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The Fight Game and The Players 

by Enrique Encinosa

It was a backyard, open-bar party with pastry trays, a light breeze and royal blue sky. In between a soft drink and a guava pastry, the wife of a friend asked me if I knew the results of the Dolphins game.

"I don't really know," I answered, "Football is not my game. I follow boxing."

"Really?" she asked, suddenly smiling, "You follow it? How much?"

"A lot," I answered, "My first published book was on boxing and I've written columns, done anchor work, boxed, trained, cornered, managed and promoted. Now I just write about it and collect boxing stuff."

"Like what?" she asked and seemed truly interested.

"Everything." I answered, "I have books, magazines, autographs, posters, fight films......"

"Old Fights?" she interrupted.

"Very old."

"Cuban stuff?" she asked.

"Of course," I nodded, "I have Kid Chocolate, Luis Rodriguez, Frankie Otero..."

"Do you have any of my father?" she asked.

I had talked to Maritza often at such gatherings but I had no idea she was related to a leather slinger.

"Who's your father?"

"Fillo Echevarria."

I nodded with respect. I had met the old man in his final years when he was a little guy with an often-cracked nose and ancient scar tissue. Like some many old warriors he had a hard face and a warm smile.

In his time, back in the thirties, when Sinatra was still a kid playing in the streets of Hoboken and radio was the technological rage of the day, Fillo Echevarria was a tough fighter who fought other tough fighters in Caribbean rings. He lost a close one on points to Kid Chocolate, beat Baby Arizmendi, went the distance with Freddy Miller and lost in nine rounds to Lou Salica. In over a hundred pro fights Echevarria held his own with a pretty solid group of world class champions and top fighters.

"Wow," I said, "he was good enough to give Kid Chocolate a real tough night."

"I know," Maritza said, "Chocolate was his hero and dad said it was horrible to fight and beat his idol. Chocolate won the decision but a lot of people thought my dad won."

I nodded, puffing on a smoke, enjoying bringing old history to life. I remembered an old photo of Echevarria squaring off against the milk chocolate skinned former title holder from El Cerro.

"I idolized my father," she said with good pride, "He was a wonderful man. He died three years ago."

"He fought some real tough fights."

"Lou Salica was the only one who ever stopped him in over a hundred fights."

We talked, oblivious to the party and the pastries. Maritza told me of her father as a frail little boy in a town in Spain, a wiry, shy kid that took up boxing so bigger boys would not pick on him. In the gym he discovered that he had a granite chin, and a talent for throwing a hook. When a Cuban promoter went to Spain in search for fighters the scrawny kid signed up and headed for
adventure in Havana.

He fell in love with the sunlight of the tropics and the warmth of a nation that adopted him until soon they did not see him as a foreign fighter, but as a local hero, one of their own. He was one of the top fighters in the Caribbean, respected for his heart, stamina and skill. And he became a Cuban, residing in the Island for over three decades, raising a family, continuing in the fight
game as a trainer.

As I drove home after the party I thought of all the forgotten heroes and good fighters I have seen, met, or that came to life in the anecdotes of relatives and old timers. Boxing history is often tribal, word of mouth repeated through generations until anecdotes become legends or disappear completely; to one who seeks a metaphysical connection with the ring such moments mean glory.

Fighters are unique. I have known hundreds, including ego maniacs, criminals or just plain guys who were trying to achieve a goal or prove something that even they themselves could not grasp.

Everyone talks of the dramatic moments. Dempsey climbing back in the ring to batter Firpo or Hearns and Hagler throwing leather at each other in brutal savagery. Yet, beyond the immortals, beyond the famous, I tend to see a poignant moment in every fight in every arena, as contestants impose their will and test
their endurance. Every fighter is constantly involved in individual catharsis for boxing is the ultimate performance art.

Years ago, in the seventies, while working corners at an amateur show in New Jersey, I picked up a memory that still lingers. The dressing room was the locker room of a high school gym where I was taping the hands of a couple of teenage scrappers. A young boy with a clean-shaven face and long, golden hair was trying to convince an amateur official to let him fight on the card.

"I'll fight anyone in the open class," the blonde kid said, "don't you have any featherweights? If you don't, I'll fight a lightweight."

"No," the amateur official answered, "all I have is a junior welter and he's too big for you."

