Juan Soto and Francisco (Pancho) Sànchez aren't lost, but they're stumbling. They've taken some blows as they've searched for the path to the good life, that well-worn but elusive trail that lies out there in the growing darkness, the highroad to the American promised land. Juan and Pancho aren't down, but they're on one knee and the count is at five.
Maybe boxing can save them.
On a Sunday afternoon in late winter they walk into the basement of the rec center at Clarendon Park, on the North Side of Chicago, with their two volunteer coaches, Arturo Salas and Luis Berumen, ready to sign up for the 63rd Annual Chicago Golden Gloves amateur boxing tournament.
Juan, 18, has bristly black hair with a pigtail hanging down his neck, a ratty pubescent goatee and scattered pimples on his broad, smiling face. He is from Mexico and has been in the U.S. for five years. He speaks English poorly and has not been to school since November, when officials at Wells High School on the Northwest Side asked him to leave because he had passed only two classes in two years and he hung around with members of a street gang. Juan has been boxing for two years, having reached the second round of last year's Chicago Golden Gloves competition as a 147-pounder.
September 8, 1991
Pancho is also 18 and from Mexico, but he has been in the U.S. only three years and his English is worse than Juan's, which is to say that even a diner menu is incomprehensible to him. He is a sophomore at Wells, enrolled in the bilingual program, and he is so short—5'1"—that at times, scurrying between classes, he resembles a grade-school kid lost in the halls. Pancho has been training as a boxer for four months, but he has yet to fight someone in the ring. Outside it, he has done occasional damage in whirlwind confrontations with larger people, propelled by a sudden rage that boils from the pool of dignity hidden in his tiny chest.
Pancho enjoys drawing and music, and recently he bought threads of different colors and wove a delicate bracelet that he wears on his right wrist. The bracelet says CHOORY—Shorty, another of his nicknames. Pancho is peaceful by nature, and his street fights are not statements of machismo—rather, they occur when heat waves of frustration overwhelm him. "I'm not proud of them," he says softly. "But I must stand up."
He is looking forward to proving himself within the confines of a sport, within something recognized by society as real and valid, something with rules and a clock and observant adults, a beginning and an end, history. Pancho is shy, has a silver-capped front tooth, and short hair that stands out from his head like fuzz on a dandelion. His family is fragmented; Pancho's father takes little interest in him, and his mother has moved back and forth between Mexico and Chicago. Juan has no one in the U.S. but a brother and a sister.
The national Golden Gloves tournament was started in 1927 as a charitable event sponsored by the New York Daily News. The paper's sister company, the Chicago Tribune, started the Chicago tournament in 1928. Since then the Golden Gloves has seen good and bad times, though it now seems fairly secure as a national institution, with 32 regional events leading to the national tournament, held this year in Des Moines in May with 365 finalists. Each regional tournament is run a bit like a fast-food franchise, with the local managers responsible for promotion, advertising and the bottom line. You can squeeze a buck out of the Golden Gloves if you're lucky, but there are easier ways to make a living.
Winning the Golden Gloves national championship does not qualify a boxer for the Olympic or Pan American Games or any other international amateur competition. All it does is give the boxer status. Ray Leonard was a national Golden Gloves champion. So were Tommy Hearns, Michael Spinks, Evander Holy-field, Mike Tyson and Joe Louis. A Louisville kid named Cassius Clay used to daydream in school, drawing pictures of a glorious coat with the words NATIONAL GOLDEN GLOVES CHAMPION on it. Clay would win two national Golden Gloves titles before turning the pro ranks upside down and becoming Muhammad Ali. In a vague way, Juan and Pancho are aware of all this and are eager to be part of it.
Amateur fighters and the usual friends, trainers and fight-game hangers-on mill about the Clarendon Park basement, which doubles at times as a shelter for the homeless. The boxers have papers to sign, rights to waive, photos to be taken. An old black man with a derby and a pocket hankie talks to a woman dressed in black who has white-blonde hair, blood-red lipstick and a lit cigarette that she dangles above an empty soda can. The woman is Lois Berger, p.r. assistant for Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley's Office of Special Events, which cosponsors the Chicago Golden Gloves. Though she sits through many bouts with a hand covering her eyes, she loves the fighters and dutifully types up press releases stating their virtues.
