Thursday, January 8, 2009

My Friend Luis

I came home after a hard day of getting pummeled at the gym and I decided to choose a fight from my DVD collection to maybe try and learn something. Cotto vs Judah. Nah, a one-sided beatdown. Mayweather vs Hatton. Good, but already seen it too many times. As I turned the next page, I saw one that caught my eye, not necessarily because I already knew it was a good fight, in fact I had never watched it, but it was for another reason. Montiel vs Melendez.

Luis Melendez, a fighter that I used to train with back in Cartagena. I remember in an attempt to get to know him better, I discovered on Boxrec that he had fought the flyweight champion Fernando Montiel. I was impressed. Montiel was a solid champion.

I loaded the disc in with hesitation, like a movie you already knew was depressing, but you put it in anyways out of curiosity. When a friend called, I told him what I was doing and I said it was weird to see him again, even weirder because it was before I actually knew him. I felt like I was watching the fight live. I felt anger when Montiel mocked him after a 6th round knockdown, almost yelped in joy when Luis returned the favor in the 7th. I found myself rooting for him even though I already knew the outcome. Maybe if I cheered hard enough, history could change itself on my television screen.

Luis was put down again in the 12th by a body shot, soon followed by the referee appropriately stopping the fight. The look in Luis' face was more than disappointment. Almost like a prideful acceptance that he had to return to that stable of forgotten fighters. A deep and pure sadness. A look I am now all too familiar with.

I remember the last time I saw Luis, we were waiting for a bus and I casually asked him of his next match. It was going to be in Atlantic City. "De veras? Solo los peleas más grande estan alla." (Really? Only the biggest fights are there.) "Con quién vas a pelear?" (With whom are you going to fight?)

"Mar...Mares. Abner Mares. Un Mexicano"

I knew Abner Mares. I remember watching him beat Damian David Marchiano from pillar to post, thinking, "Wow. This kid's got the goods." Luis took the fight on 2 weeks notice and hadn't even seen a tape of him. The gym just didn't have the resources.

Then it hit me. Mares is an up and coming prospect. At this stage of his career, they put him against fighters who had impressive records, fought notable opposition, but were still beatable. Luis fit the profile. He was going to lose.

I asked Luis how much he was getting paid. "Cinco mil dolares," ($5000 USD) he told me. It reminded me of how a teammate of mine in Seattle got paid $3000 USD for his first professional 4 round bout, yet Luis was getting less than double in a fight three times as long and against someone who could really hurt him. Hell, even Marchiano was paid $25,000 USD for a fight the same distance a year ago. I guess it's a microcosm of global exploitation.

But I suppose $5000 USD in Colombia is a lot of money. Luis would finally be able to buy the home he was renting for so long. "Yo solo quiero tener algo. No quiero pagar por cosas todo mi vida. Quiero tener algo propio" (I just want to have something. I don't want to pay for things my whole life. I want to own something.) I guess it wasn't even about winning. The bigger picture was that this was an opportunity for more money he would ever see in one night's work.

But it wasn't just one night's work.

"Cúal es la cosa más dificil de boxeo para Ud?" (What is the most difficult thing about boxing for you?) "El entrenimento. La pelea es como una descansa." (The training. The fight is like a break.) This was a reflection of months and months of sweat and blood. The risk of giving up a day job and banking on this one night for the livelihood of his family. It was a sacrifice.

The fight ended up being canceled 5 days before its scheduled date. Apparently Mares suffered a cut during sparring and decided to postpone the bout with a different opponent. Luis was paid nothing.

For a week I didn't see him, but in the end he came back, though a bit different. A little less pop in his punches, a little less bounce in his step; perhaps the disappointment just ate as his spirit. But eventually he was able to return to his old self. Crack jokes around the gym like he used to and train just as I had remembered, always fighting for another opportunity.

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