1972 Olympic bronze medalist Jesse Valdez, who was an outstanding amateur boxer, never turned pro because he chose security for his family rather than take a risk and parlay his amateur pedigree into a prize fighting career.
Valdez first went to the local Boys’ Club when he was 11. The youngest of seven children in a low-income family, headed by his single mother, in which the kids all slept in one bedroom, girls in a bed, boys on the floor, sharing space with cockroaches.
“I started going to the club and I guess I did well because I started beating older and bigger guys,” Valdez remembered. One day a coach asked me if I was interested in learning how to box. At 11, USA Boxing people were interested in me, not me the boxer, and they always gave me guidance. Because of my background, I knew I wouldn’t be going to college, and these people helped me and gave me guidance.
In 1964, 16-year-old Valdez upset Olympic bronze medalist Quincey Daniels at the National AAU Championship in the welterweight division, and later that year he qualitied for the U.S. Olympic Team as an alternate. Valdez captured a gold medal at the1967 National Golden Gloves in the light middleweight weight class and he added a bronze medal from the prestigious Pan-American Games.
“I wanted to be a better boxer and that (defeating Daniels) also helped me become a better person. I had never traveled outside of Texas before then. I went to the Regionals and Nationals and then I was asked if I wanted to go to East Africa. All I knew about Africa was Tarzan, Jane and Cheetah. In high school, I was offered college scholarships, but my grades were bad because I spent more time out than in school. I didn’t have a father figure.”
While he served in the U.S. Air Force, Valdez won a gold medal at the 1970 National AAU Championship as a light middleweight and two years later, he became the 1972 National Golden Gloves welterweight champion. A USA Olympic Team alternate for the second time in 1968, the third time was the charm for Valdez, who qualified for the 1972 U.S. Olympic Boxing Team by defeating future world champion Eddie Mustafa Muhammad.
“My dream came true in 1964,” Valdez noted. “I was a USA Olympic Team alternate in 1964 and again in 1968. But in 1972, I wanted to win a gold medal, even though I ended up with bronze.”
Valdez became a household name in America because his Olympic fights in Munich, Germany, aired live on ABC Wide World of Sports, the award-winning Saturday afternoon show during the seventies, when legendary announcer Howard Cosell took a shine to Valdez. Unfortunately, Jessie was eliminated in the semifinals by the eventual gold medalist, Emilio Correa, by way of a controversial decision, and Jesse settled for a bronze medal.
The 1972 Olympics, however, is sadly remembered for the deaths of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches taken hostage and murdered by a Palestinian terrorist group, Black September.
“The Olympic village was built in a circle,” Valdez explained. “There were athletes everywhere from all around the world. My roommate and I had a routine after eating. We walked to digest our food and that night we started to walk, when guards with guns and rifles wouldn’t let anybody go past them. We didn’t know why and didn’t speak German. We then asked our coaches what had happened, and they said people were shot that afternoon. Later, we saw what happened on television.
“I was team captain and all the captains from every sport were asked what the athletes wanted to do, continue (competing) or go home. We decided to go on because, if we had stopped, that’s what they (terrorists) wanted. The Olympics were halted one day for a memorial recognizing those who had died.”
After the 1972 Olympics, promoters lined-up to offer Valdez a pro contract, but he quickly turned down all offers having other options as well. He could have remained in the Air Force and been a coach. Instead, he accepted an offer from a Houston television station that wanted to benefit from hiring the Olympic bronze medalist returning home. Valdez became a reporter and the station’s ratings immediately went up, but other reporters became jealous and that became a problem for Jesse. At first, he contemplated a return to the Air Force, but Valdez liked working in television and he became a photo journalist until he retired in 2005.
Why not take advantage of his fame as an Olympic bronze medalist and turn pro?
“When I was 14 or 15 there were pros training at the gym I went to after school,” Valdez explained, “There was one professional boxer there I really liked and looked up to. He was a world champion, who will remain nameless, and I watched him work out. I’ll never forget, he asked me if he could borrow $1.00. I didn’t even have a nickel and that really opened my eyes. Here was a world champion asking me for money. It stuck in my mind. I took a job as a reporter because I really needed (medical) benefits.
“I try to go to clubs and help amateurs, but I don’t watch pro fights.”