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Marco Antonio, The Prince & the Yemen-Mexico Rivalry
by By Aram Rocky Alkazoff
What about the boxing ethnic rivalry between Mexico and Yemen?
I know this isn't the first story I've ever written on ethnic rivalries in boxing. In fact I just had one published in the Cyber Boxing Zone about the Rocky Marciano versus Muhammad Ali, computer fight of the seventies. In that one I described the tensions in the rivalry between Italian Americans and African Americans in rooting for their favorite sons, in a make-believe match. I knew about that one because I was involved. I also commented on the ethnic rivalry between Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans in the Felix Trinidad versus Fernando Vargas classic, in another story. Those were naturals and both rivalries have a pedigree that goes back to other classic matches like Basilio-Robinson, Marciano-Moore, Chavez-Rosario, Sanchez-Gomez, and more recently DelaHoya-Trinidad.
But what about the ethnic boxing rivalry between Mexico and the country of Yemen?
Did you shake your head at reading that and wonder what the hell I'm talking about? Well it wouldn't surprise me. See all boxing fans know about the pedigree of the proud boxing record of the country of Mexico. We've all seen and read of Saldivar, Chavez, Pintor, Olivares, Zarate, and many, many others. The legend of the never say die, come to fight to the death, Mexican boxer is well known. Boxing fans have come to expect a mighty effort from most Mexican fighters, especially their champions. But what about Yemen? What do we know about the boxing traditions of Yemen?
First of all, I don't think the country of Yemen has any boxing traditions. Not that I know of. In fact I'm not sure if there has been any person much less athlete from Yemen who is known in the main stream media, except for Osama Ben Laden, who is notorious for supposedly masterminding anti US terrorist actions. But boxing? Not any that I knew of; Except for now. See Prince Nassim Hamad is a English citizen and lives in England, his wife English and his children born there. But his parents are from Yemen and he is a Yemeni Englishman.
"Hey I thought he was a Arab" people might say.
Well Arabic is a word describing a world united by language, but by race the only real "Arabs" are those from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and a few other smaller countries. The great majority of the Arabic world like Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and Libya, were conquered by Arabs and by language were thrust into the so called "Arabic world". The Yemenis are real Arabs and Prince Nassim Hamad is of Yemen blood.
I must make this distinction because you have to know these things in understanding the true ethnic rivalry in this story.
Southwest Detroit, Michigan where I live in a ethnic neighborhood, which has the largest Mexican population in Michigan is right next to Dearborn, Michigan which has the largest Arabic population in the United States. But there is a difference.
Like I said, Arabs are diverse and Dearborn has large amounts of Iraqis, Syrians, and Lebanese but they live apart from South Dearborn which borders Southwest Detroit, and is almost all exclusively a Yemeni neighborhood. They are all classified as Arabs, but they know the difference between themselves.
Consequently people from Yemen look different, dress different, act different, and stay in their own neighborhood and stick together clannishly. The other people known as Arab Americans seem to try hard to be Americans and look like other Americans, but the Yemenis seem to cling to their old ways from their country. In South Dearborn you'll see all (no joke, all!) their woman and small girls dressed in old country clothes and with veiled heads, and the men with covered heads and small caps. The Yemen people come to this country to work hard and send money home to a very poor country. Period. They are known, as are the Mexican nationals living in Southwest Detroit, to take the toughest jobs and work as hard as mules for what ever money they can.
Both peoples are very devout, and like the Mexican nationals take their Roman Catholic faith seriously and pile into churches on Sundays showing their devotion, so to do the Yemeni here in South Dearborn take their Islamic faith seriously, and their neighborhood mosque is always busy. From my bedroom at sunup I can hear the Islamic call to prayer every day coming from the Yemani neighborhood, and Catholic churches filled with Mexicans are all over Southwest Detroit, so I know it first hand.
