The crowd’s roar sent my blood pressure pounding when, seated at ringside in the press section, I saw a giant green sombrero floating down the aisle, in the center of a group of moving heads.
"¡Chapo! ¡Chapo! ¡Chapo!" the crowd cried, and a cute little light-tanned, slender kid in a strawberry-and-green sarape stepped through the ropes and hopped gracefully around the ring.
"¡Chapo! ¡Chapo! ¡Chapo!" the crowd cried, then broke into boos when the other guy, a black man in a spangled gold robe, slid through the ropes in the opposite corner. Fine-freatured, tall, and thin, he was so beautiful and graceful as he skipped around the ring that he made the people cheer for him too. Still, a man behind me called out, "¡Chapo! ¡Chapo!" when he danced near our ropes.
The ring was filled with officials, the ring announcer, the seconds, the referee, many others. I saw Ignacio Huizar, the promoter of this World Boxing Association bantamweight championship fight, standing in the back line, behind the fighters. I'd met him only once, if you can call it being introduced. Yet he was the reason I was here. Ignacio was the manager of two-time former world champion Jorge "Marmero" Páez, the darling of the Mexican people, and was rumored to be Mexico's answer to the American boxing promoters Don King, Bob Arum, and Dan Duva. I was here to see how he operated. Right now he seemed preoccupied, concentrating on putting on a good show on a world-class level, but without the big American TV coverage. He'd seemed that way when he rescued us at the small Pases door, cut in the round white wall of the Tijuana bullring moments before.
At that moment a big guy stepped forward. He was wearing a dress shirt unbuttoned at the top, with the sleeves rolled up to his forearms, a single pen in the breast pocket, and no coat. He looked at me through light-brown horn-rimmed glasses. From his round face and narrow mouth under a thick moustache, I knew immediately it was Ignacio Huizar.
"He can't find our passes," I said, and without speaking, Ignacio leaned over the cardboard box, pulled out a fat white envelope, said, "They're in 'San Francisco,'" and tore open the envelope. The usher looked at me, shrugged his shoulders, and I smiled. I took Igancio's picture from the side when he was bent over the cardboard box and from the front when he tore the envelope open. He smiled. We're from Berkeley, really, and I would never have told the usher to look for a city's name anyway. We'd have had problems if Ignacio hadn't appeared right then. It showed he was on the ball, too, because he was a very busy man. When I thanked him and put on my press pass, he said, "i'll talk to you later tonight," and walked off.
In the taxi on the way to the championship fight at the bullring, I had asked the driver if he knew anything about Ignacio Huizar and Don King. He answered in slow Spanish. "The only difference between Ignacio Huizar and Don King is that Don King has more money."
Claire and I both laughed. Even my contact in Tijuana had said, when I asked him if I should wear a suit to the fights, that Ignacio was really democratic, not arrogant like Don King, that he'd never even seen him wear a tie. So I showed up in a shiny blue "CAL BOXING" jacket, corduroys, and a turtleneck shirt, but dress boots for "formality's sake." My lovely lady had on black slacks and short black leather jacket and black lace-up boots, which she could wear anywhere, to go with her long, thick, dark, lustrous hair. I was turned on by the whole trip. I hadn't been in TJ in 17 years and then only for a couple of hours. So I was happy. This looked like fun. As soon as we drove into Tijuana in a cab, Claire looked at me and smiled, and that's how it went all the way through to the end. A joyful, broadening bellyful of fun.
The emcee's voice rattled off in rapid-fire Spanish, then slowed and stopped, and he bowed his head as the ringside bell started tolling. Some boxing personality had died. People stood with their heads bowed for a guy who took the final ten count. The fight itself was a symbolic battle of survival that captured out own passage through life in a heroic way. The fight symbolized the life struggle. Chapo was a champ at it. "El Toro de TIjuana," the bull of Tijuana, they called him. To me that meant he charged when he fought, and I wanted to see if it was true. That's why the crowd loved him. They fought the death battle beautifully through him, here in the bullring, where another bull would die on Sunday to symbolize man's struggle against the killer elements.
The Mexican national anthem blazed over the loudspeakers, and Chapo, bareheaded, standing in front of the Mexican flag, bent his head and held his right hand out from his heart, his forearm straight and horizontal against his chest, his elbow sticking out, soldier-stiff, proud like a cock, like a bantam rooster, bantamweight contender that he was. A lovely girl in a black velvet dress and gold spangles — Indian beauty, brown skin, black hair, looking like La Malinche, who guided Cortez from the coast to Mexico City — led the singing. Everybody sand, and the crowd cheered at the end: ¡Viva MEH-hee-co! ¡Viva MEH-hee-co!"
It was a joyous spectacle! The air was charged with energy. It was good to be alive.
