Juan Domingo Roldan was 10 when he was paid two Argentine pesos to fight a boy 30 pounds heavier than he. Six years later, he earned $100 for surviving 12 minutes against a wrestling bear. And last Friday night at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas, he got $100,000 to try and take away Marvelous Marvin Hagler's undisputed world middleweight championship. Roldan should have stuck to bears.
Against Hagler, the end came 39 seconds into the 10th round, with Roldan badly battered and brushing resin from the seat of his trunks while informing referee Tony Perez in Spanish, "No more. I've had enough." Roldan had been practicing that speech since midway through the third round, after a hard right hand from Hagler had gouged Roldan's right eye and converted him into a very awkward cyclops. Until then, Roldan, the WBA's No. 1 contender and a 6-to-1 underdog, had just been very awkward. At the end of the third round, he'd told the people in his corner, "I can't fight anymore. I can't see him."
Tito Lectore, his manager, told him, "You've still got your left eye. You must have courage. You're beating him and you can take him out with one punch. You must forget the pain. You can be the world champion."
Roldan had won the first two rounds, mostly because Hagler was fighting in reverse while trying to decode Roldan's wild but fiercely aggressive style. The retreat was only the first element of Hagler's strategy. "It will take me a couple of rounds to figure him out," Hagler had said the day before. "After that, this is where he gets off the bus. He's been following me around for 18 months. [Roldan had fought on the undercard of four Hagler defenses.] This is the last stop for him. Now I turn on the red light."
However, it was certainly no part of Hagler's plan to wind up on the floor in the opening seconds of the fight. "It was a damn slip," the embarrassed champ, who hadn't been on the deck in 52 amateur and 62 previous pro fights, later protested. Perez ruled it a knockdown and, after shoving the seemingly puzzled Roldan toward a neutral corner, tolled the mandatory eight against an angry Hagler. "You can call it whatever you want," Perez said. "I called it a knockdown."
No matter. For $1.2 million, Hagler could afford to give Roldan his glimmer of hope. It wouldn't last long—only until Hagler, having solved the riddle of Roldan's rushes, opened up in the third round with the guns that had carried him to a 58-2-2 record. He hadn't lost since March of 1976, when Willie Monroe decisioned him.
The 5'7", 159-pound Roldan, a resident of Freyre, Argentina, 400 miles northwest of Buenos Aires, throws all of his punches with singular purpose: to destroy. If he feints, it's by mistake. Usually, the punches flow in wide, angry arcs starting from the hip, but against Hagler, who also weighed 159¼, he scored well early with a right uppercut. Roldan is ungainly, but he uses that fact to his advantage, and many of his most effective punches are thrown while he's off balance.
"He's so aggressive, you've got to drive him back," Hagler said before the bout. "He doesn't like it when people hit him back. This may surprise a lot of people, but I intend to hurt him. People think that just because I didn't knock out Roberto Duran [last November when Hagler won a close, but unanimous, decision] that I'm ready to be taken. I'm going to show them that the monster is back. I went to school on Duran. From him I got my master's degree. Starting now, I'm going after my Ph.D."
Hagler began serious work on his doctorate in the third round. After the second, he was told by trainer Goody Pe-tronelli, "Slide back on this guy and catch him coming in. He's wide open after every punch." Earlier, Hagler had tried ducking inside some of Roldan's punches and had been tagged by an uppercut. Now, as Roldan punched, Hagler heeded Petronelli's advice to take a step back and, as Roldan's shots fell harmlessly short, counter with hard punches to the body.
Midway through the round, Hagler fired a straight right to the head. He caught Roldan at the end of the punch, just as his hand was turning over, and the knuckle of the tucked-in thumb caught Roldan in the corner of his right eye. "God, the pain was terrible," Roldan said afterward. "It spread all the way across to my ear. I couldn't see anything."
Staggering backward in pain, Roldan slammed against the ropes and slumped down. With his right hand, he pawed helplessly at the injured eye. Jumping in, Perez waved Hagler off and began to count. The eye was swollen shut almost before Perez got to eight. "I'd planned on boxing him," Hagler said, "but I saw I was hurting him—I could hear him grunt every time I hit him in the body—and I wasn't about to make the same mistake I made against Duran. I forgot all about boxing Roldan. I knew I could take him out. It was just a matter of hitting him until he fell down."
In the sixth round, Hagler ripped a cut over Roldan's terribly swollen eye. Perez became concerned, and after each round asked Dr. Donald Romeo, the ring physician, to check the eye.
"Ask him if he wants to continue," Romeo said, as he made each examination, to Tito Alba, a translator who was covering the Roldan corner for HBO.
"Tell him he feels fine and wants to continue," Lectore, butting in, told Alba each time.
After the ninth round, Roldan told Lectore he could fight no more. Lectore slapped him hard. Then he began to shake Roldan. "You can't quit," Lectore said. "You must have courage. Be brave. You can still win. Throw the big punch. Knock him out."
Roldan knew there was no big punch left. In the sixth, he had hit Hagler on the chin with a wicked hook. The champion withstood it without blinking. Still, Roldan answered the bell for the 10th round. Moving in quickly, Hagler shifted from his normal southpaw stance and caught Roldan with a straight right, fired two left hooks and then caught him with a right cross square on the injured eye. Roldan crashed over on his back.
Sitting up, Roldan stared at the floor in despair. Then he climbed wearily to his feet and, shoulders slumped in defeat, turned toward his corner even as Perez finished the count. That's when Perez asked him if he wanted any more of Hagler, and Roldan said no.
