Across from the Atlas Gimnasio, the barefoot children were laughing and racing through the litter of Zarco Street. All of the children but one, a 6-year-old wisp they called Pepe, who huddled beneath a cardboard lean-to, waiting with dark and empty eyes for someone to buy one of the few browning oranges he had neatly laid in a line near his naked feet. Smog hung like a smothering gray-black blanket over Mexico City, which sweltered beneath a sun seldom seen. It had rained hard the afternoon before, but rain cannot wash away the stains of poverty.
On the other side of the narrow one-way street, Costenito Gonzalez leaned down and flicked a cloth across his new light-brown shoes, whisking away imagined grime. For most of his 19 years the junior lightweight boxer had helped his father scratch out an existence on a farm in Tapachula. Now Gonzalez had the air of a man who had fought as a professional 19 times, won all his fights and was the proud owner of a red 1974 Ford.
A stocky man carrying a stylish light-blue equipment bag came with purpose along the street. Seeing Gonzalez, the man paused and rasped, "It is noon, Costenito." The man turned and disappeared into a nearby doorway next to a furniture store where you can buy on terms, no interest—su crédito es bueno.
A slender lefthander, Gonzalez wore a sparkling gold watch on his right wrist. He glanced at it, assuring himself that it was time to train. His thin smile did not reach his eyes.
December 6, 1976
He spoke with a tired sadness. "It is not easy to make a living in Mexico. Hunger is not a stranger. When I told my father I wanted to be a fighter, he said no, then he said that if I won my first fight he would give me his blessing. I fought a veteran who had had many fights. I broke his jaw and put him in the hospital for 43 days. It was two days before Christmas in 1973. I was 16 years old. Fighting is hard. But there are harder things."
Gonzalez glanced across the street. If he took notice of Pepe he didn't let on. But a shadow flickered over his gaunt face. He hurried toward the narrow doorway that led to the gym three floors above the street.
There are nine more gyms such as the Atlas running full bore in Mexico City, at least three times that number elsewhere in Mexico. Give or take a dozen left-hookers, there are 7,000 professional fighters in the country and, as of the moment, five of them are world champions.
Two of the champions are bantamweights. One is Carlos Zarate, a street brawler from the time he could walk, 25 and single and no stranger to the jails of Mexico City, a child of the slums praying that a future operation to be paid for by his fists will give back sight to his blind and beloved mother. He's the World Boxing Council champion. The other is Alfonso Zamora, also a product of the violent streets, but introduced to the ring early by an ex-fighter father: handsome, 22, married with two children and spurred by suspicion and bitterness. He's the World Boxing Association champion.
Zarate and Zamora—the Z Bombs—are good friends, ex-stablemates and between them they have knocked out 69 of the 70 men they have fought professionally. One day not too far off they will fight each other.
Together with flyweight champions Miguel Canto (WBC) and Guty Espadas (WBA) and welterweight champion Pepino Cuevas (WBA), they make up the Mexican contingent of the 23 world champions, 15 of whom come from Latin America.
On Oct. 1 there were 17, but Royal Kobayashi of Japan took the super bantamweight title from Rigoberto Riasco of Panama, and Yoko Gushiken of Japan took the junior flyweight title from Juan Guzman of the Dominican Republic. Puerto Rico follows Mexico with four world champions—and lost another in July when Angel Espada was parted from the WBA welterweight championship by Cuevas. Argentina has three world champions—and four titles because Carlos Monzon rules as middleweight king of both the WBA and the WBC. There is one champion from Panama, Nicaragua and Venezuela. And there is Carlos Palomino, Mexican born but California raised and educated.
Score then: Latins 15 champions, 16 championships; the rest of the world 9.
Rather than being the result of having superior athletes, this Latin phenomenon is more a consequence of widespread poverty, which, historically, has spawned fighters of all ethnic and racial groups. As Willie Pastrano, a light-heavyweight champion of the 1960s, has said, "If I had had a chance to do anything else when I was growing up, God Himself couldn't have dragged me into a fistfight."
