Monday, April 28, 2008
It wasn't until I tasted my own blood did I remember my old love. Not until my spit looked like fruit punch Gatorade or Powerade or whatever artificially red tinted sports drink you want to use, did I understand what my friend Lindsey meant when she said "boxing is part of your being." I could feel fragments of my upper lip getting stuck between my teeth from not wearing a mouthpiece in order to be fair with my opponent who couldn't afford one.
By the second round I had him figured out. I fought on the inside, bouncing 3-4 punch combos off his head until I made him quit in the 3rd. The coach forced us to go on and only then did I realize I wasn't going easy on him. They told me afterwards that he was only 16. Damn. Now I felt like a bully. But we also had a friendship, an unbreakable bond that only those who have stepped through the ropes would understand and not even the profit driven glitz of the professional ranks could take that away from us.
In Leòn for once the trainer does not want his fighters to go pro. Coach Javier Medina says the sport is beautiful but the business is dirty or as Katherine Dunn once eloquently wrote, "the different between the gym and the klieg-lit show ring is the difference between the garden and the sprig of celery in your Blood Mary. They're related, but they're not the same."
He runs by far the most underfunded and overpopulated gym I've stepped into. Rounds on the heavy bag have to be limited to accommodate for the 70 or so participants, gloves are passed between bell tones as if it was an automatic routine, and the foam on the best pair of mitts burst at the seams, loosely held together by strands of overused leather. The coach donates his time for nearly nothing, in fact I'm still wondering how he pays for his costs of living, and the sheer volume of kids that train make it impossible for them to all believe they could all make it. But they still show up everyday, like the purpose was beyond making money. And Medina says the point of the gym isn't to make champions in the ring, but to teach the youth something that will hopefully take them somewhere.
Back in Managua the vibe is the complete opposite. Fighters train to be professional, to get paid, but the core reason is the same. They box to survive. A boxing gym is where you'll find some of the kindest people. I've been touched by how these fighters are willing to share the little they have with someone they barely know while maintaining common courtesy and politeness. Despite most fighters' salaries being barely enough to scrape by (often times insufficient to where they'll have to "retire" to find full time work) and trainers usually making even less, I've been treated out to drink and food by both, all with the response of a head shake when I reach for my wallet and a "para un amigo, tranquilo" (for a friend, chill out). Even when I tried to pay the remainder of the tab a drink vendor mistakenly undercharged us for, they adamantly refused and instead insisted on a young boy running a block and a half after the boxer who had originally treated us out, even though it was only 10 cordobas, equivalent to about 50 cents.
Because the trainer's nickname is once again, "Chino", I'm always confused as to who the boxers are talking to, but one day when I turned my head to a request of the coach, the fighter (pictured above) smiled and for the first time I've been in Central America said to me, "Tú nombre no es 'Chino', tú nombre es Nicolás Wong" (you're name isn't 'Chino', you're name is Nicolàs Wong).
I've also been fortunate enough to stumble across the biggest boxing promoters in Nicaragua, Prodesa Boxing (only Carlo on my left is actually from the company), the element of the sport that I hadn't planned on interacting with. When I asked them why they decided to be boxing promoters, they said "to give something back to society." I found it interesting to hear a response that you were more likely to hear from someone who started a non-profit organization, especially when promoters have the reputation of crooks and thieves, but they began by holding amateur matches where the winners would walk away with a basket full of food for their family and now they've changed the standard pay of 60 Cordobas (3 dollars) a round, to 1000 Cordobas a round (50 dollars), which here is a livable wage. In all of this they tell me they have yet to make a cent back, but they didn't start this to make money. They did it because they loved the sport, and more importantly, their country.
Now perhaps this was all a lie, a show to put on for the visitor traveling under the guise of a journalist, but I'd like to think they were being sincere, because I'd like to believe in something again, even if it's not real.