SALT LAKE CITY — Despite damaged eyes and the changes wrought on his friend's face by more than four decades of living, Sugar Ray Seales immediately recognized a man forever tied to the greatest achievement of his life.
"I almost cried," said Seales, who was on the 1972 U.S. Olympic team with Jesse Valdez. In fact, they weren't just teammates, they both won medals with Seales earning the only boxing gold medal, while Valdez earned a bronze in the welterweight division.
Wearing glasses that allow him to see out of one of his eyes, Seals, clad in his Indianapolis Golden Gloves jacket rushed toward Valdez, who was dressed in his Colorado-New Mexico shirt.
"It was like old times," Seales, now 60. "I talked to him a couple of years ago and said, 'Jesse, we need to have a reunion.' He knew all the other boxers, so this is a family reunion because Jesse represents everybody else."
A smile spreads across the face of the older, much quieter Valdez as he recalls seeing Seales for the first time since he captained the Olympic team for which they both competed.
"He came up to me and he's a lot thinner than I am," said the 65-year-old with a chuckle. "But I deserve to be as big as I am. It was like a reunion. We talked about old times, what we did, how we were, and at 65, it's very difficult for me to remember a lot of the names. It was easier for him. It was really, really good to see him and see that he's doing so well."
Both men volunteer with amateur boxing gyms in their adopted hometowns — Seales in Indianapolis where he's lived for seven years and Valdez in Albuquerque where he moved in 2006.
While their post-Olympic success took them on very different paths, boxing shaped who they are and their love of the sport is what motivated them to volunteer to help aspiring young fighters.
"If it hadn't been for boxing, no telling what I would have been doing," said Valdez. "All I know is that I am happy, I am blessed."
Valdez, 25 at the time, was the captain of the 1972 U.S. Olympic boxing team, while Seales, 19, was a budding young star. Both started boxing when they were in grade school — Seales because his father, who served in the military, did so and Valdez because a coach recognized his athleticism.
"I used to go to the Boys (and Girls) Club after school and they had a boxing club," Valdez recalled. "They'd pick us up and when we got there, we'd run in there to get the gloves on, and whoever got them on first, it didn't matter if you were big or small, you just had it out."
He jokes that he was fast and good at dodging punches, and after a few weeks one of the coaches approached him.
"Hey, how would you like to box?" he remembers the coach asking of him. "And the rest is history. That's how I started."
It was winning the National Golden Gloves tournament at 15 (he was required to be 16 but he'd lied about his age), that he began to believe the Olympics were a real possibility. He said he was lucky to have good coaches that taught him a variety of styles.
"I learned how to do all of them, and I realized it's a matter of how bad do you want it," he said. In 1964 he was defeated in the Olympic qualifying tournament, but he was invited to continue competing as a member of the Air Force team. He fought inmates in San Quentin State Prison and fighters from foreign countries.
"It was a lot of fun, and that really gave me a lot of inspiration," he said. "I thought, 'I'm going to train harder, try harder and there is no telling where I can go.'"
He failed to qualify in 1968, setting up his final try in the summer of 1972.
"Munich was do or die for me," he said. "And luckily I won."
He was voted team captain, and at 25 was one of the talented team's most experienced fighters thanks to his time in the military.
"You realize," he said of finally achieving his goal of representing the U.S. in the Olympic Games, "that just being an American is enough. …Only in America can I have the opportunities I have."
Seales path to the 1972 team was much more direct. He began boxing at age nine and felt passionately enough about the sport that he dedicated himself early.
He actually qualified in 1968 but was only 16, and Olympic rules required competitors to be 17.
"I had to wait another four years," Seales said. "After working for four years, my mother decided that she knew I was going to, and she bought a plane ticket to Munich, Germany, six months before I qualified. If your mama says you're going to do this, then you'd better do it. But I enjoyed what I was doing."
Like Valdez he feels privileged that he was able to represent the country he loves.
"It was unbelievable at first," he said of the experience. "I just enjoyed it."
The games, which were the first held in Germany since the 1936 Summer Olympics, will forever be marred when 11 Israeli athletes and coaches were held hostage and then killed by terrorists.
"We saw the terrorists out there walking around with machine guns," said Seales.
While German and Israeli officials tried to negotiate with the terrorists, Olympic competition was put on hold. Valdez said that the team captains were asked to meet after the ordeal ended to decide if and when they'd resume competition.
"We voted, and there were a lot of young people who said we should stop," Valdez said. "The older (athletes) said 'If we stop, then they win. This is what they want.' So we had a memorial, took a break and then went from there. We really didn't know all the facts about what had happen."
He said it was difficult not to think about the tragedy, but many dealt with it by focusing on the competition.
Seales can still describe in detail the moment he received his gold medal. His description of how it felt to have the medal placed around his neck as the Star Spangled Banner played induces chills, even after hearing is several times.
It is a moment he tries to share with anyone who wants to experience it. As he walks around the Salt Palace, he is often approached, and he always obliges people, whether it's a fan or a boxer, by pulling the gold medal from his pocket and transporting them back to that moment.
"I share it with everybody I can," he said, the tears brimming in his eyes. "This is the people's medal. They helped me. I didn't know them, and they didn't know me, but I know they were in front of the TV yelling, 'Get 'em, USA! Get 'em!"
He loves most to share it with those who are sick and those who aspire to do what he did in the Olympic Games.
"I take it to the hospital and I share it with them, and I make them cry," he said. "But I make them cry joyful tears, happiness because you see it on TV but you never get a chance to hold it much less wear it."
Seales retired from professional boxing after more than 430 fights because he lost his eyesight to a torn retina. He said after four days his sight returned in one eye and he felt it was a message from God. He doesn't regret a minute in the ring.
"I think boxing has given me more," he said. "It takes you off the street. It teaches you how to be a well-mannered person. It's a great sport."
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