The Last Days of Joey Limas
By Toby Smith
Joey—he was never anything but Joey to me—resided in an Albuquerque nursing home, and I was positive I would see him again. Sure, he was 78 or 82 years old, depending on the source. But in my mind he was still tough as cactus. Then suddenly he was gone, bested by a flurry of ailments. Old prizefighters seldom meet death gently.
I first learned of Joey in 1990 when I worked as a sports writer for the Albuquerque Journal. He was said to be a legend in city boxing lore.
“Fearless,” a trainer named Paul Chavez told me. “But my God, he bled buckets.”
I looked up his record. Of 59 official fights, he won 28, lost 26 and drew five.
Not sterling statistics by any measure, even if some of the bouts were with prominent names of the time. He never won Welterweight or Lightweight titles, the divisions in which he fought. For the most part, he was a local. Not a palooka, but a brawler who didn’t know how to give in.
Joey boxed during the halcyon days of the sport, the ’50s and ’60s, and fight fans in Albuquerque adored him. There was even talk of making him mayor.
I wondered what he was doing now.
A few telephone calls later someone told me he was a janitor.
I found him at the Bernalillo County Courthouse, with a broom in hooked and arthritic hands. Creased deeply, his face had the look of someone who’d been smashed with a shovel. Eyebrows a battlefield of scar tissue, nose pounded flat, ears crimped.
The man who had doled out beatings to others clearly had taken some, too.
He said he was 59. He looked 79.
I soon discovered nobody had talked to him in years. He loved being remembered.
Born José Holguin de Palacios in El Paso, he had learned to fight there as an 11-year-old in the Golden Gloves. Later, he joined the Army and served in Korea. In 1957 he moved to Albuquerque to box professionally. That’s when he took the name Joey Limas.
He never drew the big payday or got the big break, and for most bouts he earned a few hundred bucks. Even past 40 he kept trying to come back, but he finally quit in the mid-’70s. By then he had boxed more than 100 times, counting the amateurs and matches using aliases.
He managed to land a job at the courthouse, where he dreamed of the past as he swept through the night. In 1984, he met Barbara Garcia, a widow with whom he lived for more than 25 years.
From the moment we met, Garcia never called me anything but “Honey.”
My story, “The Long Nights of Joey Limas,” appeared in June 1990. It was one of those pieces that make journalists feel their stars are aligned. Joey told me everything. About his fondness for booze, about his daughter who was murdered and how he had tried to hunt down her killers. Money went through his fingers like sand. Wives came and went. For a time he was homeless.
He cherished the old days when 3,000 cheered his name in the Civic. He was the king of Albuquerque for a dozen years. He never had to buy a drink. Everyone wanted to see him fight—and yes, to watch him bleed. From eyes, nose and mouth the red stuff gushed.
I liked Joey a lot. He was good and decent and funny, and he asked nothing from me. His memory fogged up at times, but quotes tumbled out like gold nuggets: “There was a lot of blood in my fights, and most of it was mine.”
When my story appeared, he didn’t complain when he read it. The heavens were in my corner.
“Nobody gets hit that hard,” Joey said of the fight scenes. “Your head would crack open, like a whaddyacallit, a coconut.” He would know.
In April 1992, I saw Joey once more. “The Long Nights of Joey Limas” was among a dozen or so pieces collected in a just-published book of mine. A signing at Norm Zollinger’s book store in the Fair Plaza Shopping Center was organized. I invited Joey.
I can still see him coming through the store’s door that night with Barbara Garcia. His smile, crooked and bereft of teeth, stretched wide as a window.
Before the signing, I talked to the small audience about the book and then read Joey’s story. When I finished, I introduced him. Joey stood up and people clapped. As I recall, Joey looked as happy as a human could look. It wasn’t the Civic, but it was good enough.
After that, I got busy with life and didn’t see Joey again until late last year. Oh, I thought about him now and then, for I was always on the lookout for someone who would tell a good story and leave nothing out.
