Eye of El Tigre
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.
"This is probably the best pro debut ever."
Dunkin and his colleagues at Top Rank have praised Jesus since he signed in June. Bruce Trampler, Top Rank's chief matchmaker, says of Jesus, "He's the best prospect in Arizona since Michael Carbajal." (The Phoenix native who won a silver medal in the 1988 Olympics was a five-time world champion and the first junior flyweight to receive a $1 million payday when he fought Humberto Gonzalez in 1994.) Top Rank promoter Bob Arum says of Jesus, "We have a vision for Jesus. He'll be on a very ambitious schedule." And Dunkin himself says, "I've seen him knock out 25-, 30-year-old men. Cold."
Such hosannas can be expected of a boxing matchmaker, promoter and manager. But a $250,000 signing bonus isn't given to every fighter. "Arum doesn't give that kind of money unless he believes in somebody," Dunkin says.
Top Rank isn't the only believer. Emanuel Steward, USA Boxing's National Director of Coaches and the hall-of-fame trainer of Lennox Lewis, current WBC heavyweight champion of the world, says of the hype surrounding Jesus: "All of it's legitimate. He's destined to be the big guy."
So, showered and dressed, his fight won, wearing a gray wife-beater tucked into his green slacks, Jesus saunters around the Celebrity Theatre. Occasionally he peeks at the fighters in the ring from under his hat, but mostly he scans the area for friends and family who came to see him put on a show.
Once he spots his contingent, he keeps getting waylaid by somebody else wanting to shake his hand, talk to him, get an autograph. But instead of moving on, their missions accomplished, the fans linger. Pretty soon, so many people have swarmed around Jesus that all you can see is that hat.
The fans are mostly young men, but some are women Jesus' age. They are attractive, and the young boxer will leave the theater hours later with quite a few phone numbers. Some of the girls want Jesus because they see a guy on the cusp of greatness. But Jesus must be careful of anyone who considers him a star. He must keep focused, stay humble. Hype, rampant in boxing, can take the fight out of a fighter. Right now, Jesus Gonzales is a good young boxer. That is all. He may one day be rich, he may one day be a luminary in his sport, but he is not any of that yet.
And, depending on who you ask, he may never be.
Jesus' family has stood behind him. And now he's returned the favor. The young fighter spent $30,000 of that big signing bonus on a down payment for his family's new four-bedroom, two-bathroom house in Glendale. Mom, Dad, Jesus, his two brothers and one sister live there now. It's got a big backyard and a swimming pool. The irrigated fields and open desert surrounding their suburb are a far cry from the 19th Avenue and Van Buren neighborhood where Jesus grew up.
The oldest of the Gonzales children, Jesus would come home from kindergarten and first grade bruised, often bloodied; the kids at school called him "cracker" because of his light skin. Susie Gonzales says there were so many schoolyard fights that "we decided to take him to the gym [so he could protect himself]." The bullies soon left him alone. With his father training him (Ernie had been 1-0 as a professional at 147 pounds), Jesus learned the sport quickly. By age 9, he was the Arizona State Junior Olympic champion at 70 pounds. Two years later, in fifth grade, Jesus was the Silver Gloves national champion, the best 11-year-old boxer in the nation.
It was then that he began perfecting his autograph.
Boxing kept Jesus off the streets and inside the gym, not that Susie wouldn't have kept him on the straight and narrow. "If [the kids] wanted to go to Circle K up the street, I drove them there," she says. Sometimes, in the car, she would point out the drug addicts roaming around and say, "See. You don't want to turn out like that." Jesus, Frankie (a year younger), Valerie (two years younger) and Robert (four years younger) would nod their heads. But the kids were not naive. They could point out the prostitutes on 19th Avenue and Van Buren. Sometimes, the hookers would turn tricks in plain sight.
