Raw Shark

"I'm here every day," the guy says. "Well, every day except Sunday. Sunday is for family and God."

The guy is Mexican, handsome, in his 30s, with a mustache and a smile like sunlight. He has a taco stand on Van Buren near 17th Avenue. The stand has been there for about a month.

"It's hard setting up in business," he says. But it doesn't seem to be getting to him. He grills strips of beef over mesquite, then cuts the beef into small pieces and puts it in tacos, cooked to order for each customer.

The stand is in the parking lot of Madison Square Garden Boxing Gymnasium, and the irresistible cooking smell beckons the people coming and going for workouts.

It's around 8 p.m., the middle of September. Traffic on Van Buren is about as light as it gets, which isn't very light at all. Twenty-year-old cars cruise up and down, and people mumble to themselves on the broken sidewalks. The daylight is just beginning to fade, and the air is warm, but no longer hot.

The taco stand only has two tables, so it looks like business is booming. At one table sits a couple with a child. A reporter shares the other table with a guy suffering from drunkenness or mental instability or both. He swaggered up to the vendor and ordered, "Make me one." As he reached into his pocket for the couple of dollars he needed, he lost his balance slightly and stumbled backward. The vendor wasn't fazed at all. He was polite to the guy, and waved him toward the table the reporter was sitting at.

Now they all sit there, the five customers, and eat their freshly cooked tacos. And the barrio does its business as the sun goes down. Inside the gymnasium, fighters jump rope, hit bags and each other, preparing for whatever comes next.

Carlos Tarin is one of them.

Carlos Tarin is 19 years old. Small and heavily muscled, he has the demeanor of a cheerful executioner. There's nothing belligerent about his manner, yet he gives off a slightly menacing vibe, and would even if you didn't know his occupation. His vibe isn't one of anger, but of a surgical capacity for destruction. If he gets a nickname, it ought to be "Tiburon," which is Spanish for "Shark." Just as a shark relentlessly moves forward, devouring whatever it sees and wants, Tarin is a calm and unblinking predator. Like a shark, he shows no malice--but if he sees the need to hurt you, he'll do it without pause or remorse.

I first saw Tarin in June 1997, at an amateur boxing show in the Madison Square Garden gym. It was one of the most shockingly vicious displays of sustained pressure I have ever seen in a boxing ring. His opponent struggled heroically just to last the three-round distance and lose on points. The guy showed sound boxing skill, but against Tarin all he could do was survive. Tarin never let up, never gave the guy any room. Joe Louis once said that in the ring you can run but you can't hide, and Tarin barely let his opponent run. He constantly advanced, cutting off the ring, making the guy's space smaller and smaller. Then the guy would have no space left except for the few inches between his body and Tarin's fists. And those fists traveled that distance with frightening ease.

As he pounded the guy, Tarin's little sister stood on a chair and yelled encouragement, clapping her hands, laughing every time he connected. He would probably have stopped the guy in the third round, but by then he was tired, and although Tarin's foe was spent, it lasted until the final bell.

That night I started to believe something I still believe more than a year later: Carlos Tarin has the most raw talent of any boxer in the Valley.

Of course, right now, at the start of his professional career, he's by no means the best pro fighter in the Valley. I would give that accolade to another up-and-comer, Joe-Joe Varela. The great Michael Carbajal is well past his prime.

But Tarin has the kind of tools that might allow him to reach the pinnacles of Carbajal or, more aptly in his case, Julio Cesar Chavez. He needs lots of experience and refinement in using those tools. For now, he shows a naivete and sense of vulnerability that clashes startlingly with his power.

So who is Carlos Tarin?
A lightweight boxer with scary hitting power. A 19-year-old with the usual unpredictable temperament. A guy with two brothers and four sisters who lives with his family near 42nd Avenue and Cypress. A guy who speaks Spanish when he speaks at all. An athlete of immense promise who doesn't take himself too seriously, and who tends to answer questions with a shrug of his shoulders. A kid who finished high school last year and worked in construction and now trains and fights full-time, supported by his family. An ordinary working-class kid who doesn't like to do much except dance and hang out with his friends.

