On a hot and humid Panamanian Sunday, the jeep of the legislador—the junior senator, as we might call him—swerves to avoid the live cockerels, bounces past the dead cars and arrives at the Softball game in the dusty hamlet of Buenos Aires. At this precise instant a hapless outfielder, backing up to make a catch, disappears into the surrounding rain forest. The crowd goes wild as Villa Unida takes a 2-1 lead over Deportiva Alvarado, and for the moment the visiting politico is badly upstaged.
But only for a moment. The game is abruptly stopped. Tardy as he may be, the serious-looking visitor must throw out the "first" ball. And then there are ladies in hair rollers to be complimented and village elders to be conversed with in low, confidential tones, and finally, of course, there is a speech to be given. The P.A. system blares out an entirely unnecessary introduction—unnecessary because everybody knows who is honoring the village today. He's not merely a member of Panama's Legislative Assembly; he's El Campéon Mundial de Peso Pluma himself, Eusebio Pedroza, the WBA's featherweight champion and, statistically at least, the most successful professional boxer in the world. Furthermore, he's quite likely the only champ anywhere who is an elected representative of the people.
Awesome has become a cheap word, but it is hard to find another that adequately describes Pedroza's boxing achievements. He won his title with a 13th-round knockout of Spain's Cecilio Lastra on April 15, 1978 and has successfully defended it 19 times, which ties him with heavyweight champ Larry Holmes (who won his title in June 1978) for longest run by a champion since Joe Louis's 24 straight defenses from 1937 to '48. The Panamanian's overall record is 38-3-1, with one no-contest and 23 KOs, and he hasn't lost in nine years. In London on June 8 Pedroza will put his title on the line again, against Barry McGuigan of Northern Ireland. If Pedroza wins, he will be one shy of Abe Attell's record for successful defenses by a featherweight, set between 1906 and 1912.
For all this, his countrymen worry that Pedroza is less interested in his ring performance than in his political career. Indeed, only seven weeks before the McGuigan fight Pedroza weighed 144 pounds, 18 more than the featherweight maximum. Instead of training at the Pascual Gonzalez gym in downtown Panama City, he had taken two days off for "senatorial duties."
May 19, 1985
"I had to go to the assembly to do a different type of fighting," says the champion, who was talked into becoming a candidate as an alternate legislador for the Revolutionary Democratic Party early last year and was elected in May 1984, "People in the legislature are educated; you have lawyers, engineers, doctors. But the problems we debate are basic. I must fight for my people, the things they need and want in my district."
Now it is Pedroza's two trainers who seem to be looking for a fight on a sultry afternoon. They have been working with him ever since he turned pro, and now they are boiling angry about his absence from the gym. Both are out of Caledonia, Panama City's Harlem; both are descendants of Jamaicans who came to Panama to help build the canal; and both are in their 70s. Lyonel Hoyte is a giant of a man with a face carved like a Dahomey juju mask, while Henry Douglas, who is always called Matty Baby, is Hoyte's perfect foil. Matty Baby is small and bouncy and always wears a flat leather applejack cap set at a degree of jauntiness not seen anywhere since Jackie Coogan was the Kid. The pair look malevolently at the champ. "He behind" says Matty Baby.
"He not ready" agrees Lyonel.
"His leg not well," says Matty.
Recently, you learn, Pedroza had been rousted out of bed at 4 a.m. by his sister-in-law. A thief was breaking into one of the champ's cars. He stopped the audacious constituent with a single shot—not his favorite left jab but the 9-mm kind, from an Uzi machine pistol, the kind of heavy-duty armament that suddenly appeared in the hands of U.S. Secret Service agents when John W. Hinckley Jr. attempted to assassinate President Reagan. "This man must thank God he alive with just a wounded knee," says Matty Baby, "but my fighter pull a muscle in his left leg running him down." All the same, sparring to a 100-watt rendition of Madonna's Material Girl Pedroza looks fast and supple, and when he begins to work over the heavy bag, it is clear that he can still hit with power.
Later, in the locker room, Pedroza speaks again of his unhappiness at being an unsung hero outside of Panama. "Why, at last, am I getting attention?" he asks. "When I was screaming to fight Little Red Lopez, Wilfredo Gomez, Azumah Nelson, Salvador Sanchez, where was the press then? Where were the promoters?" Earlier, his manager, 50-year-old Santiago del Rio, had his own complaints to make. "This is the toughest fighter in the world," he declared, and then paused for effect and added, "to promote.