The Gonzaleses were poor. Ernie worked for the Phoenix Union School District, fixing air conditioners and heaters. Once all the kids had started school, Susie became a security guard. To pay for Jesus' out-of-town tournaments -- and there were a lot of out-of-town tournaments -- the family held car washes, sold raffle tickets and wrapped and sold tamales. Susie remembers Ernie's mother, who died in 2001 of a heart attack, staying up half the night, wrapping food. But it wasn't enough. The family had trouble paying for rent and Jesus' tournaments. And, "the other kids suffered because of [Jesus]," Suzie says. No trips to Disneyland. No trips anywhere. The money went toward Jesus' career.
That is, if there was money. During Jesus' junior year of high school, the family was kicked out of their house. They moved to 59th Avenue and Olive, where rent was cheaper and a boxing gym was two blocks away. (When Jesus made the down payment on the place in the suburbs, his parents could not co-sign because of their credit history. Jesus' grandfather, John Gonzales, had to assign his signature.)
The sacrifices Ernie and Susie made for Jesus were not misguided. "We knew he loved [boxing]," Susie says.
Passion for the sport has always been there. These days, pop in a tape of one of his fights (Susie's recorded scores of them) and Jesus dips his shoulders and swerves his neck in tune with the Jesus on the screen. He ignores everything going on around him -- including persistent questioning of him about this and that -- totally intent on his moves.
The focus extends well beyond the living room. Jesus doesn't drink; he doesn't do drugs. He didn't have a girlfriend until he was 17, partly because he's shy, but mostly because he spent large chunks of his childhood fighting in California or Las Vegas or Cleveland or Detroit. When he wasn't fighting, he was training for the next fight, which limited his dating experiences, as well as his friendships.
Jesus didn't have many friends growing up. He relied on his cousins, siblings and nephews for companionship. (He's godfather to his sister's five-month-old, Elijah, around whom he shows a soft side he'd never allow an opponent to see.) But boxing was his best pal, the ring his real playground.
Jesus tried other sports: basketball, Little League. But he'd go to these practices only after spending time in the boxing gym. Soon, he didn't bother with anything else.
The dedication -- isolation, really -- has paid off. He began the 2002 amateur season as the No. 1-ranked boxer at 156 pounds. Later that year, Jesus won the U.S. National Championship, and was named "Outstanding Boxer of the Tournament." It was the third consecutive year he'd won the title. Overall, the Nationals was his 17th amateur championship (he finished his amateur career with 20).
He was a serious contender for the 2004 U.S. Olympic team until USA Boxing altered weight classes earlier this year. Jesus had been boxing at 156 pounds. He attempted competing at 152, the new class. But try as he might, Jesus could only get down to 154 pounds. (His natural weight is around six pounds heavier.)
In March, at the USA-Ireland Duels in Cleveland, Jesus managed to eat his way to 165 pounds, the weight class above 152. He beat Eamonn O'Kane of St. Canices, Ireland, and helped the U.S. team win the event 6-1.
Top Rank doesn't talk about what happened next.
Jesus lost twice. To the same guy, Andre Dirrell. First at the U.S. Championships in late March, then at the U.S. Challenge in early April.
"He's a good boxer, but I've had harder opponents," Dirrell says, on the phone from Flint, Michigan, where he's training for the Olympic trials. "His style was easy to figure out. I knew he liked to throw hooks, didn't like to jab. I boxed with him and stayed on the outside. . . . Get in and get out, get three punches, move around and try to frustrate him."
Jesus and Ernie believe the Dirrell fights were not real fights. They were one boxer (Dirrell) running scared, and the other (Jesus) trying to corner him. To prove their point, Ernie slides in a video and plops onto the living room couch. It's the second fight at the U.S. Challenge, and there's Dirrell jabbing, jabbing and moving away. In the first fight, Ernie says, Jesus chased Dirrell all over the ring, which didn't do Jesus any good. So in this, the second fight, the strategy's different: Force Dirrell -- with punches and footwork -- into a corner and keep him there.
