Short Story: Bayamon, 1978

One  of my passions is boxing, and I’d been thinking for a long time about writing a story that captures the drama and human interest inherent in such a violent, unforgiving sport. I came up with this one, first published in Dodging the Rain, a lovely online journal from Ireland. The original post is here, please check them out.

The internet being what it is, I figured I should have it up on my own site somewhere so people can find it even a few months from now. Enjoy.

1

Bayamon, 1978

THWOMP. The old heavy bag jumped on its chain, but not enough, so he looped a quick right, about kidney height. This time the punch landed with a much deeper, more satisfying sound and flakes of leather flew off his cheap gloves. That shot would have done some damage, and he allowed himself a slight grin, imagining it landing on Martinez. That skinny cabrón would be pissing blood for two days.

Ramon Pacheco swung harder and faster—from his hips this time—tight combinations that landed loud enough to drown out the gym’s tinny sound system. “Don’t leave me this waaaaaay…”Why did Pepe love that disco crap so much? It wasn’t music for a man to work out to. For about the fifteenth time that morning, he thought how nice it would be to finally get to New Jersey.

His cousin Jackie, in North Bergen, had room on the couch and an in with a couple of small promoters around Newark. They were a bit mobbed up, but then who wasn’t? At least he’d be able to get the kind of fights he couldn’t get here. Jackie told him there was a shortage of Puerto Rican lightweights—New Yorkers couldn’t get enough of watching the spics and negritos beat the hell out of each other. Mexicans hated living that far North, and Cubans couldn’t get there at all.

At least he’d get work and a chance to build a reputation. In a real gym, too, not the back of the worst body shop in Bayamon. He hated that this was all he could afford—a dark fly-ridden back room where grease and the bitter odor of acetylene torches filled the air and made you want to puke if you breathed too deeply for too long.

For now, Jersey would have to wait. Today he was sparring with a world champion, and his heart raced from more than just the workout and exhaust fumes. Alexis Arguello was taking on Alfredo Escalera in just over a week, and needed local fighters to help him tune up. It was a huge fight; the American networks were even bringing Howard Cosell and his toupee over to little Bayamon for it.  In a perfect world, Ramon would prefer to work out with the Puerto Rican, the World Super Lightweight champion, Escalera. God knows it wasn’t a perfect world.

He slammed another punishing right into the bag. Pretty boy got to help train the local hero just because he had the better record, while Ramon got the leftovers. Again. Facts were facts. Four and oh beat three and one any day. He’d lost his first pro fight because Martinez used those long monkey arms and that pitty-pat amateur crap to run from him for four rounds instead of mixing it up like a man. Thwomp. Judges liked that shit. Ramon’s other three opponents had hit the floor like he knew they would. There’d be plenty more, too.

Three straight knockouts. They’d love his style in Newark. Crowds wanted to see leather, sweat and blood fly. When he got to New Jersey, he’d be able to get fights regularly. Maybe even a title shot one day. Until then, there was work to do, and money to be made. Airfare wasn’t cheap.

Much as he hated to admit it, there was another factor—his size. To win this fight, Escalera had to get used to fighting a taller man. Martinez was tall and lean, like most lightweights. Ramon stood a generous five six with short, thick arms. At nineteen, he wasn’t going to get any taller. His practically non-existent neck meant he could take one hell of a punch, and when he got inside, pretty much anyone –including Victor frigging Martinez—was going down. Height shouldn’t have mattered, but it did.

Martinez was uptown pretending to be Arguello, while Ramon was stuck here. Arguello had to settle for the runt of the litter.  Fine.

It would look good when Ramon was looking for trainers in America to say he’d sparred with the lightweight champion of the world. By then he’d be the former champ, since Escalera was going to kick his skinny Nicaraguan ass.

Thwomp-thump-thwomp. There was a combination that would leave a mark.

Pepe’s gravelly voice pulled him from his reveries. “Moncito, get your ass over here. It’s time.”