Then the Colombian national anthem came on, and the black fighter, Jorge Julio, took the mike; and, as proud as Chap was to stand at attention and sing with the crowd, Julio led the singing himself. He was joined in the anthem by a gorgeous blond woman with golden-brown eyes, sitting beside Claire in the first spectator row, just behind the photographers and officials who sat up against the ring apron. She had an official press pass clipped to her elegant white dress, decorated with what looked like a chestful of military medals, gold chains dangling over them from her neck, rings on her fingers, and diamonds on her wrists. I wondered who she was. Clarie said she was probably the wife of Julio's manager.
Then the three judges took their places around the ring, round WBA patches pinned to the front of their suits. A big man in a gray, hard-finish business suit sat up against the ring in front of us. He'd turned the chair around, tipped it back on two legs, and sat on top of the backrest, towering two feet above the ring apron, obstructing the view of everyone in the rows behind him, which included Claire and me and the beautiful blond sitting right behind him.
"¡Sientense! ¡Sientense!" people hsouted, "Sit down!" but he ignored them. The blond shook her head. Her skin was pale white and creamy. She looked as beautiful and classy as Grace Kelly. She looked like Grace Kelly. Boy, was I having fun!
All the officials left the ring, except for the referee and the fighters and their seconds. Chapo slid out of his strawberry-and-green sarape and stalked around his corner. His short-cropped hair bristled. His cheekbones stood out above the hollows of his light-brown face. He was wiry and muscular and close to the bone. All business. His life was shaped to fighting man. I saw in him my old buddies, like Johnny Ortega from Oakland, a national Golden Gloves champion and a world contender for the flyweight crown for ten years back in the '40s and '50s.
The bell rang. The battle began. The bullring was silent. Chapo, living up to his title, startled to drive in with a penetrating jab that wasn't hard, but consistent, aggressive. He dominated the round with it, and the Mexican crowd cheered. When he came out for the second round, I noticed the thin mustache over his thin upper lip, a badge of determination, all business. But Julio started fighting back in the second round. He was tough too and bullied and shoved and droe his punches in. He scored with a solid right after setting it up with a stiff jab. The beautiful blond smiled and shouted, "¡Andale, Eliecer!" Julio's middle name. "¡Andale!"
Chapo drove in to get even and was hit with a counter-right. He paid for his courage but came in again and still drove the Colombian back, earning a draw for the round on my card. A flurry of activity in the corners. The crowd was noisy. A photographer in the ring now, on the left side of the WBA judge, turned his camera round, adjusted his zoom lens, and took a picture of my beautiful, dark-haired lady, then moved the camera onto the blond's face for a long time before he shot, as if enjoying the view.
"Seconds out!" the referee shouted in English. He was a well-built, gray-haired man with hollows in his cheeks like Chapo, probably ten years of fighting in his past too. The ref wore black pants and a light-blue, short-sleeved shirt with a black bow tie, a WBA logo on his left chest.
Teh WBA judge blocked out the action on the other side of him, and the beautiful blond shouted at him again to get down. "¡Sientense! ¡Sientense!" But he ignored her, his wide gray back still blocking her view. A white man, he could be any nationality.
Then the fighters moved into our view, and I watched the Colombian square off with Chapo in a corner of the ring, vibrate his upper body side to side, wriggling like a snake to confuse Chapo by offering only a moving and elusive target and to make him miss by slipping, not blocking the punches, to keep his own hands free. Chap came straight in like a bull, without body motion but with his hands up, trying to force an opening so he could strike. Both threw punches. Both missed, mainly because the other was so good. The crowd cheered for Chapo, but the fight was even. The crowd didn't cheer when the Colombian scored a punch, even if it was harder than Chapo's. But they roared when a right to the stomach by Chapo knocked the Colombian back and he fell through the ropes and had to bend backwards over the middle one, as if dancing the limbo, to stay on his feet and in the ring. It was a great third round. Dead even.
Julio came back then and scored hard, drove Chapo off. They fell apart again and danced around, neither able to score well, striking only glancing blows, mostly missing. Then the Colombian scored hard with a combination, connecting three times, with decreasing power in each punch. But Chapo fought back, drove his man against the ropes, and won the very end of the round. The blond screamed and shook her fist at Chapo.
The big WBA judge still sat on the top of his chair to see better, his bald head shining.
Fifth round. The Colombian was a classy fighter, classier than Chapo, more graceful in his actions and a better hitter. He moved side to side to confuse a Chapo when he came in, and Chapo's straightforward charge, even though he kept his hands up and didn't come in headfirst like a bull, was simple next to Julio's technique. I could see why Julio was favored to win. And when Chapo cornered him against the ropes, Julio outfought him in close too, with his hands down. With his back to the referee, the Colombian quickly popped Chapo with some illegal back shots, then drove the weakening Mexican back against the ropes. But Chapo fought back — pure aggression against superior skill. Though Chapo was good too, if not great, and he still had a great heart and a great body. "¡Chapo! ¡Chapo!" the crowd cheered.
