Eye of El Tigre

Is Phoenix fighter Jesus Gonzales the next Oscar De La Hoya? He may not be as good-looking, but he punches just as hard.

Now they are standing, and cheering. Jesus Gonzales is walking -- toward the ring and his professional debut as a boxer. The screams and whistles among the 2,600 attending on this summer night quickly merge into collective noise that bounces around the Celebrity Theatre in Phoenix. The din gains strength as Jesus, the local boy, enters the ring. He's 18, light-skinned, of average height with a boxer's build. He is promoted by Top Rank, the same Las Vegas agency whose clientele include the World Boxing Council champion at 135 pounds, Floyd Mayweather Jr., and the former WBC champ at 154 pounds, Oscar De La Hoya, to whom Jesus -- once marketability is brought up -- is compared.

Jesus raises a glove to what he hears, still wearing the purple coat in which he entered the ring. The back reads: Jesus "El Martillo" (The Hammer) Gonzales. And he hasn't taken off the white-brimmed hat with the black band, which, if this were 50 years ago and a Hollywood movie, would go well with a Tommy gun.

Next to him in his corner is his trainer and father, Ernie Gonzales Sr., wearing a coat similar to Jesus' and a mustache the son can't manage just yet. Ernie's seen his son through 160 amateur bouts, and through most of Jesus' 151 wins.

Staring at Jesus from across the ring is Sean Wilson. From Omaha, Nebraska, Wilson is roughly Jesus' size -- 5 feet 10 inches tall and 160 pounds -- but he's blond. He has just recently, from the look of an angry patch of skin, branded a shark onto the center of his chest. Wilson is 2-0 as a professional, but this doesn't stop Jesus' manager, Cameron Dunkin, from shouting over the roar at ringside, "I just hope [Wilson] doesn't get hurt."

The ringside announcer yells Jesus' height and weight, but his name is lost to more screams and whistles, which turn to boos when Wilson is introduced.

The bell rings. Both fighters walk forward and start dancing around each other. Wilson wants his first punch to land flush on Jesus' chin; Jesus wants his to end the bout. Neither gets what he wants. Jesus throws his neck back and Wilson's hook misses badly. Jesus' first punch nails Wilson on the chin, and then he unleashes a flurry of punches to his opponent's body and head. Wilson crouches to protect himself. Jesus pulls back.

Jesus' next hook slams into Wilson's cheek. He stumbles, suddenly aware of the hometowner's power. And speed. Jesus is on him once more, this time looking for the KO. His punches come faster and harder now. "Jab, son! Jab, son!" Cameron Dunkin yells.

Wilson is once more doubled over, his gloves at his face. Jesus pulls back again, dancing away from the ropes against which he's pinned Wilson. There's an exchange of punches. Wilson throws a hook. It misses. And Jesus counters with a right jab, then a hard left hook that catches Wilson's right ear. The punch puts Wilson on his back, the blond fighter staring blankly at the hot lights above the ring.

Jesus raises both arms. The noise is deafening now. The bout has lasted 56 seconds. And now the ring is flooded with people. Cameras from Telefutura, which is broadcasting the fight, focus on Jesus' young face (he's barely been touched). He turns toward one of the cameramen and winks to the 450,000 households watching across the nation (a well-timed gesture because the series of fights -- three would follow Jesus' -- would be watched by more people than any other programming Telefutura offers for this week in the summertime).

Once Sean Wilson is able to stand, he weaves through the crowded ring, his face bright red. When he reaches Jesus, he whispers, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry."

Afterward, in his locker room in the theater's basement, Wilson sits with his legs spread, his elbows on his thighs, his head down. "He's fast. Shit!" he says of Jesus. Looking up now, "I was ashamed of myself. . . . His speed. Felt that right from the start." Wilson's asked if Jesus has power. "Totally."

A few moments earlier, Susie Gonzales, Jesus' mother, is standing at the entryway to Jesus' locker room, unable to move farther. "Can his mother get through?" she says, eyes wide and proud. When the crowd parts, she sees Jesus sitting in a leather chair surrounded by cameras and journalists. He's flanked by his father and his manager. The journalists ask, were you nervous? "No," Jesus says. (And indeed, before the fight, when he wasn't punching the air or checking himself in the mirror, Jesus was listening to Smokey Robinson and trying hard to sing the high notes.) What do you think of the pros? "Everything was a lot faster." How exactly was it different from amateur? "Smaller gloves . . . no headgear." What's the deal with that hat? (The brim hat is once more on his head.) "I'm always going to wear a hat [when entering the ring]."

It's his style.

The questions turn to Dunkin, who's standing at Jesus' right. The manager's broad shoulders are hunched forward, and when he deigns to speak, he answers slowly. Dunkin never graduated from high school but has made quite a life for himself in the boxing world. At 46, he's managed 14 of boxing's world champions, including Diego Corrales, Johnny Tapia and Stevie Johnston. Dunkin's asked where Jesus' debut ranks among his boxers past and present.

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