I can joke and B.S. but with Paula, I have to be on my ‘Ps and Qs.’ She’s tough on me!” He also wants to meet and “approve” any boy she’s dating. Paula jokingly groans and says, “He’s always asking me about that!” The father-daughter dynamics with that can never be easy!
And it has not been an easy for the former WBC Super Bantamweight Champion (21-9, 11 KOs). The scrappy southpaw has a well-chronicled history of trouble, and the risks he took during his youth have also been well-documented. Obviously, there are regrets and disappointment over his reckless past.
Paul, who was diagnosed with the HIV virus in the ’90s, never thought he’d be around long enough to see his kids become adults. But Banke never blames anyone else; he knows he’s responsible for his current circumstances. “I lived in the fast lane, I was young and crazy,” he acknowledges. Clean and sober for 15 years now, the 45-year-old has been making amends, trying to be a supportive father, and also giving back to the community through mentoring underprivileged children.
Now let’s get to Miss Paula Banke. The petite, pretty teen knows of her dad’s struggles in life and has taken a mature stance in welcoming him back into her life. “I don’t know how long he’ll be around,” she tells me. “I think he regrets not being here more when we were kids; I want him to know I forgive him and still love him.” And as it sometimes happens when a parent grows older or ill, the child often becomes the parent.
Banke lives in Hollywood with his beloved dog, Rosemary, and seven parakeets. The Scotch-Terrier poodle is the only other female besides Paula who shares Paul’s heart. He is very attached to the pooch and takes her for frequent walks outside, either in Hollywood or Venice Beach where his mother resides. And Paula, sometimes wise beyond her years, always worries about her dad; these late-night walks are what gives her some concern. “I worry about him and when he walks his dog at night,” she tells me. “I always make sure he’s bundled up. I want to take care of him, but he doesn’t always let me.”
No family is ever perfect, and Paul has had his share of squabbles with his brother, Steve, also a former boxer, and at-times with his own children including Paula.
Forgiving and forgetting the sins of the father can be a rocky road.
But Paula has chosen to forgive and forget. This past March, to celebrate her birthday and to honor her father, Paula surprised her dad with a special gift: A tattoo to pay tribute to her connection to boxing and to her favorite champ, her father. Paula designed the ink herself–two red boxing gloves hanging from a nail, forming a heart with a banner that reads “Daughter of a Champ.” This new artwork, located on her lower back, is a symbol for what they’ve been through, as Paula explains, “I had been thinking about if for a long time. It’s been a long process with my Dad. But I always wanted to get a tattoo to show him that he’s in my heart.” A permanent bond to her prizefighting father.
Paul has several tats of his own; the last time I saw him, a tattoo on the back of his neck caught my eye. I couldn’t read it clearly, so I asked him about it and he laughed, “It’s the name of my last ex-wife!” He admits he went down a wayward path with women, drugs and booze. But while there is always a lingering sense of regret of money he may have squandered, and his health that he obviously put in jeopardy, Paul doesn’t want to be bitter, angry or resentful.
Each time I speak to him, Banke peppers the conversation with the same words: Blessed, Fortunate, Lucky, Grateful. Not exactly what you’d expect from an ex-fighter who’s been down for the count more times than not. Three failed marriages, a broken family, life-threatening health issues, and yet he still insists he’s blessed. Factor in severe bouts with insomnia, growing problems with his speech…and again he’ll tell how fortunate he is. Banke feels lucky and grateful to be here–and to be given second chances with his children.
Paul repeats how blessed he is, “I live in Hollywood, I ride the bus, and I got problems and issues just like everyone else. But I’m still a humble person. Sometimes I think I got it bad, but I appreciate everything,” he says. “I have a nice apartment and I have side jobs. I’m not struggling, and I’m thankful. It’s a blessing to live this long. I’ve had this virus for more than 15 years. And to have seen my daughter graduate from high school is a blessing!”
The former champ recalls one of his lowest times,”I was on the streets; I did my drug thing. For four days I didn’t eat; this was in Vegas at four o’clock in the morning. I called my mom but she thought I’d use money for drugs, so I went to a Burger King and looked around for food left behind.”
That was then. Now happily ensconced in a bright, airy, and clean apartment just east of the tourist section of Hollywood, Paul is able to provide not only himself, but for his prized canine and his seven fine-feathered friends. I recently visited with Banke. When I entered the neat and tidy living room, the smell of steak wafted from the kitchen. “Rosemary and I just had lunch,” Paul happily states. “Your dog gets steak too?” I asked. “She loves it!” he replied with a grin.
As I reached out to pet the adorable dog, who’s very protective of her master, she softly growled. “Rosemary has issues!’ Paul exclaimed as we chuckled.