Between rounds, two working-class men tried to sit in the press section. One, a ruddy-faced guy, stepped on my toe when he sat next to me. When a tall cop with a long nightstick came over and pulled him away, teh crowd yelled at the cop. Then Igancio Huizar stopped by for an interview with a Spanish language radio announcer in the row behind us. He said "Hi" to my lady, and guys behind us called out his name. Claire pointed out the cops in riot gear in the aisle to the left of us.
"Seconds out!" the referee shouted again after the minute rest, and one of the corner men shoved Chapo's mouthpiece between his teeth and uplled the stool away between the ropes as Chapo stood up, gloves raised, ready to go.
The sixth round began, and the WBA judge settled in the middle of the ring apron with his elbows spread, his balding head and gray business suit blocking the view, as the Colombian drove Chapo back and fouled him to the boos of the crowd. The referee stopped the action, held the Colombian's wrist, and pointed at each judge to signify he'd lost a point for fouling. But I could see that this guy could stop Chapo if he had the heart, as much heart as Chapo.
Seventh round. "Seconds out!" the gray-haired ref with the pink skin shouted. He pointed at the Colombian's corner as the seconds stalled for some reason. Again Julio dominated the round with powerful jabs and straight right counterpunches over Chapo's gloves, solid shots that did more than just sting. He scored so hard that I realized if he had the will, he could kill. But Chapo again scored at the end of the round, for the last, maybe ten seconds or so, and the crowd cheered. But the punches didn't hurt Julio like his hurt Chapo all through the round.
The guy took Chapo's punches now like fly swats on his cheeks. And yet he didn't walk right through them like I expected. He hung back, though Chapo couldn't hurt him and he could hurt Chapo. Chapo's will prevented a kill. But the Colombian scored four to one when they exchanged body shots. Still, Chapo was so determined that he drove the guy back at the end in a roaring final in which they slugged it out across the ring to the ropes. It was a great fight. It was a great round. Yet the score was only a mere ten points to nine in favor of the Colombian because Chapo made his spirit superior to his flesh.
Ninth round. Chapo crossed himself as he did before every round, then walked into a great one-two, left-jab-right cross from the Colombian, who drove him back into a corner, where Chapo held on with his arms around the guy's wast as tightly as he could to clear his head as the crowd moaned. Then he backed off to get room when the referee broke them apart, attacked again, adn scored with an oerhand right that brought a loud cheer from the crowd. His very best punch. And he kept coming back at the end of the round as he had in so many others.
The bell rang, and the ring girl walked around holding up a card with the number ten on it for the next round. But the crowd hissed rather than cheered at her beauty because she was so modestly dressed in a miniskirt and sleeveless high-collared blouse. In this eternal tension between Eros and the symbolic death in the ring that turned them on, they wanted the bare buttocks and bikini thongs of the American ring card girls.
Tenth round. The fighters sparred, sizing each other up. Chapo's dominance depended on his power drive, and he was weaker now. The Colombian's dominance depended upon his clear punches and their power, which he still had. He stuck out two quick jabs that snapped again Chapo's face, then crossed with a good right hand that just barely grazed the Mexican's chin — a half-inch closer and he could have really hurt him. Julio had the range, so he drove in with jabs and crosses, great shots to the head and body that drove Chapo back. Pushing in, Julio bobbed up and down and weaved from side to side, fast, to make Chapo from a distance, and he was better up close too. He was better in all ways.
Yet the crowd cried, "¡Chapo! ¡Chapo!" which only seemed to spur the Colombian on, and he staggered Chapo with a right to the side of the jaw, which knocked Chapo into a corner, where he had to crouch to get under the flurry of punches.
The crowd was quiet. Chapo looked hurt. He looked dominated. Then he slid out of the corner and punched back again and drove the Colombian back across the ring to the cheers of the crowd. It was an absolutely great fight from this first spectator row next to the ring, where I could see the fighters' facial expressions and the sweat that flew when a glove splatted against a face. The bell rang. The crowd roared. Some stood in admiration, clapping, whistling. They sat down again when the modest girl in the short-sleeved blouse and miniskirt that couldn't quite hide her shapely bottom strutted around the ring with a sweet pink face and no smile. Men yelled, "¡Quitate la ropa!" Take off your clothes!
The eleventh round began. The Colombian was still superior, slipping punches and counterpunching at the same time with hard stinging shots. But Chapo was fighting back all the time, slugging it out with him, charging in, then throwing a deliberately low blow right between the Colombian's legs. The crowd booed Chapo for the first time, and the referee pointed the Mexican to a neutral corner and let the Colombian rest for a couple of minutes until he was ready to fight again. I noticed that the ref didn't take away a point. When they started fighting again, the Colombian threw a low blow at Chapo, and the referee too away another point. The ref started at me when he came to pick up the round scores as I scribbled my notes.