Chris Dundee, the Miami Beach promoter, says, "Forgetting what television did for the moment, the fight game in the United States started going down when the Army, in World War II, began drafting all the young men. The Army taught them a trade or it paid for their educations later, and any man with a good trade isn't about to get knocked on his butt to make a dollar. Things have become better in Europe, too. It just opened the door for all these hungry Latins."
With Ali gone—if he has—the U.S. was left, if only for a few weeks, without a native-born world champion for the first time since John L. Sullivan knocked out Paddy Ryan of Ireland in front of the Barnes Hotel in Mississippi City, Miss, on Feb. 7, 1882. That short drought ended on Nov. 6 when Danny Lopez took the WBC featherweight title away from David Kotey of Ghana.
Last year the per capita income of the U.S. was $5,902. The PCI of Mexico was $780, and as the peso plunges so does the buying power of the people. The legal minimum daily pay of a Mexican is 90 pesos, which a few months ago converted to $7.20. Now that the peso has fallen, the conversion figure is closer to $4.50.
As Costenito Gonzalez poignantly pointed out, an empty belly is no rarity below the Rio Grande. But as bleak as life can be in Mexico, it is even more so in other Latin American countries. Only Puerto Rico ($1,900) and oil-rich Venezuela ($1,000) have a per capita income of more than $900. The PCIs in the other nations range from $815 in Uruguay to $90 in Haiti.
Once upon a time when boxing was a simpler business—who can name even half of today's champions?—there were only eight divisions, and each had one champion. Then came the junior divisions; the power-grab split between the WBA and the WBC, each with its own titleholders; and now, in the last 18 months, two new divisions: the mini moscas (junior flyweights) and the super bantams. That brought the total number of divisions to 13, with the possibility of 25 (the WBA has yet to recognize the super bantams) champions. And now a group called junior heavyweights is being contemplated. If this trend continues, soon there will be nothing but champions.
On the ground floor inside the street entrance to the Atlas Gym is a small single-chair barbershop. Many of Mexico City's gyms are over similar shops. Never is there any hair on the floor. Either the barbers are extraordinarily neat, or, as is suspected, no one ever goes there for a haircut. On the landing between the first and second floors is a caged security checkpoint, where the fighters can deposit their valuables and obtain locker keys, and where the gym's visitors are relieved of a small admission price, usually 15 pesos (or 75¢).
The checkpoint's guardians are Horacio Casasola, a bulky former wrestler whose brother Raul owns the gym, and Giner, a thin but mean-looking Doberman pinscher pup. Actually the puppy is a pacifist and is friendly with all comers. Horacio never entertains a mean thought, either. "For some reason," Raul said the other day, "no one ever tries to make trouble."
Raul also owns another gym, a place called Tabasco, in a distant section of the city. Since he has been in operation, he says, more than a thousand kids have come in from the streets and said they wanted to be fighters.
Raul Casasola patted his round stomach. "They all have the same look," he said, "flat bellies and hungry eyes. Some are just babies, but not like any babies you have ever seen. I send them all on upstairs. If they have any money we ask a small fee. Horacio keeps all the fees in his right hand. Show him, Horacio."
Horacio laughed and opened a huge fist. It was empty.
All of the second floor is used by weight lifters. To the fighters it is just a place to pass through. Muscles are for wrestlers. The gym on the third and top floor is not large but surprisingly clean. No one spits on the floor. There is barely room for two rings, one for wrestlers, and a small area, no more than 20 feet by 20 feet, in which there are three heavy bags, several speed bags and a rubbing table. The only other furnishing is a three-seater shoeshine platform, which Horacio hauled up the narrow stairs on his back one day to win a wager.
The walls are unmarked and painted a lively green, and they clash violently with a maze of steel roof supports, most of them a vivid lavender. But the endlessly changing stream of tough young men who keep the place busy during daylight hours do not come to contemplate the decor. The routine in the room seldom varies: first a quick loosening of lean muscles; then four or five rounds of sparring, all of them four-minute wars; two rounds on the heavy bag followed by two on the training bag; eight minutes on the speed bag; some rope skipping and adios! Mexican fighters work endlessly to perfect just four punches: jab (to which they devote the least time), left hook, right hook and a murderous hooking uppercut, mostly with the left hand.