Well getting back to business, everyone knows what rabid fight fans Mexicans are. Everybody has seen them pack arenas in Texas and California to root for their native sons. Back in the seventies when Tommy Hearns slaughtered Pipino Cuevas here in Detroit to start his legend, Cuevas came into Southwest Detroit, and was mobbed by his adoring fans. They crowded the arena the night Tommy Hearns was crowned, and rooted hard for Cuevas in his darkest moment. They were emotional as most Mexican crowds are, and many fistfights with Hearns fans followed the upset. I remember that.
But the Yemeni people are hardly known for being fight fans. They have no history in this sport, that is until Prince Nassim Hamid became arguably the most famous Yemeni in the world, even if he is from England. From that moment, every Yemeni became a Prince Nassim Hamid fan. Notice I said a "Prince Nassim Hamid fan", and not a "boxing fan". See most Mexican fans are boxing fans and are interested in all good fighters and such. But the Yemeni aren't interested in that, just their Prince. In that they are united.
So sometime last year when it was announced that Prince Nassim Hamad was going to defend his title in Detroit against another champion named Soto, who was from Mexico, the neighborhoods woke up. Then as now, I was in the most unique position in the world (no kidding, the whole world) to analyze this thing. I was in the rare position of living exactly inbetween Mexican and Yemeni neighborhoods.
All over the city you saw billboards advertising the coming of "The Prince", colorful and in keeping with his glitzy image. To the Yemeni people this was the biggest thing that had ever hit their community, in a worldly sense.
See like I said, there is a huge Arabic population in Detroit, but the other Arabic people don't relate to Hamid, and aren't really excited by the Prince as are the Yemeni; He belongs to them as far as they are concerned and them alone. See people from Yemen have a certain look physically, short, dark, small boned, hawk faced and intense looking. The Prince is one of them without a doubt, just by looking at him. He is of their flesh literally, and they know it.
"Ain't no Arab that can take a Mexican, Rock," said Rene Martinez, a cook at the "Beefeater" Restaurant, who looks like he is his own best customer. "The Prince got nothing coming!"
The other Chicano seated around him at "Carmen's Bar" all nodded in agreement. The Prince had nothing coming at this bar.
"Its Barerra this time Rock," said Jessie Mendoza, a salt and pepper haired guy I knew from my hitch in Milan Federal Prison, and who was one of the best handball players in the place. "Now he's got to face a puncher. Mexicans have been waiting for this. Either Morales or Barerra. Either one. We've been waiting. That Arab can't beat no real Mexican bad boy."
"He's beaten alot of Mexicans," I said, trying to get them going. "He beat Soto last time in Detroit. He was from Mexico and a champ. Soto didn't even win a round. The Prince ain't no joke now."
"Comon," said Fernie Gomez, a big hard bellied guy from Jalisco, in Mexico, who tended bar. "Rocko. Soto no big thing. Bararra have punch. Fight like Mexican for real. Featherweight is our division. Mexican division."
I started thinking. Vicente Saldivar, Salvador Sanchez, Ruben Olivares, and many more. Fernie was right. No wonder they thought this was their division! They figured Hamid with his flamboyance and flare was a imposter and a intruder on their glory, and that Bararra was going to evict the Prince from the feather throne and return it to its rightful holder. This was Mexican boxing history and these Mexican fans knew their own heritage.
"What you figure the Yemeni people across Dix Avenue are figuring?" I asked. "Maybe they figure with the Prince its their title now."
This was greeted by the Mexican fans with laughter and disdain.
"Comon Rock," said Jessie. "Go across Vernor Highway to Dix Avenue and see the way the Arabs dress."
"Yemens," I said, reminding them of the Prince's true heritage. "He's a Yemeni and so are they. They're different from other Arabs. Just like Mexicans and Cubans for example both speak Spanish but are different."
"Whatever," said Jessie disdainfully. "Just look at them. They don't relate to boxing. Not dressed like that and all. This Prince was a flash, cause it was a weak division for a second. But the Mexicans are back. We live and die with boxing in our blood. We were there before and we'll be there to beat Hamid, and we'll be there years after this. If Barerra don't beat him then Morales will. Some Mexican will. Boxing and Mexico are one and the same, and the featherweights are our division."
This was followed by hoots and howls and traditional Mexican yells and screams, and then much drinking.
