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Johnny Lira — troublemaker to boxer to mentor — dies at 61

4-27-05 Johnny Lirfriend Joey (clown) Lombardo. Phoby Jim Frost Sun-Times.

4-27-05 Johnny Lira, friend of Joey (the clown) Lombardo. Photo by Jim Frost Sun-Times.

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Updated: January 12, 2013 6:22AM

Seeing former boxing champ Johnny Lira walking the streets near Grand and Ogden often elicited one of two responses: Cross the street — or run and give him a big hug.

“If you knew him when he was running with gangs and committing burglaries and getting into street fights, you might steer clear,” said friend Javier Roman.

“But if you knew him when he left that life and focused on boxing, and spent every minute he could mentoring and working with kids like me at the Union League Boys and Girls Club, then you might just love him,” Roman said.

Mr. Lira’s life changed after he was arrested at 19 while trying to rob a jewelry store.

“Johnny was doing a B and E [breaking and entering] for the mob, but the rope broke, and he fell from the skylight and broke his leg,” said longtime friend Matt Moran.

“He was trapped. The store owner found him two days later. But he caught a huge break in court with Judge Marvin Aspen,” Moran said.

Aspen, now a federal judge, remembers the encounter vividly.

“I said, ‘What good are you in life? What do you have that’s worthwhile?’ And he held up his hands like a prizefighter, and I said ‘I’m going to take a chance with you.’ I had him released to continue his training, and part of the deal was to stay out of trouble and teach and train other inmates boxing.”

A few years later, in 1979, Aspen tuned in to the ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” to watch Mr. Lira fight for the world lightweight championship. Howard Cosell announced. Mr. Lira lost.

“But he knocked his opponent [Ernesto Espana] down and came within two or three counts of a knocout,” Aspen said. “I was proud . . . all the fellas he hung with before either died a violent death or went to the penitentiary.”.

Mr. Lira died of liver disease Saturday. He was 61.

He became a Golden Gloves champion the year he was set free and won the U.S. lightweight title by beating southpaw Andy Ganigan in 1978.

In his post-boxing life, Mr. Lira — who could spin many a nearly unbelievable yarn — capitalized on his street savvy.

“He called himself a ‘Street Consultant,’ ” Moran said. “He got involved in politics and campaigning . . . ward, county, state, he did everything. He knew everyone. He’d put up signs, knock on doors, get petitions. . . . He always had a good hustle going.”

Mr. Lira tried his hand as a boxing promoter and used his tough-guy looks and bent nose for bit roles in movies such as the Chicago underground boxing flick “Gladiator,” in which Mr. Lira also helped coordinate fight scenes.

His business card said “Character Extraordinaire,” said Roman, who considered Mr. Lira a big brother.

Mr. Lira never strayed far from his West Town neighborhood, once an Italian enclave that saw an influx of Hispanics in his youth.

Mr. Lira’s father was a cook at an Italian restaurant and solicited advice from customers to find a good criminal attorney to defend Mr. Lira when he was about 10 years old.

“Common rules of every day people, are not the rules he played by,” said Mr. Lira’s daughter, Nina, 41.

In 2007, Mr. Lira testified as a character witness on behalf of reputed mob boss Joey “The Clown” Lombardo in the Family Secrets trial.

“Joey was misunderstood in Johnny’s perspective and never did anything wrong ever. It was a friendship that started when he was a very young man, and I think Johnny had a paternal feeling for this man,” Moran said.

“We lost a Chicago character,” Moran said.

Union League Between all his exploits, and when Mr. Lira became ill a few years ago, he always found time to visit the Union League Boys and Girls Club Two of his youth to tell kids not to make the same mistakes he made.

“He knew if you were a knucklehead or a troublemaker, but he also knew if you needed a big brother, he knew if you caught these kids at a certain age, you could help them,” Moran said.

Other survivors include daughters Kimberly and Gina, and a son, LeVarge.

A wake will be from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday at Schielka Funeral Home, 7710 W. Addison. Interment will be private.

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