By Austin Killeen
On June 23, 1945 in East Los Angeles, a squealing little baby boy announced his arrival to the neighborhood. Although he arrived a day early, he was named after the prophet John the Baptist; whose birth is celebrated on the 24th. And if the rumors are true, Juan Nunez’s first spoken words had to do with the next fight card at the Olympic Auditorium in LA. One thing is for sure, he’s been talking about boxing ever since. You see Juan’s first love was boxing (just kidding Tina) and it’s a relationship that has lasted a lifetime.
New Mexico is not exactly considered a suburb of Los Angeles, so the interview was already going off the rails. Seeing the confused look on my face Juan jumped in. “My dad had asthma and the weather on the west coast didn’t agree with him; so we moved to the ‘Land of Enchantment.’ We lived on the other side of the Sandia Mountains in a little town called Manzano. It was a little township with a population of about 200 people. That’s where I grew up and went to grade school.” Juan had two brothers and one sister, but that would soon change. His parents divorced and his father remarried, giving him two more brothers and two more sisters. Juan’s mother remarried giving him three additional sisters. Suddenly his two brothers and sister had expanded to a total of ten siblings.
By this time Juan was eight years old and his biological father was out of the picture. This would also be young mister Nunez’s introduction to the world of boxing. “I was about eight years old when I got my first bloody nose thanks to a friend by the name of Carlos Anaya. Carlos would be one of my teammates for many years.” Only eight years old and already Juan knew how to block a punch, but his technique needed a little refinement. I was curious what got him to go to the gym in the first place. “Somebody said ‘do you want to box’ and I said sure. I had had a couple of street fights and figured why not.”
Juan continued to box with his pugilistic activity resulting in his getting a second name. People would come up to Juan’s stepfather and call him Mr. Nunez after his stepson’s fights. “They would come up to him and say, ‘Mr. Nunez you have a pretty good little boy there, he’s tough.’ My stepfather would get insulted by being called Mr. Nunez. His name was Brito and he didn’t want to have anything to do with the Nunez name. It was an insult to him being called Nunez. So he changed my name by adopting me and my new name was Johnny Brito.” When I first met Juan a few years ago, I thought Nunez and Brito were two different people. Somebody would come up to me and talk about Juan Nunez. A few days later someone else would speak to me about Johnny Brito. One day I asked Juan who this Brito person was because he seemed to have a similar background. That’s when I realized it was like Superman and that Clark Kent fellow, but neither Brito nor Nunez can fly.
Maybe it was being the fourth oldest of eleven siblings, but Juan was a very industrious individual. In addition to boxing he always had a part time job and did well in school. Although he didn’t think about it at the time, he was developing the skill of managing his time; a skill of most successful people.
Juan wanted to recognize his first trainer, Willie Hall who worked at Ave Maria Community Center located in Roswell, NM. Juan’s family had moved to Roswell from Manzano when he was nine years old.
“Hall was a good trainer/teacher who was very patient with his young charges. It didn’t matter if you could box; Willie wanted us off the streets and doing something productive with our time. This was a good thing because many of the youngsters came from single parent homes and Hall was a father figure for them. Looking back at that time in my life, Willie Hall was teaching us to be good citizens.” Apparently Hall was also teaching them to be good businessmen, because each Halloween they had boxing matches at the community center. Each combatant received a quarter for taking part in a match. Juan recruited opponents he could box each year. “Some years I could make a dollar and a half that was good money in those days.”
“I started boxing formally when I was about thirteen and Willie Hall was my coach. We’d have smokers at Roswell, Walker Air Force base in town. It was a big thrill and after the fights we’d go to the mess hall and have a big meal. We’d fight in Carlsbad, and other local communities.” In those days amateurs didn’t keep books like they do today, but Juan estimates he had forty fights with thirty two wins. In his late teens he won the New Mexico State novice golden gloves title. By now he was fighting for Sammy Burke in Las Cruces, NM. The late Sammy Burke is the father of Rocky and Louie Burke and unofficially adopted Juan into the Burke household. “I had more meals than I could count at the Burke household. Elba, Sammy’s wife did most of the cooking and it was good home cooking.”
Juan attended New Mexico State University, in Las Cruces where he participated in ROTC and received a commission as a Second Lieutenant upon graduation. He would continue to box during his first two years at college and credits boxing for teaching him discipline and its importance in reaching personal goals. He also worked at the Boy’s Club while attending college and credits the Burke’s for getting that position. “Sammy recommended me for the position of Assistant Director, and I don’t think I would have gotten the job without his assistance. The Burke Family played a big role in my success in life.”
Juan served twenty one years in the Army as a Communications Officer, serving overseas tours in Viet Nam, Germany and Turkey before being discharged with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Upon reentering civilian life Juan taught math for 18 years at the high school level.
Chance encounters seem to play a big part in the life of Juan Nunez and it was a phone call by Jerry Martinez that led to his involvement with the New Mexico Boxing Hall of Fame and Golden Gloves. Jerry had founded the Hall of Fame but ill health was draining him of the energy needed to properly run the organization. He contacted Juan and as they say the rest was history. This year we’ll have our biggest banquet yet on October 28 at the Embassy suite Hotel in Albuquerque. With Martinez courting him to take over the Hall of Fame, Nunez suddenly found himself president of both organizations.
When Juan wasn’t boxing, working and attending school he somehow found the time to marry his beautiful girlfriend Tina. She promoted him to the rank of husband and he only has to answer to her. They have three children and many grandchildren. Juan Nunez plays a big role in the boxing landscape of our state, keeping the history of our sport alive and well. Boxing played a large role in his life and now he’s returning the favor.