"I think Soto and Sànchez are good kids," she says with a puff of smoke. "I think most of these kids are."
The 5'7" Juan signs up in the 147-pound novice class, Pancho in the 119-pound novice class. There are three divisions in the Chicago Golden Gloves: novice, open and senior novice. The novice division is for boxers under 21 with fewer than 12 fights; open is for experienced boxers; and senior novice, which was added last year and is sometimes referred to as the yuppie division, is for boxers 21 to 37 years old with four fights or fewer. Fights go three rounds, at three minutes a round. Some bouts, particularly in the novice and yuppie divisions, look like a cartoonist's rendering of Bugs Bunny tangling with the Tasmanian Devil. No matter what your division, you can get your brains scrambled.
Salas and Berumen help the boys fill in the forms. Under the heading "Goal, Ambition in Life," Pancho writes that he wants to be in a tournament that "sends the winner to Mexico City." Juan's goal is simply to be a professional fighter.
The two boxers stay near their coaches, silently observing the parade of characters who come to register. All told, 259 fighters will enter the Golden Gloves, including bodybuilders, ex-convicts, a 37-year-old former jockey, a medical malpractice attorney, a few obscenely overweight beginners, a West German 140-pound bronze medalist at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, a Chicago fireman, a stockbroker, a couple of college students, numerous black and Hispanic kids with tattoos and sullen faces, and Tommy Spinks, son of former heavyweight champion Leon Spinks.
"Did somebody call you a towelhead?" a coach asks one of his fighters. The kid shakes his head. The coach is Craig (the Gator) Bodzianowski, a pro fighter who lost his right foot in a motorcycle accident seven years ago but still boxes. He got his nickname because he has a Lacoste alligator tattooed on his chest and sometimes wears golf shirts with cutouts that allow the trademark to show through. "You're Pakistani, right?" the Gator continues.
"I was born in America," says the youth with irritation.
The Gator laughs. He pulls down his lower lip, revealing the words BAD TO THE BONE—compliments of his dad, the tattoo artist. Juan and Pancho watch with dull ambivalence, understanding neither the dialogue nor the strangeness of a man with words written in his mouth.
Juan and Pancho move to an area near some stacked mattresses to get their pictures taken by Stanley Berg, a 65-year-old former fighter who is chief boxing referee for the state of Illinois and director of the Chicago tournament. The Polaroid shots are for the youths' boxing passbooks, which contain their fighting records, health status and identification. Other than a Mexican birth certificate and a driver's education card, it will be all the identification Juan has. Pancho has only a birth certificate and a Wells student I.D. Neither of the young men is a U.S. citizen. Berg looks harried and disgruntled. He eyes Salas and Berumen with suspicion. He and they have had several run-ins in the past over various boxing decisions.
At last year's Chicago Golden Gloves tournament, Berumen's son Luis Jr. lost the 112-pound title on a decision, and Luis Sr. claimed that the fight was fixed, that Berg and his fellow officials were on the take. Berg heatedly denies this. Other fighters of Berumen's have lost close amateur bouts, and always Berumen has blamed the judges.
Berg tells the Mexican group now, very clearly, that this is just the registration—the official weigh-ins will be in two weeks. Juan and Pancho leave with their coaches.
Juan goes back to his small room in the North Side basement apartment of Humberto and Angelina García, the married couple who took in Juan after his sister Alicia Soto threw him out of her apartment several months ago. Juan came to Chicago from Chihuahua with his mother, Consuelo, and a few of his seven brothers and sisters in May 1986, but his mother returned to Mexico a few months later. "Too much cold," says Juan, sitting on his bed. "And too much poverty. And then I got in a fight in the street, and she said, 'Come on, let's go back.' But I said, 'No, I want to finish school here. I want to be an American.' " Alicia took him in but then told him to leave after her teenage son, Oscar, was wounded by a member of a street gang; according to Juan, Alicia mistakenly thought the young gunman had come looking for him, not Oscar.
