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.

Ricky teaches the kids by using a code based on numbers. Number one is a jab. Number two is a right hand. Number three is a left hook, number four an uppercut, number five an overhand right. He calls out numbers to the kids while they spar. "I have all kinds of signals," he tells me. "But that's the basic recipe." When he calls out instructions to his fighters, only they know what the combinations of numbers mean.

Madison Square Garden's motto is "Champions Against Drugs and Gangs." No drugs are allowed in the place, and the only uniform colors permitted are the blue and gold of the club uniform. Have many of the kids been involved with gangs? "Oh, yeah," Ricky says sadly. "But the kids back each other in the regional championships, no matter what gang they're in. They're boxers, representing Arizona."

In the evenings, the gym is a den of fistic industry. Fighters from other clubs come there to train, and the place is soon crowded. Some of the visiting fighters used to be trained by Ricky, before defecting to other clubs. Ricky still welcomes them. "I don't hold grudges. Let's be friends instead of enemies."

One of the visitors training at Madison Square Garden is the bearer of the only white face aside from mine. But Larry isn't from another club. He doesn't belong to a club. He likes to float around and get to know people, so he trains at five different clubs. At 27, he's the Arizona Tough Man champion. And he believes he's the toughest stockbroker in the world.

He asks that I don't reveal his identity in case the firm he works for has a problem with one of its financial planners being known for entering Tough Man Contests. These events are pretty much the same as regular boxing matches--they wear gloves and headgear and fight to the same rules--except that the participants are street brawlers who don't know how to box. They're not usually in great shape, either, so the rounds only last one minute, which suits a guy like Larry who doesn't always have time to train.

He's always loved to fight. Back in high school, he organized impromptu Tough Man Contests with the other kids, placing bets on the outcome. He never lost a fight. While at college, he didn't play any sports, but worked out in a local gym. He met a 70-year-old boxing coach, who sparred with him. "He was good." Larry grins as he remembers. "He kicked my ass."

He got a B.A. in political science at the University of Arizona, but Tucson didn't have enough of a sports scene for him. He moved to Phoenix. Outside of sports, his main interest was in finance, so he wound up in his current job, designing portfolios.

He likes doing it. "I choose my own clients. I hire and fire my clients. I have bikers, attorneys, construction workers, athletes . . ."

He wishes he had more boxers. It depresses him to see boxers end up destitute. When he talks about it, his words are harsh but his manner is compassionate. "Boxers blow their money not just because they're idiots, but because the people around them are, too. When they quit boxing, it's, 'Let's open a taco stand or a car wash. . . .' But they don't know how to run it.

"I want boxers to have their money. I tell them, save now or you'll have nothing later. You're not going to have a good job--you've no education. I recommend an SEP--a simplified employee pension plan. It's like an IRA, but it doesn't limit you to $2,000 a year. It allows up to $24,000 a year, which can be about 15 percent of a pro fighter's salary. This also lowers taxable income. The gains aren't taxed until they take it out, and the minimum age they can do that is 59 and a half."

How do boxers respond to what he says? "It's over their heads, and half the time it's over the managers' heads as well. Most don't understand. But I have a couple of fighters as clients."

And he has ambitions. Although modest about his boxing skills, Larry deliberately goes into Ali-style motor-mouth mode when discussing his future as financial planner to the fight trade.

"I will have the market. I will be the premier broker for every fighter. Everyone knows who I am. But I'm not trying to make money off boxers. If I depended on fighters to make money, I'd be broke. I'm here to help them.

"I care. I'm in the game. I fight, I referee, I judge. No financial planner knows the sport more than me. Fighters and managers like to deal with their own kind."

And Larry is their kind. With his collar and tie and sandy hair and long nose and professional smile, he seems like the whitest of white boys, the kind of guy whose involvement with boxing goes no deeper than watching it on the TV of a sports bar. But his record shows why he's so easily accepted by a working-class, ethnic community. He's won seven out of eight fights, and he claims that the one decision against him--in a Tough Man Contest in Utah--was robbery, a hometown decision. He finds the contests easy. "I'm not a great boxer, but anyone with basic boxing skills can do well in a Tough Man Contest."

I stop by his office, and he shows me a video of him fighting. He's a better boxer than he makes out, and the spectators hate him for it. He knocks one guy out in less than 10 seconds of the first round, but in his other fights he boxes behind a jab, outboxing his inept, brawling opponents and frustrating fans who want to see blood and snot. He taunts his opponents, theatrically winding up punches and illegally hitting after the bell has ended the round. Here in his office, as he watches himself commit one such foul, he chuckles and says, "I like to get one in after the bell."

He plans to fight for as long as he can, and maybe turn pro for a couple of fights. Trying to keep his face straight, he declares, "Any white-collar guy who thinks he's tougher than me, I dare him to get in touch and I'll get Don King or Bob Arum to get it on. I'm the toughest white-collar man on Earth."

He hopes to organize a White Collar Tough Man Contest, for guys with desk jobs to battle it out.

Why did I start boxing all those years ago? In order to be good at something. In order to be praised and respected for what I was good at, instead of being arrested for it. Because I was angry. Because I was sad. Because I was lonely and bored. All of the above reasons. Or none of them.

Why did I quit boxing? All of the above reasons. Or none of them.

It's hard for a boxing club to make money. Madison Square Garden was started with money inherited by Richard Rodriguez's wife. She's still pissed at her husband and son over it. Since then, the gym has kept going on donations from sponsors. But that income has decreased as sponsors decide it's time other institutions got some money. Things are very tight at Madison Square Garden, tight enough to make the owner weird about money. When the New Times photographer asked to borrow a pair of gloves for the cover picture, Richard Rodriguez rented them to him for $13.