The twelfth and last round began. The crowd chanted, "¡MEH-hee-co! ¡MEH-hee-co!" as the fighters touched gloves and squared off in the middle of the ring. But the Colombian scored with a good right hand, and Chapo held on until his head cleared, then started fighting again. He was getting beaten, but his heart was so great that he managed to keep the guy from knocking him out. He managed to hold out and hang on and slip punches and make it to the final bell and the end, even if he wasn't punching. He wouldn't quit. He wouldn't let himself get knocked out.
I thought the Colombian won comfortably. But it was a great fight because of Chapo's great heart. If he had the black Colombian's skill, he'd kill. As the judges totaled their cards, another great beauty — red lips, pink skin — appeared at ringside in a yellow jacket. She was obviously a familiar in the press section and stood up against the rings apron with the photographers and glanced back down at my lady and me and the beautiful blond every few moments or so.
I stepped up next to the ring apron to check the mat and see how thin it was. The ring was small, no mroe than 15 feet square at best, I guessed. This made it a slugger's ring for a guy like Chapo, because the boxer couldn't run far before the slugger trapped him against the ropes. But in this fight the boxer, the Colombian, was also a better puncher and was able to outfight Chapo when Chapo caught him in close. So the small ring didn't help. Still, Chapo managed to sway the crowd because no matter how much he fought during the round, he always came back at the end of it to make a favorable impression upon the fans.
The ring announcer read off the totals: 117 to 110 for Julio by the North American judge Richard Strange — probably the guy blocking our view; an unbelievable 114 to 114 by the Venezuelan Luis Rodriguez; and 117 to 111 by Panamanian Armado Cedeño for Juiio, who was still World Boxing Association bantamweight, peso gallo, champion of the world.
There was a break, so I told my lady I was going to the WC and would be right back. The shack off by itself with the long urinals spaced in winding stalls like a rabbit warren was so colorful I wanted to take a picture of it but didn't dare catch these guys urinating. They might jump me. When I returned to my seat, a fighter was being counted out on the canvas. I'd missed a first-round KO and felt bad, but I needn't have, because every fight but the main event was a KO. The thrill that courses through you with an exciting knockout, the superthrill of passion, was going to be mine a few times before this boxing night was over.
Between fights, a silky-smooth slender blond, about six feet tall, wearing a tight black top, gold suede slacks, and a Rolex watch, came to talk to the beautiful blond and held her hands demurely in front of her while every man on this side of the ring looked at her.
I went to buy a beer from a guy with a bucketful of them in the aisle a few rows back. The floor was bullring sand, not wood or concrete, though ti was firm enough not to slip or slide.
"Dos cervezas," I said, then saw him start to pour Cokes into two ice-filled cups and said, "No. Cervezas," and he barely glanced at me as he kept pouring. I said, "¡Dispensame!" excuse me, as he gave them to a man sitting across the aisle. I waited my turn and got two cold Dos Equis and handed the guy a 10,000 peso bill.
"Dos mas," he said.
The money confused me because some bills had thousands added to their numbers. Since nuevo pesos had been introduced and the old pesos devalued, I found out later an old 10,000 peso note was worth only 10 new pesos, about $3.50.
¿Cuánto en dolares?" I asked, and he said, "Four," and gave me back my ten pesos.
I pulled out a $20 bill and the guy shook his head. "No tengo cambio," he said. I didn't know what to do until the guy who bought the Cokes smiled and said, "I do!" and gave me fives and a ten. So sweet. He was so sweet. Everybody was sweet. I was having a wonderful time.
I saw more really good fights after that, every one hard-fought and competitive, and every one ending in a KO. The crowd roared at the excitement. The ring girl walked around with the card after each round and almost smiled at the comments of the crowd but didn't. In the next fight, a Tijuana fighter fought another Colombian, but this time the Mexican could hit harder and outbox the Colombian, unlike Jorge Julio and Chapo. I thought the guy from TJ was going to knock him out in a couple of rounds.
"Claire, you're watching the slow KO of a fighter. Don't look away," I said.
But the Colombian fought back hard off the ropes in the third round and cut the Tijuana fighter's eyebrow, a deep gash. When the bell rang, the TJ fighter was so angry that he blocked the Colombian's path, unwilling to let him by, wanting to get even. But instead of fighting, the Colombian threw his arm around the Tijuana fighter's neck, and the crowd cheered.
The referee separated them. A doctor went to the TJ corner to look at the eye, then walked down the steep steps again and let the fight continue. But the TJ corner kept working on the cut after the bell rang, trying to stop the bleeding, and the Colombian corner man complained. It didn't do the TJ corner any good, though, because after a short exchanges of punches, the TJ fighter turned his back and walked away and even took one punch to his head without turning around — just like Duran had when he turned away from Sugar Ray Leonard — but the referee jumped in front of the Colombian and stopped the fight.
The beautiful blond stood and screamed and waved her fist at the Colombian's victory: beauty hailing the beast, Eros in harmony with the symbol of death. Claire asked, "Did he quit?"
"Yes," I said.