"I don't use drugs," says Juan. "I'm not in a gang. I don't carry a gun—just these." He holds out his fists and grins. "My sister doesn't understand. I don't want problems. I just want to work out, go for a walk, go back to the house. My nephew Oscar, he's the one in a gang, not me."
Seventeen-year-old Oscar Soto was shot in the arm by a member of the Satan's Disciples Nation. The bullet went neatly in one side of his biceps and out the other, leaving two matching dime-sized scars. With a slight change in his stance, Oscar would have taken the slug in his heart. Why was Oscar shot? Who knows. Gangs don't deal in logic.
Oscar was a boxer but quit the sport a few months before the shooting. "He was good, too," says Juan. "He went to the finals in the Chicago Park District in 1989, at 156 pounds. Is he gonna die now? I don't know. He got shot so he's not afraid, I guess."
But, of course, Oscar is afraid. Juan stopped by to see him not long ago, and the two of them sat on the back steps leading up to Oscar's apartment. Graffiti written by enemy gangs lead right up to the back door, and in most places Oscar has painted the logo of his own gang, the Ashland Vikings, or insulting words on top of the rival gangs' graffiti.
"You get sick of it," says Oscar of the constant threat of violence that lurks around him. "If I go that way to Blackhawk, the M.L.D.'s, the Maniac Latin Disciples, will get me. To the west I can't pass Wood, or it's the Latin Kings. South, I can't pass Chicago—that's the S.D.'s. That way, past Milwaukee, it's the Vice Lords. Those guys shot my buddy Sinbad in the mouth. I'll be sitting in class, and sometimes the S.D.'s look in and throw down [make gang signs] right there in school. It's something, man."
As Oscar and Juan talk, an angry man who appears to be holding a gun under his jacket storms up and, in Spanish, demands to know if Oscar is the punk who fought his son today near Wells High. Oscar says no, he wasn't the one. Juan looks on, his eyes wide. The man looks at the boys, studies them awhile and then slowly moves off, closing his jacket as he goes.
In fact, it was Oscar who beat up the man's kid. The fight was actually a mini-gang battle started on the sidewalk in broad daylight by the following meaningful exchange between Oscar and the other boy. Boy: "What?" Oscar: "What?" Brawl begins.
Oscar grins now. He is a skinny, sallow-faced youth with no apparent muscle definition, but he has quick hands and long arms. "I hit the dude with some uppercuts," he says with pleasure. Like many of the local Hispanic kids who have dabbled in boxing, Oscar wanted to learn fighting skills mostly to duke it out on the streets.
And how does Juan stay out of the trap? "I don't want that," he says of the gang life. "I don't want to get shot. I don't want to take drugs. I don't want a nightmare. I don't want my mother in Mexico to hear that her son is just a gangbanger."
On the walls of Juan's room there are a few mementos—a Golden Gloves poster, a painting of the Grim Reaper above the words SEE YOU IN HELL, a silver heart-shaped balloon with a folded note saying "Kisses For You" on the front. Inside, it says "Today, Tomorrow & Forever. Love you, Esmeralda R." This is from Juan's girlfriend, 16-year-old Esmeralda Roque, a sophomore at Wells.
"Esme and I have been going together for one year and five months," Juan says. "I love her, and I told her I want to get married. She may think I'm playing, but I'm not. She says, 'It's too early, not yet—maybe in '93.' I want to finish school, get a good job and continue my boxing. I told Esme I don't got too much money, but I got a big, big heart. I just want someone to love me." Not long after the Golden Gloves, Juan and Esme will break up.
Pancho walks to his apartment building on Bosworth, just south of North Avenue. The area is heavily Hispanic, with many signs in Spanish and residents who know each other from Mexico, Puerto Rico or Central America. Pancho lives on the third floor of a run-down building with his father, Miguel, a moody, hard-drinking laborer, and his 16-year-old sister Araceli. Pancho's mother and his three other siblings are in Mexico City. Pancho's father belittles him so often over his size and his attempts to better himself through boxing and education that the youth spends much of his time in the first-floor apartment of the Díaz family. He baby-sits for the four Díaz boys or watches their TV or sometimes crouches on the sidewalk in front of the building and shadowboxes. Because his arms are so short, his punches travel in tiny, harmless-looking arcs. Still, there are times as he bobs and weaves there on the concrete when his little face looks fiercely joyful, as though he has been transported to a happier place.