"He should have made far more money. Salvador Sanchez made more out of four fights than Eusebio has in all his great career. But he is shy, gets homesick, won't meet people. He likes to arrive in a place Wednesday for a Saturday fight. If planes had gyms in them, he'd arrive a half hour before the bout. If he'd only head up to New York for a while.... Wouldn't writers see him in restaurants there? Wouldn't every little thing he did make the papers?"
Actually, only seven of Pedroza's defenses have been in Panama. He made his sixth defense, against John Aloa, in November 1979, almost halfway around the world from home, in Port Moresby, New Guinea. "Fifteen hundred cops," recalls his manager, "500 of them with German shepherds, holding back guys carrying lances and wearing grass skirts."
At home in Panama City's middle-class Los Pinos district with his wife, Rosa Amalia, and his two daughters, Yuleiska and Yemajara, Pedroza makes no bones about why he has traveled like a wild goose. He needed the cash, and until recently his division had not attracted big-money interest. After Pedroza won his title, promoter Don King signed the new champ to a three-fight deal worth a modest $350,000. But even this unexceptional sum failed to materialize—the contract became void when there were no TV takers after three months. "I have had to be a good soldier," Pedroza says, "and go where the battle is. Even to a place like Port Moresby, full of Indios, some civilized, some savages, the strangest place I have been in my whole life, a place where much blood had been shed. But I told myself, 'He who is with God is safe.' "
Such devout expressions are rarely far from the champion's lips, and now and then you have to remind yourself that Pedroza has been vilified at times as an especially dirty fighter who has benefited from some extraordinary decisions. There was, for instance, the strange business of his 10th defense, against Rocky Lockridge in October 1980 in McAfee, N.J. One judge, Rodolph Hill of Panama, scored the fight 149-139 in his countryman's favor, while the other two judges had it much closer, 144-142 and 146-141. In Pedroza's 14th defense, against Juan LaPorte of the U.S., this time in Atlantic City, he had two rounds taken away for hitting after the bell and for using his elbows. Though his win by a unanimous decision was subsequently overturned, and the fight was declared "no bout," Pedroza kept his title. There were more noisy recriminations when he fought to a draw (and thus retained the title) against Bernard Taylor before the challenger's home crowd in Charlotte. N.C. in October 1982. And the following year, in a bout in Saint-Vincent, Italy, he was warned repeatedly for kidney and rabbit punches when he fought Jose Caba of the Dominican Republic.
Pedroza listens to a summary of these events with equanimity. "You have to do what you can when you feel the pressure," he says. "That's being a pro. Myself, if I want to be a crybaby, I go to the nursery, I don't show it in the ring. All those stories about me were started up in North America, when I fought Lockridge and LaPorte. And if I'm dirty, where did I learn the tricks but up north? I don't hear them calling Hagler dirty. But he has a very, uh, technical way of using his head, he's sort of loose with his thumbs, he knows how to use his elbows, the butts of his hands, his laces. But I don't want to go on about that. It's part of boxing."
It is also clear that no mere repertoire of dirty tricks could have carried Pedroza through 19 defenses. In Panama City, 52-year-old Alfonso Castillo is the doyen of boxing journalists. Castillo has been a columnist for La Rep√∫blica, a national newspaper, for 28 years and has missed only two of Pedroza's fights. "Sure," says Castillo, "he'll defend what he's got with everything he's got. He'll use every trick. Others do the same. But remember, he is also a most complete boxer. He can brawl as well as box and still maintain his distance. But watch the way he delivers the left jab. He leans right back, as if he were throwing the javelin. His reach is so long. He'll study his man for maybe two or three rounds, then let down his guard just so that he can counterpunch, like Ali." But like other knowledgeable Panamanians, Castillo is aware of how politics are taking over much of Pedroza's life. "When he fought Angel Mayor in Venezuela last May," says the columnist, "he only trained 14 days. He has trouble making weight, and that might be weakening his punch. His last honest-to-God KO was back in December '81."
Should Castillo's forebodings about the bout with McGuigan prove correct, there is one fellow townsman of Pedroza's who will not buy black crepe to hang on his door. "People here are proud of Eusebio," Castillo says, "but when Roberto Duran announced last month that he would return to the ring, there was an earthquake in Panama."