"Was he a coward?"
"No. The cut over his eye was bleeding too bad to continue. He was no coward. There was just no use fighting anymore. It would only get worse and he couldn't win. The fight wasn't worth the wound, wasn't worth risking his eyesight for. Even if the doctor didn't sop it, he stopped it himself, and it makes sense. It was a fifth-round technical knockout."
There was no official blocking our view anymore. A smaller man who sat down in his seat like everybody else did the judging. The knockouts ran by. A defeated fighter walked past with a yellow towel around his shoulders, one side hanging down to his long yellow trunks, a sad look on his face. A guy by the name of Ali fought next After getting pushed against the ropes, he came back and fought the guy in red off without really hurting him, just like Chapo, and the crowd's yell roared over the bullring. The sound of the fighter's feet pounded on the hard floor: pop-pop-pop-pop. A fast floor it's called and helps the quick fighter move faster but hurts your head more if you get knocked down.
"¡Manipula la izquierda! "¡Golpe a la derecha! "¡Manipula la isquierda!" a manager shouted to his boy, meaning, "Use your left! Throw a right punch. Use the left!"
Another fight, another knockout. The loser writhed in the corner from a hard body shot. They made him lie down on his back in a neutral corner with his head touching the ring corner shield. Everyone clapped when the loser finally got up. Later, the winner went over and shook his hand, congratulated him on a good fight.
The lights went out. The night was over. Great jumping Tex-Mex rock sounds filled the bullring — a modern cross between mariachi music and rock. By the time the fights were over, I'd seen enough KOs to make up for the one I missed. Everybody was so happy and so sweet. I danced with my lady on the sand by the ring to the rock sounds, and some guy smiled and said something friendly.
"I've never seen so many knockouts," Claire said as we picked up our bags to walk out.
"That's because Mexican fighters are taught to wade in and hook. They learn that in the pro ranks, where they have to please the crowd," I said. "American fighters learn how to fight in the amateurs, where the stress is on scoring points and protecting the fighter from injury. So American fighters when they turn pro employ the boxing skills learned in the amateurs, where outpointing an opponent is what wins fights. Score as many fist-face contacts as you can and win the fight on points. American amateurs don't have to please the crowd, and when they turn pro, they carry these defensive traits into the ranks. Often Olympic champs like Meldrick Taylor don't score very many KOs when they turn pro, even though they're the best in the world, because they punch in quick arm flurries for a large point total like an amateur rather than set down and knock the opponent out in order to please the crowd and become a drawing card like Mexican fighters."
There were only a few people around the ring now, and I took my time and tried to explain it to her.
"Julio César Chávez has all the skills of the American fighters but scores the KOs too, including the one over Meldrick Taylor in the last round a couple of years ago, when Chávez defeated Taylor for the title. It was a controversial fight that I thought Chávez would have won by one point, even if Richard Steele, the ref, had not stopped the fight with only seven seconds remaining in the last round. I thought Chávez had won because the knockdown would have given him a two-point round, overcoming Taylor's one-point lead, on my card anyway."
When she shook her head and said, "What do 'set down' and 'wade in' mean?"
"To set down is to stand still for a split second and unload with your feet firmly set so you get the most power in your punch from the feet up. To wade in is to go after the other guy and slug it out like Vinnie Pazienza does: both hands down, let's fight. Chávez has the defensive skills of an American fighter and the same great determination and heart and willingness to mix it up as the Mexican fighters. That's why he's the greatest fighter in the world, pound for pound."
At that moment, Igancio Huizar walked around the ring by me and I asked, "Can we have that interview at four o'clock tomorrow?"
"Call me," he said, and I did.
We met at a restaurant on Paseo de los Héroes, a perfect name for a street to meet a boxing promoter on. He walked in wearing a white T-shirt and pale blue denims, tennis shoes, with an American named Norm, his right-hand liaison man, I guessed. Pink-skinned, Norm had on a blue T-shirt and khakis and still looked, with his glasses, a little like Bob Arum, the big American promoter.
It had taken me three days to get the interview. Ignacio seemed to be two people: the friendly, boyish guy and the slightly suspicious, in-a-hurry businessman. We'd been trying to corner him, and when he appeared and I took a few camera shots of him, he didn't smile, and both of them questioned me about what kind of newspaper I was writing for. I explained it to him and gave him a copy of my book, Buffalo Nickel, and said that the book was all about boxing. I wasn't a journalist but a novelist, poet, essayist, and feature writer. I turned around and showed him the back of my boxing jacket that read CAL BOXING and told him I was a University of California boxing coach. Ignacio nodded then and said, "But no tape recorder. She can take notes."