An extraordinary fighter. And a very ordinary kid.
There are people who fight to live, and there are people who live to fight. The former, people like Gene Tunney, go into boxing, make some money, and get out. They have lives outside of boxing. The latter group, whose members include Chavez and Roberto Duran, keep on going. Not for money, but because they need to fight. Fighting is who they are, and they barely exist without it. Talk to anyone who knows him, and you quickly learn that Carlos Tarin is in this category.

Heading toward his first pro fight, Tarin had an amateur record of 30-4. He was the 1994 junior Olympic champion. He won the Arizona Golden Gloves in 1995 and 1996. He was state and regional champion in 1997.

His first pro opponent, Larry Pirtle of Tucson, is obviously no stiff, either. Also fighting pro for the first time, Pirtle has an amateur record of 40-5.

The fight takes place September 15 at Midnight Rodeo, the former Graham Central Station at 33rd Avenue and Indian School. It's busy. The crowd is mixed. It's mostly Latino, but there are black and white people there, too. This is the way of it at most boxing shows in the Valley, with a few exceptions (the crowds at the Celebrity Theatre are preppier than the Esplanade). Shows at the Celebrity Theatre are advertised. Most shows elsewhere aren't, except for ads in publications that cater to Spanish speakers. Most of the spectators are family or friends of the fighters. To get on the September 15 card, each fighter had to sell $900 worth of tickets. The Valley boxing scene is a self-supporting, self-financing community.

A little girl gets in the ring and sings the national anthem. Then the fights start. The Diamondbacks game on a giant TV screen continues uninterrupted. Waitresses mill around, approaching any customer who doesn't have a full glass or bottle.

"How ya doin', hon? All right?"
I watch the first fight, and then go to look for the dressing room.
There isn't one. The fighters get ready in a barroom next door. It's large and bare, with a couple of pool tables and nothing else. But Tarin is there, with family and friends and his manager and trainer. The latter are father and son, Richard Rodriguez and Ricky Ricardo Rodriguez.

Richard is a solemn man with silver hair and beard. Ricky Ricardo is joviality made flesh. He's dark-haired and clean-shaven. Both father and son have the same heavy build, and, when you view them from behind in their matching shirts with their fighter's name on the back, they look comically similar.

Together they run Madison Square Garden, one of the best gyms on the scene. The gym Carlos Tarin showed up at one day three years ago, back when he was a brawling kid full of fight and empty of technique.

Tarin doesn't speak much English. But it wouldn't matter if he did--he isn't much given to talking. Tonight he's even quieter than usual, sullen and focused. Even the perennially cheerful Ricky Ricardo is a little subdued. There's nothing to talk about right now, so I wish Tarin luck and leave him alone.

Mexican-American fighters have a different mindset from Anglos. And Mexican fighters have a different mindset from Mexican-Americans. When Julio Cesar Chavez fights Oscar De La Hoya, the latter's fans chant, "Oscar, Oscar . . ." But Chavez's fans don't chant his name. They chant, "Mexico, Mexico . . ." They're a strange subjugation of the ego, a national rather than personal pride.

And there's a particularly Mexican style of fighting, a style embodied by Chavez. A style that disdains defense, a style whose emphasis is on heart rather than skill. In the Mexican pugilistic mindset, the best defense is relentless attack, and toughness and endurance are revered much more than skill.

Carlos Tarin is not only a Mexican citizen. He's a Mexican fighter. When the emcee introduces him, he says he's "fighting for the honor of his country." It's easy to scoff, to say that Mexico could give a rat's ass about the success or failure of a boxer. But you'd be wrong. The huge crowds that the fading Chavez draws in mediocre fights south of the border tell you that Mexico may be in a hell of a state, but it cares about boxing.

Tarin has no interest in showboating. He stands impatiently in his corner while the announcements are made. The referee calls both fighters to ring center for their final instructions. Then they go back to their corners and the bell rings.

