By Doug Krikorian, Sports Columnist
As he gets set to cover the Floyd Mayweather-Sugar Shane Mosley welterweight title match Saturday night at the MGM Grand Garden in Las Vegas, Robert Morales admits it’s become a rite for him to pause momentarily before the proceedings unfold and reflect on his glad destiny. He will be in a ringside seat amid tumult, and not in an iron-barred cell amid silence. He will be jotting down notes on his steno pad, and not be quaffing down vodkas in a saloon. He will be doing what he savors without fear of violence, and not on the streets ducking gun shots from adversaries bent on putting him in a graveyard.
“I’m so lucky to be alive,” says Morales, a 53-year-old Long Beach Press-Telegram sportswriter whose popular weekly boxing column appears in this newspaper and seven other MediaNews Group ones in Southern California.
Boxing is a sport rife with tough guys with mean backgrounds. But I doubt any of those men Morales has been chronicling for the past 16 years lived a more self-destructive existence than he once did when he engaged not only in gang-banging but also in frightening levels of alcoholic consumption.
At 15, Morales was one of the founders of an outfit called West Covina Trese, and routinely began getting into rumbles with rivals from nearby cities.
At 17, as a senior at Edgewood High a day before graduation, he was targeted in front of the school in a drive-by shooting as the perpetrator in a pickup shrieked Morales’ gang cognomen-Sapo-before unloading five shots at him.
“Pure luck I didn’t get hit,” says Morales. “I dropped to the ground and bullets were whizzing past me and striking the grass.”
At 21, on a weekend pass from the Marines, he was involved in a drive-by in La Puente-the guy with whom he was in the car did the actual shooting without hitting anyone-and was quickly arrested.
“Spent 23 days in L.A. County jail, and was facing 1 to 5 in prison,” he says. “Was set to plead guilty, when we wound up at the last moment with a different attorney because the public defender we had didn’t show up. Well, the new attorney found the authorities had made some mistakes in the booking process, and the judge wound up dropping all charges against both of us.”
That was in July of 1978, and Robert Morales immediately was seized by an epiphany.
“Suddenly, I realized that if I kept up the gang life that either I was going to prison, or I was going to be dead,” he says.
“I already had figured I was going to spend time in prison, and then I’m saved by a legal technicality.
“I immediately informed the other gang members I was quitting, and that meant I was going to be `jumped out,’ which meant five or six of the gang members would beat the hell out of me. But the guys told me they weren’t going to do that to me since I was one of the gang’s founders. I was pretty lucky because most guys who suffer such a fate wind up in a hospital.
“So I went from being a cholo, low-rider gangster who wore khaki pants and pendleton shirts to a disco guy who wore Angels Flight bell bottoms with silk shirts.”
After Robert Morales got out of the service, he became a carpet layer-he had learned the craft from his father-and, ironically, in the summer of 1984 he even did a job at my old east Long Beach house when I recall his telling me he read the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, where I then worked.
He soon started his own business, but his life began unraveling because of his increasing dependency on booze.
“I had become a full-blown alcoholic who at the end was drinking six half pints of vodka a day,” he says. “At the end, I lost my rug laying business and had become an insomniac. I just never stopped drinking. I once went five days without sleeping. And when I finally did get to sleep, I slept only an hour and woke up and couldn’t breathe.
“That really scared me and got my attention, especially after the doctor told me if I continued to drink I’d die. Finally, I gave it up. I had no choice. I wanted to live. I’ve been clean since November 2, 1990.”
Robert Morales soon also branched out into another vocation.
For years, he had been a passionate follower of athletics and an avid reader of newspapers.
And so, when he saw an ad in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune seeking stringers to cover prep sports, he interviewed for the position.
“Here I had no college education, nor did I know anything about writing sports,” he said. “But I still got hired.”
In September of 1991, he made his reporting debut, covering a football game between Workman High and Gladstone High. And for the next three years he covered dozens of high school events for the Tribune while doing carpet laying during the day.
“I was working about 70 hours a week,” he says.
And in October of 1994, Sam Pollak, then the Tribune’s sports editor and a strong advocate of Morales, offered Morales a full-time position.
“Sam’s eyes welled up with tears when he was telling me because he knew all about my background and knew how much I wanted to become a sportswriter-and I wept, too,” says Morales, who has a 27-year-old daughter and two granddaughters and has been married three times. “It was very emotional. I remember calling my then wife, and she screamed in ecstasy.”
Robert Morales would join the Press-Telegram in 2006, and has handled a variety of assignments for the paper, but his boxing work has gained him widespread recognition among those involved in the sweet science.
“As far as I’m concerned, Robert Morales is as important to our sport as HBO and Showtime have been,” says promoter Dan Goossen.
“I believe he’s the only newspaper sportswriter in the country writing a weekly column on boxing.”
“Robert is a dedicated, cut-to-the-chase kind of reporter who takes his job very seriously and is on top of all the action,” says publicist John Beyrooty. “He’s never scooped, and is a fair and honest reporter.”
“When Robert first started with the Valley Tribune, he was an ordinary writer,” says Bill (Bozo) Caplan, Bob Arum’s long-time propagandist. “But, like Manny Pacquiao, he’s improved tremendously and become great. Who’s been his teacher, Freddie Roach (Pacquiao’s trainer)?”
“Robert thoroughly enjoys the sport of boxing and it shows in his excellent prose,” says PR mogul Steve Brener. “He writes about all the people with great insight.”
“I feel so fortunate to be doing what I’m doing,” says Morales, whose array of tattoos on his anatomy are the only vestiges remaining from his dark past. “Every day I count my blessings. I brought everything that happened to me on my own.
“I grew up with great, loving parents with three sisters and two brothers, but I was always fascinated by the gang life as a youngster. That’s what spurred me to get into it. At least I never shot a gun, or peddled drugs. The drinking also was my choice. I’m just glad I stopped all those things before they put me in a cemetery and kept me from doing what I love doing most. And that’s writing sports…”