"The hook is a Mexican tradition," says Bazooka Limon, a Zarate stablemate who is ranked fifth among the world's junior lightweights. "Why play with the rapier when you can cut a man in half with the machete?" His grin is evil.
The Atlas is Zarate's gym. Every day at 1 p.m. there is always a parking place on the street below for the champion's red Mustang Cobra II. (As a Mexican fighter progresses he first buys a Volkswagen, then a Ford, next a Mustang and, should he make it to the very top, a Thunderbird. Always the cars are red.) Seemingly no one ever arranges a parking spot for Zarate, and it is never in the same place, but one is always there.
When the champion arrives at the gym, all motion is suspended. It is a silent tribute, passing as swiftly as a salute. Mexicans have always exalted their champions.
Despite his name, the first Mexican world champion was not Pancho Villa, who won the flyweight championship by knocking out Jimmy Wilde at the Polo Grounds in 1923. That Pancho Villa was born Francisco Guilledo in the Philippines.
The first Mexican champion was a junior welterweight named Battling Shaw (he was born Jose Flores in Nuevo Laredo), who won the title in 1933. Since Shaw, 27 Mexicans have been world champions. If you count Chalky Wright, it would be 28. A featherweight champion in 1941, Wright, a black, delighted in telling people he was a Mexican born in Durango. "Not so," says Harry Kabakoff, the veteran Los Angeles manager who handled Wright. "He told me he was born in Colton, Calif., where he was raised in a Mexican-American community; he spoke excellent Spanish."
There also have been six Mexican-American champions: Richie Lemos, Manuel Ortiz, Mando Ramos, Raul Rojas, Bobby Chacon and now Carlos Palomino, born in Luis B. Sanchez, a small town 60 miles from Mexicali. He was 10 and unable to speak English when his family moved to California. At the moment he is both the WBC welterweight champion and a senior at Long Beach State. Says Palomino, "School is my hedge against the worst mistake a fighter can make. It's called a comeback."
Carlos Zarate is tall (5'9") for a bantamweight (118-pounds), and so is thin, as a barracuda is considered thin. He would carry the look of a hawk except that his prominent nose has been hit more than once. Legend has it that Zarate took his first step while trying to attack a boy who was two years his senior.
"And he took his second step trying to get away from the police," says the champion's older brother Jorge, an ex-cop who grew tired of seeing his fellow officers haul Carlos off to jail, turned in his badge and began training his violent brother for the ring. "I knew nothing could make him stop fighting, so I decided he should do it someplace where he wouldn't be arrested."
Zarate was born on May 23, 1951 in the Tepito barrio of Mexico City, the youngest of five brothers and three sisters. Tepito is 10 square blocks of ugliness, a low-rise Bedford-Stuyvesant where the only escape is the juice of the cactus or the grass that doesn't grow on lawns, and the meeting place is a teeming open-air market on Costa Rica Street where anything can be bought and most of it has been stolen.
Before Zarate was out of the cradle his father died. When he was two, he and his mother Luz moved to a public school in nearby Ramos Millan, in which they lived. Mrs. Zarate became a combination custodian and the server of the government-sponsored breakfasts, and on the side she operated a small concession stand. As he grew older, it became young Carlos' contribution to maintain order during the bedlam of the free breakfast as well as to see that everything taken from the concession stand was paid for.
"I loved it," he says happily. "There were always three or four guys trying to hustle an extra breakfast or trying to steal a candy bar. I never needed an excuse to fight."
In his first fight in the ring he knocked out a veteran Golden Glover in the second round. The veteran claimed he was not in shape. Train, Zarate told him, and come back. The veteran did both and was knocked out in less than a minute. That was when Jorge dragged Carlos to a gym and ordered him to fight.
"He gave me 10 pesos a day to eat with," Zarate says. "It was enough. I came from a very humble family, but I had eggs and corn to eat at home. I used Jorge's money to buy meat and salads."