It's immediately clear that Larry Pirtle is an excellent boxer. A lithe, loose-limbed man, he has a quick and accurate jab, and puts combinations together with startling quickness.

And he's taking a beating.
It doesn't look that way at first. As Tarin stalks out for the first round, Pirtle dances, snapping out his jab, trying to get his measure. Tarin tries to jab in return, but his jabs are out of distance and he looks clumsy. Then he composes himself and starts cutting off the ring. He backs Pirtle to the ropes and moves in close. Then he explodes.

I mean "explodes" almost literally. When Tarin throws his concussive hooks, he seems to expand, to grow bigger. He throws four to the body, and Pirtle avoids being cut in half by taking them on his arms. But this brings Pirtle's hands down, and Tarin somehow knows the opening is coming. It's a myth that a fighter sees an opening and strikes at it, because as soon as a good fighter leaves an opening, he quickly closes it. You have to strike at the opening before it appears. You have to sense that it's coming. Tarin sensed this one, and is throwing an arcing left hook over the top as Pirtle's hands come down. It nails Pirtle on the side of the head. He grabs Tarin, turns him and dances away. He's smiling, shaking his head, trying to laugh it off. But he didn't like it.

Round two. Pirtle fights cleverly in a peekaboo style, but Tarin won't let him into the fight. Pirtle lands some snappy jabs and a couple of solid hooks, but Tarin doesn't blink. Halfway through the round, Pirtle is reduced to spoiling--holding on, waltzing, roughing up in the clinches. Tarin is relentless, throwing punches all the time, his face expressionless.

Things are different in the third round. Tarin suddenly seems tired. More and more of his punches are thrown out of distance, and Pirtle is scoring with his jab. When Tarin tries to get into distance, Pirtle dances aside easily. For the first time, Tarin holds on to Pirtle. But then he opens up from the clinch, banging a couple of hooks at Pirtle's body. One of them lands, and Pirtle spends the last 10 seconds of the round clinging like a leech.

In the fourth and last round, both fighters are exhausted. Pirtle has an excuse--he's taken withering punishment. But Tarin hasn't paced himself. Even though this fight is only one round longer than the amateur distance he's used to, Tarin has all but punched himself out.

And Pirtle wants to win. Sensing his chance, he fights back hard. When he needs a rest, he ties up Tarin. Pirtle has the look of a seasoned pro--he knows how to use the ropes, how to lean on his opponent, how to use his head in the clinches. Tarin's cornermen suddenly look concerned. "Arriba!" Richard Rodriguez yells, as Tarin stands in front of Pirtle, trying to decide what to do next. Tarin's aggression is rekindled, but his punching is now more like pummeling. When the bell ends the fight, both fighters seem relieved. But Tarin doesn't look happy.

The unanimous decision goes to Tarin. Ricky Ricardo grabs him around the waist and hoists him into the air. Tarin's face still has no expression.

When Tarin leaves the ring, he walks through a line of supporters who chant his name (he'll have to win some world titles before they chant the name of his homeland). A small kid with a shaved head lectures him in Spanish.

In the barroom/dressing room, Tarin looks bemused as a reporter from a daily paper interviews Ricky Ricardo. As Ricky Ricardo answers the guy's questions, Tarin gazes into space, rubbing his head. Then he turns and starts talking to his friends.

After the reporter leaves, Ricky Ricardo and Tarin huddle in a corner together and say a prayer. "I always say a prayer for my boys," Ricky Ricardo tells me afterward. This is unsurprising. Both Rodriguezes are devoutly religious. One wall of their gymnasium is adorned with a shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Ricky Ricardo prays before and after a fight. Not for victory, he says. "But just that neither of the boys gets hurt, that nobody ends up in the hospital." After the fight, he says a prayer of thanks that both winner and loser are all right.