He knocks on the door, and Margarita Díaz lets him in. Pancho begins to play with one of the little boys, and Mrs. Díaz observes. "I'm in charge of him, which means I'm always kicking his ass," she says with affection. "His father makes fun of Pancho, but Pancho wants to be somebody. His family needs money, so there's all kinds of pressure on him. Sometimes I see him in the street, hitting the air, like a crazy guy, like Rocky. So I tell him, 'Don't fight the air, fight for real!' " Mrs. Díaz puts a coat on one of her children, who runs out the door to play on the sidewalk. She turns back to Pancho, who looks at her fleetingly with his dark, searching eyes. Not long ago Pancho laid a combination on a big man who was harassing his sister. The man went down, minus several teeth, and Pancho ran into the Díaz's apartment through the kitchen and jumped out a bedroom window.
"So then we saw Rocky V" Mrs. Díaz says. "And I said to Pancho, 'See, now Rocky is successful, but he fought so much he has brain damage.' " She shrugs, a tough lady who sees the gray shades in life.
At this point, though, physical pain and damage are irrelevant to Pancho. What hurts more, a battered head or a crushed spirit? Pancho sometimes slouches in crowds, getting shorter and shorter until he nearly disappears, seemingly flattened by his burden as a stranger in a strange land. But then he will stand tall, full of resolve. "I like the way I am, even though people tease me," he says. "The best perfume comes in a small bottle."
Somehow Pancho has developed a will to succeed that, with luck, may help him at boxing and then, Pancho dreams, in life itself. It all seemed to crystallize one day last year, he says. He was walking to school, past the guys hanging out on the corner, the usual gang guys making fun of his height and his clothes, when he realized he didn't want to be like them. Not then. Not now. Not ever.
"Boxing is what can make me feel proud," he says. "I want to be someone. I am very, very scared to end up on the corner. That is not me."
At boxing practice on Thursday in the dark basement of the Union League Boys & Girls Club in a decaying section of the Northwest Side, Juan beats coach Berumen's mitts with a frenzy. Berumen is 48, an out-of-work housepainter and sometime artist who once trained to be a fighter back in Juàrez, Mexico. He likes to wear cowboy hats and hold forth on the problems of society, particularly the educational and boxing systems in Chicago.
"Wells High School is pathetic," Berumen says between blows. "And the amateur boxing? Decisions are given to people who need the wins. You see the same judges, same faces year after year. There is only one word for it all—corruption!" Berumen trains boxers for free in this dank cavern, and for that alone he deserves credit.
Still, he seems to be using the boxers as much as they use him. He seems to be against everything, to enjoy telling the boxers about the unfairness of the world, to revel in the boys' own tales of bad luck and persecution. One day he looked at Juan's birth certificate and saw what was there. Under Madre it said, "Eighth child of Consuelo Soto, 39 years old, housewife, Mexican." Under Padre it said nothing. Berumen told Juan that he was sorry Juan had no father. Juan nodded, then said, "Maybe you can be my father." Berumen shook his head. He says he can barely provide for his family: "I am the poorest man in Chicago."
Salas is like Berumen in that he coaches for free and is deeply dissatisfied with the public educational system. As president of the Wells High School Local School Council, the 40-year-old Salas has a vendetta against Wells principal David Peterson and says he won't rest until Peterson is driven from office. No matter that Peterson was chosen Principal of the Year in 1981 by ASPIRA, a Hispanic leadership program in the Chicago school system; Salas wants Peterson ousted for his alleged insensitivity to the problems of boys like Juan and Pancho. A year ago Salas and Berumen staged a four-day hunger strike at the Daley Center to draw attention to their complaints, and their boxers now give them a small power base.