As an amateur Zarate was undefeated, winning 30 fights by knockouts, three on decisions. In 1970 he was the national Golden Gloves flyweight champion. Soon after, he became a professional under the experienced handling of Cuyo Hernandez, one of Mexico's more famous managers. Jorge became his full-time trainer. His first fight was in Guernieva, a scheduled 10-rounder which Zarate won by a knockout in two rounds and for which he was paid 800 pesos. That fight set a pattern: Zarate won his next 21 fights, all by knockouts.
"I made a lot of money," Zarate says. "I also had a lot of wild friends. I would go to Tepito, drink a little pulque and get into trouble with the police. I was the only one with money so I had to pay for everybody. It was no good. Then one time Jorge came to take me from the jail, and it hit me that what I was doing was wrong. If you don't change the first two times in jail, it is because you are born to be a killer. Most people change. I did because I knew I had been born to be a champion. I left my wild friends."
On May 8 of this year, Zarate saw that destiny fulfilled. He had won 39 of his first 40 professional fights by knockouts, the other by half-killing a courageous Victor Ramirez across 10 rounds. Now he needed just nine rounds to take the WBC bantam title away from 30-year-old Rodolfo Martinez, another Mexican who at the end was lying unconscious beyond the ropes on the apron.
"And all that I could think of at that beautiful moment was that now I would be able to earn enough money to pay for an operation for my mother, who has gone blind," Zarate says, sadness filling his dark eyes. "I would give all the money I have now and all that I will ever earn to make that possible."
No matter how much wealth a Mexican boxer amasses, he seldom settles down far from the slums of his childhood. Zarate, for example, can afford far better, but he still lives with his mother, two brothers and a sister on the edge of Tepito.
"It is a social trouble," says Jorge Zarate. "It would be nice to live in a better place, but we have a lack of preparation to do it."
The record for the longest unbeaten streak in professional boxing is 180 bouts—175 victories, five draws from 1938 to 1948. It is held by Hal Bagwell, an English lightweight. When Argentina's Carlos Monzon won both middleweight championships on June 26 by decisioning Colombia's Rodrigo Valdes, who had owned the WBC's piece of the title, it was his 81st straight fight without a loss, placing him among the top seven on the alltime list behind Bagwell and Packey McFarland, who had a streak of 97 in the early 1900s.
How far Monzon intends to extend that streak no one but the 34-year-old playboy from Santa Fe, Argentina knows. Never one to overtrain—and seldom far from the side of beautiful actress-model Susana Gimenez—the former shoeshine boy has held his WBA championship for six years, and has been talking of retirement. He may have to—at least for a while. Monzon recently was given an 18-month jail sentence for belting out a photographer during a Christmas party in 1967. Monzon is appealing; until the appeal is heard, he is free to fight.
Argentina's other champions, WBA light heavyweight Victor Emilio Galindez, 28, and Miguel Angel Castellini, 29, the ex-disc jockey who recently beat Jose Duran of Spain to win the junior middleweight title, are neither facing a jail sentence nor in any hurry to quit. Paradoxically, while the country has three world champions, which should be enough to have boxing declared the national pastime, Luna Park Stadium, an indoor arena in Buenos Aires, is having a tough time trying to put on boxing shows. It seems that there is a lack of outstanding fight talent around. Once past the crowns, there isn't much left but clowns. And because the average Argentine fight fan cannot afford even rock-bottom prices to see a title bout, the trio of champions usually fight outside the country.
At the other extreme are the Puerto Rican fans who thought nothing of paying top dollar to see nine title fights at home this year. They may have the opportunity of attending a tenth this month; then or early in January Wilfredo Benitez will defend his WBA junior welterweight championship against the man he won it from, Antonio (Kid Pambele) Cervantes of Colombia.
Benitez is only 18; the other three champions on the island of 2.8 million people are not much older. Esteban de Jesus, the WBC lightweight champion, is 25; Alfredo Escalera, the articulate WBC junior lightweight champion, is 24; and Sam Serrano, who won the WBA junior lightweight title on Oct. 16, is 23. Of course, no one has yet retired the 27-year-old Angel Espada, whose loss last July to Mexico's Cuevas was considered a stunning upset. Then there is undefeated Wilfredo Gomez, only 19, who has won all 14 of his fights by knockouts. His most notable victim was Mexico's Jose Murillo, then the No. 2-ranked super bantamweight, whom he defeated on Oct. 8.
