Young Female Promoter Vows to Return Pro Boxing to Glory in Arizona Despite Anti-Immigrant Laws That Have Put It on the Ropes
Michelle Rosado stands a few feet from the ropes, bouncing back and forth and clapping her hands as the ring announcer summons Phoenix fighter Alexis "Beaver" Santiago to his corner.
It's Rosado's debut boxing show — Friday Night Fights — and Santiago, a local favorite, is going against Walter Santilbanes in a professional super-bantamweight (119 to 121 pounds) bout.
Santilbanes, also from the Valley, already has entered the ring and is primed, waiting for his opponent to emerge from a back room of the Madison Events Center, the downtown Phoenix venue Rosado has rented for the evening.
This is the last fight before the main event on the card, and fans glance around in search of Santiago, who has not yet appeared.
Suddenly, security officers clear a path through the standing-room crowd packed in the venue's aisles.
Then, trumpets blast through the rumble of the crowd with the melody of a familiar Mexican ballad — "No Me Sé Rajar (I Won't Give Up)." The more than 900 fight fans rise to their feet as Santiago and his entourage march toward the ring. The throng roars with delight as two men holding a giant, silky Mexican flag lead a procession of Santiago, his boxing crew, and Banda La Llegadora, one of the finest Mexican bands in Phoenix.
"Yo soy de los hombre que no temen nada y, aunque esté perdido, no me sé rajar!" the band's singer croons about a man with no fear who doesn't know how to give up, even when a cause seems lost.
While the trumpets, guitars, drums, and tuba play on, the singer, microphone in hand, climbs into the elevated ring with Santiago and performs the rest of the ballad.
Santiago dances on his toes from one corner of the ring to the other, sporting the red, white, and green of the Mexican flag on his shorts and pumping his big gloves in the air.
Santilbanes hangs back as Santiago revs up the crowd.
Rosado, still standing ringside, grins as the band departs, leaving the audience howling with pleasure and pumped for the fight.
At the opening bell, the boxers start pummeling each other mercilessly.
The audience chants, "Beaver! Beaver!" — a nickname that Santiago's teeth earned him at a Phoenix boxing gym years ago.
After the final bell, the judges render their ruling, and Santiago walks away with a split-decision victory.
Rosado, a Puerto Rican American, spent months organizing the eight-bout event employing professional fighters (for six of the fights) and amateurs (for the opening two). Days before the April 8 fight night, Santiago asked Rosado whether he could hire musicians to perform as he walked toward the ring.
She said yes, hoping the stunt would resonate with the audience of overwhelmingly Latino fans at a time when the political climate in Arizona vilifies all things Mexico.
Two weeks before the event, it was Richard Soto, a longtime ring announcer hired by Rosado to work the show, who had revved boxing fans during a pre-fight press conference.
"We're bringing boxing back to Phoenix! We're re-energizing boxing fans in Arizona!" he bellowed from a lectern on the patio of La Canasta Capitolio, a Mexican restaurant near 17th Avenue and Van Buren Street.
"We have to bring back what the politicians have taken from us!"
The Latino-dominated boxing industry in Arizona believes that politicians who have crafted anti-immigration laws for nearly a decade largely are to blame for the sport's waning popularity.
And it's true that the state's harsh anti-immigrant climate hasn't made it easy for Rosado and other industry insiders to stage a comeback for the sport here.
The World Boxing Council, for instance, won't bring fighters to the state these days because of what it believes are "racist" laws and policies promoting racial profiling.
But the sport also has steadily lost fans across the United States, especially as mixed martial arts, a full-body-combat sport, has gained mainstream popularity.
Rosado says, "Tougher immigration laws are [why] boxing took a dive in Arizona, along with the fall of the economy, and MMA taking over by storm."
Michelle Rosado's uphill battle to revive fan interest in boxing isn't helped by the sport's checkered past here and across the country.
Then, there's the anti-Mexican sentiment in Arizona.
Mexican fighters must prove that they are in Arizona legally — which isn't the case in other states. California and Texas, for example, require only that fighters prove they are medically fit to fight.
Many national boxing matchmakers, Rosado says, believe Arizona is the hardest place in the United States to organize a fight card.
Richard Soto insists the anti-immigrant sentiment that hangs over the state "really is hurting boxing in Arizona.
"A lot of major promoters don't want to bring their fighters here," he says. "In the past four, five years, it's been very difficult."
State lawmakers have created an anti-immigrant culture for the better part of a decade by adopting statutes that foster an unwelcoming, often hostile environment for Mexican immigrants.