"Juan and Pancho have been here four-five years—they should speak English so well!" Salas exclaims. "I was a troublemaker in school, too. Oh yes. But then I had a teacher who helped me. Who helps these kids? Nobody."
Salas came to the United States on a day he will never forget—Nov. 22, 1963, the day John F. Kennedy was shot. A bantamweight boxer, he says he had a professional record of 32-9; his final bout—the only one listed in the Ring record book-was on the undercard of the Johnny Lira-Ernesto Espana WBA lightweight title fight in Chicago in August '79. In the first round, Salas was knocked cold in front of Howard Cosell and a handful of spectators. He bled from the ear for some time afterward and still suffers occasional spells of dizziness. He works at a factory, Palmer Metals, and helps out with the few boxers who come regularly to the Union League Club. "It only takes a gangbanger about a minute to recruit a new kid," he says. "I hate gangbangers."
The gangs wait on the streets, ready to snare recruits, like spiders sitting at the bottom of funnel webs. They seduce by offering a structure within which angry, lost kids can be miserable together. For a while it seemed that Juan was lost, classic gang fodder. His sister says she asked him to leave her house not because she thought he belonged to a gang but because he had become apathetic. "He didn't want to go to school, didn't want to box, didn't want to work," she says. "He didn't want to do anything."
Juan is in training now, but he has become apathetic about his diet. At the weigh-in on Sunday, he tips the scale at 156 pounds and is forced to move up a weight class. Now there are 12 fighters in his class, instead of five in the lower class. Pancho weighs 114 pounds, and after a quick discussion with Salas, he decides to go down a class to 112. Might as well be the toughest guy at the lowest weight. Besides, it's not certain there will even be another 119-pounder to fight. "There might be another 112-pounder," Berg says. Then he looks at his watch and says, "He's got 36 minutes."
Pancho wraps himself in plastic ripped from the mattresses for the homeless, puts on his winter coat and sprints off toward Lake Michigan. While he is gone, another sometime boxer for Salas and Berumen, Israel Echeverría, steps on the scale. Echeverría is a 20-year-old junior college student and last year's novice-division runner-up at 165 pounds. The young man has a long pigtail, a sculpted body and two circular scars under his rib cage. Last August he was stabbed by some Latin Kings while riding a city bus on the way to boxing practice.
"They were throwing up signs and representing," says Echeverría. "And one of them said to me, 'What you about?' I said, 'I don't be about nothing.' He said, 'You about something,' and we started fighting." Surgeons were able to save the boxer's kidney, but Echeverría is worried that he might not be able to take a body punch as he did in the past.
Pancho returns, peels off his wrap and steps on the scale. One hundred twelve pounds exactly. It will be a while, says Berg defensively, before they can determine who Pancho's opponent will be. "There aren't a lot of guys that size anymore," he says.
On the day of his first fight, Juan goes about his usual routine: He baby-sits the Garcías' two-year-old daughter, Yvette. From 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. he plays with her, feeds her, changes her diapers and sometimes just sits and holds her on the couch. "This is my little son," he jokes.
When Juan was a child in Chihuahua, he sold trinkets at the bus station and brought the money home to his mother. "I sold gum and things, and I had money everywhere," he remembers. Of course, it was a tiny amount of loot, but he felt rich and loved. He wants to be a pro boxer to reestablish that equation: If he makes money, someone will love him again.
At four he bundles up Yvette, and the two of them take a series of buses to the Berumens' tiny, $300-a-month apartment on Augusta Street. There Juan gives the child to Rebecca Berumen and sits down and lets Luis Sr. cut off his 'tail with a pair of kitchen scissors. He picks some of his hair from the floor and looks at it sadly. "It's all right," he says. "For boxing."
He goes with Luis Sr. to St. Andrew's Gym on Addison Street, just west of Wrigley Field. Juan gets in line so that a doctor can check his eyes and make sure he has a heartbeat. Nearby, a 29-year-old warehouse worker named Maurice Holman hands his boxing passbook to the registration clerk. Holman's photo shows him in a white tuxedo in front of a vast mountain range. Are those real mountains, a judge asks. "Yeah, man," says Holman. "I flew my jet out there."