For the most part, Jesus was successful. At the fight's end, the referee holds Jesus' wrist in one hand and Dirrell's in the other. Suzie's home camera brings her son's face into focus. He looks satisfied. He landed a lot of punches. But when Dirrell's hand is raised, Jesus scowls and his lips mouth, "Oh no!" Ernie says, watching the video, "It's political."
Political is a loaded word for Ernie Gonzales. He's been critical of USA Boxing, and he believes the organization has taken it out on his son in the ring. But in his more cynical moments, Ernie thinks there's more to Jesus losing in the amateur ranks than even that. "It's about this," Ernie says, slapping his own brown skin.
But Julie Goldsticker, spokeswoman for USA Boxing, counters, "All of these kids try to come up with a reason for losing. A lot of them believe politics was involved." Though she hears such complaints "every day," she says judges never favor one boxer over another in the amateur ranks; the contestants start out equal, and it's all about what they do in the ring.
Still, after the second Dirrell fight, Jesus was so upset with USA Boxing that he saw turning pro as the only option he had left. "I've done everything I'm supposed to do, except for the Olympics," he would later say. And indeed, he had. He'd won seven national or international championships in 2001 and 2002 alone.
The family decided to talk with Shelley Finkel, Mike Tyson's manager, and Bob Arum at Top Rank. Ernie and Suzie say there was interest in Jesus in both camps. Before they moved further, however, Jesus called legendary trainer Emanuel Steward. Steward told Jesus he shouldn't turn pro yet; he should try Golden Gloves, from which winners automatically qualify for the Olympic trials.
Jesus took the advice, and, boxing at 165 pounds, advanced quickly through the state and regional Golden Gloves tournament. At the nationals -- one win from the trials -- Jesus fought Clarence Joseph (a kid he'd beaten earlier, and rather easily, at the U.S. Championships).
Once again, Ernie says, it wasn't Jesus' fault. He was ill. He might have been exhausted, too. He'd fought in seven tournaments -- each including at least two bouts -- in four months. The fights were often against the best amateur boxers in the nation. Or he could have been fighting in the wrong class, against competition that was bigger and, perhaps, stronger.
But the Gonzales family is single-minded about their boy. If Jesus lost, it couldn't have had anything to do with anything but a freak illness or -- far more likely -- politics. It was politics that tainted his record. It was politics that kept him from the Olympic trials. It was politics that left him the one option.
In early June, Jesus signed with promoter Bob Arum and Top Rank.
Jesus was never a Rocky Balboa type, never the come-from-behind underdog. What Top Rank looked at was Jesus' record. Agency bigwigs considered it amazing, politics or no politics. Ten years, 151 wins, and nine losses -- with the last three losses coming at the weight class above which Jesus is most comfortable. And now, in the pros, even this won't be a problem. Jesus' ideal weight class will be the one at which he boxes. At the moment, that's 160 pounds. For any title fight, Top Rank would like Jesus at 154 pounds, the weight where Fernando Vargas, Shane Mosley and Oscar De La Hoya compete. "That's where the money is," Ernie says.
That's also where the comparisons lie. What Top Rank sees is a young Hispanic fighter with a handsome face and a strong punch coming of age when another Hispanic fighter with a handsome face and a strong punch nears retirement. See, the idea is, Jesus -- if he continues his winning ways -- could be the next Oscar De La Hoya.
What Oscar is about, Top Rank says, is crossover marketability. Because of his skin color, De La Hoya brings in Hispanics. Because of his looks, De La Hoya brings in the ladies. And because of his powerful punch, De La Hoya brings in black and white fight fans.
Jesus could do the same. Though without the matinee-idol looks that Oscar possesses, "he's definitely charismatic . . . he's not tattooed up," Top Rank's Bruce Trampler says of the young Phoenix phenom. But what happens will depend, in part, on how Jesus markets himself. Right now, he doesn't dress as well as Oscar or speak as well. He doesn't even speak Spanish (Oscar does). But Jesus wants to learn -- if, he says, "only for the commercials" he sees himself doing on Spanish TV. It may be arrogant for a freshly debuted boxer to think this way, but it's also shrewd.
