The binder is nearly an inch thick.
The memories inside are beyond measurement.
Manuel Navarro is comfortable in retirement these days. After nearly 30 years working in local print shops and with the Department of Human Services in Austin, he now spends his days relaxing at his Del Valle home with Theresa, his wife of 48 years, while giving his electrician sons an occasional hand at their jobs.
When I asked this week to borrow that binder to scan some of his most prized photos for the profile I was writing on him, he seemed a bit hesitant.
“I would need to get them back as soon as possible,” Navarro said. “They’re very important photos to me.”
Go through that binder, and you’ll understand. It’s dripping with history. That binder, filled with old photographs and newspaper clippings, tells his story, one of early athletic achievement, civic and state pride. Who can blame him for being so protective of something so precious?
After all, it’s been 50 years since his mom began collecting those memories.
Austin’s boxing history isn’t as rich as that of Detroit, New York or even Brockton, Mass., which produced Hall of Famers Rocky Marciano and Marvelous Marvin Hagler . The 512 has its professional championship history with Jesus Chavez on the men’s side and Ann Wolfe on the women’s side, but their stories are different from Navarro’s because both moved here as adults before making history in the ring.
Navarro was raised in East Austin and attended school here before becoming an instant local celebrity at the age of 16. He was a sophomore at Johnston High School when he outpointed John Copeland — Kansas’ multiple state champion — to win the 1964 National Golden Gloves championship in Louisville, Ky.
“I had him staggered,” Navarro said. “I almost stopped him. I remember it like it was yesterday.”
As a kid, he wasn’t one to back down from a fight, and there always seemed to be someone wanting to test him. Maybe because he was smaller than most kids (he stands 5 feet, 4 inches now) or maybe that’s just how things were in the neighborhood back in the 1950s.
“I wanted to box because when I was growing up, I was always getting into scuffles,” he said. “I wasn’t a bully, but if you wanted something to do with me, let’s get it on.”
Manuel, one of eight children in his family, always looked up to his older brother Carlos, who had boxed in the State Golden Gloves tournament. Carlos worked out at Oswaldo “A.B.” Cantu’s Pan American gymnasium only two blocks from their house.
With Cantu coaching him, 10-year old Manuel took to the boxing ring with a natural ease and was soon featured on the front page of the American-Statesman’s sports page after knocking out an opponent.
Six years later, he was a national champion.
While the Golden Gloves archives aren’t exactly clear about past champions’ hometowns — even Navarro is listed from Fort Worth because that’s where the state tournament was held — it’s safe to say he’s on a short list of Austin fighters to win a national Golden Gloves title. The other one I found, Tom Attra, captured national light-heavyweight titles (175 pounds) in 1942 and 1945 before becoming a popular American-Statesman downtown streets circulation worker for the better part of three decades.
Navarro’s win was huge news on the East Side. His was an upset win over the much taller, older, more experienced Copeland, who went on to a pro career where he fought eventual world champions Alexis Arguello and Aaron Pryor.
Upon his return from Louisville, Manuel was greeted like a conquering hero; Gov. John Connally, Austin Mayor Lester Palmer and other local luminaries joined Manuel and his family for a day of celebration at Cisco’s Restaurant on East 6th.
Knowing the story behind Cisco’s as the celebration spot made the restaurant a perfect meeting spot for our interview this week. I soon realized that Navarro is still a celebrity there, as evidenced by the half-dozen folks who stopped by our table.
“Looking good, Champ.”
Navarro, now 66, says he prefers the nickname “Campeon” because his brother Carlos goes by “Champ.”
Navarro’s story quietly faded away until his childhood friend Art Guerrero, now a Travis County bailiff, spearheaded an effort to have him honored 50 years later for his Golden Gloves championship.
The right people listened. Navarro was recognized during an April 10 ceremony by the City Council.
“As a father of a soon-to-be 16-year-old, I can’t fathom my son putting in the time and energy to a craft that leads him to a national championship,” said Council Member Mike Martinez, who read a proclamation from Mayor Lee Leffingwell and presented Navarro with a certificate of congratulations. “(Navarro) adjusted to new surroundings, stayed focused and ultimately represented Austin at its highest and finest level.”
Said Guerrero: “We’re both Austin natives. During all this time, there’s been a lot of fighters who have performed here, but (few) have accomplished what he has accomplished.”
Navarro’s boxing career was stellar, but short. He fought in the U.S. Olympic Trials after winning nationals, but lost out on a trip to the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo when he was outpointed by Arthur Jones in the quarterfinals.
“I wasn’t there long,” Navarro said. “Those dudes were a lot sharper than I was.”
He returned to the Golden Gloves state tournament in 1965, but lost in the featherweight division. Back at Johnston, Navarro was pulled out of class one day for a phone call. Turns out some promoter in California was offering him two tickets to Disneyland and a pro contract.
Navarro told him he’d think it over. But he never called the promoter back.
“I was already in love,” Navarro said. “I wasn’t going to leave Austin.”
He married when he was 18, then got drafted into the Army in 1967 and served as a radar specialist stationed in Germany. He returned to Austin three years later to raise his young family.
The kids at Pan Am now might not know his story, but Navarro is a hero to many in the city, and youngsters are fortunate that his accomplishments and his life example are being shared with a new generation.
“It’s an awesome honor,” Navarro said. “I was just happy to be boxing. I didn’t know people would still be talking about it all these years later.”