Another way the club raises money is by putting on boxing shows. It's a Saturday night in June, and it's putting one on at the gym. Twenty fights, and it's only $8 to get in.

People think I'm a kind person. And I think they're right. But there's something about me that would shock them if they knew it. I love to punch a man on the jaw as hard as I can, then step back and watch him fall apart.

Is that why I started boxing? Maybe. But it isn't why I kept at it.

Boxing shows are about waiting. An hour after the scheduled starting time at Madison Square Garden, nothing has happened. There's no air conditioning that I'm aware of, and the heat is punishing. Because it's indoors, it feels humid, as it never does outdoors in Phoenix unless it's been raining.

There's an impressive crowd, and more people are arriving. It's not the type of clientele you'd expect at a boxing show--mostly families with small children, which gives the place the atmosphere of a fair. A little girl plays with a plaid-suited toddler who tries to climb the steps to the ring. A boy of about 14 with dark brown skin and long black hair, baseball cap on backward, hands wrapped in grimy bandage, shadowboxes with ferocious quickness as his coach looks on, circling and instructing him.

Larry appears from somewhere, and we sit and talk for a while. He's refereeing tonight.

The first fight of the night is friendly and brutal in equal measure. The two guys are novices. They spend half the fight apologizing to each other and the other half trying to put out each other's lights. Then it gets angry--one guy seems to object to a foul that nobody saw--and they carry on fighting even after the ref has told them to stop. One guy is shaken and has to take a standing count.

As they fight, a little kid at ringside shouts expert advice: "Jab! Be first! Keep him at a distance!"

By the end of the fight, the acrimony has worn off. The guys hug each other at the final bell.

Most of the theories people have as to why boxers hug each other at the end of fights are erroneous. It's not a mark of respect or acknowledgment. It's not that the fighters are abandoning their antagonism. It's purely and simply about what it looks like--affection.

When you go through a hard fight, even though you might be showing unrelenting aggression, you don't feel any spite toward the other guy. In fact, the more arduous the fight, the deeper your fondness for him. You feel like you're going through this together, and that he's the only other person there who understands. In a really debilitating fight, the closeness with the opponent is the deepest intimacy I have ever experienced.

This is why the concept of a "grudge fight" is ludicrous. Even if you hate your opponent prior to the fight, it's hard to sustain that hatred when the fight starts.

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.

Surprisingly, considering his love of fighting as a young man, he wasn't a boxer. "But boxing has done a lot for me," he says. "It's helped me raise my kids."

The reason he started his club has as much to do with social responsibility as love of boxing. "I do this for my community, to make it a better place to live. Kids are gangbanging because that's all they know. That's what they grow up thinking they're supposed to do. Their parents don't talk to them. When they look around them, in their neighborhood, they don't see no doctors or lawyers. They see guys with guns, so they think, that's what I should do. . . .

"I try to show them something different. I may not be able to make them all national champions, but I can help them be successful men. I tell them that taking drugs and gangbanging is not the way to live."

We're standing in the outdoor gym he built in his backyard. A boy of about 14 joins us. "This is a good kid," says Varela. "He's been with me for a couple of years. I tell him, you want a good life, you're gonna have to earn it. Nobody's gonna give it to you. You have to be disciplined, follow the rules. There are rules for everything--you don't get nothing for nothing." He looks at the kid. "You want to get a kiss from your girlfriend, you got to be nice to her, right?" The kid grins. "You gangbang, you get yourself killed. You're dead, you want to go to heaven, you better have followed the Ten Commandments. You always have rules. You always need discipline."

He's coached seven national champions. His living room is crammed with trophies--hundreds of them--won by his sons. Outside in the gym, 16 fighters are working out. Some are Varela's, others are from a visiting club. It's around 6:30 on a Tuesday evening, and the day's heat is just starting to wane. The gym is centered on a concrete area of the yard, formerly a basketball court. A frame embedded in the concrete supports two punch bags and a floor-to-ceiling ball. There's also a standing bag and two standing balls. The rest of the yard is parched soil, with clumps of grass and a bush here and there. There's a full-size ring.

In Varela's club, the atmosphere is curiously tranquil, almost Zenlike. Wearing sweats and baseball caps, the fighters work with quiet absorption. The vibe is friendly and uncompetitive. Even the sparring seems peaceful. Varela stands on the ring apron, leaning on the ropes as he watches. He's decked out in gray shorts and tee shirt, a Raiders cap on backward, and dark sunglasses. He doesn't get in the way of the fighters as they spar--his instructions are given sparingly and without intrusion.

I've never visited this club before, but I've been to this place. What I'm witnessing in Varela's club is a secular meditation. These boys are in no way separate from what they're doing. They're living in the moment and yet optimistic about the future--Joe-Joe Varela wants to be a world champion, and he certainly has enough ability for it to be possible, but he's just taking it a fight at a time, trying to do the best he can.

This is why the best boxing clubs have a monastic air. For a brief few years, while doing this, you can feel in control of your present and unafraid of your future, feel that as long as you can do this every day, then nothing can go very wrong. What comes with boxing isn't fear, but a sense of the absolute, a security that you may never have again.

So why would anyone quit? Why would anyone walk away from such security, such perfect sureness? Because you feel the security, but you don't understand it. You experience it on an intuitive, emotional level, not a rational, intellectual one. You don't recognize the source of your security, so you outgrow it and move on. And maybe you realize, and maybe you find your way back to it. Or maybe you never do. And maybe you replace it with something else, find another source, something that focuses you and provides you with an entire way of living and being. Or maybe you never do.

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