But all this is jumping ahead. For now, what Top Rank likes most are Jesus' hands. He's got heavyweight paws -- behemoths coming out of wrists as thick as they are veined. And Jesus is athletic. He can dunk a basketball "like Vince Carter. No bullshit," friend and boxer Erick Vega says. The combinations he throws into the heavy bag as he trains make it sway. When he hits the padded mitts his father wears as they spar, Jesus produces ear-splitting pops that cause onlookers to flinch. Sometimes, as he's training, he'll playfully do a handstand and hold the muscle-burning position for an excruciatingly long time. "He does think sometimes like a kid," Suzie Gonzales says. But he doesn't box like one.
The 56-second knockout in his first pro fight is evidence of that. But Ernie Gonzales looks beyond his son's power. He compares Jesus' fighting style to that of Marvin Hagler, a left-hander, like Jesus, who defended his middleweight title 12 times in the '70s and '80s. Hagler, Ernie says, had a rare ability. He was able to box aggressively, yet avoid getting hit. He was able, Ernie says, to jab, jab, and not move very far away. He would take only a tiny step back, out of his opponent's reach. Yet the enemy was never out of his. And looking back at the bout with Sean Wilson, who was always lunging and missing, it's easy to see how much Jesus' footwork -- his overall style, even -- resembles Marvelous Marvin's.
Andre Berto agrees. An amateur from Winter Haven, Florida, Berto lost to Jesus three times in 2002. All three bouts were close, and because of this, a mutual respect grew between them. In fact, after Jesus beat Sean Wilson, he called Berto to tell him what the pros were like. "He just has a real solid punch," Berto says of Jesus. And very aggressive tactics. Berto adds, "He was never trying to back out of a fight. He always tries to put on a show. That's how Jesus is."
Some people, however, say Jesus is no Marvin Hagler. "He's not Hagler yet," says Berto's trainer, Tony Morgan. Adds one trainer in the amateur ranks who respects Jesus, "I think he's absorbed a lot of punches."
Ernie denies this, but acknowledges he's heard the claim from "everybody" in amateur boxing. In fact, it's circulated so thoroughly through the ranks that Andre Dirrell says that before his fights with Jesus "some of the judges thought [Jesus] had a problem, possibly brain damage."
USA Boxing's Julie Goldsticker says, "That's Rumorville stuff not based on any factual evidence. . . . Once you're on top, everyone else tries to bring you down."
And manager Cameron Dunkin adds, "Never believe what a fighter says about another fighter."
In any case, Jesus works daily on boxing defense. For three rounds, with Ernie keeping time, Jesus bobs and weaves and protects his face as Abel Bernel, Jesus' main sparring partner and ringside handler, flails away. Sometimes, when things are going well, Jesus will drop his arms, and focus on making Bernel miss. A lot of times, Bernel does.
Even if Jesus' defense were a problem, he'd have time to correct it. For the next few months, Jesus' professional opponents won't be too challenging. This is by design.
It is Bruce Trampler's job at Top Rank to match Jesus against his future opponents. Trampler likens his job to that of a baseball executive drafting a high schooler with a 92 mph fastball and not starting him in the majors. Instead, the strategy is to have the burgeoning talent gain experience in minor league ball. If Trampler were to let Jesus gain experience with better fighters, it could hurt his record. And today, a professional boxer with a bad record isn't a pro boxer for long.
Before television, it was easier. New York's Madison Square Garden was where the best fighters fought. To get there, you had to beat somebody who'd beaten somebody else. The more tough opponents you beat, the tougher your next opponent became, until you were fighting in the Garden for the title.