In 2004, Arizona adopted a law that required voters to provide proof of citizenship to cast ballots. In later years, lawmakers crafted measures mandating that Arizona employers verify employees' eligibility to work legally; that state authorities deny such public benefits as food stamps and unemployment pay to those who can't verify their legal status; and that education officials require undocumented college students to pay out-of-state tuition.
The cries against immigrants from the south reached a new crescendo last year with Senate Bill 1070, a law aimed at turning all Arizona police officers into immigration-enforcement agents.
A federal judge has blocked most of the relevant provisions of SB 1070 until courts determine whether they are constitutional.
Whether or not stringent provisions of the law ever go into effect, 1070's signing into law by Governor Jan Brewer soured the Mexico-based World Boxing Council on Arizona, and in April 2010, the council banned Mexican fighters from competing in the state.
The WBC issued a statement saying the state's anti-immigration efforts are "shameful, inhuman, and discriminatory."
Oscar de la Hoya, president of Golden Boy Promotions and a famed Los Angeles ex-boxer with 10 world titles in his professional career, also stays away — and keeps his fighters away — from Arizona.
De la Hoya, whose parents immigrated to the United States from Mexico, called 1070 a "racist" law in an interview with Norm Frauenheim of www.15rounds.com.
Rosado believes that she can move past such political sentiment by highlighting Valley up-and-comers, such as Emilio Colon-Garcia, Jose Benavidez Jr., and Santiago.
Her philosophy worked for her first Friday Night Fights show, which sold out.
She provided ringside seating for $60 per ticket. Those in the good seats were treated to good views of not only the fighters but traditional bikini-clad ring girls marking the start of each round, as well as access to drink-carrying waitresses.
General admission seating was $25.
Rosado plans to do it again at her second show, slated for July 22 at the Madison Events Center.
"I want to give these young boxers a chance to showcase their talents and give fans something to get excited about," she says.
She knows that it will take more than the occasional entertaining boxing show to win back boxing fans in Arizona. A local boxing champion that fans can rally around would help.
At Central Boxing Gym, one of the dozens of boxing facilities in the Valley, a stable of starry-eyed fighters train on punching bags, jab at invisible opponents, and jump rope furiously.
Eric Delgado Chavez, 25, who won his first amateur fight recently, shadowboxes in front of a wall of mirrors.
He spends 90 minutes training in the gym every evening and another hour running through Papago Park every morning.
"You gotta give up the good stuff," he says. "Junk food, drinking alcohol, staying out late partying.
"It's a sacrifice," he says. "But I just visualize myself winning a match, maybe one day becoming a successful professional boxer."
Santiago Castañeda, a manager and trainer at Central Boxing Gym, near 17th Avenue and Van Buren, has trained Valley fighters for 15 years. Castañeda doesn't lay all the blame for local boxing's demise on anti-immigrant laws. He says most local fighters haven't been willing to do what it takes over the past decade.
"If [enough] fighters don't take the sport seriously, the sport's not going to go anywhere," he says. "It takes a lot of dedication."
Arizona fans have not seen a local fighting sensation since Michael Carbajal, a four-time world light-flyweight (no more than 108 pounds) champion whose last bout was in 1999.
"It's such hard work," says Jose Benavidez Sr., whose son, Jose Benavidez Jr., is hailed as one of Arizona's top boxing prospects.
The undefeated 18-year-old light-welterweight (weight limit 140 pounds) went pro in January 2010 and has 10 wins under his belt, nine by knockout.
Jose Jr. fought at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas on May 7 — on the same ticket as the headlining, much-hyped welterweight (141-147 pounds) title fight between defending World Boxing Organization champion Manny "Pac-Man " Pacquiao and "Sugar" Shane Mosley, a former champion who'd hoped to regain the title. Benavidez Jr. and Pacquiao walked away with wins.
"It's pretty much sacrifice, sacrifice, sacrifice" for the young fighter, says Benavidez, who is managing his son's boxing career.
"Everyone wants to be a champion, and they work hard to get to where they win a few fights, and then they think they can kick back and relax," he says. "And Phoenix is so small they think they're superstars."
Benavidez says he has heard pitches from fly-by-night promoters who talk about reviving the sport, but he believes Michelle Rosado could be the real deal.
Rosado made frequent trips to local gyms to get to know trainers, managers, and fighters.
"When Michelle first came around talking about how she was going to bring back boxing, we were just thinking, 'Yeah, we've heard this before,'" he says.
