Unclaimed money

Mexico joins effort to find retired boxers owed California pensions

California is partnering with Mexico to help find professional boxers owed pensions from a little-known state retirement plan, with two dozen former fighters located in recent weeks and pledges to identify more.

The efforts follow a Times investigation that found most boxers owed benefits from the California Professional Boxers’ Pension Plan were unaware that the 40-year-old program existed or had little information about how to apply.

The California State Athletic Commission, which administers the pension plan, said it estimates that at least a quarter of the 200 boxers currently owed benefits had a last known address in Mexico.

Officials with the Consulate General of Mexico in San Diego and Mexico’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said they are helping California locate boxers using identity documents filed in Mexico and abroad to ensure those entitled to money receive it. The World Boxing Council, which is in Mexico City, is also working with the athletic commission to find boxers who are owed pensions. So far, the groups have helped the commission find 23 boxers, four of whom have since been paid.

Among those is retired Mexican featherweight José Refugio “Cuco” Rojas, who unknowingly has been owed nearly $17,000 in benefits dating back almost two decades.

Rojas, 67, said he was unaware California had a pension when he boxed between 1976 and 1990, logging a 35-17-1 record that included many fights in the state. Rojas said he was grateful for the unexpected money.

“A lot of us do need it,” Rojas said.

At a recent news briefing, officials said Mexican boxers who fought in California may be owed a portion of the $2.5 million in pension benefits.

“It’s a titanic task, but we are all doing what we can,” Mauricio Sulaimán, president of the World Boxing Council, said through a translator. “Even by word of mouth we’ve been able to reach out to some.”

The boxers’ pension plan, which is funded through a ticket fee, was created in 1982 to provide a “modicum of financial security” to retired fighters, according to the state statute. To date, the plan has paid 240 retired fighters a pension, with most of those within the last decade. The average pension is a one-time $17,000 payment.

The Times’ investigation identified many boxers, including some from Mexico, who are currently living throughout California and did not know the state owed them thousands from their careers in the ring. Roughly 200 boxers could have claimed a pension last year, but only 12 of them did, according to a Times analysis of commission records.

“We want former boxers who are due a pension to have that check in their hand,” said Vernon Williams, vice chair of the athletic commission. “They fought for it and earned it. These former fighters dedicated countless years to the sport of boxing, showcasing their passion and their talent while entertaining fans and inspiring future boxers.”

California’s boxer’s pension is the only state-administered retirement plan of its kind.

The plan offers pensions to any professional boxer, regardless of residency, who logged at least 75 scheduled rounds in the state with no more than a three-year break. At age 50, a boxer can claim their pension, which is determined by how many rounds they fought and the size of their purses. Boxers can also claim their pensions early for medical or educational purposes, and families of fighters who have died are eligible for the benefits on their behalf.

Critics said that for too long the commission failed to develop an adequate system to inform boxers about their benefits despite years of complaints from lawmakers and state auditors.

“They never made any effort to contact me or send me information,” said Hector Lizarraga, 56, a retired featherweight from Mexico who moved to the United States as a teenager. Lizarraga received his $39,000 pension last month.

Part of the issue, retirement experts told The Times, is that the athletic commission waited until a boxer turned 50 before attempting to contact them for the first time about their pensions. By then, the vast majority of addresses the commission had on file were no longer current.

After The Times’ reporting, the athletic commission said it will begin sending annual statements much earlier — when a boxer first meets eligibility requirements — and that it has brought in state investigators to search for fighters with unclaimed money.

“It’s a shame their communication has been so poor,” said retired Bakersfield lightweight Gonzalo Montellano, 65, who first learned from The Times in February that he is owed a $20,000 lump sum boxing pension.

Montellano said the commission recently told him he can expect to receive his pension next month.

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