Furious, Lectore threw a towel into the ring. Then, striding from the arena, he barged into Roldan's dressing room and belted a door from its hinges with a righthand punch.
The following morning, Lectore, his hand badly swollen, said he hadn't thrown the towel at Roldan. "People shouldn't think I'm a criminal," he said. "I was just trying to give him courage. That's my job. But Roldan fought a very courageous fight. He fought the last seven rounds with one eye. I just threw the towel because of the bad luck. With two good eyes, Roldan won the first 2½ rounds. That's what's important. All the rest was bad luck."
Next up for Hagler—in the 10th defense of the title he won on Sept. 27, 1980—is Mustafa Hamsho, who, you'll remember, was butchered by Hagler on Oct. 3, 1981 before the fight was stopped in the 11th round. Then, said Lectore, Roldan will try his luck again.
You would think once against Hagler would be enough.
The moon was in Pisces, Jupiter was in Capricorn, and Juan Laporte was in trouble. Laporte, the WBC featherweight champ and resident warlock, was on the ropes, his titles dangling by a thread. "I'm a Scorpio," his challenger, Wilfredo Gomez, had said before the bout. "I have poison in my punches." In the humid midnight air of San Juan's sold-out Roberto Clemente Coliseum, Gomez' words became a stinging reality. His unanimous 12-round decision was a triumph of spirit over spirits.
Gomez was a 2-to-1 favorite in Las Vegas and was odds-on in the zodiac, said astrologer Walter Mercado, a self-styled San Juan swami whose flamboyant costumes look as if they've been inspired by Wonder bread wrappers. His expression of concern is as heavy as his eyeliner.
Yes, said Mercado, the heavens were winking at Gomez, but Laporte's camp practiced sorcery. The Brooklyn-raised Laporte, who like Gomez was born in Puerto Rico, had been branded a brujo (warlock) by his native countrymen because his birthplace, Guayama, is the last outpost of African cults on the island.
"I'm going to defeat Gomez by messing with his psyche," said Laporte's co-trainer, Carlos Espada, who hails from Cayey, 10 miles north of Guayama. Espada has cultivated a reputation as being something of a witch doctor. Impaled in his left ear is a gold crucifix; a silver amulet, in the form of the head of a Taino Indian, glows on the middle finger of his left hand. He calls it his power ring. "If I were to put a spell on Gomez, he'd believe it," said Espada. "When he looks at Laporte, he'll see Sanchez."
Salvador Sanchez, that is, who 31 months ago handed Gomez his only defeat, with an eighth-round TKO. Before the Sanchez fight, Gomez had been a hero in Puerto Rico because of his 32 straight KOs and 13 successful junior bantamweight title defenses. But the locals never forgave him for losing the Sanchez fight, which was Gomez' first shot at the featherweight title. And Gomez never got a rematch: Sanchez, who beat Laporte on points in 1980, died in a car crash on Aug. 12, 1982.
Although Laporte's manager, Howie Albert, played down the occult ("Ridiculous! Besides, my wife checked out Juan's biorhythms for the day of the fight, and they couldn't be better"), Laporte himself did little to dispel talk of the Sanchez whammy. He'd made a pilgrimage to Sanchez' grave in Mexico, hired Sanchez' Mexican physician and even trained in gloves the late champ had given him. Since winning the crown 18 months ago, Laporte had made two indifferent title defenses. He'd also lost an over-the-weight fight to unranked Gerald Hayes when Albert had kicked Espada out of Laporte's corner. Albert had wanted to show Laporte he didn't need Espada. Laporte did. Out from under Espada's sway, he had fought in a zombielike daze and lost a 10-round decision.
Espada had the 24-year-old Laporte wear red Sasson trunks to the Gomez fight. Red, Mercado points out, is emblematic of Changó, the great African spirit of lightning, fire and water.
What does the opening bell signify?
"The bell," explained Mercado, "signifies the beginning of the fight."
From the outset, Gomez, 27, delivered clean, sure strokes, which was a little surprising, considering that he had gone only five rounds since knocking out Lupe Pintor 15 months ago in the final defense of his WBC super bantam title. He left the 122-pound division because he couldn't make the weight.
The layoff and his 125 pounds appeared to wear Gomez down around the third round, but Laporte still couldn't keep out of Gomez' way. He repeatedly pinned Laporte to the ropes with punishing body shots. Doubling up left jabs to Laporte's abdomen and head, Gomez would follow with roundhouse rights and then step back to avoid Laporte's wild counterpunches. Peering from behind his gloves for much of the bout, Laporte looked more like he was playing peek-a-boo.
Espada didn't sit idly by. His head swathed in a red bandana and his body zippered into a red jogging suit (Oo-la-la! Changó), he pounded the canvas with his palms during rounds, and in the intervals he screamed at Laporte as if reciting some half-crazed incantation. "Espada wouldn't shut his big mouth," lamented co-trainer Emile Griffith, Laporte's chief tactician.
Griffith, a welterweight and middleweight champion in the 1960s, had wanted Laporte to parry Gomez' rights with short jabs. But Laporte only had ears for Espada and chose to slug it out rather than box. Of the 38 punches that connected during one stretch of Round 7, Laporte landed just one. About all he could do was absorb the blows. He left the ring $525,750 richer, but with rills of blood streaming down his cheeks, two broken fingers and a badly swollen face.
Gomez came away with $175,250 and the SRO crowd of 12,000-plus in his pocket. The Curse of Sanchez had been lifted at last. Sometimes, winning works just like a charm.