Francisco “Chia” Santana describes his durable career as a boxer in automotive terms. “I’m like a Corolla,” he says. “I keep running.”
The Santa Barbara native made his professional debut in the ring at age 18. It appeared he might be through at 30, when he lost a decision at the Stubhub Center in Carson. But a year later, he is tuned up and ready to go on Friday, April 27, in the quarterfinals of the Jose Sulaiman World Invitational Tournament at Louisville, KY.
Santana (24-6-1, 12 wins by knockout) was originally an alternate for the eight-man elimination tournament, curated by Evander Holyfield, to determine a WBC welterweight championship contender. When the No. 8 seed Derrieck Cuevas of Puerto Rico bowed out, Santana was chosen to take on top-seeded Félix Díaz of the Dominican Republic. Díaz (19-2-0, 9 KOs), an Olympic champion in 2008, is a formidable opponent.
“I know I’m the underdog,” Santana said. “Once the bell rings, it’ll be two men in the ring, both punching.”
And both are capable of landing a decisive punch. Santana put several men on the mat at the Chumash Casino Resort in Santa Ynez, where he compiled a 9-0-1 record. In his last bout there, in January 2015, he knocked out an inexperienced Kendal Mena of the Dominican Republic with a devastating left hook in the first round to claim a WBA International Championship belt.
Santana’s next bout was in April at New York’s Madison Square Garden on the undercard of Wladimir Klitschko’s last fight in the U.S. “It doesn’t get bigger than that,” Santana said. “The bouts got 1.2 million views on HBO.” He went the distance against Sadam Ali, an undefeated future champion, but lost by decision. In 2016, Santana was under the bright lights in Las Vegas and lost a close 10-round decision to unbeaten Jose Benavidez.
Santana has been known as Chia ever since he joined Santa Barbara’s erstwhile Primo Boxing Club at age 9. “Joe Pommier [the Primo trainer] called me a chia pet,” he said. “My hair grows insanely. There’s no way to train it.”
He trained his body to give and take blows in the science of boxing. For the past eight years, the 2004 graduate of Santa Barbara High has trained at the KnuckleHeadz Gym in Ventura, where he lives with his wife, Claudia, and daughter, Rubi. He has a job in the deck department at Port Hueneme Naval Base.
Because the format of the Sulaiman tournament calls for each fighter to represent a different country, Santana said he’ll be wearing Mexico’s colors. “I want to represent the U.S., but another guy [No. 5 seed Brad Solomon of Georgia] has that spot,” he said.
MEMORIES OF 1968: Santana will be fighting Friday in the hometown of Muhammad Ali, the most famous fighter — in and out of the ring — in history. A significant part of Ali’s story was his refusal to accept induction into the service (“I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong”) during the Vietnam War era, even though he probably would have gotten a PR assignment. He was forced out of boxing from 1967 to 1970.
UCSB’s Class of 1968, including yours truly, was profoundly affected by the turmoil of those times. Fifty years ago, we were jolted by the assassinations of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. Somehow, we soldiered on through our classes and activities — the climate of protest was not yet full-blown — and a number of us will return to the campus during this weekend’s All-Gaucho Reunion.
It is quite a sporty reunion this year. UCSB will host UC Riverside in a three-game baseball series. After starting the Big West season in promising fashion by taking two out of three from Cal State Fullerton, the Gauchos went 2-4 on the road and need a sweep to get back in contention.
On Saturday, thanks to a million-dollar reconstruction funded by a student referendum, the Gaucho track-and-field team will host a meet at Pauley Track for the first time since 2009. Apparently absent from the proceedings will be longtime track coach Pete Dolan, who has been suspended by the university for undisclosed reasons while an investigation is underway.
That evening at the Lobero Theatre, the UCSB Intercollegiate Athletics Hall of Fame will induct Olympic heptathlete Barbara Nwaba along with volleyball coaches Kathy Gregory and Ken Preston, basketball star Orlando Johnson, and water polo standout John Anderson.
The public is invited to participate in the 11th annual Gaucho Gallop, a 5K run that will benefit student scholarships. Visit allgauchoreunion.com for information on all the weekend’s events.
The 1968 Gaucho baseball team, the first to win 30 games, will hold a reunion of its own. In general, UCSB was up and down in sports in 1967-68. The football team went 5-5, with signature wins over Pacific and Santa Clara — all three schools no longer fielding teams. UCSB’s most interesting team may have been the first-year basketball squad, which included Mark French, who later coached the Gaucho women into national prominence, and Ron Wyden, now a U.S. senator from Oregon.
R.I.P. PIPERSBURG: I was saddened to hear that Phillip Pipersburg, one of the fastest sprinters to come out of Santa Barbara, died on April 11 at 62. He clocked a 9.5-second 100-yard dash at S.B. High in 1973 and set SBCC’s 100-meter record of 10.74. At age 29, his family roots enabled him to represent Belize in the 400 meters at the 1984 Olympics. But only on the track did Pipersburg run in the fast lane. He made his greatest impact on the community as a Santa Barbara probation officer and, with his wife, Lillian, as a foster parent. Besides raising their own four children, they took in more than 200 foster kids.
NINETY-TWO PERCENTER: Santa Barbara’s Joseph Talarico, representing five western states in the Elks Hoop Shoot national contest, placed fourth among 12 finalists in the 13-year-old division at Chicago last weekend. He made 23 of 25 free throws, while three boys tied for first with 24.