Glove Story

In search of rhyme or reason inside Phoenix's boxing subculture

Round three, and Tyson bites off a chunk of the guy's ear. Nobody can say for sure why he does it. In boxing, nobody can be sure of anything other than the concussive impact of punches. The referee deducts two points from Tyson, but lets the fight go on. Holyfield is expected to box with a piece of his ear missing, blood pouring down his neck. But when Tyson goes for the other ear, the referee calls it off.

Holyfield is getting $35 million for this fight. Tyson was supposed to get $30 million, though there will be talk of withholding it after he's disqualified for his savagery. But that's a world-title fight. That's in Las Vegas, Nevada. And I'm not there. I'm somewhere else entirely.

I'm in Phoenix, Arizona.

It's on the corner of 18th Avenue and Van Buren. It's called Madison Square Garden Boxing Gymnasium. It's a huge space, with a full-size ring in the center, and various types of punch bags hanging around. I get there at 5:30 on a Tuesday afternoon. There are ropes around the parking lot, and a sign warns off anyone who's not a customer of the gym. I maneuver my car through a small space in the rope barrier.

The inside of the gym seems dark when I walk in out of the sunshine. There aren't many people here yet. A few Latino fighters are warming up, shadowboxing or jumping rope. They look at me as I come in, and I suddenly feel very white.

"I'm looking for Richard Rodriguez," I tell one of them.
He shrugs. "Don't know where he is."
I ask another guy, and he points at the far end of the gym. "Over there."

I walk over there, but I don't see anyone who might be Richard Rodriguez. Then I realize. I'm standing in front of a window. The glass is tinted so that it's easy to see out but hard to see in. Behind the window is an office, and I can see some shadowy figures sitting at a desk. I find the door, knock and go in.

Why dig my way down into the subculture, the underground community, of the Phoenix boxing scene? I'm going into the pugilistic underground because I've lived in Phoenix for nearly two years and still feel removed from the life of the place. I understand the social realities and the political realities but not the human realities. I can drive across the city and not see life as it is lived by people without white skin and robust bank balances. I can--and do--read the newspapers and watch the news on TV, none of which contains the actualities of life here.

In search of these actualities, I'm going to the gymnasiums and fight nights. And there's another reason. Once upon a time, I was a boxer myself, and I have no idea why I started boxing or why I stopped. So I'm going to the gymnasiums in an attempt to revisit the imperatives that took me into the ring.

Richard Rodriguez is sitting behind the desk. He's a big man, perhaps in his 50s. His hair is silver, and so is his pointed beard. He doesn't talk a lot. There's a stateliness in his bearing. He owns the place, and you can tell.

The guy sitting across from him is his son, Ricky Ricardo Rodriguez. He's the head coach. Thirty-four years old, chubby, with an expression that makes it seem like he's always on the verge of hilarity, you'd never guess he's a former Golden Gloves state champion, that he knocked out 26 of his 36 opponents, and outpointed another six. He started boxing at age 16, inspired by his dad's pro career. He remembers being 3 years old and sitting on his aunt's lap, watching his dad fight. His own career lasted three and a half years. Why did he quit?

He laughs. "I fell in love with the girls."
He made a comeback at 29, but not as a fighter. His dad and uncle had founded Madison Square Garden, and they asked Ricky to coach the boys. He was working as a bartender at the time. Now he's a full-time coach. He's had an assortment of amateur champions, most notably his current protege, Gilbert Luque, who's won 15 titles, and Carlos Tarin, who won the state championship at lightweight this year.

Watching him work out with his fighters, it's easy to see why he's had such success. Even the youngest kids have polished boxing skills. Usually boxing clubs just let the little kids swing skill-lessly at each other, reasoning that they're too small to inflict any real damage. But when I watch a couple of Ricky's 11-year-olds sparring, only their size separates them from the adults. It's strange to hear them talk in their high, unbroken voices and then watch the measured intensity of their sparring as they move with and against each other, on their toes, backward and forward, spearing out jabs that usually bounce off gloves, now and then thumping a right hand into an exposed face.

Being punched in the face doesn't hurt. People think it does, but it doesn't. There's a fear of fighting, a taboo about being hit, that makes a beating seem painful. But it isn't. When you're warm and moving and completely focused on the guy in front of you, when you're aware of nothing but the need to hit him while keeping him from hitting you, then the punches that he lands on you don't hurt. At all. You feel the punch hit you, all right. You feel your head wrench. But that's all. It's like when the dentist drills a hole in your tooth--you feel pressure, but no pain. When a punch hits you, you feel impact, but no pain. And, sometimes, when the punch lands properly, you don't even feel the impact. You don't feel a thing until you find yourself being helped to your feet, helped to stand on trembling legs.

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