Is he disappointed with Tarin's performance?
"No. I'm very pleased. You've got to expect ins and outs. It was his first time as a pro. He needs to run hills. I'll have him running South Mountain. He needs to strengthen his lungs. Tonight he was tired, trying to breathe for more air. . . ."

Why did he get so tired?
"He was trying too hard. He needs to relax. He was trying to knock the kid out. The other kid was strong, he was in good shape. I told Carlos to relax, and come up to the jab. But he was nervous."

I say he didn't look nervous.
Ricky Ricardo laughs. "I'm very proud of Carlos. He's still got a long way to go. But he could be another Chavez if he puts his mind to it. He's come a long way."

It's been a long way in a short time. Carlos Tarin has only been in the United States for five years. He came from Chihuahua, Mexico. He started boxing at the age of 16. The reason is the typical one, the one given by so many boxing champions--he was always getting into fights. He loved to fight, and was constantly being sent home from school.

When he came to Madison Square Garden, Richard Rodriguez could see his potential almost immediately.

"Kids come here for one reason and one reason only," Richard says. "To become a good fighter. They sometimes get angry because I won't put them in the ring right away. But Carlos just did what I told him to do. He never argued." He smiles. "He's a very quiet kid, as you can see. You can hardly get a word out of him. But he can fight."

Tarin had been training for only three months when he entered the local Copper Gloves tournament. He lost his first organized fight on points. His opponent was the experienced Ramon Olivas, who went on to become a national champion.

I sit in the office at Madison Square Garden and talk to Tarin through an interpreter. His older brother, Jose, is beside him. His cousin, a little boy, clings to his leg and jumps on his lap. His father, Urbano, a quiet, dignified man, leans against a wall, laughing from time to time but saying little.

How did it feel to lose his first amateur fight?
Tarin shrugs. "It gave me more faith in myself. He was experienced, and I still gave him a good fight. When we fought again, I beat him."

What about the fight with Pirtle?
Another shrug. "I watched the tape, and I know I could have done better. I was nervous because it was my pro debut and I wanted to do well. I was looking for a knockout. I was tired, and the guy was riding on me. I got head-butted three times. But I felt in control."

What does he want from boxing?
Shrug. "I want to make a career out of it. But I'll probably retire if I lose a bad fight."

So that's something he thinks about?
"No. I always have it in mind that I'm going to win."

But he must think about it, because he knows it can happen. He's been there already. He was TKO'd as recently as April, in an amateur fight in Las Vegas. It's the only fight he has lost inside the distance. And it was his own lack of discipline, not his opponent, that beat him.

It was a tournament. Having made weight, and after knocking out his first opponent, he took off for hours and went on an eating binge. He came back and fought his next match stuffed with food. He was going well until the third round when his opponent, Daniel Felix, dropped him. He got up, but the referee stopped it. Tarin was disgusted with himself, because he knew he had the fight won. He swears that it won't happen again, and Richard Rodriguez believes him. "It's the one time he's ever disobeyed me," he says.

Richard knows his protege will have to be watched carefully.
"Against Pirtle, he showed that he still has the amateur in him," he says. "When his opponent was holding on to him, he was waiting for the referee to break it up, instead of fighting his way out of it. But he's gonna learn from his mistakes."

The plan for the immediate future is simple: Tarin will fight a four-rounder every month until January, when he'll step up to six. In June, he'll start fighting eight rounds.

At this stage of his career, Tarin can only expect to make about $100 for each scheduled round.

"His family helps him," says Richard. "He was working with his brother in construction, but his brother sent him home to train full-time. A few months ago, a brick fell on his face. I don't want that, and the family doesn't want that. Our goal is to make him a world champion."

The next step on that road is his second pro fight. It's on October 13 at Midnight Rodeo.

Outside the gym, the owner of the taco stand is cooking for a customer. I ask him how business is going, if it looks like it will work out. He says it's good so far, but you can never be sure how something's going to work out. He's simply doing his best.

Just like Carlos Tarin.

Contact Barry Graham at his online address: [email protected]

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Barry Graham