The Bantamweight Championship of the world is of small importance these days in the United States, which has not a single contender ranked among the first 10—three Filipinos, two Mexicans, two Italians, a Japanese, a Cuban and an Englishman. It is a pity that the bantams get so little attention here, for they are fast and good, and many of them can punch well enough to knock out another 118-pounder from time to time. Furthermore, on a television screen they loom just as large as a couple of slow, fumbling heavyweights.
The undisputed bantam champion of the world is now Alphonse Halimi, a curly-haired French-Algerian Jew who has followed the tailor's trade and can find a hole in a tight defense as nicely as he can thread a needle. The other night at Wrigley Field, Los Angeles, where he took a confusingly split decision from the Mexican Raul Macias (who had been recognized as world champion in Mexico, the Philippines, Japan, Canada and, to a large extent, in the United States), Halimi showed 20,060 paying fans and millions of television watchers what a good fighter is supposed to know and be able to do. This is not seen too often these days.
He was, for one thing, in superb condition. The night before the fight he had a pulse of 40. On the morning of the fight it was down to an astonishing 36. He was able thereby to go 15 rounds at top speed and in the closing rounds take full advantage of Macias' inability to maintain the torrid pace. Aside from condition, Halimi showed the skills of a champion. He boxed from a hands-up defense, beat an exhausting tattoo on his opponent's body inside and finally showed himself supremely able to handle his man at long range.
Chilly Wrigley Field was thronged with Mexicans in fight and-fiesta mood. A visa count showed at least 8,000 of them were from south of the border, some from as far south as Yucatan, joined by many from the Los Angeles area. They had come by plane, train, car, bus and broken-down truck from Mexico City and border towns like Tijuana. With them came a full complement of noisemakers—sirens, horns and leather lungs. Organized cheering is not often heard at prizefights, but the Mexicans had cheerleaders, including one somberly known as El Muertero (The Undertaker) because of his black costume topped by a magnificent black and silver sombrero. Prefight atmosphere took on the aspects of a football game as El Muertero, a rooster tucked symbolically under his arm, waved his sombrero to the cadence of:
"Chiquito bon a la bin'
Bon bau a la bi, a la ba
"Raton Raton ra, ra, ra."
Raton, of course, is Macias' nickname. It means little mouse, and by the end of the first round there was a raton on his left eye.
For 10 rounds the two little men fought head to head, for all the world like bucks with locked horns in rutting season. The sentimentally favored Macias had chosen this strategy apparently in the belief that his fine defense and fast hands would work to his advantage in close. They did, up to a point, but Halimi accepted the strategy because it gave him a chance to punish his man in the body, wearing him down with hard left hooks to the side and smashing rights under the heart. The Mexican's elbows and arms caught many such punches but not enough. And so, coming out for the 11th round with most cards against him, Halimi calmly took over the strategy, taking advantage of his superior condition and of the fact that he had absorbed scarcely any punishment. He had been a slugging infighter up to now, a man to remind you somewhat of a colder-blooded Carmen Basilio. But in the 11th the crowd saw no slugger but a fancy Dan rise from his stool and follow a stick, run and counter-punch style that baffled the now lead-footed Macias.
On the cards of the two judges, the Frenchman took all five of these rounds. On the card of Referee Mushy Callahan, who refereed well but gave a mushy decision for Macias, the last round was declared even, the others for Halimi. So anyway it was a Garrison finish, planned for a stretch victory.
It was also the end of an international dispute that has foiled solution since Australian Jimmy Carruthers retired with the title and a bit of money in 1954. Since then the title has been highly controversial, with absolutely no fighting between claimants to it. The fighting has in fact been between official bodies like the European Boxing Union and the United States' own National Boxing Association, each protesting that it had correctly designated the world champion. But the designated champions refused to meet each other until Halimi, victor over Italian Mario D'Agata, and Macias, victor over Thailander Chamrern Songkitrat, agreed to settle it once and for all.
Halimi's history is almost as confused as the title. Born in Constantine, Algeria, he was the youngest of 18 children in an impoverished family. So impoverished, in fact, that little Alphonse set out at the age of 7 to make his fortune in the hope that he might someday know what it was like to sleep in a bed. A family in Algiers took him into its home, and he was raised as the younger brother of a 19-year-old named Marcelle. When Marcelle married, she adopted Alphonse as her son. Subsequently, when Alphonse was 10, she divorced her husband and retained custody of the boy. Alphonse became a tailor's assistant, then took up boxing and now is able to support the foster mother who used to be his foster sister. His personal hero is another North African Frenchman—the late Marcel Cerdan, a former world middleweight champion who was killed in a plane crash.
Halimi's record of 22 professional rights is deceptive. He has had, as near as anyone can tell, 185 amateur fights, maybe more. His victory over Mario D'Agata was distinguished by a fire that broke out in the ring in the third round. The fight went on, after an interruption, to a triumph for Halimi. Halimi's only professional defeat has been at the hands of the English featherweight, Jimmy Carson, a nine-round TKO caused by cuts.
After his fight with Macias, Halimi was all but unmarked. There was a lavender bump over his right eye, apparently caused by an accidental butt—for this was a very clean fight—and no other sign, not even heavy breathing, that he had been through 15 rounds of unrelenting combat.
As for Macias, he and his closest supporters drenched the ring with tears. His left eye was half closed, his nose bloodied and his heart broken. For the fickle fans who had trooped over the border to cheer him on to a glorious victory had detected in the closing rounds that Macias was a beaten little mouse and had no hope of winning. Their cheers turned to boos. They even booed Mushy Callahan's incomprehensible vote.
El Muertero, whose black costume has traditionally symbolized death to opponents of El Raton, contemplated the rooster he had hoped would crow a Mexican victory.
"The rooster must go," he somberly announced.