See the Mexican fans I talked to figured that the other Mexicans like Cesar Soto, whom the Prince defeated here in Detroit, didn't properly represent Mexico. They didn't take his defeat seriously, because he didn't take Prince Hamid into the blood and guts war that Mexicans cherish about their native warriors. The Prince hadn't defeated a Mexican warrior in a match like that, so they weren't convinced about him yet.
Mexican fans are funny. I remember when they took up for Roberto Duran as the Latin Warrior, when he fought Sugar Ray Leonard the first time. They love his victory over Sugar Ray in Montreal because he pressed the American golden boy and chased him in a aggressive war. But in the "No Mas" fight they never gave Leonard any credit, because he ran backwards from Duran. Here in Detroit they praised and respected Tommy Hearns even though he knocked out both Pipino Cuevas and Duran, because he took the battle to them; But they to a man despised Ray Leonard for his backpeddling.
With Marco Antonio Barerra they sensed a Mexican warrior who was going to walk into the Prince and bang him with left hooks to the body and take him into a war, he never knew about. This was a Mexican chin of steel and a left hook to the liver to bring pain to the eyes. Now lets see what the Prince is gonna do!
Well one thing was for sure in my exploring this story: As the Mexican fans knew their place in history in the featherweight division, just the opposite was true of Yemeni fans of Prince Hamid, which probably numbered every Yemeni male in the world.
In crossing Dix Avenue, into the Yemen neighborhood in South Dearborn, I was wondering where to find the boxing fans. This is a very Islamic structured neighborhood. I see women wearing scarfs walking and talking, taking their kids out and shopping, but they seem segregated. Men are also only with each other. There are no bars where Yemeni men hang out and "kick the game". Men hang out in front of the Mosque and talk, dressed in traditional garb, but I don't think I can go there and ask them boxing questions. Maybe they're talking about the Holy Koran or something like that, and I don't want to seem disrespectful. I see coffee houses and little restaurants, maybe I can try one of those.
I saw a restaurant called the "Arabian Restaurant", and I saw the action of men walking in and out. Why not go in there, I figured. When I walked in it was obvious this was a Yemeni restaurant and not Lebanese or Iraqi. The maps and pictures on the wall were of Yemen, and not any other "Arabic" countries. The men in it all looked like they were new to the United States. Most of them were dressed in old suits and wore no tie. It was almost their uniforms as much as jeans, sports shirts, cowboy boots and hats are for the Mexicans on Vernor Highway. I looked around the place and saw a huge poster advertising the Prince Hamid-Soto fight that had taken place at Joe Louis Arena last year. In fact there were quite a few Prince Hamid pictures around the place, and the guys sitting around were by appearances and size definitely his nationality.
I have a mediterranean appearance, but I got the initial stares in the place that let me know they knew I was not of their people. But the Yemen people are almost always polite, friendly, and helpful so this curiosity was just human nature, rather than intimidating. I was comfortable.
"The "Prince" is a pretty good fighter huh?" I said to the young waiter, who wore his hair like Hamid, and whose name was Makmoud.
"Oh yes, yes, yes," said Makmoud with bright eyes. "The Prince is the best."
"How do you think he would have done against Saldivar Sanchez?" I asked. Makmoud looked at me like I was talking Greek. He didn't know who Saldivar Sanchez was.
"Do you think Willie Pep or Sandy Saddler could have handled him?"
Again, he didn't have a clue. Maybe I was going too far in the past.
"Who do you think would be a tougher opponent for the Prince, Erik Morales or Marco Antonio Barerra?"
He couldn't answer except to say the Prince would beat anybody.
"Do you think he should move up in weight if he wins this fight?"
Makmoud didn't even know what I meant, other then to smile and let me know again how great the Prince was.
As I sat there, and got comfortable, I took the same questions to the other males seated in the place who understood English. Like I said, although the Yemen people are clannish and feel somewhat uncomfortable around American culture, still they are friendly if you are friendly to them, and they were all upbeat about the Prince being "great". Even the fellows who couldn't understand English, had no problems making victorious gestures about the Prince's superiority.