Ignacio Huizar was born into the business. His father was a promoter in TJ before him and also a boxer, starting as a flyweight and growing into a middleweight. He was a ten-round club fighter who fought from 1943 to '48 — main events in TJ and Ensenada, fighting under the name of Baby Torres, a good catchy name that would look good on ring cards. Ignacio never fought, and though he learned the business from his father, his father didn't want him to be a promoter. It was too tough a business. Ignacio'd been in teh promotion business since he was 22 but had been doing it on his own since 1981. He was 42 now. He looked good. His thick black hair waved back from his forehead. Olive-complected, his face was round and firm-fleshed. A big man, he carried his weight well. I'd guess 200 pounds. He looked to be in his late 30s or a healthy 40. Even in a T-shirt he looked like a businessman, with his soft, intelligent eyes that looked right at you, without staring.
All his life he'd wanted to be a promoter. He saw the big ones and he wanted to be like them, he said with emphasis, raising his fist above the Formica table. So it had been a lifelong goal. I asked him what he actually did to become a promoter.
"I found a manager I could work with, a guy who had fighters, because if you don't have fighters, you can't put on a fight."
He held up one long finger for emphasis and added, "You get a few real managers, guys who really work at it, so you have a stable of gladiators to draw from and guarantee that you'll have the fighters to fight."
"Give me an example of a promotion," I asked, and he said, "You think of what kind of fight you want to put on. Then you sign the fighters, pick the location, and do the advertising. In the beginning, you scout around and find the best fighters that you can to promote, guys who show the possibility of becoming world champions."
"How many have you found in Tijuana?"
"Four. I managed three of them: Medina, Estrada, and Perez. Corina was from Tijuana too, but I didn't manage him."
"Didn't you also manage 'Maromero' Páez? I asked, meaning the great clown acrobat turned boxer who'd won two world crowns, the featherweight and junior lightweight titles, and was competing as a lightweight now.
"Yes, but he's from Mexicali, not Tijuana," he answered.
"What do you think about the decision in the WBA fight you put on between Chapo Vargas and Jorge Julio?"
"A lot of people say they thought Chapo got robbed."
I looked closely at his face. It was straight, though he didn't look at me this time but at the table.
"Tell me what you really think about it yourself," I said.
He glanced up from the table and said, "I think Chapo lost."
This gave me a lot of respect for him. He wanted to promote his TJ fighter and spread the word that some TJ fans thought Chapo had won, but not to the point where he'd be untruthful. Then as if to emphasize it, he met my eyes and said, "Chapo didn't do anything in the last five rounds. After the low punch, he didn't fight."
"Didn't he hit the other guy low too?" I asked.
"Yes," he said.
"Before or after he got hit low?"
"Before," he said, and we all laughed.
"Tell me about Don King," I said.
"He's a good promoter, but he wants to control everything. He won't let other people get the good money."
"Do you know Tyson?" I asked, then told him my theory about Mike Tyson being persecuted on his rape charge two years ago in part to get Don King, to lessen his power because he's so universally disliked. And what if Tyson were white, he wouldn't have been found guilty or, if he had, would be out on appeal bond instead of in prison now.
"I don't think so," he said. "I know Mike Tyson very well, and he treated Desiree Washington like he treated all the girls before her. He didn't want to get out of bed and take her back home. After he was through with her, he told her to leave. He didn't treat her with respect, so she got mad and turned him in. That was his mistake."
"How did you get to know Tyson so well?"
"I did business with Don King, and I went to ten of Tyson's title fights and got to know him that way. Mike likes Mexican fighters. I go to see him and write to him now."
"How's he doing in prison?"
"He's doing fine. He's just a kid."
"Jail doesn't bother him?"
"No, he's just a kid. He's been in reform school half his life. He was paroled to Cus D'Amato from one as a teenager. He's used to it."
"He's still emotionally a teenager?"
"Yes," Iganacio said. "He got so much publicity, so much quick, early success, he didn't know how to handle it. But it's not the money, it's the books, the newspapers, the media attention. The same thing happened to Páez. Páez is a kid, too. He doesn't care anything about money. He could have been one of the greatest money-earners in boxing history. He's charismatic. I went to a fight with Páez and Chávez, and in a few minutes 6000 people were around Páez. They surrounded him like a star. They want to touch him. I was standing with him sot the crowd wanted to touch me too. They pushed me down and even pulled my tennies off my feet and my T-shirt off my back just because I was with him." Ignacio held up both hands. "I stopped wearing my watch and ring when I'm around him."
"He's a great fighter and I love him," I said, "but he's a little lazy and only fights in spurts."
Ignacio grinned, nodding his head, and said, "He's past his peak now. I think he's ready to retire. But he's fighting next Saturday for a world lightweight title in Vegas." (Páez surprised everyone by being in relatively good shape and making a hard fight out of it but still losing the decision to Freddie Pendleton.) "I managed Páez, though not from the beginning. Still, I spoiled him too. I'm responsible for what Páez is now too."
"You don't feel guilty?" I asked.
"No, but if I hadn't done everything for him and tried to make it so easy for him, he'd be better off now."