To be brutally frank, however, Pedroza's more famous compatriot looks as if he could cause an earthquake just by sitting down—and as if his next match should be against a sumo wrestler. Duran certainly looked that way last month while relaxing at home after a tour of Latin America with Felicidad, his" 11-piece salsa band. As he drank white wine with a dozen cronies, watching a bloody shootout in a Mexican movie on TV, his pendulous belly hung over his red shorts. Duran must now weigh more than 200 pounds, even though he intends to return to the ring as soon as this fall. "Pedroza, who is he?" Duran shouted, as his cohorts sniggered. "He has fought nobody! And those he has fought have not pressured him!"
For his part, Pedroza is not a member of the local chapter of the Duran fan club, though he chooses his words far more carefully. "It is ambition that kills men," Pedroza says, "and it still hurts Duran. He has done much damage to himself. You have to be calm to be a human." Pedroza was far from calm recently when he read in El Tiempo, a Colombian newspaper, the headline DURAN: PEDROZA IS ENVIOUS OF ME.
"Eusebio has always been in Duran's shadow," says del Rio. "Panama is a small city. If Pedroza stayed out at a nightclub until 3 a.m., the next night Duran would be out till four. Back when Duran was due to fight Sugar Ray Leonard in Montreal, Pedroza was working out in New York, so I took him up to Canada just to help a fellow countryman. But Duran wouldn't say hello, he wouldn't run or spar with Eusebio. Wouldn't remain in the same gym. Eusebio is quiet and a gentleman, but this time I had to cool him down."
So it goes. Pedroza buys his-and-hers BMWs to supplement the family Mercedes; Duran announces he will take a weekend in New York. Pedroza buys a $35,000 diamond-studded Rolex, Duran orders a $500,000 sound system. Duran is clearly ahead on gold chains, Pedroza on dignity.
Indeed, Pedroza has something that Duran seems to have missed. By some immutable rule, boxers' homes are aglitter with trophies that exude a kind of exuberant vulgarity. But in Pedroza's den, pride of place goes to a series of framed photographs that show him in the company of the late president of his country. General Omar Torrijos Herrera, the champion's political mentor as well as friend. It was Torrijos who negotiated a treaty with the U.S. that would give Panama control of the Panama Canal and who improved the economy of this country of two million citizens. Like Pedroza, some of Torrijos' methods were not universally admired, but undeniably, like Pedroza, he inspired pride and a new sense of independence among his countrymen. But in 1981, four years after the treaty was signed, Torrijos was killed in a mysterious air crash. "You see I have his picture everywhere," says the fighter. "I live with his ideals. That is why people say I am shy. It is because I carry my country on my shoulders when I speak. I am not scared, but I must refine my words, I must commit no error.
"Here now, in Panama, my General would say there is no luz larga, far vision. Even in boxing I think I will be the last of the great Latin champions. To be blunt, I believe that 95 percent of the aspirants are drug addicts. They have no future. I am not really a politician but, like Omar, a realist. Panama is still elitist. Poverty is worse in this city now than when I was young."
As you get to know Pedroza better, you realize the depths of his emotionalism, how much of a facade is the dour face. Now his thoughts have led him to his boyhood in Mara√±ón, in the tumbledown shacks built for the canal workers, and to his father ("a simple laborer") and mother, who, not uncharacteristically, hated to see him fight. He recalls his last defeat, on July 11, 1976 in Caracas, when Oscar Arnal broke his jaw in the third round, and he fought on to the sixth. "When my mother saw me with the jaw," he recalls painfully. "she said, 'Leave the fighting, for God's sake, leave it.' She made soup for me to suck through a straw. My jaws were closed, wired up. She would give it to me very quickly and then leave. One day I followed her into the back of the house. I saw her sitting there, crying."
And then, suddenly, Pedroza's own head has dropped into his hands, and he is sobbing convulsively. When he recovers, he repeats that yes, yes, when he retires he will go into politics full-time. "I know," he says. "I am not so foolish as to think that all those votes in the last election would have come to me if I had not been champion. But I will show the people I have a warm heart for them also."
The phone rings. Panamanian President Nicolàs Ardito Barletta wants to know if there is a firm date yet for the McGuigan fight. As the champion speaks to him, reality returns. Politics will have to wait, he agrees when he hangs up. Six thousand miles away, a deeply committed, explosive young Irishman is waiting for perhaps the last of the great Latinos. He is not concerned in the least about the next election day in Panama.