"I'll fight him," the kid said.

"What does your coach think about that?"

"My trainer could not make it," the kid said, "but it's all right. I'll fight him."

"What?" the amateur official said, "you don't even have a fucking

"Don't worry. I tell you it's okay."

"I'll work his corner," I said, "no charge."

The kid nodded in agreement. The amateur official shrugged.

"Go ahead," the official said, "it's your ass that's going to get kicked, not mine."

Actually, it was the junior welter who got his ass kicked. The blond kid taped his own hands, climbed through the ropes and gave the audience a magical moment, giving away fifteen pounds and winning with ease.

Soon after that fight I moved to Miami and I never saw the blonde kid in the flesh again, but John "The Heat" Verderosa went on to become the USBA junior lightweight champion as a pro, beating Sean O'Grady, Julio "Diablito" Valdez, and losing to Cornelius Boza-Edwards.

Another performance art moment came in a Fort Lauderdale ring in the early eighties. Cookie Dominguez was a young pro, a prelim performer with a busted beak and sunny disposition. As I stood in the corner giving him instructions before the beginning of a four-rounder, I tapped his ribs with a playful slap and he winced.

"What's wrong?" I asked.

"I sparred with Eduardo Lugo earlier this week and I think he broke a rib. It's been hurting for two days."

"Are you nuts?" I scolded him, "Why didn't you say something? I'm going to cancel this fight."

"No," he answered, "we are in the ring already. I'll take this guy. It's just a four rounder."

Clarence Jackson, his opponent was a willing prelim performer, not a lay down and quit kind of fighter.

"Cookie," I said, "this is not an easy fight."

"Getting hit is never easy," he answered, "let's do it."

And he did. He hit and was hit, groaned in pain, grimaced and hooked and watching him that night I knew it was not for the two hundred and some odd bucks he would clear, but for something deeper in him somewhere, pride, hunger or desire that needed to be fulfilled in a primitive justification of being. The judges called it a draw and to me, working the corner, feeling him fighting through the pain, it was a sublime moment that only a man of the fight game can understand.

An even more bizarre memory took place in 1983 at Milander Auditorium in Hialeah, a club fight with real atmosphere. One of the prelim bouts featured junior welters Luis Fernandez and Emilio Diaz in a scheduled six rounder. Costa Rican Fernandez had a 2-3-3 record, good conditioning, a willing attitude and
the speed of a crippled turtle. Diaz was a Mariel boatlift refugee with a couple of tattoos, a 7-10-1 record that included being pounded by Livingston Bramble and basic skills honed by a need for paydays.

Sitting ringside I expected Diaz to win easily, for he had outscored the willing Fernandez a few months before in a Coral Springs promotion. This fight, however, seemed different from the first, as Diaz fought stiffly, out boxing Fernandez with a pawing jab that bored the hardcore fight crowd. In the third round a glancing hook to the belly dropped Diaz. The boatlift fighter grimaced in pain as he was counted out, while the fans booed what they perceived as a swan dive performance.

Diaz had been knocked out before, but it surprised me to see him fall with such ease. As I passed the dressing room I saw Diaz sitting on a metal chair, holding a blood soaked towel to his belly.

"What the hell happened to you?" I asked.

"I was shot a couple of days ago," he answered, "and I did not mention it during the medical exam. As soon as Fernandez hit me, the stitches popped."

Boxing is a tough trade, yet there is an unusual bond in these men with broken noses and eyebrows crisscrossed by scar tissue. John L. Sullivan busted up Jake Kilrain in a seventy-five round bare-knuckle brawl, yet they became pals and Jake was one of the pallbearers at Sullivan's last bell.

Johnny Coulon, the great little champion who ran a gym in Chicago organized a benefit to raise thousands of dollars for a community center that had a boxing program. Although Coulon would have benefited from a competitor closing, by picking up new fighters paying monthly gym fees, he raised enough money to
keep the community center open.

Chris Dundee, who would argue for hours over a fighter's purse, wrote many checks to Florida charities and Ali sponsored or donated much of his time for fund raisers to benefit people of all races. Even mean Sonny Liston was known as a soft touch for children's causes and his former opponent, Floyd Patterson,
spent many bucks from his own pocket to sponsor an amateur community program in upstate New York.

It is a game of tough men with soft hearts.

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