"So then, would you say that these exceptional fighters who go out and beat people up for us remain at the adolescent age of manhood because they learn only how to beat people up like a boy instead of learning to live with people like an adult? I wrote an essay about the 'Raging Bull,' Jake LaMotta, which will be published in an anthology on [Martin] Scorsese, the director of the film, saying the whole point of the movie was that Jake had to learn how to treat people as equals in order to earn their love, rather than try to dominate them and get his way by bullying them, male and female."
Ignacio nodded his head again and said, "But Páez was fun. I saw him do a one-handed handstand on the top of the ring when he won a fight. He's so popular in Mexico he gets scared of the huge crowds that suddenly surround him. When he went to an exhibition fight in Tampico and went outside at six in the morning — his usual get-up time — 8000 people surrounding him in the street. People want him. Many people in Mexico know him from TV only. When they see him, he goes crazy with fear. I've been with him when he's called the police to get himself out of a restaurant. They had to take him out a back exit. He could be the richest fighter in the world, but he doesn't care about money. I didn't train him right. I could've taken him anywhere in the world and people would've recognized him, like Ali, if he'd tended to his career. I've gone places with Páez and Chávez, and the people surround Páez and ignored Chávez. Páez has charisma. Chávez is a very great fighter but he doesn't have charisma. He got annoyed when they ignored him."
There was that small smile on Ignacio's lips again.
"Does Páez drink too much?"
:Yes. He drinks and fools around with girls and won't train. Chávez fulls around, but he works. I think he spoiled Páez. I made it so easy for him that I'm partly responsible for how he acts. He's childish like Tyson and doesn't have much money. He never went to schoo. We taught him to read and write. He could've been so big."
Ignacio shook his head and looked down at the table again.
"I should have been more of a strict father to the child. I was like a father but I protected him too much."
"What happened? Why can't he still make it really big?"
I stopped handling him in February 1992. He thinks he can do it himself. He doesn't want to share the money. But he made a mistake." Ignacio raised his head and met my eye. "As soon as he left me, he went down. No hard feelings. We still do business. I was his promoter, his manager, his father. Great fighters tend to be childish."
"Not Chávez," he said.
"I really think I could beat Michael Carbajal," I said and pounded my stomach with both fists to show him how hard it was. Carbajal is the mini-flyweight, 108 pounds, champion of the world. "I can box as well as he can, can hit harder and take his punch."
When Ignacio looked at me I added, "But I can only fight three rounds," and he laughed.
"Well, how do you get your fighters?" I asked.
"We take them from the amateurs," he answered. "We build our own fighters, then put them on display. The best ones get to be crowd-pleasers and bring in the customers."
"We were really pleased with your show Thursday night. You put on a lot of fight. In the United States they don't have a lot of small clubs anymore. Even the Olympic Club in L.A.'s closed now. Would you say that TV is killing boxing in the U.S.?"
"TV kills everything. TV pays a lot of money. Why go to a fight when you can see it on TV?"
"How about the big promoters who do the TV shows? Dan Duva of Main Events, Arum of Top Rank? King? Don't they rip off the cream of the fighters without replacing them, without building new fighters up in the small clubs?"
"Don King doesn't build up fighters, but Arum and Duva do. They do small shows every week. Bob Arum of Top Rank does two, three shows a week. It's Don King who skims the cream off the top."
"It's time to go now," Norm said, looking at his watch. "I'll give you a number to call me if you have any more questions."
"Could I see your stable?"
"Yes. It's only a couple of blocks from here." He gave us directions to his gym, drew a map, and left.
We followed his directions, walking a quarter-mile in the hot sun, didn't seem to be getting any closer, and waved down a cab. It was only a couple of blocks away, he said, but we'd already walked three and I said, "Drive us there, to the stadium." He did, and didn't even want any money, but I gave him a couple of bucks and asked him to be back in 45 minutes to pick us up. He waved and drove off.
The gym is on the top level of a stadium that is sunk below ground level into the earth, rather than rising above it like the bullring. We found the door at the edge of the arena, right under the top bleachers.
"You better see if it's all right that I go in," Claire said and waited outside in the sun.
"Okay." When I stepped inside, I broke into a sweat immediately but grinned with pleasure at the sight before me, knowing it was worth the hot walk, and started taking pictures immediately. A long, hot sweating room with one slanting wall stretched under the bleachers a good hundred feet from the door. The place seethed with young boys from about age ten up, most shadow boxing. Their bodies were twisting and turning and skipping and swinging with boxing moves. Thump-thump of big bags, ratatattat of the speed bags. Staccato commands of the two trainers in the underground cave, like a ship's hot steerage.
The boys were smaller on the average than you'd see in an American gym — younger too. The average boxer was a little over my size, five-five or so. I could see kids exercising in the very last of two rings at the far end of the room, where there was a dirt floor under the slanting wall on the bleacher side. One fighter held the feet of another while he rolled and toughened his stomach on a bid medicine ball, then they switched. One fighter hooked his legs over the ropes to do sit-ups. A big blue bottle of water sat on the ring apron by a bench with headgear and boxing gloves next to the first ring. There was a clock on a whitewashed wall with red and blue stripes. The ring was a platform between four posts set on car wheels filled with concrete.
