12 Book Recommendations as Gifts for the Boxing Reader and 3 I’ve Yet to Read and Wouldn’t Mind Getting as Gifts.

With the holidays a few weeks away, here’s an alphabetized list of 12 boxing books—along with a brief description and maybe a quote that stayed with me—that’d be great gifts for boxing fans. Most books on the list are either relatively new or older but hardly, if ever, mentioned along with must-read boxing books. With that in mind, this list leaves out the usual names; Thomas Hauser, W.C. Heinz, Joyce Carol Oates, A.J. Liebling, Norm Mailer, etc. If you have read none of their work, by all means, go back and read them, some hold up better than others.

Disagree? Questions? Suggestions? Anything else: @R_AndradeFranco

 

Boxing: A Cultural History

by Kasia Boddy

Boddy writes of boxing’s history from the days of Classical Greece—when according to Philostratus, the Spartans invented boxing—to the mid-2000s. In between, the book looks at all things related to boxing, including film, literature, paintings, poetry, sculptors, and songwriters and how boxing inspired them. Included are thoughts and analysis on the various art boxing has inspired. On Rocky, Boddy writes,

“Apollo Creed’s great crime, the film suggest, is assuming that he represents America—he enters the title fight dressed as Uncle Sam and on his float, adopts the garb and pose of George Washington crossing the Delaware. But he is an illegitimate Uncle Sam, not only because he is black, but because, without any suggestion of a political or religious affiliation, he is made to represent both greedy capitalism and the savy and articulate…Rocky—an inarticulate boy “from the neighborhood”—is really what the “land of opportunity” wants to be all about. He is both white ethnic—the Italian Stallion—and American…”

A Cuban Boxer’s Journey: Guillermo Rigondeaux, from

Castro’s Traitor to American Champion

by Brin-Jonathan Butler

In the long, illustrious history of Cuban boxing, Guillermo Rigondeaux, a 2-time Olympic gold medalist, may well be their best boxer. But when Rigondeaux tried to defect from Cuba, Fidel Castro called him a traitor and a Judas. Butler—who also wrote Domino Diaries, a memoir on his time in Cuba—writes of meeting Rigondeaux while on the island and recounts the early part of his career when the boxer finally leaves Cuba. The most memorable passage is Butler first meeting Rigondeaux, who at that time, had been banned from boxing:

“Rigondeaux’s sadness distinguished him from his countrymen nearly as much as his boxing pedigree. I reached out a hand and introduced myself and he did what he could, under the strained circumstances at the gym, to muster a smile. Up close I noticed his right eye showed damage, slumping slightly from his left. Rigondeaux’s attempt at a polite smile betrayed the gold grill over his front teeth for a brief moment as he took another drag of his Popular cigarette.

‘So where did you get that gold on your teeth?’ I asked him.

Rigondeaux snickered, dropped his head and smirked, taking a last long drag on his cigarette before flicking it on the ground and stamping it out with his sneaker. ‘Oh you know, I melted down both my gold medals into my mouth. I used to fight in this place …’”

The Manly Art: Bare-Knuckle Prize Fighting in America

by Elliott J. Gorn

As the title states, the book focuses on boxing’s bare-knuckle era beginning with Tom Molineaux fighting in England. Molineaux was an American slave that may have fought for his freedom—Gorn says there no evidence this happened and masters freeing their slaves after they’d won them money through fighting, was a common motif in the south. The book ends with the last bareknuckle championship fight in 1889 when John L. Sullivan fought Jake Kilrain a 75- round bout. Gorn—who also wrote the equally entertaining academic article, “’Gouge and Bite, Pull Hair and Scratch’: The Social Significance of Fighting in the Southern Backcountry,” states:

“Boxing is not about instinct or innate aggressiveness; it is about values, social relationships, and culture. To understand bare knuckle prize fighting…is necessarily to understand something about nineteenth-century America. Ideology, ethnicity, social class formation, violence, urbanization, gender roles, religious world views, productive relationships, all are part of sports history in general and boxing history in particular.”