“Yeah, okay.”  He turned to see three figures silhouetted against the open gym door. Pepe’s beach ball form was instantly recognizable. A second man, an older black guy in a white guyabara shirt, had to be the trainer, Eddie Futch. Which meant the third was Alexis Arguello.

Jesus, he was skinny. Ramon knew the man’s nickname, El Flaco Explosivo – “The explosive thin man,” didn’t come from nowhere. Ramon had watched the fight when Arguello took the Featherweight title from Ruben Olivares and he’d looked rail- thin even in grainy black and white.

Foto:Juan Carlos Toro
Foto:Juan Carlos Toro

In contrast, Escalera was a thickly muscled coiled spring, taller than Ramon but only by a couple of inches. Arguello stood five-ten, unusually tall for his weight class, and the biggest thing on him was the thick brown mustache that dominated his top lip.  If el Salsero got inside Arugello’s jab, the only thing exploding would be the skinny bastard’s head right off that chicken neck. Ruben Olivera had put up a hell of a fight, but Escalera would kill him with just one good shot.

Pepe placed a fatherly arm on Ramon’s shoulder—something he only did when others were around—and introduced them. “Moncito, this is Alexis Arguello. I want you to help work him out a couple of rounds.”

Not wanting to look like some over-eager amateur, Ramon gave a simple, friendly nod. The taller man never cracked a smile or said a word. From behind his aviator shades, he offered the smallest possible nod of acknowledgement then turned his back and pulled off his sweat shirt.

Everyone said he was an arrogant bastard. That’s okay; it was work, not a party. Pepe and Futch huddled for a minute and then as his opponent warmed up, the fat trainer took him aside.

“He wants you to work the body. Nice and easy, just body shots. You know our boy’s going to beat the hell out of him inside, so you’re Alfredo today. Think you can do that?”

Ramon nodded and took a couple of long slow practice swings to loosen up. Of course he could. Maybe not as well as the champ yet, but hitting people hard was what he did for a living, after all.

Maybe Eddie Futch would give him some pointers, at least something more than the same old shit his own trainer gave him. Pepe’s hand clamped down on his shoulder. “Don’t go crazy, this isn’t a real fight. You’re just giving him a chance to warm up, right?”

Ramon watched Arguello’s thin arms pumping from across the gym. He nodded without saying anything, ignoring the fat man until Pepe smacked him across the head. “Hey, what did I just say?”

“It’s not a fight, just warm him up… shots to the body.”

“Good boy.” The gym owner gently smacked his cheek. What a smug prick. The sooner Ramon was away from this fat idiot and in New Jersey making real money, the better. He wished Pepe and Martinez many happy years together.

Ramon climbed into the ring and shifted from one foot to the other. Even though for today he was basically a heavy bag with legs—there to take shots—he felt the adrenaline pump through his body the way it always did before a fight. Since he was 8, he tingled all over at the idea of hitting and getting hit.

Pepe handed Ramon his helmet and mouth guard. When they were in place, the kidney pads got wrapped around him and buckled on. The champ’s trainer looked at the young man and shook his head slowly, muttering something in English.

The gym slowly filled up with assistant trainers and hangers-on. Benitez, the boxing writer from the Ponce paper was there. So was the promoter’s smart-ass son, acting like a big shot. The Big Boss himself was likely over at Escalera’s gym with all the TV crews. And Martinez. Ramon banged his gloves together impatiently.

Arguello slipped between the ropes and calmly jogged in place. Ramon looked up at him. And up. Three inches shouldn’t have made that much distance, but he’d never seen a lightweight so tall. The other man said nothing at all, just sucked on his mouth guard, coal-black eyes peering down at Ramon like he saw something stuck to his shoe.

Ramon shook his head to help himself focus. Sure the man was tall, but those arms didn’t look like much. And like most Central American fighters, Arguello was more Indian than anything else. That pale skin cut easily—there was already thick scar tissue over both eyebrows. Escalero, darker skinned and more experienced, was going to shred him. Hell, Ramon thought, I could probably mark him up some if I really let it fly.

knockout

All kinds of noises filled the room—jokes, instructions, insults in a mix of English and Spanish—but that all faded away when the bell rang. Ramon’s thoughts were on his own breathing, the blood pounding in his ears, and the man in front of him. They touched gloves and Arguello took a defensive stance. For a moment, the young fighter wasn’t sure where to start. Then he offered a soft looping left, which was deflected by a knobby elbow. Arguello nodded stoically and waved him on.

