Glove Story

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

A good fighter feels calm while fighting. Not just calm--at peace. You forget yourself, go beyond your ego, go with the flow of the fight. You're not desperately trying to win, you're just fighting, doing it to the best of your abilities.

Muhammad Ali was a great fighter.
A bad fighter is tense, belligerent, uptight while fighting. It's all about your ego. You try to control the fight instead of going with it. All you want is to win. You're focused on yourself, on what you're doing.

Mike Tyson is a bad fighter.

This show features mostly good fighters, of varying ability. The second fight of the night is between two tiny little kids, and provides some comic relief after the duel of the first one. Larry is the referee. The kids' gloves are as big as their heads. During the introductions, one of the kids raises his hands in the air, saluting the crowd like a world champion.

When the bell rings, they go at each other, arms flailing as though they're swimming. They keep it up for the entire three rounds. I'm unable to pick a winner, but the judge manages to.

The best fight of the evening is between two 14-year-old girls. Both fighters seem like stereotypes. Vanessa Salcido is leanly muscled and darkly attractive, with the air of a tough chola. Her opponent has a physique better suited to sumo wrestling than boxing. She puts me in mind of Bull Marie from the Love and Rockets comic books, and her name turns out to be Maria Maganas. Although the girls are supposed to be the same weight, Maganas looks to be at least 20 pounds heavier than Salcido.

At the opening bell, the girls run to the center of the ring and begin to batter each other without regard for defense. The spectators go absolutely mental. Maganas' size doesn't seem to be making any difference, and when the round ends, neither girl has given an inch.

In round two, Maganas gets on top and looks set to steamroll Salcido. But Salcido begins to box, scoring with a jab and banging hooks to Maganas' head. They grin insolently at each other as they fight.

Maganas seems exhausted in the final round, which is a replay of round one as they stand and trade with each other. Salcido raises her pace as Maganas slackens hers. Salcido's sheer volume of punches wins her the decision.

The spectators need a break after that one, and they get it. I stand outside in the street and talk with Salcido and her friend Sylvia Guanajuat, also 14 and also a boxer. So much for my chola stereotyping--both girls are devoid of attitude. Both are taking their studies seriously; Salcido wants to be a probation officer, Guanajuat a lawyer. Guanajuat also plans a career as a boxer, while Salcido is less certain. They're both optimistic about the future role of women in boxing. Women will box in the Olympics in the year 2000, and scholarships are to be made available to women.

But, for now, it's hard for Danny Montoya, their coach at Eloy Boxing Club, to get them fights. "I know these girls could go to the Olympics or turn pro," he says. "Whatever they want to do."

When the break is over, I go back inside and watch Carlos Tarin, one of Madison Square Garden's stars, destroy an opponent who shows a lot of skill but looks helpless against Tarin. A beautiful little girl of perhaps 7 or 8 years old sits on the seat beside mine. Every time Tarin opens up on his opponent, she stands on her chair, clapping her hands in excitement, screaming his name. She sees me laughing at her, and she says something to me. I don't speak Spanish, but I think she says he's her brother. She enjoys the fight considerably more than Tarin's opponent.

The day after the show, I'm strangely depressed. Not even depressed--the feeling isn't dramatic enough to be called depression. Just flat. I had a great time at the show, but I don't feel any closer to the amorphous feeling that makes people dedicate years of their youth to boxing. I haven't found it in the workout sessions or the fights I've watched. I've talked to boxers about what they do, and they haven't been able to tell me anything, though some have recited theories that sound like they came from Sylvester Stallone. I haven't heard any convincing answers, and I'm not even sure of the question. I'm afraid that the question might be unanswerable or just stupid.

It isn't.
I find what I'm looking for in the backyard of a house in a barrio. I met Jose Varela at Madison Square Garden. He's the coach of South Mountain Boxing Club, which he runs from his home on South Sixth Street. He invited me to come and check out his club, so one evening I do.

Varela is not yet 42, but he has a son of 21 and another of 18. Both are professional boxers. Varela is their coach, and has been since they started as children.

Varela is affable, and a man whose commitment is clearly to his family and his community. But, inside, he is also an hombre, his toughness and sense of humor always subtly evident. He knows the craziness that kids can get into, because he's been there himself, and has a collection of scars to show for it. He turned himself around when his kids were born.

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