Now, Trampler says, TV executives believe the fights that will give them the best ratings feature the fighters with the most wins. Trampler makes sure the execs get what they want from Top Rank. That is, top prospects are pitted with pugs who can be pummeled easily. Of course, this puts a lot of pressure on Jesus not to lose a single bout in the next year. If he does, promoting him could be reconsidered, says Dunkin.
But Jesus appears to be in good hands. "Bruce is a genius," trainer Emanuel Steward says of the top Top Rank matchmaker. Trampler's job, Steward says, is to find boxers who will lose to the agency's prospects, yet challenge the contenders in a way that will make them better against progressively more difficult opponents.
It's not even that bad a deal for the losing fighters, Cameron Dunkin argues. He notes that nearly every one of Jesus' bouts will be broadcast. In the beginning, they'll be mostly on Spanish-language networks, with which Top Rank has contracts. The agency long ago realized two things: Hispanics like to watch Hispanic fighters, and Hispanics like to watch boxing more than any other ethnicity.
Promoter Bob Arum told Sports Illustrated in July of 2002, "For an Oscar [De La Hoya] fight, we'll get 40 percent of our numbers from 12 percent of the population." In the 1996 De La Hoya-Julio Cesar Chavez bout, Arum says, "We did great. Until we crossed the Mississippi and ran out of Mexicans."
Says Todd DuBoef, Top Rank's executive vice president, "I have 180 bouts I have to put on [all of television] every year." If Jesus does well, he'll move on to mixed-audience pay-per-view, but he'll take with him his loyal Latino following.
It's difficult to say why Hispanics love boxing so much, DuBoef says. Maybe it's that, historically, boxers have been identified with their ethnicity like in no other sport. Boxing appeals to the immigrant mentality; it's as if a great boxer is fighting for those who share his cultural background. In America, first came the great Jewish and Irish boxers like Louis "Kid" Kaplan and Jack Dempsey and then the Italians such as Rocky Marciano. African-Americans in the heavier-weight classes and lately Latinos in the lighter-weight classes tend to dominate the sport. Top Rank has been masterful at exploiting the Hispanic dividend.
Says Tony Morgan, Andre Berto's trainer, "It can't get much better for a Spanish fighter than to be under [Bob] Arum."
Living in Phoenix won't hurt, either. Hispanics make up 34 percent of the population, and that's just counting the Latinos the Census Bureau could find -- and like their brethren in the rest of the country, they watch boxing. "Without the Spanish community, it ain't going to work," says Rich Hazelwood, the owner of the Celebrity Theatre. "They love boxing. You know, there's like 30 gyms in the Valley. We try really hard to make it a festive environment for those people to come here."
Which, of course, bodes well for Jesus. USA Boxing's Emanuel Steward says, "There's such great support for him in [Phoenix]." Top Rank's plan is to establish Jesus as a formidable fighter in big bouts across the country and then bring him back to Phoenix for the box-office kill. "We're going to show him away and bring him home," manager Cameron Dunkin says. Using this strategy, if Jesus fights in Phoenix often, "he can be one of the biggest draws in boxing history," Steward attests.
It isn't hyperbole that Phoenix, a heavily Latino place with immigrants flooding in from Mexico every week, loves boxing. Jesus trains in the evening, because during the afternoon, the gym he uses at 60th Avenue and Grand is packed. Training there are men older than Ernie, boys younger than 10 and women somewhere between. Guys in their 20s sometimes serve as water boys for boxers in their teens. Middle-aged men with beer bellies sit in lawn chairs and discuss the sparring in Spanish. Young kids come straight from school and run all over the place.
At night, some of the fanatics head to Pitic's, a bar and restaurant on South 16th Street that sets up a ring on Wednesday nights, brings in some judges, and sells tickets for that night's five amateur fights. The roughly 150 chairs are always filled -- sometimes by drunks who are told to leave only when they pass out. The rest stand and yell when a fight's good or the favored amateur wins. Television cameras from Channel 53 capture it all to air on public-access later. The amateurs fighting are nowhere near top contenders -- sometimes they're guys training on their own. Often, a fighter has never seen his opponent before stepping into the ring.