Last November, I received a telephone call. “Honey, do you remember Joey Limas?”
Of course, I do. Hello, Barbara.
“Well, he thought so much of you,” she said. “He always read your stories in the newspaper.” Then Garcia went into a long ramble about Joey being in a nursing home, about her being Joey’s common-law wife and having power of attorney but not being able to use it, about a dispute with Joey’s family.
“Can you help me, Honey?” she asked.
I said I ought to go see Joey first. That might be the best way I could help.
“Oh, would you, Honey? Maybe you could write something.”
I said I was about to retire. Besides, I had told everything in my 1990 story.
Hey, Joey, I greeted him.
A weary, battered face immediately brightened.
We stood and talked for about 30 minutes. In truth, I did most of the talking. I reminded him of some of his prizefights, especially the six bouts he had with another well-known Albuquerque fighter, Flory Olguin. I took a boxer’s stance, balled my fists and did a little make-believe bob and weave. When Joey saw me do this, he did likewise. We both grinned.
I left the nursing home fully intending to return. But suddenly it was Christmastime and in the blur of festivities I forgot. When the new year came and went, I stayed busy doing freelance writing.
In early March, something made me want to see Joey again. I telephoned Garcia to ask about him.
“Oh, Honey, Joey passed.”
“Last month. Feb. 22. No, wait. Feb. 18, I think.”
I expressed condolences and said that I hadn’t seen an obituary. Did I miss it?
“No, Honey. There was nothing.”
“You’d have to ask Joey’s daughters.”
Daughters? I reread my 1990 story. It mentioned his daughter Sandra, murdered in a drug deal, but little else about other children. Joey, I soon discovered, had five daughters in all. Three were living, one of them in the same nursing home where Joey died. I had talked to a lot of people to do that story but no daughters. Their contact numbers were not given to me, and I had not asked. I should have asked. Dumb as an onion. That’s how I felt.
Garcia, 85, provided me with the names for two of Joey’s daughters but not numbers. She was still upset. “I took Joey in when he had nothing. He was living on the street. I went to Mervyn’s and bought him a coat and pants. Honey, they don’t respect what I did for him.”
Apparently a tug-of-war of some duration had been going on between Garcia and two of Joey’s daughters. The parties did not communicate.
In separate visits, I talked to the Joey’s daughters and to Garcia. I declined to take sides.
Talley called her father generous, affectionate, fun-loving. “As good a parent as he could be.”
Sanchez, 62, held similar feelings. “He was my stepdad, but he treated me like I was his own.”
Sanchez remembered attending a fight in the Civic. “It was so awful, so bloody. After that I was not allowed to go. I would listen to the fights at home on the radio. I would be kneeling the whole time. Kneeling and praying.”
On the night of Feb. 16, a nurse in the home where Joey lived telephoned Talley and Sanchez. Their father had died. The sisters rushed over. The two women hugged and kissed Joey until the funeral home arrived.
The sisters wanted to keep everything private. Thus, no obituary, no funeral announcement.
Garcia, who is disabled, still has not seen where Joey’s ashes are kept.
“Honey,” she said, “I’m so lonely. I miss him so much.”
Joey’s daughters told me their father was 78. Garcia was sure he was 82.
To clear up the age question, I visited the Santa Fe National Cemetery.
As I drove there, I thought of something Joey told me in 1990. “I should be dead. I’m an old man, and I should be dead.”
In fact, he lived on, for 21 more years without complaint, as far as I know.
At the cemetery, I found the remains for U.S. Army Pvt. José H. de Palacios. Born 1931 (April 22), died 2011. I did the math: 79 years old. I wondered if Joey was laughing.
A late-March wind howled as I tried to picture Joey, his smile tilted, his eyelids droopy from a thousand blows. He had fought so hard in the boxing ring. Then others had fought over him. For what? Not for his love. Joey Limas, I was certain, loved everyone.
I ran an index finger across the letters of his name carved in the face of the niche. Then I said goodbye.
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