The Fireside Book of Boxing

by W.C. Heinz (Editor)

Even though I mentioned writers like Heinz wouldn’t be included, this book makes the list as he only edited this collection of boxing. The book includes over 85 boxing articles and short stories from writers like Jimmy Cannon, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Ernest Hemingway, and Victor Hugo. There’s also accounts from boxers themselves, like James J. Corbett, Rocky Graziano, and Rocky Marciano. The Fireside Book of Boxing includes a pull-out poster of the first 21 heavyweight champions—ending with Floyd Patterson—and a panoramic picture of boxing’s first million-dollar gate in 1921 when Jack Dempsey beat Georges Carpentier.

Fight of the Century: Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, and the Struggle for Racial Equality

by Thomas R. Hietala

Fight of the Century looks at the first 2 African American heavyweight champions; comparing and juxtaposing the boxers and what each meant to black identity. On their collective impact, Hietala writes:

“Jack Johnson and Joe Louis epitomized group striving and achievement in their time. Whether in boxing or business, in baseball or the ballot box, the concert halls or the halls of Congress, African Americans wanted no more and no less than full equality and justice. They relished those rare moments when one of their own shattered white pretensions to superiority; they took to the streets to demonstrate their solidarity and sense of vindication when their black hope smashed a white rival to the canvas.”

Jack Johnson in the Ring and Out

by Jack Johnson

Other suggestions for books on Johnson include Finis Farr’s Black Champion: The Life and Times of Jack Johnson and the more recent, Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner: Boxing in the Shadow of the Global Color Line by Theresa Runstedler. Of all the books on Johnson, I chose this one because it’s an autobiography and you get lesser-known stories, like Johnson during the 1900 Galveston Hurricane. According to Johnson:

“Avaricious men appeared on the tragic scenes with boats and wagons charging a fee of several dollars to convey these unfortunates to safety. When I encountered them, I either compelled them to go to the rescue of the victims, or brought my boxing proclivities into play and took possession of their rescue conveyances myself and piloted the threatened to safety.”

Ghosts of Manila: The Fateful Blood Feud Between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier

by Mark Kram 

Kram was a Sports Illustrated writer that covered many of Muhammad Ali’s fights. This book focuses on the third and most brutal fight between Ali and Joe Frazier in the Philippines. There can be a 50-book list just on Ali but, unlike many of those, Ghosts of Manila is not hagiographic—though, at times, one wonders if Kram is being overly critical of Ali or, in comparison of all else written about him, it only appears that way. Kram focuses on Ali, apart from the myth, often critical for how he portrayed Joe Frazier and yet, always focused on the damage that both men incurred in their 1975 fight. The book begins with Kram talking to Ali, years after the “Thrilla in Manila,”

“’We went to Manila as champions, Joe and me, and we came back as old men.’ Muhammad Ali once told me. He was standing outside a South Carolina hospital, well into his forties by this point and years removed from that unspeakably hot tropical morning in Manila in 1975. Narrowly, he had beaten Joe Frazier that day in their final act of their heroic trilogy, and yet Ali would look back on it in years to come with a certain uneasiness, only too aware that it signaled what should have been the end of his career. The choice that stood before him at that juncture was a clear one: get out in one piece, or go on in a sport that is unforgiving to old men, especially those with too much pride, heart, and unexamined confidence for their own well-being.”

At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing

by George Kimball and John Schulian (Editors)

The book is a collection of boxing articles from some of the sport’s great writers—beginning with Jack London’s 1910 account of Jack Johnson versus Jim Jeffries and ending with Carlo Rotella writing on a 52-year-old Larry Holmes fighting and easily defeating Butterbean. Especially haunting is Floyd Patterson’s moment of self-refection:

“Walking slowly around the room, his black silk robe over his sweat clothes, Patterson said, ‘You must wonder what makes a man do things like this. Well, I wonder too. And the answer is, I don’t know…but I think that within me, within every human being, there is a certain weakness. It is a weakness that exposes itself more when you’re alone. And I have figures out that part of the reason I do the things I do, and cannot seem to conquer that one word—myself—is because…is because…I am a coward.”

Dark Trade: Lost in Boxing

by Donald McRae

McRae follows the lives of boxers—including Oscar De La Hoya, Mike Tyson, Naseem Hamed, Roy Jones Jr., and Chris Eubank—over 5 years. Through it all, you sense McRae’s conflict that many boxing fans feel with being a fan of a corrupt sport that’s damaging to its participant’s health. You’ll read and think Eubank is the most self-aware boxer who’s ever fought. You’ll also feel sorry for De La Hoya, who seems like he’d rather be doing anything else but box. Here’s an exchange between McRae and De La Hoya:

“’But what if, Oscar’, I speculated, trying to keep a jovial dad at bay, ‘your father hadn’t turned you into a boxer?’