Swarms of contestants mill about, and Juan is able to find space to change and loosen up only in the shower room. He wears the trunks he won at last year's Park District championship. They are purple with an American flag in front. Juan's only pair of shoes, black hightop sneakers, are too tattered to wear in the ring, so he wears Luis Jr.'s boxing shoes, which are 1½ sizes too small.
While Juan shadowboxes, a fighter comes into the shower, sits on a folding chair, removes his right leg and ties the laces of the shoe on the artificial limb. The one-legged boxer is a 33-year-old account executive named John Hermanek. Juan gets his call and enters the ring against a stone-faced 18-year-old Mexican from the South Side. The kid's name is Gustavo Cabrera, and he speaks almost no English. On his registration form under "Occupation," he or someone else has written "package meat." There are several hundred spectators in the gym, and blue smoke from cigarettes hovers in the light above the canvas. Juan hits himself in the head a couple of times, makes the sign of the cross and dances in place as the referee checks his gloves and then his headgear.
Early in the first round Juan gets tagged with a straight right by Cabrera, who is wearing a cutoff T-shirt and old basketball shoes. Juan's mouth is twisted into a savage grin, but when he goes on the attack he has trouble covering up against counterpunches. He loses the round and sits on his stool, nodding, as Berumen and Salas both give him advice. In the second round the fans cheer loudly as the two fighters swing with everything they have. Juan delivers some nice combinations and a couple of hard liver shots while keeping his own guard up. Cabrera, who has a small roll of flab under his T-shirt, seems unfazed by Juan's punches but confused as to how to attack around them. While he's still studying the situation, the final bell rings.
Juan shuffles back and forth, looking down, as the ref holds one of his hands and one of Cabrera's. The three judges take their sweet time coming up with their verdicts. Finally the announcement is made: Soto, in a split decision. Juan leaps into the air with joy. He has shown good skills for the novice division, and the crowd applauds his spirit.
Juan sits with Cabrera in the stands and watches the next bout. They see Hermanek, the amputee, lose a close fight, largely because of the clutching and shoving of his foe. Cabrera eats popcorn and says, "I guess I didn't throw enough punches." Juan says, "Out there it is sport; here we're friends." After Cabrera leaves, Juan shakes his head. "He hit me with a left hook," Juan says, "and I saw, how do you call them? Pajaritos—birds."
Berumen and Salas have just learned that the only opponent for Pancho in the entire 112-pound novice division is a skilled 16-year-old former junior boxer named Oscar Salcedo. Salcedo actually is a 106-pounder, but he'll come up because there is nobody for him to fight in his division. Berumen begins screaming that this is unfair, that Pancho is a beginner who doesn't stand a chance. "See how they hate me?" Berumen says.
Berg walks away, shaking his head. "Can you believe it? He wants Sànchez to be the champion without even fighting."
Two nights later Juan stands at the back of the gym and looks around nervously for his second opponent, a 6'1" college student named Jason Soter. In street clothes Soter appears to be the quintessential nerd, scrawny and narrow-shouldered, with short hair, a pale face and glasses. But as he approaches the ring with gloves on, he looks tall, wiry and cold-blooded.
Berumen rubs Juan's shoulders, trying to soothe him. "When you get in the ring, look at all the people who aren't looking at you," he tells the fighter. "There are people here who don't even like boxing."
Soter isn't one of them. A freshman at Oakton Community College, studying Japanese, among other things, with the goal of teaching Oriental history or becoming an archaeologist, Soter says that it is particularly important for a studious man to "keep the pen and sword in accord." He deeply enjoys boxing, he says, adding without a hint of a smile, "The fun part is hurting people with your hands."
When the match starts, it appears that the scholar is going to do just that to Juan. Soter has excellent reach, and his jab plays a tune on the forehead of his much shorter opponent. Soter isn't fast, but he has the moves of a real fighter. By the second round, though, Juan slowly starts to break through the taller man's defense. He lands a solid jab-hook combo to Soter's head and then unleashes a liver shot that makes a nice noise and seems to impress everyone at ringside. In the third, Juan takes more punches than he gives and appears to be running out of gas at the bell.
