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Chicago Tribune

Boxer Lost Fight With Demons; An Overdose Victim Is Finally Laid To Rest, And Loved Ones Ponder How A Man Trying To Do Right Could Fall To The Streets' Perils

By Russell Working

2 March 2005
Copyright © 2005 Chicago Tribune. All rights reserved.

At the Garfield Park fieldhouse on the West Side, they recall the boxer named Ivan Gomez who showed up to train in the late 1980s--short and wiry at under 120 pounds but ferocious in the ring and determined to go pro.

The young Puerto Rican sparred 10 to 15 rounds a day, steeling himself to fight alone, to absorb and deliver pain, without the false courage found in a crowd of gangbangers.

People also recall how he fell into crime after a failed pro career and did time in prison. How he eventually fought with these demons, getting job training, running a marathon, drawing strength from a newfound Christian faith. And how he apparently slipped back into drug abuse.

Three months after he overdosed on opiates and cocaine, Gomez was buried Tuesday at a cemetery in Des Plaines. The body had lain in a Cook County morgue since it was discovered in a trashcan in Humboldt Park on Nov. 22. No relatives had claimed him.

Gomez is one of 22 boxers from the Garfield Park gym who have died in the last 15 years, many of them because of drugs or street violence, said his coach, George Hernandez. Their stories share common themes with many who die young in Chicago's gang-ridden neighborhoods.

Yet Gomez's death also puzzles those who knew him. Social workers who knew Gomez can't recall any signs that he had relapsed into drug abuse. And at the gym, there is anger at how cheap a life was to those who dumped Gomez's muscled corpse in an alley.

"I saw the greatness in him," said Hernandez. "I saw the beauty. I saw the potential. And somebody else didn't see nothing but a bunch of garbage they could throw in a Dumpster."

Gomez was born in Guayama, Puerto Rico, on a May 31 in either 1969 or 1972 (records conflict about the year). He was removed from his family when he was young because of his father's alcohol abuse, said Leesa Drake, an organization development consultant who befriended Ivan while teaching at the Chicago Christian Industrial League, where Gomez lived.

Those who knew him tell conflicting stories about Gomez's arrival here. He came to New York City at age 11 and was adopted by the Latin Kings gang, Drake said.

"The gang became his family," added Yael Ron, a counselor at the league.

By this account, Gomez moved to Chicago to pursue boxing at age 19 but was drawn into gangs once again. But Hernandez, the coach, insists the young fighter came to Chicago straight from Puerto Rico, where he had racked up an impressive string of amateur wins. Gomez had no gang tattoos when he arrived, Hernandez said, and was living with a relative. Only later did he join the Latin Kings.

Hernandez has no tolerance for gangs and drugs. If a fighter shows up high, he teaches him a lesson about the inadvisability of mixing drugs and boxing. He sends the kid out to spar. A fighter on heroin can be reduced to vomiting all over the ring, while a crackhead flails helplessly against a sober boxer's controlled savaging.

Gomez was a dedicated fighter, but his pro career proved unsuccessful. His first bout, in September 1990, ended in a split decision. Gomez left Hernandez for another coach. A fight in January 1991 left his jaw broken.

Hernandez visited his former fighter after the bout. "He was lying down, and his jaw was hanging broken," he said. "And I got so angry, I said, `Man, let's take this guy to the hospital.'"

Drug abuse, arrests

Over time, he began slipping into drug abuse and gangs. During the following decade, police arrested Gomez on a string of charges ranging from drug abuse to disorderly conduct.

During this time, he fathered three children by two different women. The youngest child has since been taken into a foster home, said Drake, while the other two live with their maternal grandparents. One of the mothers is in prison for aggravated robbery.

Despite the circumstances of his life, Gomez deeply loved his children, Drake said. On his upper arm he wore a tattoo of two hearts with a lock and the name of his 7-year-old daughter.

Eventually Gomez was sentenced to 3 years in prison in a stolen vehicle case, according to Dede Short, spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections. After he got out in September 2002, his life continued to spiral downward. He was reduced to sleeping in an abandoned car in the winter.

"One night he said he prayed, `God, if you wake me up in the morning, I'm going to get treatment and get help,'" said Michael Johnson, a league staff member who supervised him on the landscaping crew. "When he woke up in the morning and saw first light, he started crying."

It was a turning point. Eventually he ended up at the league, where he got substance abuse counseling and entered the landscaping training program. The staff named him groundskeeper of the year in 2004.

Gomez was working full-time and taking classes to get a high school diploma, improve his English and learn computers, Drake said. At Drake's suggestion, he ran in the LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon in October, finishing in 3:45:55. He planned to restart his boxing career with a bout in January.

Gomez also began attending the Church in Chicago, a non-denominational congregation. Away from church, he told everyone about his faith in Jesus.

"He had his following on the street," Ron said. "He went back and talked to prostitutes and gang members and criminals and tried to get them back on the right track."

But Hernandez warned Gomez to be careful. His tattoos--which included a five-point star, a snake-like creature, and a teardrop under his eye--marked him as a gang member.

"When I saw him with all those markings, I said, `You should get those removed because you can't walk through certain neighborhoods,'" Hernandez said. "Ivan said: `No, I got Jesus. He'll protect me.'"

Gomez died while on a weekend pass away from the league, in the 1100 block of North Harding Avenue, an area of boarded-up windows and littered streets. The Cook County medical examiner ruled his death an accidental overdose of cocaine and opiates. Those who knew him are not naive about the struggle an ex-addict undergoes, and yet they saw none of the telltale signs of relapse in Gomez--weight loss, listlessness, unexplained disappearances.

After Gomez's death, friends took up a collection to help support his children. But Hernandez refused to give money while Gomez's body lay in the morgue, headed for a pauper's burial.

A proper burial

Last week, a funeral director who volunteered at the league learned that Gomez was still unburied. Dan Schubring, who works at Weinstein Family Services Chapel in Wilmette, claimed the body after arranging to have his employer handle the burial at All Saints Cemetery in Des Plaines. Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago provided the plot.

After the service Tuesday--attended by two of his children and a few of his friends--Schubring, Hernandez and Gomez's 10-year-old son followed the coffin out to the grave. Workmen covered it in earth.

Shubring acted because he was troubled to learn Ivan was still unburied. "I thought, `This is terrible,'" he said.

"That was bothering me a lot," Hernandez said. "Every day I was wondering if he was still in the morgue. This is beautiful. You're blessed. You're an angel."

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