‘I would have given everything to study,’ [De La Hoya responds] ‘I’d be an architect now…that’s what my mother would’ve wanted…”

Only in America: The Life and Crimes of Don King

by Jack Newfield

Don King’s grown into a caricature of his persona and nowhere near as powerful as he used to be. Still, King symbolizes much that’s wrong with boxing. And though he is far from the only corrupt promoter in the sport, he’s the most recognizable and even, charismatic. King ruled through intimidation and connections that led Thomas Hauser, when asked if King had ties to organized crime, to answer, “You don’t understand…Don King is organized crime.” Newfield also describes boxing as, “the only jungle where the lions are afraid of the rats.”

Julio César Chávez: Adios a la Gloria

by Francisco Ponce

This book is in Spanish and, so far as I know, not available in English. But if you read Spanish, the book is on the final years of Julio César Chávez’s career. Ponce writes on a Chávez’s that’s past his prime and facing personal struggles outside of the ring and in it. Chávez, who claimed he would retire after the first De La Hoya fight, can’t stay away from the sport even with his wife asking him to stop boxing. Likely the greatest Mexican boxer, Chávez became a symbol and ideal of the country, which added to the difficulty of walking away before, according to Ponce, he tarnished his legacy. On Chávez’s decline, Ponce writes,

“They say the truth, during our youth, becomes falsehoods during our later years. This is the prize we all pay for being alive. We accept the benign deterioration of the flesh and beauty, but it is very difficult to accept the decadence of ideas.”

Serenity: A Boxing Memoir

by Ralph Wiley

The late, great sportswriter Ralph Wiley writes a book that’s ostensibly about boxing but more about a search for serenity. The book begins in Wiley’s childhood—when his uncle Charlie was a prizefighter and the first person he ever knew who had serenity—and progresses through his professional career. Chapter 8 includes Wiley’s letter to his son, through boxing and specifically focused on the troubled Mike Tyson. Wiley tells his son,

“You are the greatest champion, even greater than Ali. Trust your ability. You have it. It’s up to you to find it, develop it. Happiness, son, is not built for the long haul, for the full fifteen rounds. It comes and it goes. Better to have serenity, the inner peace which comes from doing something well enough to understand it.”

 

— 3 Books I’ve Yet to Read But Will —

 

Ali: A Life

by Jonathan Eig

Thomas Hauser’s Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times is the standard of Ali biographies. I’ve read nothing from Eig but after reading a few reviews and listening to his podcast on the making of the book, I’m excited to read.

A Man’s World: The Double Life of Emile Griffith

by Donald McRae

As mentioned, McRae’s Dark Trade: Lost in Boxing is a fantastic read. With Griffith—who killed Benny Paret in the ring and was haunted by it—as the subject, A Man’s World looks just as promising.

I Fight for a Living: Boxing and the Battle for Black Manhood, 1880-1915

by Louis Moore

I’ll read this book because Moore writes the following,

“The great black prizefighter Archie Moore—the lightweight heavyweight of the 1950s grew up in poverty in St. Louis—once reflected, ‘During the years of slavery and the years of economic exploitation that followed and still exist in some part, the Negro developed an escapist outlook. If nothing could be done about the situation, then why not go along with the way the wind blew?’ These men, according to the champion Moore, were weak. Survivalist. But the fighter, Moore suggested, was different. Boxers believed in their manhood…To believe in one’s manhood was to be fully free.”

 

 

 

 

The Thanksgiving an imprisoned Jack Johnson fought two men at Leavenworth

The warden at Leavenworth Federal Prison had scheduled the fights to start at 3 in the afternoon. But guests started arriving at noon and officials struggled to find enough seats to accommodate the crowd of 2,000, including 300 reporters, state officials and other notables.

The rest of the crowd was made up of prisoners dressed in their usual striped outfits, who, after eating Thanksgiving dinner, were led out to the yard by guards and armed soldiers. A band made up of inmates played while snipers and cameras looked down on the specially constructed outdoor boxing ring. The former kept watch while the latter filmed the momentous event. It was the first time in years that Jack Johnson — Inmate #15461 — would box on U.S. soil.

