‘Rock of New Mexico’ goes the distance, ascends in the ring and life

From humble beginnings to life as a lightweight contender, Larry Cisneros put Questa on the map

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In a fateful moment, in the sleepy village of Questa, a dreadful telegraph was delivered to the family of a U.S. Army soldier who was serving his country overseas during World War II. The soldier was Laureano “Larry” Cisneros, and he had been declared “killed in action” on the battlefield in North Africa. The Army went so far as to return Cisneros’ clothing and effects to his boxing manager back in the U.S.

Luckily, news of Cisneros’ death turned out to be a mistake. He was alive and still fighting. The major flub had a silver lining when the Army discovered his talents in the ring. Cisneros was a professional boxer. He was soon tapped to fight for the United States Army.

Contender in the ring

Before he found himself on the battlefield, Cisneros had a stout professional fighter’s résumé. The Questa native fought in the lightweight division and built up his record over a 10-year period to finish with 73 wins and 15 losses, with 21 knockouts. Cisneros fought in the latter half of the 1930s with his debut fight taking place in San Luis, Colorado, against Abie Valdez on Jan. 14, 1937.

Cisneros was 5 feet, 5 ½ inches tall and was chiseled like a marble statue. His physique earned him the nickname “Rock of New Mexico.” According to his official “tale of the tape,” he was a right-handed fighter, but his reach, or arm length, was lost in the records. He was featured multiple times in boxing publications throughout his career. Most notably was a picture of him and his manager, Gus Wilson, on the cover of The Knockout boxing magazine in the edition from May 31, 1947. Cisneros also met several famous boxers in his career, including Jack Dempsey, who was born less than 60 miles away in Manassa, Colorado, and Joe Louis. Both were heavyweight champions and legends in the sport of boxing.

In the early years, Cisneros worked his way up the ranks by fighting local contenders in venues in and around his hometown. Events were often singular fights and featured young boxers who were fighting in their first professional matches. Places like Taos, Eagle Nest, Cimarrón, San Luis and Questa were the towns that saw Cisneros ascend to an 11-0 start. During that span, the Rock met his first challenge when he was pitted against Chato “Bulldog” Gonzales from Corpus Christi, Texas, who came into the fight with a 22-13 record. The fight happened in Las Vegas, New Mexico, and ended with Cisneros knocking out the Bulldog in the second round March 22, 1937. Two years later, Cisneros got his big chance – leaving the tiny stage sets of Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado – to face Lee Sheppard in the second bout in a five-fight event in Cleveland, Ohio, March 1, 1939. Facing the seasoned boxer, the Rock succumbed to Sheppard in the second round by technical knockout to record his first professional loss.

WWII

Nearly half a world away and in the least likely of places four years later, two Northern New Mexico brethren found each other during a short respite from the battlefield of the European theater during World War II. And while the olive drab uniforms of the United States Army painted soldiers in a similar tone on the outside, it was the tone in their respective norteño voices that helped them find each other above the din of the ruffian crowd in a small Italian tavern. The date was Dec. 19, 1943, and it was a conversation the two soldiers overheard about their respective family members back home that prompted Cisneros and Octaviano “Tano” Lucero to learn more about each other.

According to family accounts, the two soldiers were in earshot range when Lucero was talking to his friends about his brother, Eloy, who was back home in Taos and had married a woman from Questa. Cisneros overheard the conversation and went over to Lucero to introduce himself; he remarked that his sister, Bertha – who was back home in Questa – had just married a man from Taos. As it turned out, they were both talking about their sibling newlyweds.

And thus began a lifelong friendship, nay kinship, that was memorialized by a photo taken shortly thereafter and sent home as a postcard to prove the odd find. The card read, “Octaviano sends his regards and best wishes to both Eloy and Bertha. Small world isn’t it? Best of luck, Larry Cisneros.”

The chance meeting of Lucero during the war was just one of the stories to emerge from the Cisneros family lore.

While still overseas, Cisneros fought in five bouts. He went 2-3, losing to the mighty Marcel “Le Bombardier” Cerdan (111-4) from Algeria twice by knockout. He also went toe to toe with Omar Kouidri (71-22) in Rome, Italy – losing by points to the much heavier welterweight. After the war, Cisneros relocated to Los Angeles, California, and continued to fight. His return to the ring produced a streak of 15 wins in 17 bouts before losing three straight fights to much younger fighters.

After 94 fights and at the age of 30, Cisneros retired from boxing. His career highlights included a No. 3 world ranking, fighting in renowned venues the likes of Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles, California, and Madison Square Garden in New York, New York, and defeating Chalky Wright (163-45) at Zimmerman Field in Albuquerque June 24, 1947.

According to the New Mexico History Museum website, the Wright versus Cisneros headliner was attended by 8,000 spectators. 

The last fight of the Rock’s career took place in Montreal, Canada, where Cisneros took on another welterweight fighter, Johnny Greco (78-18), Sept. 2, 1948. The fight was declared a “no contest” by the referee and was stopped due to the lack of “battle in earnest” by both fighters. For his service in World War II, Cisneros was awarded a Purple Heart.

Life after boxing

Shortly after the war, Cisneros played a part in a boxing movie titled “Killer McCoy,” which was released in 1947. In the movie, he fought the film’s star, Mickey Rooney.

In real life, Cisneros similarly faced a boxer by the name of Young Kid McCoy (46-7), but not the same character played by Rooney in the movie. The bout took place at the Fairview Garden in Detroit, Michigan, May 26, 1939. McCoy was declared the eventual winner by decision.

Cisneros was described by his family as a kindhearted and humble man who seemed to have “the exact opposite” of what one might expect in a fighter’s temperament. Family oriented, Cisneros visited his original home in Questa and his relatives in Taos often. According to one of his nieces, the Rock was very close to the late Jake R. Mossman Sr., who boxed in the U.S. Marine Corps and coached boxing in Taos. Cisneros became a licensed chiropractor in Gardena, California.

Cisneros died at the age of 99 in Torrance, California, June 1. Cisneros has many surviving relatives in the Taos area. Members of the Lucero family also continue to reside in Taos.

“What started as a summer project became more heartwarming and emotional for me,” said Cisneros’ great-niece, Madison Aguayo, who decided to turn those family stories into a book of memories for Uncle Larry when he was to turn 100 in September. “I never got to meet him, but I feel a real strong connection to him through my love of boxing.”

Aguayo, age 13, is the great-niece of Larry Cisneros and helped compile the stories, pictures and the data on her late uncle’s boxing and war exploits. Aguayo lives in Edgewood and her findings have inspired her to take up the sport of boxing, too. Aguayo and her parents currently belong to the Elevation Boxing and Fitness Club in Moriarty and are trained by Amber “The Bully” Brown – another up-and-coming fighter from New Mexico.

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