To stay in shape, he runs twice a day with the pup and also tries to work out regularly. “I can do heavy bags at home. And I love working out with the mitts. At the gym, it’s either the focus mitts or sparring when I work out.”
Gazing around his comfortable home, decorated with several plants thriving in the sun, I notice many family photographs on display, but not any boxing mementos except for his bronze trophy he received as a 2008 inductee from the WBC Legends of Boxing Museum. I ask Banke if he ever misses being in the ring. He winces a bit, looks at me like I’m from another planet, then without further hesitation says, “No, not at all! I don’t miss being in the ring at all. But I understand why some boxers can’t quit. They miss that fire, so they keep coming back.”
While the former amateur star does not miss being on the canvas himself, he has been working with kids at a nearby gym. “They appreciate me and call me ‘Coach’ and I like that. It feels good. I’ve been taking them to Freddie Roach’s gym; they loved it,” Paul raves. “The kids remember everything I taught them. They looked good, so I looked good!”
Banke recalls his own roots in the amateur boxing circuit and the early fame he achieved. “As an amateur, I got to visit 12 countries. I boxed in the L.A. Coliseum in front of thousands of people. When I was 16 years old, I got to go to Russia and fight. It was on the ABC ‘World Wide of Sports.’ I beat the Russian, I still remember his name and everything about it. I felt like a celebrity! I was just a little, skinny 112 pounder in high school and it was so exciting.
“I had 176 fights and started when I was just 12 years old. By the time I was 14, I got to fight in New Mexico and by 15 and 16 went to Ohio and New Zealand to fight. I loved the amateurs!”
Born in Quail Valley, California, Banke says people always ask about his heritage because of his exotic looks and unique last name. He’s Mexican-American from the Basque country. His last name has been pronounced myriad of ways but he pronounces it “BANK-E” will a long A. Although, he recalls during his early career, “Jimmy Lennon Sr. used to pronounce it ‘Ban-kay’ with a French accent and it always sounded so nice!”
Banke loved to travel and he regales me with several stories of past adventures. He also chats about his long-standing friendships with boxers he’s known for years, “I was in Thailand for two weeks with Reggie Johnson; it was great. I’ve known James Toney since our amateur days. And I still talk to Alex Ramos, John Montes and Zack Padilla. I’m lucky to stay in touch with them!”
Turning pro at age 21, Paul remembers his career highlight of winning a title belt earned in his two legendary wars with Daniel Zaragoza, “My world title was the best, the highlight of my pro career.” Banke lost the first battle by a split decision. But just ten months later earned his title by a KO over Zaragoza in the ninth round. The two fought once more in 1991.
After indulging in the excesses of sudden fame and notoriety, Paul now finds himself in a very different fate with very different circumstances. But one thing remains the same, Banke’s mantra is that he feels like his life, even as it is now, is a blessing.
“I’m blessed,” he reiterates. “I see on TV how people lose their houses and their jobs. I live in a nice neighborhood. My health is okay; I’m a little crazy, but we all know that!” Paul jokes a little more and then quietly says, “It’s embarassing but I think my speech is getting worse. It bothers me. But I talk fast, I love to talk, and I’m hyper…So maybe it’s that?” His voice then trails off a bit.
I mention to Banke that I haven’t noticed a decline, but he’s not convinced. “Sometimes it’s good. It’s better in the morning, and sometimes it’s bad,” Paul says of his mildly-slurred speech, probably due to one too many blows in the ring.
But there is no need to feel sorry for Paul; he does not want pity. That becomes very clear when you spend any time with him. After all, this man is a champion. He doesn’t want or need sympathy; the former warrior has a newfound sense of pride and dignity in the way he lives his life now.
A poignant reminder of this is the one title he continues to fight for: Championship Father and Grandfather.
“I see him as much as possible when I’m not working,” says daughter Paula. She lives in San Bernardino County and tries to spend as much time as she can with her dad. The energetic teen maintains a busy schedule with both college and work. Her dad is awed by how she handles responsibility and says proudly, “Paula has a brand new car. She’s had a job for four years now; I’m always amazed of her!” When I agree with Paul on what a great gal she is, he jokes, “Of course she’s great, she’s my daughter!”
Fittingly, I spoke with both of them this past weekend on Father’s Day, and before signing off, Paul Banke wants to say again, “Thank you for calling. I’m so blessed. I’m lucky to have friends and family.”
While there are many famous sons of legendary boxers, this story is about one daughter, Paula Banke, who until now you may not have ever heard of.
But now you know who she is: She is the Daughter of a Champion.
Photos by Michele Chong: Paula Banke with her father; Paul with Scotch-Terrier Rosemary; “Daughter of a Champ” ink