Most Americans hadn’t seen Johnson since he fled the country seven years earlier. When he fought on that Thanksgiving afternoon in 1920, Johnson was 43 and at least a decade past his athletic prime. But he was always more than a boxer. The first African-American heavyweight champion and a man unafraid to cross racial lines in his romantic life, Johnson embodied the country’s anxieties over race. His success prompted a backlash from people as high as former President Theodore Roosevelt, who advocated for boxing’s banishment, to those who invited Johnson to Mississippi to show him their brand of hospitality.

In 1913, Johnson was convicted under the Mann Act for allegedly transporting a white woman across state lines for immoral purposes. During the trial in Chicago, protesters hanged Johnson in effigy. A dummy with its face blackened with paint swung from a tree and included a placard reading “This is what we will do for Jack Johnson.” Three weeks later, a group in Midland, Texas, sent a letter to the prosecuting attorney, informing him that if he killed Johnson, they’d contribute $100,000 for his defense. When rumors spread of Johnson’s assassination — either by a white woman or her relatives, depending on the version — several newspapers published regrets that the boxer remained alive. When a reporter informed Johnson of the rumor, he replied, “Do I look dead?”

Eight years later, he was in Leavenworth, still alive. Johnson entered the ring that day wearing a skullcap and bathrobe while the prison band played and inmates cheered. It was likely the first time most people at a Johnson fight had rooted for him. But despite all the people there, his wife, Lucille, the one person who’d always cheered for Johnson, was missing. “Sorry you can’t come to see me,” Johnson wrote her in a telegram, “but you will understand — no ladies admitted.”

Johnson planned to fight twice that day. In the weeks beforehand, he relied on his wife to send along supplies: boxing shoes sized 10-E, or “10 half D,” and 5-ounce boxing gloves. For his training, he asked her to send arm bracelets to “pull against horses.” They communicated through long letters and telegrams, and Johnson ended his correspondence each time with a loving phrase: “Love and kisses to you,” “Best love for you,” “Love with kisses.” Their love was strong, although they had a complicated relationship — to say the least.

Lucille, who was white, was at the center of what landed Johnson in prison. When they first met, she was 18 and, depending on the source, may have been a prostitute. He was 35 and widowed. Soon after they met, her mother demanded police rescue Lucille from Johnson, who she claimed had abducted her daughter. It didn’t matter that Lucille repeatedly mentioned she loved Johnson and planned to marry him. Authorities and her mother dismissed those claims as lunacy. Lucille’s mother would later claim that she’d rather see her daughter “spend the rest of her life in an insane asylum than see her the plaything of a n—–.”

Police arrested and charged Johnson with violating the Mann Act and raided his Chicago nightclub in search of white slaves. They also arrested Lucille, hoping to use her as a witness against Johnson, but also out of worry she’d run away and marry him. Authorities released Lucille only after her mother promised to take her from Chicago. Lucille quickly ran back to the city and married Johnson in a ceremony at his house filled with what one newspaper described as “color-blind kisses.” The case against him collapsed until authorities found another woman to testify against Johnson. During the second trial, an all-white, all-male jury convicted Johnson after deliberating for 90 minutes. The judge sentenced him to a year and a day in prison.

“This defendant is one of the best-known men of his race,” the judge explained during sentencing, “and his example has been far-reaching, and the court is bound to consider the position he occupied among his people. In view of these facts, this is a case that calls for more than a fine.” Johnson and his wife fled the country.

In his first fight that Thanksgiving Day, Johnson toyed with his African-American opponent, Frank Owens, a modestly talented pro from Chicago and a friend of Johnson’s who had come down for the exhibition. He knocked Owens down 12 times before ending the fight in the sixth round with a left hook to his jaw. Afterward, Johnson stood in the ring and rested a few minutes before facing his second opponent.

It was no more than 40 degrees out — average for that time of year in northeastern Kansas. As he told his wife in one of their many prison telegrams, “weather doesn’t bother me.” By that point, compared with everything that had occurred, whether it was cold or hot must have felt trivial.