On June 18,1929 Alphonso Theo Brown, an elongated (5'11") bantam, fighting as Panama Al Brown, decisioned Vidal Gregorio of Spain to become the first Latin ever to win a world title. Since then there have been 71 Latin American champions, all but eight of them after the end of World War II, and none more worthy than another Panamanian, Roberto Duran, the former shoeshine boy nicknamed Fists of Stone.
Since winning the WBA lightweight title in 1972, Duran has defended it nine times, and nine times he has destroyed the best of the division. "I want to be the greatest," he once said. "I intend to do everything I can to hold onto my title. Nobody is going to take it from me. I don't care if a man is a great boxer or a great slugger, or what he says. When he quits talking I get him in the ring and I finish him off."
Duran's only loss in 54 fights was to Esteban de Jesus of Puerto Rico in 1972 in New York. Duran knocked out de Jesus in the 11th round of a return match in 1974. Since then de Jesus has become the WBC champion and Duran wants him again to settle this business of two champions. "I grew up learning there was only one champion," Duran says. "But today, the WBC and the WBA have created a mess. I have knocked out de Jesus. How can anybody recognize him as the champion? It is stupid."
For nearly 16 years Southern California has been a treasure house for Latin world champions. The last title bout held there not involving a Latin was the Sugar Ray Robinson-Gene Fullmer middleweight fight on Dec. 6, 1960 in the Los Angeles Sports Arena. Since then there have been 46 title fights in the Southland, all involving at least one Latin, and none above the middleweight division.
"Mexican fighters make for great fights," says Los Angeles matchmaker Don Chargin. "They are the slugging, brawling type and they are very courageous. You don't find many of them quitting in the ring. One reason for their style and courage is their fans. They won't stand for any fancy Dan types. And if it wasn't for the young talent in the Mexican border towns, we'd be lost."
And what Latins make, they take. According to an IRS regulation, one-third of the purse of any foreign fighter must be withheld. At year's end, the fighter is supposed to file a return, the same as any resident. "But most fighters can't or won't," says Promoter Don Fraser of the Los Angeles Forum. "What happens is that we pay a fighter his entire purse, get a power of attorney from him and file for him. We pay the taxes, and if there is any return we get it."
Alfonso Zamora, like Zarate, once trained in the Solar Gimnasio. But a year ago, after suspecting that he had been short-changed on a purse, he and his father, Alfonso Sr., paid his manager at the time, Cuyo Hernandez, 500,000 pesos (then $40,000) for his contract and switched gyms. As of last week, Zamora, who looks to papa for counsel, is working with his fourth manager.
If Zarate is tall for a bantam, Zamora is relatively short (5'3½") and tends to pudginess. He has the unmarked looks of a movie star, has a beautiful wife Angelica and is the adoring father of two children—18-month-old Vanessa and Alfonso III, a month-old son. They live in a luxurious apartment in a complex of 107 high-rise buildings that house 72,000 members of 12,000 families. It is the largest housing development in Mexico City, and it is just a few blocks from Santa Maria La Redonda, a neighborhood in which Zamora lived as a child.
As a youth, Zamora's life-style was several levels above that of Zarate. While Santa Maria La Redonda is not Mexico City's equivalent of Park Avenue, it is not Tepito. Zamora's father owned a small fleet of taxis—which he sold when his son began to fight—and they lived in the same apartment building as Ernesto Gallardo, a fight manager of modest success. It was Gallardo who first took notice of Zamora's preoccupation with street brawling.
"Don't let Alfonso fight in the street," Gallardo urged the father. "Take him to a gimnasio, train him, let him win something." The father did, and Zamora was so impressive his father let him drop out of school at the age of 15. He won a silver medal in the 1972 Olympics at Munich, losing on a decision to Cuba's great Orlando Martinez. It was his only defeat in 55 amateur fights.
He bitterly remembers that loss. "The day before the final my father and I discovered I couldn't make the 118-pound limit. In desperation I ate a package of laxative tablets. I made the weight, but I was so weak I could hardly move. Even then, the fight was close." Still, a silver medal is a silver medal, and when Zamora returned home he was awarded an audience with President Luis Echeverria and given a second-hand car.
