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.