I worked my way back through the narrow room, between two young kids punching the same big bag from opposite side, around an old man teaching a kid to hold up his hands, to a tall, fair-skinned man in a white T-shirt standing against the ropes, with his back to me, and introduced myself. His name was Roberto Quirarte. I asked him in clumsy Spanish if it was all right to bring a woman, a periodista, in with me.
"Sí, sí," he said, and I went and got Claire and made my way back through with her again, found a place on the floor right behind him, the only spot where there went' any boxers working out, and introduced her. Then we both looked for someplace to stand, and he pointed to the right side of the ring under the slanting bleacher wall.
He wasn't even sweating, and I was pouring sweat so badly that I had to take off my tank top just to keep from suffocating when I got to the other side of the ring, after working our way through all the boxing bodies. I stood bare-chested while I scribbled notes, out of the way under the slanting roof, on the dirt floor, where there were two turned-over paint cans with fiberboard pieces laid across them for seats. Claire took pictures.
Roberto shouted instructions to the two fighters in the ring, one a classy kid in long blue pants to the knee, who bobbed and weaved from side to side, making the other kid, wearing a woolen sweatshirt and sweatpants in the 100-degree heat, miss. Then he stabbed the sweatshirted kid with several good jabs and the round ended.
At the break, the manager told the kid in sweats how to move and not get hit, to try to come in from an angle, explaining with words and body movements. When the kid went back out at the bell, he came on and they fought hard for awhile until the kid in blue showed his superiority again, and they lightened up and just sparred around once more until the bell rang.
Finally Claire said she couldn't stand the heat anymore. In a low-necked white blouse she flowed with moisture, but I sweated like a blistered wall in a hot shower, so I said, "Let's go then." We went outside and sat on the bleachers behind the stadium to wait for our cab. While we were there, a young, pink-skinned man in a navy blue golf shirt and jeans came up to speak to us in English. His name was Hermano "Joe" Zamudio, 165 pounds, determined to turn professional in October or November. He'd had 20 amateur fights, won them all, and scored 17 KOs. He was 26 years old, had a wife and child, and was a hungry fighter. He wanted success. He wanted popularity and publicity and the power of money. He wanted to be a Páez, he said.
I asked him a couple of questions about Ignacio and the gym, and he said that Roberto Quitarte worked for Ignacio, that the other trainer worked for him, and that all fighters in the gym were Ignacio's fighters, even if they hadn't signed contracts with him yet. There were 50 fighters in the gym, aged 8 to 26. He said that someone saw him working out and asked him to go to Ignacio, though he hadn't signed a contract yet. Then he invited us to come and see him when he turned pro, gave us his business card, too mine, and went home to see his wife. He was indeed a hungry fighter, and Ignacio meant it when he said that he built his own club of fighters, that he put in as well as took out of boxing. I had great respect for him. He had integrity. He put on a good show. I hoped to come back and see more of his great fights.
I waited for the cab, the sweat drying on my tanned skin, pleased at the breeze that was cooling me off, when Claire turned to me and said, "What is ti about boxing that's so important? Why do you love a sport that many people feel is violent, an anachronism?"
She lowered her dark glasses and looked at me with soft hazel eyes, almost violent in color, her smooth tanned cheeks glowing with freshness. She looked the epitome of femininity, sweet and caring. She loved all animals, the surrogates for her motherliness, since she couldn't have children. She didn't even meat because she didn't want to kill anything, not even to survive. She was a true vegetarian, and it looked good on her. A writer herself, editor, journalist, poet, and novelist, she had learned to like fights because I loved them so much. But she did not like fights on TV. I took everything she said with the utmost seriousness.
"Boxing is important because it civilizes the killer instinct in man. It channels the will to survive into a pressure valve that lets off steam in a noninjurious way. Football does this. All sports do it, but the truest one, the one closest to the elements, that brings the greatest spiritual experience, teh greatest passionate thrill, is boxing."
A slight narrowing of her eyes showed I still had to convince her. The stadium behind us was built for war games, I thought, but said, "Boxing is like the Catholic Mass in its most basic form, in which the innocent lamb is sacrificed. Though the best wins in boxing, rather than loses. It's a celebration of the hero rather than the martyr. I mean, they're both a symbolic spiritual ritual for the purgation of spiritual feat based on our certain death. In the Mass, the best of us is killed symbolically for the sins of others. This is a pagan rite that persists in Christianity. In boxing, the ring is an altar in which man wins, in which the best of us physically, spiritually, and morally, risk themselves to satisfy all our spiritual needs — the need to achieve triumph when eventual and sure death faces us — and come out on top. TH every best of us, the finest examples of manhood, the human species, win."