Again he stands next to the referee, looking at the canvas. Again he wins a split decision and leaps into the air, but this time, boos pour from the crowd. Juan is momentarily taken aback—people don't think he won. He assesses this and then breaks into a big screw-you smile. He takes a bow and waves his hands to egg the people on. He is suddenly a street kid with a nasty attitude, not such a bad thing for a boxer.
Berumen watches Juan's bout with customary distress. At times Berumen seems ready to implode with tension and worry. After arguing wildly with Berg about Pancho's opponent, he shuffles to a chair, suddenly nauseated, with pains in his chest. "Oh, my heart!" he gasps. Then, after a few moments, he tells everyone, "Don't worry about me."
The boxers are never certain what to make of any of this. Though they ask for little, they are aware that they are young and full of problems. If these old men have just as many problems, then who has the answers?
Pancho is training hard and chafing with desire. But since he has only one opponent, he will not compete until the finals, two weeks from now at the suburban Rosemont Horizon arena. On Friday night he helps his band, Lotion, set up in the gym at Wells for a dance. Even as he connects the microphones and checks the sound, he wears a weightlifter's belt. "So I can work my stomach," he says. "I'm thinking about boxing." If he has a spare moment, he throws a punch. When he works at Aranda's Tires on North Ashland Avenue, fixing flats for pocket money, he sometimes lays a tattoo on a steel-belted radial, imagining it's a head or a rib cage.
Six nights later, as Juan warms up in the shower for his third fight, losing is in the air. Echeverría lost tonight, as did Tommy Spinks, who was knocked between the ropes and out of the ring by a blubbery heavyweight. From the back of the gym Leon Spinks, wearing a hooded sweatshirt, army fatigues, and glasses, surveys the scene, seemingly undisturbed by his kid's poor performance. "I'm coming back myself," he says, and one suddenly recalls that Leon's last job was as a greeter at Mike Ditka's restaurant and that most ex-champs don't take greeters' jobs until the barn's almost in sight. "I went 30 rounds with Ali. Ali was fast, but I was faster." Spinks takes a long drink from his beer.
Juan's third opponent is a tough, stocky 17-year-old black youth named Adam Stewart, from the rough part of the South Side. Juan is now a crowd favorite, as much for his slightly defiant behavior as for his skills and sportsmanship. (He has thrown no low blows or late punches and has shaken all the right hands.) Stewart, however, is a hard customer. He has ADAM tattooed on his bulging left biceps and an anchor scratched into his veiny left forearm. Why the anchor? "I thought about joining the Navy when I was little," he says with a growl.
In Round 1, both fighters throw everything they have. Stewart snorts every time he swings. He is much faster and stronger than Juan and throws Juan onto the ropes repeatedly to pound away at his head and body. Here is proof that Juan should not be fighting at this weight. But he is game. He stands toe-to-toe with Stewart and slugs it out, going backward only when he is pushed. At the bell the crowd roars its approval.
In Round 2, Stewart almost buckles Juan's knees with a savage left to the temple. Juan throws a desperate liver shot that misses Stewart entirely, and the crowd oohs in delight. Juan survives Round 3, battling to the end, and raises Stewart's hand after the bell, acknowledging that the other man has won.
Later Pancho consoles Juan, who says he feels "a little bit sick." What will he do tomorrow? "Take care of the baby," Juan says.
At the school council meeting a week later there is anarchy. Salas stands up and says, "I am denouncing David Peterson and school superintendent Ted Kimbrough!" TV cameras catch the chaos as various factions of parents and teachers stand up, scream at each other and then storm out. Juan and Pancho are in the hallway, though it is not clear why they are here except to be used as examples of the principal's alleged neglect of his students. Juan takes time during the meeting to dance briefly with a girl he knows from his school days.
Peterson, a tall, rattled man with a gray mustache, says afterward, "Francisco has a class to learn English. And Juan is perceived to be an Ashland Viking, as are some of the people he hangs around with." Whatever problems the two young men might have with school or society, says Peterson, are of their own doing. If Juan wants to get back into school, "his first step is to see me. He has not done that."
