Tiger by the tail

The toughest match Tony “The Tiger” Lopez ever fought is outside the ring

Photo By David Jayne

Tony “The Tiger” Lopez is on the ropes. Lopez has struggled to retain primary custody of his 13-year-old daughter, his only child, for almost a decade. After spending $160,000 on four separate attorneys, enduring countless violations of court orders by the mother of his child, Lopez is just about ready to throw in the towel.

It’s not exactly new territory for the 46-year-old local boxing legend. He’s been on the ropes before, albeit in another time, a different arena. In a 1988 title match at Arco Arena, International Boxing Federation super featherweight champion Rocky Lockridge clipped Lopez right on the bean. He went down like a rag doll. Cheered on by a raucous hometown crowd, Lopez got up, shook it off and proceeded to pound Lockridge into submission, earning a unanimous decision and his first world championship belt.

Ring magazine called it the fight of the year. Now Lopez is in the fight of his life.

Sometime in late 1994 or early 1995, Lopez met Carol Rhines at Paradise Beach, the then-popular Citrus Heights nightclub. The stocky, 5-foot-7-inch local sports celebrity and the tall, attractive blonde hit it off and began dating. “Tony’s good with the ladies,” Rhines explains in a court document.

At some point—Lopez and Rhines disagree about practically everything, including when they first met—she informed the boxer she earned a living dancing in topless clubs in Reno, Las Vegas and Northern California. It didn’t bother Lopez, who used to work as a bouncer between fights at local strip clubs.

Several months after the couple met, Rhines became pregnant. They moved in together, and she gave birth to their daughter in 1995. Though they disagree about the particulars, the pair discussed marriage. It didn’t work out and they separated. Through mediation, Lopez and Rhines agreed to share custody every other week. The arrangement remained amicable for several years, with both parents participating in their young daughter’s upbringing.

It was a transformative period for Lopez. He toted his infant daughter to the gym as he trained for his final professional boxing matches. When he hung up the gloves at age 36, the charismatic three-time world champion was not without opportunity. He traveled the country giving motivational speeches to corporations and made charity appearances before deciding to go into the bail-bonds business.

He met Kathy, his wife of 10 years, while taking criminology courses, and the pair soon married. In 1999, they established Tony “The Tiger” Celebrity Bail Bonds in a quaint Victorian on 11th Street in downtown Sacramento, just around the corner from the county jail. Lopez adapted to his new role as businessman and husband and put his partying days behind him.

That’s right about the time Rhines came out swinging. By law, Lopez’s marriage permitted Rhines to renegotiate their custody agreement. Their daughter was now kindergarten age and needed a more permanent base for the school year. Rhines’ circumstances had changed little since her daughter had been born. She was still stripping and had to travel the club circuit to make a decent living. Nevertheless, she began pressing the court for primary physical custody and the right to move her daughter to Reno for the school year.

The battle has been joined ever since. So far, there have been three separate trials. Lopez, Rhines, their daughter, their significant others and their immediate family members have been subjected to four court-ordered psychological evaluations. Lopez hired a private detective to monitor his daughter’s whereabouts when her mother was on the road. The mother secretly recorded an altercation in which Lopez hurled epithets at her. Both parents, according to court documents, have coached their daughter against the other. It’s been 10 years, and the system still can’t answer the question: What is in the best interest of this child?

“It’s been harder than any championship fight I ever trained for,” Lopez says.

He admits taking all those shots to the head late in his career has left him a little punchy. If he loses his train of thought, just remind him where he was, and he picks up right where he left off. His daughter’s custody case has taken so many twists and turns, he has difficulty tracking it linearly. He jumps from one outrage to the next, punctuating each event with an exasperated pleading, “Duuuude! There’s more!” Boxing may have rattled his brain, but the system has left his head spinning.

It is impossible in the space here to evaluate each competing party’s claims and counterclaims, but the essential facts on the ground remain the same. Lopez is a successful businessman with a stable home and marriage. Although Rhines has trained for various different careers during the same time period, as late as 2006 she was still working the clubs and having trouble maintaining a stable relationship. Last year she married one of her on-again, off-again boyfriends, the manager of a Reno strip club she formerly danced in.

To Lopez, it’s obvious who can serve the best interests of his daughter. “I think she can take care of [my daughter],” he told the court. “I know I can.”

In the first trial, Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Peter J. McBrien initially supported that position. In 2001, citing Rhines’ frequent travels and her inability to maintain a stable relationship, he denied her bid for primary physical custody. But Rhines requested a second psychological evaluation. According to court records, she claimed to be in a stable relationship and training for a new career. Those claims later proved to be greatly exaggerated. Nevertheless, the exact same psychologist recommended that the custody arrangement be changed to week-on, week-off.

Back in court in 2002, McBrien appeared to be unconvinced by Rhines’ conversion.

“The mother has been a dancer since the mid-1990s at various adult venues in California and Nevada,” he declared. “She continues this employment. While the court does not question the validity of this type of employment, the concern of the court focuses on the environment’s influence on the child. The influence may be more subtle than either party fully appreciates.”

Indeed. According to Lopez, when asked what her mother did for a living by a psychologist, his 6-year-old daughter answered that she worked “in a club,” smiled, and performed a cute little bump-and-grind. Yet, inexplicably, McBrien supported the psychologist’s second evaluation, and ordered Lopez and Rhines to split their daughter in half, week-on, week-off. The one stipulation: that Rhines maintain a permanent residence in California.

Lopez could not accept the judgment. Like Muhammad Ali lured George Foreman into the ropes in Zaire in 1974, the system sucked him in. Frustrated with his representation, he went through attorneys like the young Mike Tyson went through sparring partners. He located one of Rhines’ former boyfriends, who testified in a sworn affidavit that Rhines was coaching her daughter against her father. Lopez threw everything he had at the case, and after 10 stressful years, he’s still fighting for primary custody.

For stepmother Kathy Lopez, it’s been an ordeal. Since she and Tony married, she’s been, for all intents and purposes, his daughter’s primary caregiver, according to court documents. She’s the one who makes sure Tony’s daughter gets to the doctor, the school plays and the soccer matches on time. At every turn, she’s been thwarted by the new custody arrangement and/or the animosity between mother and father. No one escapes the system unscathed.

Now Rhines, remarried to a strip-club manager, is once again pushing for primary custody during the school year. Her husband’s commute to Reno is proving disruptive to her new family, she says. In one of her most recent filings, she stated the outcome was inevitable and admitted that she’s been coaching her now 13-year-old daughter for the past 7 years.

“I love my daughter more than words can describe,” Rhines told the court. “She knows this, and that is why, since age 6, she has wanted to live with just me. We planned on sharing this information two years ago, then decided to wait until age 12, when she can legally state her opinion. I wanted to save Mr. Lopez from this truth until it was necessary, and now it is more than ever.”

In December, Rhines moved permanently to Reno. Shortly afterward, Lopez’s daughter informed him she wanted to move with her mom. Rather than continue cutting the baby in half, he acquiesced. He insists he hasn’t thrown in the towel and only wants what’s best for this 13-year-old daughter. He plans to enter the legal arena once again, but for now, he’s going to allow his child to make up her own mind.

“I love my daughter, but what am I going to do, hold her prisoner?” he says. “I can’t do that.”