Sparring was more science than art, all rhythm and repetition, unlike real fighting. Ramon quickly found the beat, letting his hands go more frequently. Left hook, right hook. Left hook, right hook. Just for fun he threw two quick rights in succession, both of which were quickly picked off.

One of those lefts skipped off the thin man’s elbow and Ramon felt a satisfying thud as leather hit flesh right below the nipple. He shrugged an apology, and Arguello’s moustache moved in what might have passed for a smile as he waved Ramon on. Obliging with another left, this time the Nicaraguan eluded it entirely. Ramon had to admit, this guy was slicker than goose shit.

Futch yelled something in English, and the taller man began to throw leather of his own; soft body shots, right at the belt line. Nothing impressive, but fast. Ramon had to give him that; he was really, really fast. Those pipe cleaner arms were good for something at least. Being too muscular slowed you down, but some people were just built that way and raw strength beat speed. Most of the time, anyway. It’s what Martinez would learn eventually when someone knocked him on his ass, count on it.

Three rounds, then four. Ramon was drenched, his trunks and even his socks heavy with sweat, while Arguello’s thin chest and stomach were infuriatingly dry. Pepe’s voice cackled from somewhere beyond the ropes, “C’mon Cito. Christ’s sake, show us something.”

Ramon began to throw a bit faster, hoping the thump of leather against skin would drown out that annoying voice. His punches moved a bit higher now, up under the armpit, then the solar plexus, then back to the kidneys. Up and down, “climbing the ladder,” they called it. Arguello blocked most of the shots effortlessly and let his hands go in return.

Ramon couldn’t help but notice those elbows resting a bit too high and far apart. While the Nicaraguan was quick enough to block most of the softer shots, some of them, particularly the right, slipped through. Especially….right….there…. right at the floating rib. He dutifully ignored it and kept on doing his job. Left. Right. Left-left-right.

He tried to hold back and just do his job, but it was like there was a spotlight on Arguello’s torso and a flashing sign read, “Hit me here.” Eventually, it was too much to resist. Ramon’s balance was exactly right. Those elbows were the precise distance apart. That small target lay tantalizingly unprotected. Ramon’s instincts screamed, “Do it!” and he did.

The punch started about ten inches behind his own chest and he put everything he had into it. He felt it land perfectly, the shock wave traveling up his arm like a lover’s kiss. He heard the air leave Arguello’s body and savored the sweet sensation of the other man’s legs buckling for only a moment, but what a beautiful moment.

Ramon saw Arguello’s eyes wince closed. Then they flew open, their irises pitch black and cold. A small smile oozed out from under that shag rug of a moustache.

Ramon heard two things almost simultaneously. Someone—Futch probably—yelled “Lexis, no!” Then he heard something hit hard against the canvas and plywood floor of the ring. Ramon figured out after a moment it was the back of his headgear.

Flat on his back, Ramon watched a fat fly bang against the blue-white glow of the fluorescent lights.

“You okay, pendejo?” he heard Pepe ask. The crowd’s laughter rang in his ears. A long, dark, reed-thin silhouette beckoned him back to his feet, and Ramon knew he’d comply in just another second or so but first he needed just one more moment to rest there on the floor.

Laying there, a couple of thoughts occurred to him. First, Escalera was a dead man.

Secondly, Ramon Pacheco had damned near broken Alexis Arguello’s ribs. He really needed to get to New Jersey. They’d love him there.

*

On January 28, 1978 Alexis Arguello beat Alfredo Escalero in 13 brutal rounds to win the WBC Junior Lightweight championship. ‘The Bloody Battle of Bayamon’ is considered one of the top 50 title fights of all time.