It didn't take long for Benavidez to develop respect for Rosado, who has been a boxing fan since she sat in the living room of her Philadelphia home with her father and watched televised fights featuring legends Tommy "Hitman" Hearns, Mike Tyson, and Felix "Tito" Trinidad.
"With her first show, she's already proven that she's different," Benavidez says. "She has this nobody-is-going-to-mess-with-me attitude. I've never met anyone like her."
Before her first big event, the raven-haired diva, 31, wears the attitude Benavidez mentions as boldly as she wears her black, five-inch heels and black, tight dress with a plunging neckline.
She clicks around the Madison Events Center, checking on fighters, their trainers, a disc jockey, the ring announcer, the ring girls, and the volunteer event staff she had assembled, a team that includes her sister, Jennifer, a family friend, and a former neighbor. She also checks on the regular Madison event staff, including food vendors and security personnel.
It's a windy evening and a crowd is lining up outside for the opening night of Friday Night Fights. The doors to Madison were supposed to open at 6 p.m. for a pre-fight happy hour, but last-minute sound checks are still under way, and cartloads of Bud Light and Tecate still are getting rolled in.
Swelling by the minute, the crowd is antsy to get inside. Rosado looks nervously at the time as she shoots from one side of Madison to another, the control freak in her wanting to supervise every aspect of the event.
"I want to make sure everything is perfect," she says. "I want to greet everyone, make them feel welcome. And I need to keep an eye on my staff."
Rosado rechecks the table where her sister and a friend sit. They are in charge of handing out press credentials and pre-paid tickets.
"So, tell me again, how are you going to . . .," Rosado starts to quiz Jennifer on how she plans to handle the flow of fans as they enter the arena.
Jennifer cuts her off: "Michelle, we know how to hand out tickets! We know what we're doing."
The older sister, unfazed by her sibling's eye-rolling, gives out a few more instructions before she grabs an oversize bag tucked behind a partition and slings it over her shoulder.
She moves quickly down a hallway toward the back room, where some of the fighters are warming up. Some punch the air or their trainers' padded mitts, others get their fists wrapped with gauze and tape.
She heads for the ladies' room, where she touches up her makeup and fluffs her hair.
When the doors finally open about 6:45 p.m., her original fear that no one would show up turns into angst when she realizes that she will have to turn people away.
As the fans pour into the downtown Phoenix venue, they are greeted by Mexican songs, such as Vicente Fernandez's "Volver, Volver," blasting from huge speakers mounted above the ring.
Only a section of roped-off ringside chairs are assigned, so fans scurry to get the best vantage points for the bouts in the 900-plus-seat arena. Finally, people fill up the standing-room areas.
The sold-out show is a good sign for Valley boxing, as was an event a few weeks earlier, on March 18, when boxing fans packed Celebrity Theatre for "Rise of Phoenix II," an eight-bout event that featured Jesus "El Martillo (The Hammer)" Gonzales, a Phoenix boxer who made his first hometown appearance in four years.
The Madison event marked Rosado as a contender on the Valley boxing scene. Before it, she was a wanna-be, trying to make a name for herself in a man's world.
No one knows that struggle better than Jackie Kallen, the legendary "First Lady of Boxing." Kallen, the first woman to successfully break into big-time pro boxing, has worked with six champions as a manager, publicist, and promoter during three decades in the industry.
Kallen worked as a publicist for Tommy Hearns and managed fighters such as heavyweight Bobby Hitz; middleweight James "Lights Out" Toney, who won the IBF (International Boxing Federation) middleweight world title in 1991; and Bronco McKart, who won the WBO (World Boxing Organization) junior-middleweight world title in 1994.
Kallen's story was portrayed in Against the Ropes, a 2004 film starring Meg Ryan as Kallen.
Rosado opened up to Kallen in an April 27 column by the longtime promoter at www.boxinginsider.com.
Kallen, intrigued by another woman's involvement in the business, chose Rosado as the subject of her second piece for the industry website.
"There's a new face on the boxing front, and it's a pretty, feminine one," Kallen wrote. "Michelle Rosado has tossed her hat into the ring . . . to become part of a heavily male-dominated sport — especially in the role of boxing promoter . . . I'm pulling for you, Michelle."
Like Kallen before her, Rosado's looks haven't hurt her quest to get ahead in the boxing world
Rosado told Kallen: "I don't know how you've done it for over  years. Men always tend to sell women short. I know that there are plenty of people out there — male and female — who are actually rooting for me to fail. I plan to prove them wrong."
"The boxing scene in Phoenix has been really flat these past few years. I [feel] I [can] change all that," she said to Kallen.
