After losing a world champion boxer's pension records, California finally admits error

A boxer poses throwing a punch
The California State Athletic Commission, which oversees the nation's only state-run retirement system for former boxers, admitted that it lost Paul Banke's pension records. It will award the former world champion a pension. (Leon Bennett / Getty Images)

For years, Paul Banke desperately needed the money he believed California owed him.

The former super-bantamweight world champion boxer had been struggling with cancer treatment and had to sell his car when the transmission went out during the pandemic.

Banke, who made headlines in 1995 when he became the first major U.S. boxer to publicly acknowledge that he had AIDS, was certain he was owed a pension from California's unique retirement system for boxers. But Banke said the California State Athletic Commission, which administers the 40-year-old pension plan, repeatedly told him over the years that he didn't qualify.

On Monday, after numerous inquiries from The Times, the commission admitted that it had inexplicably lost Banke's pension records and voted to pay him a lump sum of $21,000. Unable to accurately calculate what Banke is due, the commission approved an amount equal to the average payout to boxers over the past three years.

"I don't know if he's getting shortchanged or if we're overpaying him. I don't know," Andy Foster, the commission's executive officer, told The Times. "From the information I have, this is the fairest way I can see to pay him.”

Read more: California created the nation’s only pension for aging boxers. But it’s failing many of them

The commission said the lost pension was likely an "isolated incident" but could not rule out other boxers being affected.

The commission's vote Monday followed inquiries from The Times over the past six months about why Banke had been denied a pension when boxing records showed he had fought more than double the minimum rounds in California to qualify. It also follows a Times investigation last year that found the pension program failed in its primary mission to locate and inform boxers of their benefits, maintained inadequate records and had not set aside enough money to pay the pensions it owed.

Foster said Banke's pension records did not appear to have been transferred when the California Professional Boxers’ Pension Plan was overhauled in the 1990s.

Banke was a hard-hitter who defeated Daniel Zaragoza in 1990 to win a World Boxing Council title at the Forum in Inglewood. That year, The Times described Banke as a "crowd-pleasing slugger."

Now 60, Banke lives on Social Security disability insurance in Pasadena with his dog and birds. He said the pension money will allow him to buy a car.

"This is a lot of money for me," Banke said.

The plan offers pensions to any professional boxer, regardless of residency, who logged at least 75 scheduled rounds in California with no more than a three-year break. Pension amounts are determined by how many rounds the boxer fought and the size of the purses. Boxers can claim their pensions at ago 50, or earlier if used for medical or educational purposes.

Andy Foster, executive officer of the California State Athletic Commission, attends a commission meeting.
Andy Foster, executive officer of the California State Athletic Commission, at a meeting last year. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The plan, funded through an 88-cent-per-ticket fee, was created in 1982 to provide a “modicum of financial security” to retired fighters, according to the state statute. More than $4.5 million has been paid to 265 retired fighters, with most claims coming in the last decade. The average pension is a one-time $17,000 payment.

Dozens of boxers told The Times in interviews over the past year that they couldn’t recall ever receiving information about their pension accounts during their careers and criticized the state for not making more of an effort to find them. Following The Times' investigation, the commission pledged to step up efforts to locate boxers and paid a record number of pensions last year. However, even with the increased payouts, fewer than 1 in 4 boxers who could claim pensions did so last year, according to The Times’ analysis of commission documents.

Banke said he called the athletic commission multiple times over the last 10 years and each time was told he did not qualify. Following The Times' investigation, Banke's friends told him to keep pushing the commission to explain why he was being rebuffed. Banke said he was getting nowhere before contacting The Times.

"It's alarming," said Hector Lizarraga, a champion featherweight who filed for his pension last year after being contacted by The Times. "I told him he had to be persistent and keep asking. It's unacceptable. It's not like he's any fighter. We are talking about a former world champion."

Foster said there could be other boxers owed pensions for whom the commission has no record, but he's doubtful.

“I mean, there might be, but we did a little query, and I can't find one,” Foster said. “We were a little bit concerned about that. But there might be another one, I don't know. But I think this is kind of an anomaly."

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.