And every Wednesday, one of the young amateur fighters Ernie Gonzales also trains gets a bout. When Jesus stops by -- wearing that brim hat, wife-beater and jeans -- there's lots of picture-posing with the hero.
If Jesus' pro career takes off, more Phoenix fighters will get noticed. That's the way it works, Cameron Dunkin says.
"We've got a lot of extremely talented boxers," Democratic State Representative Ben Miranda says. He should know; he's also the attorney for Michael Carbajal, the last great Phoenix boxer. The prospect Miranda likes most is Rafael Valenzuela, currently rated No. 1 by USA Boxing at 119 pounds. Miranda says he could one day make more money than Jesus. "He may be the complete package," Miranda observes.
A boxer Cameron Dunkin mentions is Jesus' friend and Ernie's trainee, Erick Vega. He's currently ranked seventh by USA Boxing at 201 pounds. "I think I've got a good shot [at the Olympics]," Vega says. Then there's George Garcia Jr., who trains at 60th and Grand under his father George Sr. He's ranked second in the amateur super-heavyweight division. This year, he finished second at the U.S. Challenge and U.S. Championships.
As amateurs, both George Garcia Sr. and Ernie Gonzales trained under Willie Borchert, who also trained Louie Espinoza. Louie would become Arizona's first world champion in 1987. Espinoza defended his junior featherweight title three times in eight months. Then, in November of 1987, he lost to Julio Gervacio in a 12-round decision. That following summer, a young Phoenix boxer named Michael Carbajal won a silver medal in Seoul at the Summer Olympics. Two years later, he was a world champion in Espinoza's weight class of 119 pounds.
Twenty-eight blocks from where Carbajal trained lived young Jesus Gonzales, who would follow Carbajal's career closely. Years later, Jesus would be called the best Phoenix prospect since Michael Carbajal.
The ex-champ still lives in Phoenix -- in the same house on Fillmore Street where he grew up.
It's late on a Wednesday when Carbajal answers the knock at his door. He's agreed to talk boxing, but he'll have to be excused, he says, because he's had a couple drinks. He doesn't show it. He's wearing a tee shirt and shorts, and he appears as fit as he was when he last boxed professionally about four years ago.
Asked about the hoopla surrounding Jesus Gonzales, Carbajal says in his high, hoarse voice, "Forget all the hype. [What he would tell Jesus to do is] just believe. In yourself."
Does he think Jesus is the best prospect since he was dominating?
"I look at him and he's got all the talent in the world," Carbajal says. "But his chin is too straight-up. I hope that he does good, but he just don't move enough." Here, demonstrating what he means, Michael stands, puts his fists before his chin, and bobs his head. "He's got to move. If he learns how to move, then I'll say he can do it."
What about the boxing "in" crowd, even people who like and respect Jesus, who say the young boxer has taken too many punches?
Carbajal's still standing, still moving. "Exactly," he says. The ex-fighter stands still suddenly. "He don't move." Carbajal requests that a right hook be thrown at him. He wants to show that by moving his chin with the punch, he can lessen the blow. "That's called rolling. When I fought, I rolled with it."
He plops back down on the couch.
Will an Arizona boxer come along who's better than him?
"I hope so. I don't think it's going to happen for a long time. It's just what I see around," he boasts. "I want it to happen. I know there will be someone."
In the end, it's tough to trust anyone in the boxing world. Or at least trust anybody completely. Because, when it comes to the sweet science, every question is answered with an agenda, a spin and its counter-spin. For instance, the local boxer that Michael Carbajal thinks will be great, maybe even trumping his own success, is Carbajal's 12-year-old nephew, Baby Angel, who trains under the champ.