Rosado tells New Times that Kallen is her inspiration to succeed: "I can only hope to be half of what she is to the sport."
Rosado says her desire to make changes in Valley boxing comes from a love of the game instilled in her by her late father.
Puerto Rico native Anibal "Kiki" Rosado raised his family in the small community of Bristol, about 20 miles northeast of Philadelphia. He was a chemical engineer who coached at a local high school, was a school board member, dabbled in local politics, and co-founded the Latino Leadership Alliance, a nonprofit organization to mentor young Latinos.
And he loved boxing.
Michelle was raised by her father after her parents divorced, and she adopted his enthusiasm for sports, especially the "sweet science." She never spent time in her room playing with Barbies. She was outside playing catch with her dad or, while in high school, at practice for field hockey, basketball, or softball.
Not surprisingly, she also was a cheerleader.
When the fights were on, she was at her dad's side.
"Boxing was a really big deal for us, for our family," she says. "We couldn't afford to go to boxing matches, but we would always watch them on TV. My dad would invite everyone over, and it would just be this party atmosphere."
Rosado lost her father to cancer on the night of her senior prom. Just two days before the dance, he was admitted to the hospital, a common occurrence during his 20-year battle with the disease.
They talked on the phone before the prom, and he told her to have a good time and take plenty of pictures for him.
Hours later, a call from a family friend sent her rushing from the dance to the hospital. When she got there, he was in the final moments of life.
She held his hand, told him she loved him, and begged him to hang on: "We need you. Please don't leave us," she remembers saying. "But he just couldn't anymore."
Kiki Rosado died at 41, leaving behind Michelle and her younger sister and brother.
She struggled over the loss as she studied engineering, first at the University of Pittsburgh and, later, at Temple University. She never got a degree, but she landed a job at a Philadelphia engineering firm at age 19.
Five years ago, a job offer from Climatec in Phoenix brought her to the Valley. She went to work as a "sales engineer," defined by Climatec as someone who markets the company's energy-efficient technologies to commercial buildings.
As part of her job, the petite, 5-foot Latina has to tour construction sites. On an initial visit to a Phoenix site, she was stopped by the building superintendent and told that she needed to wear a hard hat. He reached for a standard, white construction hat and handed it to her.
She politely declined and walked back to her car.
She came back a couple of minutes later with her own hard hat — a hot-pink number with a Hello Kitty sticker on the side — custom-made for her by one of her other clients.
She walked through the site, making recommendations on the type of equipment they could install in the building to make it the most efficient.
"I could tell they were sizing me up," the self-promoter recalls of that day, grinning. "But 10 minutes into my survey of the site, they're thinking: 'This girl knows her stuff.'"
Once she was here a few years, she started checking out the scant boxing scene in Phoenix and Tucson and eventually started dating a boxer and helping him with his career.
"I can't say I managed him, but I tried to advise him," she tells www.boxingin sider.com. "I soon realized that working with [boxers] is a lot of work. They are demanding at times and want to be treated like . . . champion[s], even if they are . . . four-rounder fighter[s].
"As much as I love the sport, I started to think that I'd do better as a promoter. There are so many young boxers in the Phoenix area who need the exposure and activity."
Her plans started coming together at a boxing match in Tucson, where she met Reggie Demic, a businessman behind Sonoran Capital Group, a boxing-promotions firm.
The two talked about teaming up for events.
Rosado formed Face to Face Events, her own boxing-promotions company, and collaborated with Demic to produce the opening Friday Night Fights — an event that came together using her muscle and his money.
Anti-Mexican sentiment in Arizona has damaged the Latino-dominated boxing scene, for sure. But the popularity of mixed martial arts and professional boxing's shady reputation also have helped put the sport on the ropes.
MMA pits two fighters, usually in a cage, and allows them to use a combination of fighting styles — employing fists, feet, knees, elbows.
"MMA took over boxing [not just in Arizona but across the United States] because it is more violent and physical, while boxing is more skillful," Rosado says. "MMA just exploded, and it took a lot of boxing fans."
Bob Arum, head of Top Rank, a national boxing-promotions company, has been in the business for more than 45 years. He says boxing is making a comeback.
Arum acknowledges that some boxing fans have moved over to mixed martial arts, but he says the combat sport's popularity won't destroy boxing, because MMA's fan base predominantly is young white males.
"Hispanics don't care anything for it," he told USA Today in February. "Most African-Americans don't watch it."
Arum said the increasing populations of American blacks and, especially, Latinos, with whom boxing has a strong fan base, ensure the future success of the sport.