"Ah Prince," said one small dark man with intense brown eyes. "Prince. No one beat Prince! Very fast!"
To a man they were all proud of the Prince being of Yemen heritage, as they should be and as was understandable. But when I posed boxing questions to them they didn't have a clue. They didn't know Willie Pep, Salvador Sanchez or even Floyd Mayweather. Nobody even knew who Oscar DeLahoya was? Mike Tyson hit five hundred and about half of them knew him, but nothing of his exploits or defeats.
The Yemen fans of Hamid seemed to be proud of Hamid because he was one of them, but they didn't seem to be "boxing" fans like Bararra's Mexican fans. Yemen had no boxing heritage and it showed in their fans. Their interest in the fight was because Hamid brought a spotlight, maybe the only spotlight Yemen has ever had in popular American culture, to their land.
Standing outside the restaurant I saw a group of teenagers, maybe all about fifteen or so years of age. They were gesturing and noisy and dressed like any American kids that age might be. I also saw just most of them had their hair cut just like the Prince. I wondered what kind of reactions they had to the fight.
"Are you going to watch the Prince Hamid fight?" I asked.
"Oh yeah," said a young Hamid look a like named Ali. "He's going to kick that ass!"
With that comment, everybody started to slap hands and talk about how great the Prince was. I understood that, but nobody seemed to know Marco Antonio Bararra. To them it was the Prince's show and the opponent didn't matter. The only thing that counted was that the Prince had always won, he was a Yemeni like them, and everybody knew that.
"Do you feel anything of a rivalry because Bararra is a Mexican? That Mexican fans might feel that the featherweight division has traditionally belonged to them, and they want it back to a Mexican champion out of boxing honor?"
Nobody knew what I was talking about. Nobody was conscious of any boxing history or ethnic rivalry. Nor did anybody want to talk or comment about boxing strategy. Nobody seemed to recognize that other boxing fans might feel this was Hamad's first test against a quality puncher. There was no athestics to their views. Hamad was of Yemen nationality and that was enough for them.
"You have to understand Rocky," said Mohammad Ekazy, a educated man of Lebanese nationality who I knew socially. "The Yemen people feel like they are looked down on by everyone. They feel even the other people considered Arabic look down on them. They are small and dark and take the Islamic faith seriously. It is their whole culture. They see nothing on television or movies to relate to. They are conscious of being and looking different. There is no one on the world stage or the American stage that is Yemeni, famous, and admired. Nobody knows who they are. All they hear is that they are terrorists and bad. In reality they are simple family people just trying to survive a terrible poverty."
"Now comes the Prince screaming about his religion and his nationality of being a Yemen," I said.
"Exactly," he said, nodding. "Finally comes a little dark guy who looks like them, speaks Arabic in public, puts Islam in the forefront, and announces he is a Prince from Yemen, beats everybody up, and everyone suddenly knows him and might now recognize tiny Yemen. He gives these people pride and lets the world know they are alive. They don't know anything about boxing, its just that the Prince makes them proud to be what they are. This isn't a boxing match for them. Its a celebration of self! It brings them out of their closed world. As Americans applaud the Prince, so does the fact the Prince is one of them, make them feel more accepted by America. That's very important."
I guess I understood that. I guess my parents felt pride when Joe DiMaggio was making noise as the "Yankee Clipper". His parents were immigrants just like them. It made the Americans feel their worth, and also made them feel more American in a way they could share with their kids who were born here. My old man became a baseball fan even though he never played the game, just to relate to his sons most likely. Good enough for Italians, then I guess good enough for Yemenis. I suppose some of them would want to be boxing fans in the future because of the Prince and that was great for them and the game.
When the Prince came to fight in Detroit last year against Soto, he put on a private training session in Dearborn for his public. I went just out of interest of seeing him work out in person, but the rest of the crowd was of Yemen heritage. I was probably the only outsider. It was the most non boxing crowd I have ever seen, watching a champion train. The boxing workout was secondary to everybody coming and celebrating their shared heritage. The Prince was here, reporters were watching and writing copy, pictures were being taken, and the flag of Yemen and the Yemen people belonged. It was very unusual.