Carbajal cuts off skeptics who question his nephew's legitimacy, saying he'll bet his house -- that nice, well-furbished house on Fillmore -- that one day Baby Angel will be a world champion. Then he'll repeat his claim. And repeat it again. And with the energy of commitment behind that high, hoarse voice, the former champ is convincing.
But then there's Cameron Dunkin, Jesus' manager. He's convincing, too. He gets impatient at the mention of Carbajal's name, and before what Michael has said about Jesus can be recounted, Cameron Dunkin tells you what he thinks of Michael Carbajal. Michael is "bitter," he contends. Carbajal's afraid Jesus will steal his thunder. Dunkin thinks Carbajal's opinion shouldn't be trusted. Remember, never trust what a fighter says about another fighter, particularly one whose glory is long passed.
Then there's Top Rank. It looks beyond Carbajal. Its agents compare Jesus to De La Hoya. But they have also likened De La Hoya to other prospects. Promoter Bob Arum said during an August press conference, at which the signing of Philadelphia boxer Anthony Thompson was announced: "We compare this with the signing of Oscar De La Hoya. Eleven years later, we've seen Oscar become a superstar. We expect no less of Anthony Thompson."
So what do we know about Jesus' potential if the words of big-time experts are of no help?
Well, what about Jesus in the ring, dancing around his opponents? But this won't do, because the ring, as Ernie Gonzales reasons, can be tainted by politics. Fight judges are sometimes biased, even racist, Ernie insists.
Okay, so what happens when you take away the judges? What happens when only trainers, the real experts, are watching in an atmosphere that's about as far from supercharged big-arena bouts as you can get? In a place where favoritism -- based on anything other than skill and power -- is all but nonexistent?
Before Jesus turned pro, he spent a week at the Kronk gym in Detroit training for that inevitability. This is Emanuel Steward's place, and in late January, he invited the best amateurs in the country -- and some professionals -- to show up and fight. No frills, just sweat and blood. No judges were around, no records kept. Only two guys at a time in the ring preparing for the future. It was the boxing equivalent of Harlem street hoops; respect was what was on the line.
Jesus was trying to cut weight, trying to make 152 pounds, so when he boxed at the Kronk, he often wore long-sleeve shirts and cargo pants. On his hands were huge yellow gloves, nearly comical in their dimensions, that protected his fists and built his strength. At the Kronk, it was nearly as important for Jesus to train well as to win. Nearly.
"He whupped everybody," Emanuel Steward recalls.
Guys his weight, heavyweights, professionals -- it didn't matter. If they wanted to come at Jesus hard and fast, he'd return the favor until they'd be doubled over, protecting themselves in a corner. Then he'd slow it down. Work through his combinations. On a whim, he'd speed it up again. The opponents would retreat again, protecting themselves once more.
Jesus fought eight guys that week. He dominated every one.
Jesus knocked most guys down. If he'd been wearing lighter gloves, he brags, he would have knocked them out. Maybe so. When he sparred with Eric Kelly (a 170-pound 2000 Olympic hopeful out of Brooklyn), he knocked Kelly clean out of the ring.
Most of the time, guys wouldn't watch the sparring that closely, preferring to hit the speed bag instead. But when Jesus sparred, everybody watched. One of the fighters keeping a close eye on the young fighter from Phoenix was Thomas "The Hitman" Hearns, the former middleweight and light heavyweight world champion who still lives in the Detroit area.
Hearns pulled Jesus aside and told him to keep it up -- keep doing what he was doing. Maybe The Hitman saw a little of himself in the hard-punching Jesus.
For Emanuel Steward, the Kronk is proof of what's in store for Jesus Gonzales. But maybe it's best to also remember what happened two months after Jesus mowed down or bowled over everybody at the Kronk.
For whatever reason -- politics, fatigue, racism, illness, lack of skill, lack of savvy -- he lost to Andre Dirrell.
E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 602-238-4807.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.