Nor is he going to. Juan's apathy is rising again. At night he goes out into the street. Oscar greets him, and they walk south on Ashland past Augusta to a side street where 10 or so Ashland Vikings are gathered, doing nothing, waiting for something to find them. Is Juan a member of the gang?
"He's not," says Oscar. "But I am."
"Juan's too smart," says another member, who is wearing a Boston Celtics cap. The Vikings' colors are green and black, when they fly them—which is seldom, because of heat from the cops.
Why are the boys in this gang?
"Because we're stupid," a member answers without sarcasm.
Juan looks around. These are his friends, acquaintances, former classmates. One is his nephew. They are just boys, but a half dozen of them have been shot or stabbed. Some have their own guns, kept safe by a member who always stays away from the action until needed. And some sell drugs. "Pot, coke, heroin," says Oscar. "We get it from the big guys. They make us pay cash, because they don't trust us." These are just boys, but they are sad and lost. Juan says goodbye, and one more time he pulls himself back out of the darkness.
At last it is Pancho's turn to fight. He has never been so ready for anything in his life. Under the stands at the Rosemont at 5:30 p.m., the boxers have their final weigh-ins. Pancho throws a few punches into the air, strips to his briefs and steps on the scale. He weighs 117 pounds.
Has anyone told him he needs to make weight tonight? Pancho looks shocked, not at the weight but at officials' reactions. He thought this was a formality.
"I told him," says Berumen in disgust. "But I can't be a baby-sitter for these guys. No more."
It's not clear that Pancho, with his poor English, has understood anything that Berg or Berger or any of the officials have said all along. And now all he can hear is the clock ticking. Pancho runs into a dressing room, wraps himself in a plastic bag and a heavy parka and begins skipping rope. Salas turns up the heat and turns on the shower as hot as it goes. Steam billows into the room.
Fifteen minutes later Pancho runs out; he strips naked and then gets on the scale. One hundred and sixteen pounds.
"It's all crap," says Berg. "They didn't want to fight."
Pancho runs back into the dressing room, panic-stricken. His opponent, Salcedo, looks on in dismay. He has freckles, pasty white skin and bony shoulders. "I'm desperate to fight," he says.
"In a street fight they don't care what you weigh," growls his trainer, Danny Nieves.
"Danny, he'll be weak if he makes it now," Salcedo says.
"You wanna fight?" snaps the trainer. "You wanna be on TV?"
Time goes by.
"That's it," says a judge, looking at his watch and at the people beginning to enter the arena. "No more. It's over. We gotta get going."
Pancho runs out of the steam room. He has to give it one more try. He needs this. Oh, if he only spoke English! If he only understood so many things! He throws off his clothes, heedless of the women in the area. He shakes sweat off himself. He towels his hair. He stands on the scale, taking a deep breath and holding it as though he is some sort of balloon. He raises his arms and reaches for the sky, trying to climb up into the guy wires high under the roof. The weight is adjusted. One hundred fourteen pounds. Two pounds over. That's it. The scale is picked up and carried away.
Pancho puts on his trunks, collapses on a chair and begins to sob. "I should have fought," he says over and over in Spanish. His little body needs an arm around it, a friend. A father.
"After this, phfttt! I'm gone," says Berumen. "I don't run a kindergarten here."
"That's an experience," says Salas. "Pancho can learn from it. Or quit. Myself, I'll train Israel Echeverría or else maybe stop this entirely."
In the stands later Juan is cheerful, heedless of time, of doors closing, of fate itself. He watches the bouts, eating a hot dog. His future is up in the air. The Garcías like him, but they have hinted that they can no longer afford to let him stay with them. He'll have to find another place soon.
Juan offers some of his hot dog to Pancho. Pancho barely shakes his head no. He may never eat again.
The road forks here, and our boys look around for guidance. But it's not there. There are only people with their own fights to fight, their own paths to walk. Pancho and Juan look ahead, but it's dark out, and the moon is hidden by clouds.