Homeless man in Santa Ana is subject of major motion pictureTommy Harrison, who is homeless and living in Santa Ana, talks about some of his memories of his life as a boxer.
Every neighborhood has its stories, those whispers that quickly telegraph from person to person.
The best stories become better with time, as shards of information combine with innuendo and truth becomes indiscernible from hyperbole. Those stories then become legends reminiscent of Hollywood tales. For a corner of downtown Santa Ana, the legend's name is Champ.
Passers-by on the western end of Santa Ana Boulevard will frequently notice an old cart, which carries the requisite empty bottles and wads of plastic bags. But its red broom with frayed bristles and dingy mop make it look like it belongs to a janitor.
In this neighborhood, a wide smile is always the first reaction when someone speaks the name “Champ.” Rita Gonzalez is one of those neighbors.
For years, she said, Champ has frequently spent the night on a small strip of grass in front of her home. But it doesn't bother her, she said, because Champ is a jovial old man who, though he may sleep near the gutter, has not let his mannerisms follow suit.
“He's a good guy. He never bothers anybody,” Gonzalez said in a slow Spanish that underlined her sincerity. “Sometimes I leave the gate open. He comes in and sweeps a little bit, and sometimes I give him a little bit of money.”
Champ often can be found performing similar chores in front of nearby markets, taquerias and churches. His sweeping pauses only when drivers or pedestrians call out, “Hey, Champ!”
That's when he'll respond with a quick wave, smile and often playful punches in the air. Others interrupt him because they want to hear the stories. The ones about his ring bouts.
“Everybody around here knows Champ was a prizefighter, but he never got his title shot,” said Frank Brown, who counts himself as a friend of Champ's. “He can take you back to all the old fights – dates and everything. A guy brought his son over a couple of days ago to get his autograph.”
Champ has always been a popular guy in his corner of town, but his profile rose tremendously last week along with the release of “Resurrecting the Champ.” The film, starring Samuel L. Jackson as the title character, is based on a decade-old Los Angeles Times story about a writer who finds a homeless man in Santa Ana who claims to be boxer “Battlin'” Bob Satterfield, though Satterfield reportedly had died in 1977.
That homeless man is Champ.
Recently, mental health outreach worker Brian Deliz spent the morning cruising downtown Santa Ana. He'd just come back from vacation and was eager to find Champ for a checkup. Deliz has long sought to get Champ into a senior home, but said the homeless man doesn't qualify for services for mentally ill patients.
Not that Champ would go; Deliz said Champ's daughter lives nearby, but the family doesn't have the best relationship with him. Champ has lived on the street for years and appears content to do so.
“He don't need nothin',” Deliz said. “He says he's doing fine just the way he is.”
Champ says he was born Nov. 8, 1929, in Kingston, Jamaica, though he grew up in Chicago.
Despite his age, he recalls minute details about his fights, such as the night in 1954 when he beat Earl Walls at the Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. He also knows intricate details about Bob Satterfield's life.
But he's not Bob Satterfield.
Champ's given name is Tommy Harrison. He fought in boxing's higher weight divisions in the 1950s. Like Satterfield, he never won a title, though he claims to have sparred with Rocky Marciano – breaking Marciano's nose – and later losing to Floyd Patterson on what he said were referee decisions that should have gone the other way.
“I'm still in pretty good shape for my age,” Champ said recently, sitting down to eat a burrito. “I put a few men to sleep with this left hook. Bam!”
It's not hard to believe a statement like that coming from a man whose hands are so big, they completely covered the Pepsi can he held. His gnarled knuckles and the uneven skin above read like a scorecard of those rounds in the ring.
Champ says he fought in 37 states and around the world. Many of those fights were under the name of Bob Satterfield. Champ said it was his manager's idea, a way to bring in bigger crowds at smaller venues across the country.
Asked why he used Satterfield's name, Champ responded: “Ask him why he used Tommy Harrison!”
He lived a good life for a few years, buying fine suits and a pink Cadillac before a string of losses in the late '50s ended his career.
“They said I had a glass jaw,” Champ said. “But if you're human and you get hit on the chin, you're going down.”
After his career crashed and he'd spent his winnings, Champ settled in Los Angeles. He worked for an auto dealership, lifting engines and transmissions out of cars. After some rough times with his family, he spent years on the street – more than the past decade in Santa Ana.
“If I could do it all over again, I would. But I would save more money this time,” Champ said. “Back then, I would party and spend $1,000 a night.”
About seven years ago, a film crew from Canada contacted Kurt Goss, a street maintenance supervisor for the city of Santa Ana. Goss had befriended Champ years earlier, and said he was happy to see the crew come to Santa Ana to ask Champ about boxing, and the Times' article. According to Goss, they said they were working on a film about retired boxers.
Then a few weeks ago, “We saw that this movie, ‘Resurrecting the Champ,' was coming out,” Goss said, adding no one from the studio let the people around Champ know it would be released.
Because he's the subject of a major motion picture, “we'd like to see Champ get something,” Goss said, though he conceded no promises of compensation were ever made to Champ. “He needs to be off the street and have his own place. That's not a lot to ask.”
Likewise, Santa Ana police officer Randy Beckx has asked the Public Law Center to look into Champ's case. Beckx has known Champ for more than 20 years and said the old fighter needs to be in a situation where “someone can make sure he's coming home at night.”
Champ's not worried about compensation from filmmakers. He's more concerned about the Social Security checks he said he hasn't received.
At some point, he said, he'd like to go see the movie, though he's disappointed he doesn't even make a cameo appearance.
But, he said with a smile, “Maybe all my friends will go see it.”