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Elvis and the Dark Side of the Moon
By Enrique Encinosa
The first time I saw Elvis Yero was in 1984, when I attended an amateur show at the Virrick Gym in Coconut Grove.
The gym was located in an old Coast Guard armory overlooking Miami's Brickell Bay, the boxing arena sharing a parking lot with a seafood restaurant; the scent of salt spray from the bay mixing with the crisp aroma of conch fritters and breaded shrimp.
I follow and enjoy the pros more, but there's something very pure and clean about an amateur show. The fighters are young -some still children- but they are eager, compensating their lack of experience with enthusiasm.
In an amateur show everyone is a dreamer. Fantasy collides with reality, but fantasies are sometimes fulfilled.
Elvis Yero was the featured dreamer of the night.
Havana born and Miami grown Elvis -named after the man from Tupelo- loomed as a promoter's dream.
He was a handsome teenager with chestnut hair and a soft smile, articulate, extremely polite and well mannered, a boy who enjoyed sketching and painting. Even while still attending high school, he already seemed marked for greatness.
He could fight.
The slim, good-looking surfer-type was a natural. He laced on a pair of boxing gloves at the age of fifteen and won his first tournament a few weeks later. Yero stormed through the amateurs winning two state Golden Glove titles back to back, the Sunshine Games, and the AAU regional. By his senior year in high school Elvis Yero was the 1984 United States Amateur 139-Pound Champion, a feat accomplished with a streak of wins over the best prospects in the nation, many of them full grown men. Previous U.S. champions in this weight class included Tommy Hearns -in 1977- Don Curry -in 1978- and Johnny Bumphus in 1980. It was royal company for a high school boy.
The first time I saw Yero fight he arrived at Virrick Gym followed by an entourage of high school cronies that included very young girls with very short skirts and very young boys with loud attitudes. Elvis moved among them as royalty, clearly enjoying being the center of attention without being perceived as vain -a difficult feat for a high school kid.
In the ring he impressed. His moves were fluid, well-balanced, jab working at good distance, hooks thrown without telegraphing. His opponent, a muscular, squat fighter -who learned to box in the state penitentiary gyms and the smokers at the migrant worker camps of Belle Glade- crumbled in the second round.
After the victory young girls surrounded Yero and he smiled, probably feeling invincible and immortal as all adolescents feel, particularly when they are well known, tasting the fame of press conferences and interviews.
Fame is a harsh mistress, particularly for one so young. Behind the smile and polite manners, beyond the artwork and the ring performances, Elvis Yero was a tortured soul, a vulnerable boy who hid his demons well.
His first arrest came while still an amateur. A man by the name of Diegstad, the husband of a county judge, argued with Elvis on a street corner. Diegstad had a short temper and Elvis did not seem very threatening dressed in jeans and shirt. Diegstad crossed a line that should not have been crossed and Elvis placed him in the hospital.
Yero spent four months in Dade County jail awaiting trial, for his family could not post bond. At his jury trial he was acquitted.
The downward slide had begun.
Elvis liked the limelight; the backslapping friends, the naked bodies of young girlfriends and the drugs that made him feel mellow or invincible. The harder drugs took over and the man-child became a cokehead by the time he was out of high school and ready to turn pro.
How fast hard drugs can deteriorate a young body was exemplified in the case of Elvis Yero. The lightning quick, gifted prospect of the amateurs looked like a worn-out old pro while he was barely out of his teens. His manners were still impeccable and when given advice he would confess to being a fool. Yet, he continued to slack off in training, disappeared for days on drug binges, was arrested for being intoxicated in public, for lewd behavior, for possession of drugs. He went to jail for a few weeks and then went back to the streets to repeat his self-destructive cycle.
Former lightweight contender Frankie Otero featured Elvis in four of his boxing promotions.
"He was a tremendous talent," Frankie says, "he was the full package, a good-looking Cuban fighter, a hometown hero with a following and talent of world class potential, articulate and nice. Everyone liked Elvis."
"He fought for me four times," Otero continues, "and he won all four but he did not look like the same fighter who we saw in the amateurs. He was never in shape. Even when he trained hard he was using drugs and staying up nights and he looked like an old man real fast."
"In one of the cards I scheduled him to fight Jesus Perez, who is a tough prelim fighter, the kind that fights rarely but spends a lot of time in the gym sparring with everyone."
"Then Elvis disappears a week before the fight and no one can find him for four days. He comes back and beats Perez but he has scary moments winning that fight. Perez nails him some clean shots that he would have avoided in his amateur days. Elvis looked slow that night, very sluggish and he was in his early twenties."
"After that fight, when I was making out the checks for the fighters, Elvis insisted on being paid in cash. He was usually very soft spoken but that night he was agitated. Not rude. Elvis was never rude. He said he needed the cash to pay the rent so he would not be evicted that night, but he probably needed the money to get high."
Yero, who fought pro as a welterweight and junior middleweight, lost on points to Kenny Ellis in a six round slugfest and continued his downward spiral.
More arrests followed, for panhandling, drinking in public, disorderly conduct, grand theft auto, dealing in stolen property, domestic violence, selling and using marihuana and cocaine. His rap sheet would compile over 50 arrests in less than two decades.
"He would go to jail for a few weeks," Frankie said, "and come back out and train for a while, have one fight and then go back to jail for a few days. I 'll tell you one thing about Elvis: he was tough."
"He was just a kid when I sent him to spar with Aaron Pryor for two weeks. Pryor was in some island -I think it was Saint Martin- and he needed a sparring partner for a couple of weeks, so I offered Elvis the chance. Most kids that age would have a moment's hesitation before traveling to an unknown place to trade shots with a world champion, but Elvis just nodded and thanked me for the opportunity. Pryor later remarked that they had worked hard and Elvis held his own. He was a tough guy."
In 1990 Yero was shot in the hand during an incident in which he tried to sell twenty dollars worth of crack to an undercover police officer. "Even then," Frankie says, "he came back and beat Johnny McClendon, but he was winning at the six round level against club fighters when he should have been fighting main events against champions and contenders."
In 1993 Elvis was shot in the stomach during a street mugging over drugs. Yero survived in spite of damaged lungs and liver but his boxing career ended with that shootout.
His only moments of achievement and pride had been in the ring, where he maintained a winning record in spite of his lifestyle. When his boxing dream disappeared, his last shred of will power went also. The championship dreams were traded for a constant numbness induced by crack and alcohol.
Elvis Yero disappeared from the boxing scene in 1993.
He died on Saturday, October 13, 2001 -of a crack overdose- in room 212 of the Gold Dust Motel, a loud blue and white two-story structure on the edge of a harsh Miami ghetto, next door to a strip theater. Elvis Yero was thirty-six years old.
The story does not merit a headline. Crack junkies die every day, the lucky ones, anyway. There's Robert Ayala, a Hialeah welterweight of the late sixties who mixed the wrong pills with the wrong booze and has spent over a decade and half as a vegetable, breathing but not really alive.
Frankie Otero and I have talked about Yero often in the last days, saddened when we see life and talent wasted, promise abandoned.
"There's a poem that applies here," I said.
"So how does it go?" Frankie asked.
"Of all the sad words / of tongue or pen / The saddest are these / It might have been."
"Who wrote that?"
" I think it was John Greenleaf Whittier. Correct me if I'm wrong."
"Like I would know," Frankie answered with a smile, "but it does apply."
"Yeah," I said, "because in real life, the saddest thing is to stop dreaming and trying."
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