(When this man talks, you listen. Occasionally you even understand.)
I called The Ultimate Fighter’s Al “Stankie” Stankiewicz for an interview and ended up getting a motivational speech. He can’t help it. That’s just what he does. As Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira’s eccentric old boxing coach, “Stankie” caught our eye early on this season with his antics, and as rumors filtered out about things he did off camera, we knew this was someone we wanted to talk to. Turns out the rumors are all true, but they don’t begin to tell the whole story.
We talked with “Stankie” recently to find out who he is and how he came to be standing next to Big Nog, going on semi-coherent rants about sardines. What we learned is that from working undercover during the Watts Riots, to training Oscar de la Hoya for the Olympics, here is a man who has lead an interesting life. And he was more than happy to tell us about it, in his own roundabout way.
CagePotato.com: Thanks for talking with us “Stankie.” I’ve read some about your background, but is it true that you were a cop in Los Angeles before becoming a boxer?
I joined the department in August of 1962. I came from back east, I went to college at Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania. I came out to California just to see the California girls and to surf. What happened was, it was so beautiful I fell in love with it. It was October and there was Rafer Johnson, the decathlon champion, playing volleyball with Wilt Chamberlain down in Santa Monica. I called home and talked to my sister and told her about seeing these two superstars on the beach playing volleyball, and she knew what a jock I was and how big that was for me. And she said, “Al, it’s twenty degrees below zero here and we’re having a blizzard.” That’s the point where I told her, “Sis, I love you, but I’m never coming back.”
I got a job selling shoes at first. I was twenty years old. I fell in love with almost every girl who came into the place. It was 1962 and jobs were kind of scarce. There was this big advertisement that said, “Join the LAPD! Be part of the thin blue line! $650 a month.” And in 1962, that was big money. So I went down to city hall and took the test. For the psych test there was a Rorschach ink blot test. I had gone to college and written a paper on that thing, so I knew what to say. If you looked at it and said you saw two dogs fucking underneath a tree with blood all over it, you know, you’d be in trouble. So I got through and suddenly I was a cop.
And how did you go from cop to pro boxer?
I saw Mando Ramos fight at the Olympic Auditorium in 1967 and I was mesmerized. I thought, ‘I can do that!’ Mando Ramos was the greatest fighter I had ever seen in my life. At eighteen he won the world championship. So I started training just to learn, and six months later I turned pro. I turned pro and I wanted to be a champion, so I left the police force.
One day I was sparring with a small heavyweight – he was about 188 and I was about 158 – and he slipped my jab and broke three of my ribs. I thought I was going to die, it hurt so bad. But then I couldn’t fight for a while and I needed a job. So I sold encyclopedias, I sold vacuum cleaners, I sold insurance. I had a natural market there through my cop friends who all knew me, and I made a lot of money selling insurance.
Wait, you didn’t start boxing until your mid-twenties, then?
I was twenty-seven. I had never really boxed but I knew I could do it. Then I tried it and I kept getting beat up and beat up. (laughs) There’s an old saying: those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. I believe that. I liked it and I like helping people, so that’s what I did.
So you’d say you’ve been more successful as a trainer than as a fighter?
Sure I have, because of the five d’s and the two a’s you got to have on my report card. You got to have desire, determination, dedication, drive, and discipline, and that’s the hardest one, discipline. The two A’s, one is ability, but more importantly is attitude. You give me all that and I can take you to the top. I’m a motivator. I try to get the best out of kids to help them support themselves and their families. When we’re training I say, “Here we go, we’re going to buy your mother a new house.” And that’s what we did.
Well how did you go from selling insurance to training fighters full-time?
My captain said, Stankie, come back to the police department. I didn’t have to because I was making good money. But I liked helping people. The police department’s slogan is “to protect and serve,” and that’s what I wanted to do. I liked it. It gave me a good feeling. But what happened was in 1965 they had the Watts Riots. They burned Watts to the ground, and I was right there working undercover when it happened. It was a hot August day, everything was down and out, nobody had any money, and everyone just went crazy.
But my captain asked me to come back, he said, ‘Just try it.’ I had been working administrative vice, all the street hustlers, pimps, prostitutes, all that. And I liked it. It was shake, rattle and roll. I learned things. It was exciting. I can play three-card Monte and beat you nine out of ten times. But my captain said, ‘Stankie, all those guys you put in jail, when they get out, what do they do? They go back and do the same things. The only way to change things is to keep kids from going down that path to begin with’
I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to be a kiddie cop. He said, ‘Just try it. You don’t like it, I’ll get you your old job back. But just try it.’ So I did. I went back. It’s funny, because Joe Wambaugh, the writer, he was an old partner of mine. He quit to write and I quit to fight. Now he’s a millionaire and I ended up going back to the force. Just goes to show you that the pen is mightier than the sword. When I would tell that story to the Mexican kids I was training, they would tell me, “Stankie, maybe your sword just wasn’t very sharp, essay.” But it’s true.