After the workout the Prince made a speech in which he said that many Mexican fans would be coming to the fight, and he needed many Muslims there to support him. This was the Prince actually making a inflammatory speech to stir up a ethnic rivalry, but to my eyes the Yemen people didn't take it that way. They had no idea what a ethnic boxing rivalry was. They loved the Prince because in doing so, they showed people that they loved themselves, and if people were interested in the Prince or applauded his victories, then it was they who shared in this glory; They and all of Yemen.
So in that it takes two to make a fight, this boxing rivalry fell short.
I thought I'd watch half the fight in Carmen's Bar with the Mexican fans and dart across Vernor Highway back to the Yemeni restaurant where I was assured the fight would also be watched by a partisan crowd of Yemeni.
To be honest with you I kind of thought the Prince would score the early knockout, if anyone did, and I wanted to see what the Mexican fans would say about his power punching, so I started the fight with them.
But once at Carmen's it was obvious that the Mexican fans, no doubt feeling their oats from plenty of tequila, felt Bararra would run into Hamad and take him into the bullring. They were looking for a war and ready to hoot and holler Marco Antonio to a victory and leave the Prince worse for wear from a battle with a real Mexican warrior.
They were really taking this thing personally, and when Hamid got hit with a cup of beer as he made his entrance, the whole bar started laughing and slapping hands. The Prince's corner waving flags and banners about Islam didn't go over to well with this staunchly Roman Catholic Mexican crowd either.
"You better pray Motherfucker," said a guy behind me. "You gonna need it."
There were yells of confidence also when the Prince backed off from his usual over the rope entrance. They sensed that the Prince was not his usual confident self, and might now be facing the "Truth Machine".
The Mexican fans knew the Prince could hit, and anticipated a war. But from the first round it was apparent Barerra had something different in mind.
Barerra started to box, use angles, counterpunch, and score points. Hamad was made to look foolish, amateurish, and confused offensively. He didn't seem to have a clue about mounting a effective attack. It was obvious to see what had happened, that Marco Antonio had changed his battle plans and decided to box, as Gene Fullmer did in Basilio one, Tiger two, and the title match with Spider Webb. It was a disciplined, well thought out plan and it was working. Barerra was winning, and in the first six or seven rounds, there was no doubt he was going to win the bout to any knowledgeable onlooker. True, Hamad packed dynamite, but it was easy to see he had no clue on how to land on this Mexican who decided to use his talents to box and counter.
The story here to me, was how the Mexican fans were so knowledgeable, aware of what he was doing right from the first round. This was no educated, white collar crowd, but when it came to boxing they knew what they were watching. As a nationality, they came from a culture of boxing.
"He changed his style," said Hella Flores, the sister of the bar owner. "He's boxing tonight."
"Rock, he figured this out," said Jesus Navarro, a ex fighter from Texas. "No sense to walk into that guy. He could beat him that way too. But he KNOWS he can outbox him Rock."
"Back to school Prince!" yelled Leno Medallin, a steel worker. "Back to school sucker. Steward should have taught you how to get out of the way of a jab."
There was no secret here as to what was happening. It wasn't going to be a victory like Vicente Saldivar smashed through Sugar Ramos in the Mexican-Cuban rivalry, or like Salvador Sanchez punched out Wilfredo Gomez, in the Mexican-Puerto Rican war; But it was going to be a victory all the same, and it was evident from round one.
As rounds went by, the cheering got louder, the laughing louder, and the drinking and toasting intensified for Mexico, the leadership of the featherweight division, and for their native son Marco Antonio Barerra. This was just one big victory party, and the vaunted Prince was brushed off as a imposter.
After the sixth round I left and crossed Vernor Highway to Dix Avenue to go to the Yemen restaurant. The bout was still close on the cards, but the boxing lesson by Barerra so disciplined, I didn't even worry about missing a round or two and a knockout. This wasn't gonna happen and I knew it. Prince Nassim Hamid was getting outpointed soundly, and there wasn't gonna be much he could do about it. If the Prince was expecting Bazooka Limon and plenty of openings, what he got was Miquel Canto and NO openings!
