Raw Shark

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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.

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Barry Graham