"I really think that great, great years are again coming for boxing in this decade," the 79-year-old promoter exuded.
As proof, Arum noted that he had deals lined up for upcoming boxing matches on Showtime, pay-per-view, HBO, Fox, and ESPN.
Indeed, the number of boxing events scheduled this year in the Valley is slightly outpacing previous years.
Dennis O'Connell, head of the Arizona Boxing Commission, says his office licensed six professional boxing events in 2010, compared to 15 mixed-martial-arts fights. So far this year, there are nine boxing and nine MMA shows on the ABC's books.
A decade ago, Richard Soto says, professional boxing matches were happening once or twice a month in Phoenix and nearly every Friday night in Tucson.
"We are bringing boxing back, slowly but surely," he says.
Overcoming MMA competition might be easier than moving past the corruption that has tainted the sport.
Shady industry players have cheated fighters and trainers out of money, set up unevenly matched fights to unfairly boost the reputation and rank of boxers, and called immigration authorities to report fighters who are in the United States illegally to avoid paying them.
One of the most storied boxing scandals in Arizona culminated last month.
On April 1, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Arthur Anderson sentenced former Top Rank promoter Peter McKinn to five months in jail and six years' probation for his role in a scheme to defraud a local boxing trainer and fighter.
Court records show that McKinn, as part of a plea deal, admitted that he cheated trainer Joe Diaz and his boxer, Ramon Campas, out of money he owed them for a fight in 2004.
McKinn's team of attorneys helped him dodge punishment for nearly seven years, but Diaz and Campas continued fighting for justice.
The criminal case stemmed from a bad $5,000 check McKinn wrote to Diaz for a light-middleweight title fight in May 2004.
"McKinn acted deliberately to avoid responsibility for passing a bad check. He involved others in criminal activity that occurred over a significant period of time, May 8, 2004, to September 20, 2009. [Diaz and Campas] have repeatedly indicated how McKinn's actions affected their . . . lives, and livelihoods," Anderson's ruling states.
McKinn finally pleaded guilty in 2010 to charges of theft and solicitation to commit forgery and perjury.
Diaz, at Rosado's press conference before her first Friday Night Fights event, said he considers McKinn's sentencing a positive sign for Valley boxing.
"A lot of time has been lost," he said, referring to the six years it took for him and Campas to see McKinn go down and to the scandal's damage to the local boxing scene. But he praised Rosado's efforts to restore interest in his sport and proclaimed that "clean air is coming for boxing."
Rosado will join forces again with Tucson boxing promoter Reggie Demic for round two of Friday Night Fights, on July 22 at Madison Events Center.
If she hopes to keep stoking her reputation, she needs to deliver the same level of excitement that fans experienced during her première fight card.
The final bout that night — the main event — is an especially bloody exchange of blows between welterweight fighters Martin Vierra and Marco Mendias.
During round five, Vierra delivers multiple shots to Mendias' face, sending blood, sweat, and saliva into ringside seats. Mendias appears stunned but comes back with jabs to Vierra's ribs.
The fighters continue their bloody dance until the bell gives them a 60-second reprieve.
The bell for round six, the last in the main event, brings the fighters, slathered with Vaseline, out of their corners for more.
More jabs. More uppercuts. More body blows. With each punch, the audience eggs on the fighters to ramp up the aggression.
Chase Corbin, training in Las Vegas with Jeff Mayweather (uncle of famed welterweight champion Floyd Mayweather), was supposed to fight Vierra, but he pulled out because of a family emergency.
Mendias proves to be a good last-minute replacement.
The final bell rings, the men retire to their corners, and announcer Richard Soto enters the ring. Soto reaches over the ropes to get the scorecard from the judges, calls the fighters to the center of the ring, and the referee raises Vierra's arms in a split decision over Mendias.
Rosado has settled into her own corner of Madison, next to the disc jockey and the ring girls, margarita in hand.
She watches the battered fighters leave the ring. She watches the fans. She downs the last of her cocktail, a look of satisfaction spreading across her face.
She thinks her father would be proud.
Rosado didn't make money on her first boxing event. But she says turning a profit doesn't matter at this stage of her career.
"These things take time," she says. "This was our first event, and it was a huge hit. It was surreal."
In her interview with Jackie Kallen, Rosado said that the success of her first Friday Night Fights event proves she is here to stay in the local boxing business.
"People in boxing can now see that I know what I'm doing," she boasted to the original fight diva. "[They can see] that I am serious about it."
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.