You started training the kids you came into contact with as a cop?
Yeah, see, we had a boxing ring in the basement of the Hollenbeck police station and I would find these kids in the projects, the Mexican projects where I was working, and they’d be fighting in the park and things like that and I’d say, “Come on, let me teach you how to fight right and put it to some good use.” I love helping kids learn and helping them make something of themselves. I got Paul Gonzales when he was eight, on the streets in a park in Hollenbeck. I took him down to the gym and started training him and he swallowed up everything I taught him. He ate it up. Eleven years later when he was nineteen he won the gold medal in the Olympics in Los Angeles.
I just help them get to where they belong. No one likes living in the projects. I went through it when I was a kid, but it was a blessing in disguise because I got to play basketball with the brothers. They taught me how to play and I got a basketball scholarship. But I had kids who didn’t make it. Kids who got distracted by chasing girls, joining gangs, kids who got into drugs. I had kids who went to prison for armed robbery or murder. My captain told me, “Stankie, if you’re going to claim the glory for the champions, you also have to claim the guys who didn’t make it.” And I did. I still feel bad about those kids and it makes me want to cry. They don’t all make it.
I heard your son played Major League baseball for a while, is that true?
My son Andy “Stankie” Stankiewicz played baseball and he made it to the majors and signed with the Yankees. Stankie the Yankee. That was in 1992. I was training Oscar de la Hoya. He won the gold medal that year and my son made it to the majors. It was a good year for me.
What happened with you and de la Hoya?
Oscar’s father and I had a problem. I felt like I got cheated. In five years he never lost with me. But we had a falling out. And my whole world fell apart. I was kind of down, but I kept training and I met a movie producer, Jon Peters. He used to date Barbra Streisand, he’s a big movie producer, and he said he wanted to do a movie on me, and I thought, ‘Yeah, right. Show me the money.’ But he read an article on me and invited me out to his place in Beverly Hills. He’s a got a huge place with llamas and ostriches and camels. It’s crazy. When I got out there I said, “Jon, you don’t need a gardener, you need a rancher.” And he said, “Al, I got one.”
But he said to me, there’s this kid I think you should take a look at and see if you can help. His name is Vitor Belfort. He’s from Brazil. So I went and saw him. I worked with him, and I thought, ‘This kid has some of the fastest hands I’ve ever seen.’ This kid was super fast, he hit hard, he was great. So I said I’d work with him and Jon looked over at one of his assistants and said, “Cut Al a check for $10,000 to get him started.” I looked up at the Lord and said, “Thank you, Lord. Thank you.” Because I was broke.
Was working with Vitor your first exposure to MMA?
Yes, that was in 1995 and it was the first I’d seen of MMA. At first I didn’t think I’d like it but then my wife said, “Al, this is going to go somewhere.” I thought it was too complicated and too hard for people to get. She said women would love it. She told me to stay with it. So I did and now I love it. It’s great. These guys are real fighters. You get knocked down — and boom! — the other guy is on you. There’s no time to recover. You got to be tough to do this sport, and these guys are.
How did you meet Nogueira?
In 1996 I was in Brazil, in Rio de Janeiro with Vitor Belfort. And he said, “See that guy over there hitting the heavy bag? That’s Nogueira.” You know his nickname, it means half-man, half-beast. And boy is that ever true. Have you seen him fight?
He’s great. I was in Vegas with him for eight weeks filming this show, and he’s so much fun. He’s a great guy, and tough as they come. Once he gets Frank Mir in the cage, Mir is done. He can’t hang with Nogueira.
Did you talk with Mir during the show?
Yeah, I like him. I like his whole team. We didn’t see them that much. They trained certain hours and we trained certain hours. Some of his guys would ask me to help them with the hand mitts and I’d say sure. But Nogueira saw me and said, “Oh, no. Don’t you help them. It’s me against Frank Mir. Once they lose, then you can help them.”
What do you think makes Nogueira such a great fighter?
Desire. Determination. The d’s. He’s got ‘em. And he’s got the a’s, especially the attitude. He’s got the attitude to be number one. The Brazilians, they know what it’s like to have to fight and scratch and claw for their money. There’s no welfare there. If you can’t feed your babies the government doesn’t help you. You’re out on the street. You got to fight your way up and fight to stay there. He’s got that fierce competitive nature. Watch what he does to Frank Mir. He’s going to eat him up. Have you talked to Mir?
Yes, I interviewed him not too long ago.
What did he say? Did he say he was going to kick Nogueira’s ass?
I don’t think those were the words he used, but that was the general message, yeah.
Let me ask you this, are you a betting man?
Would you like to make a bet?
Not if I have to bet on Mir.
Ha, ha! You’re smarter than I thought.