"What I needed most was some money," Zamora says. "Because I had won a medal in Munich, the Olympic Committee said it would help me a little. But it gave me nothing. No one keeps promises. I was not a young boy in the streets. I didn't like to ask my parents for any money."
Gallardo was waiting with a professional contract, but the Zamoras told him to take a walk.
"Gallardo was something else," Zamora says, his young face grim. "When I began to fight as an amateur I was less than 18 and he asked my father to sell him a contract. He wanted the rights to my life, to sell myself to him forever. He wanted to adopt me. Either he loved me or he knew I'd make him an awful lot of money." The Zamoras decided it was more the latter.
Instead, Zamora signed with Hernandez, who had guided him during his amateur career. A short bear of a man of 65, all but 15 of them spent in boxing, Hernandez is the busiest and most successful manager in Mexico. His stable of fighters today is so big—it numbers more than 150—that he has to divide them between two gyms where they are ministered to by four full-time trainers. In addition to Zarate, Hernandez now manages Ruben Olivares, the former bantamweight champion, and he helped develop two other former titleholders, Juan Zurita and Manuel Ortiz.
Early on, Zamora's father suggested that Hernandez wasn't working hard enough in his son's behalf. He thought the manager was devoting more time to Zarate and Olivares. Too, there was a matter of money. On March 14, 1974, after winning 11 straight fights by knockouts, none going past the ninth round, Zamora stopped Hong Soo-hwan of South Korea in the fourth round to win the WBA bantamweight title.
"Before I became champion, Cuyo was a good fellow to me," Zamora says. "But when I started to make big money I saw a lot of wrong things. Like signing fight contracts and discovering I wasn't getting as much money as I expected. For my first title defense I signed a fight contract through Cuyo for the Los Angeles Forum. As a champion I should have got TV rights. But in my contract it didn't say anything about TV rights. I didn't get any TV money. Somebody else got it. It was my last fight for Cuyo."
Now managers do not customarily sell the contracts of champions, at least not very young ones with astonishing punching power. And none for only $40,000.
"I did," Hernandez says mildly. "Anything to get rid of the father. He knew nothing about boxing and always was inventing things to make me tired. He thought he was going to make a big fortune with his son, but there are a lot of fighters like Zamora. The streets of Mexico are full of tough young kids who can punch. His father thinks he is smart, but he is stupid. One of my best business deals ever was to sell Zamora."
Since their parting, Zamora has defended his championship five times, winning all five fights by knockouts: Thanomjit Sukhothai in four, Socrates Batoto in two, Eusebio Pedroza in two, Gilberto Illeuca in three and Hong Soo-hwan in 12. Now he has won 27 bouts, all by knockouts. It is worth noting that as a result he has fought only 80 rounds. Most preliminary fighters have seen more action. Some feel that this lack of experience may be a handicap when he meets Zarate.
"Fighting Carlos is completely necessary," says Zamora, who may accept a $100,000 offer to meet Zarate in a non-title bout. "Carlos is in his business, and I am in my business. We are still very good friends, but he can make a lot of money and I can make a lot of money. And that is why we do this."
Zarate more than agrees. He very much would like to fight his friend, but not, he says strongly, in a non-title bout. "I like him, but we should settle this business of two championships. It is stupid to talk of a non-title fight. No matter what they called it, one must win and one must lose. We both would walk away as champions but only one would walk away a winner."
Dusk was descending upon Zarco Street. Hours earlier Consenito Gonzalez had finished his workout. The undefeated southpaw left the gym with a grin, saying something about an appointment at a showroom to look at a new Mustang. As night began to fall, little Pepe stirred beneath his cardboard lean-to. All of the oranges remained, still neatly in a row at his feet. A tourist crossed the street and looked down at the child.
"Oranges, se√±or?" Pepe said.
The tourist asked a Mexican friend to tell Pepe in Spanish that he hoped someday the boy would cross the street, climb those three flights of stairs to the gym and buy a red Mustang Cobra II.
Pepe didn't understand. "Oranges, se√±or?" he said again.
Night came, bringing with it a welcome coolness.