The Arabian Restaurant was packed with only men, and I expected this. I imagine every business and home in that neighborhood was watching that fight. A few of the guys recognized me, and that made my entrance easy, though I was the only non Yemeni in the place. But this crowd was watching this fight with much different eyes than at Carmen's Bar.
For one thing, there was no yelling and screaming, and no pure boxing talk. Nobody was discussing the change in strategy that Bararra was implementing. Nobody was noticing that Hamad was getting outboxed and sadly lacked fundamentals to figure out how to make a offensive showing. Nobody mentioned training methods that might have led to this. Nobody mentioned anything about the mere possibility that Hamad could lose!
As far as these fans were concerned they were watching a superstar and a culture and he could do nothing but win! They just figured he'd land the big punch and end the match any moment. They didn't see any of the boxing going on, all they knew was that Hamid made them feel proud and good about being a Yemeni and that was all they cared about. As long as the Prince wasn't on his back stretched out in defeat, he was still a winner to them and would win in time.
Getting "outboxed" meant nothing to them.
"What do you think?" I asked, one of the men whose name was Hammoudi, a curly haired, dark little guy dressed in a old dark suit. "It don't look so good huh?"
"Oh we have twelve rounds," he smiled. "Its only round nine. Prince has time."
This guy was as confident as he could be. Everybody here was. "He is doing good," Hammoudi said. "Everything is okay."
"I don't know pal," I said with a ironic tilt of my head. "Barerra is boxing very clever. He will win the decision if it goes the distance."
"We get a knockout," said another short dark guy named Mohammad. "No problem. One good hit."
My head was spinning at what I was hearing! Now there was no doubt about it. These weren't boxing fans at all as I knew them. These guys were patriots and proud Yemeni-Americans. They were watching with their hearts and souls. Prince Nassim Hamid being featherweight champ wasn't the important thing, but just that he was known by everyone counted to them much more. Had the Prince been a long jumper they would have all been watching the Olympics. He was a Yemen, so were they, and he was a boxer; So they watched boxing. Through him they could be proud for the first time about something in the American and world media, about their nationality and country.
I thought about that feeling of pride these people had for Hamid, when the final bell ended what was obviously a Barerra victory. Probably the Mexican people felt the same way when Raton Macias became their first champion back in the fifties or when Manuel Ortiz was a star. It was the beginnings of a pride for them, that has carried on in greater numbers to the point that they take it for granted. I figure Jack Johnson gave the African Americans the same feeling, as did John L. Sullivan the Irish Americans, and maybe Daniel Mendoza for the Jewish people back in Europe. Those were the beginnings in sporting pride for those great peoples and there was much more to come. This is the way it happens I guess. The idol of the Yemani people had lost, but at least they were on the board now as a people.
When the bout ended, there was a eerie silence in the place. It was so strange, it wouldn't surprise me if some of the men weren't praying for a miracle. But it didn't come. On this night the judges could see; Bararra got the well deserved unanimous decision.
The Yemeni fans were devastated. The atmosphere was like a death had taken place, and I actually felt sorry for these simple people. It wasn't a boxing loss, but almost like they had been defeated as a people and were now dead and not alive.
"Tough luck Hammoudi," I said to the man next to me.
The sad guy just shook his head.
"The Prince just got outboxed," I said. "It happens to all great fighters. Joe Louis got knocked out, and so did Jack Dempsey. The Prince took his defeat like a man and I think he'll be back and maybe be a champ again. He's still young."
Hammoudi felt a little happier at what I said, but he was still down.
"Is bad for Yemen people," he said. "Everybody feel very bad."
"Don't worry," I said. "Yemen had their first champion. I look at all the young boys idolizing the Prince. They will start boxing or playing sports. Don't worry. Yemen will have more champions. This is only the first."
Hammoudi's eyes brightened up and he gave me a warm hug. I had made him happy and I was glad I did that. What a sport is this boxing, and long and wide are the miles it travels in the human heart.
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