When Johnson chose self-exile, he and his wife traveled across Europe and Latin America for seven years. In the nine months before arriving at Leavenworth, Johnson was a guest of Mexican President Venustiano Carranza. This was the same Carranza who in 1914, when the Mexican Revolution had devolved into civil war, threatened to capture and turn Johnson over to the United States if he set foot in the country. The threat came after Carranza’s foe, Pancho Villa, attempted to increase his war chest by hosting a fight between Johnson and Jess Willard in Ciudad Juárez. But with Johnson unable to arrive safely, promoters moved the fight to Cuba, where Willard defeated Johnson on April 5, 1915.

The symbolism of Willard, the latest Great White Hope, standing over a beaten Johnson wasn’t lost on anyone. That picture became a common decoration in speakeasies across the United States. Johnson would later claim to have intentionally lost to Willard, saying representatives of the Justice Department had promised that if he lost, they’d be lenient on his prison sentence. Whether anyone made that promise is unknown, but no leniency was granted and Johnson remained in exile, eventually landing in Mexico.

For much of their history, Mexico and the United States have had a contentious relationship. So it wasn’t surprising that the Mexican government saw Johnson as a victim of the American justice system and embraced him as a brother fighting against oppression.

With the government’s blessing, Johnson taught self-defense to high-ranking military officials and put on boxing exhibitions. There were even plans to make him into a movie star, playing an adventurer named Pedro Cronolio — a polar opposite of how films in the United States portrayed African-Americans. (In the end, Johnson never made any movies in Mexico. But after his imprisonment, he starred in two films in the United States: For His Mother’s Sake and The Black Thunderbolt.) Johnson also headed a land company that advertised in African-American newspapers, essentially recruiting others to join him south of the border.

One advertisement read: “You, who are lynched, tortured, mobbed, persecuted and discriminated against in the boasted land of liberty, the United States. Own a home in Mexico. Here, one man is as good as another, and it is not your nationality that counts but simply you.” The advertisement ended by stating, “Best of all, there is no race prejudice in Mexico, and severe punishment is meted out to those who discriminate against a man because of his color or race.”

Despite Johnson’s advertisement, Mexico was not a paradise of racial equality. And soon the Mexican Revolution’s violence claimed the life of Carranza. Fearing for his own safety after the assassination of the president who had welcomed and protected him, Johnson decided to leave Mexico to serve his time in the United States.

On July 20, 1920, Johnson, accompanied by his wife, walked from Tijuana across the United States-Mexico border and presented his passport to a San Diego County deputy sheriff. Authorities then took Johnson to Los Angeles before returning him to Chicago. Johnson asked only that they not travel through Texas, his home state, because he feared residents would attack him. Authorities changed their travel plans and drove around the state.

In Chicago, thousands of African-Americans welcomed Johnson’s return — even though he was in custody. Police fought back the crowdto make way for Johnson and his wife. Johnson spent months in Joliet Prison and Geneva Jail before a judge ordered him to Leavenworth, where Johnson entered on Sept. 19, 1920, to a crowd of cheering inmates. Five days later, he sent a telegram to his wife in Chicago informing her he’d arranged for her to receive $50 every two weeks.

Johnson’s second fight that Thanksgiving came against another African-American pro boxer, 37-year-old “Topeka” Johnson. The fight went four full rounds, with the former heavyweight champ dominating the other man.

Observers from the warden’s special invites noted Johnson’s conditioning — he had entered the prison two months earlier at 6-foot-1, 225 pounds — and that, despite his age, he “still retain[ed] much of his cleverness and punching power.”

After the two fights, Johnson telegraphed his wife. “Everything went lovely yesterday,” he wrote. “Was sorry that you weren’t there.” A few days later, he wrote her again, informing her that during the event, he — the great symbol of racial anxiety, whom detractors often portrayed as subhuman — had caught a cold, had a toothache and had hurt his hand.

Johnson asked his wife to send along the recipe for “nerve medicine” and write him a long letter to help him pass the time. Inmate #15461 ended the telegram by writing, “Love and kisses,” before signing it “Jack.”


Originally published on Theundefeated.com

The Little Known History of How Mormons Brought Football to Mexico

For the second year in a row, the NFL will play a regular season game in Mexico City. On November 19, the defending champion New England Patriots will face the Oakland Raiders in the Estadio Azteca, as part of the NFL’s continuing attempt to increase their Hispanic audience—estimated, 4 years ago, at 25 million fans. This is just the number of Hispanic fans within the United States and doesn’t account for the millions more living across Latin America—including over 28 million in Mexico alone. The NFL has celebrated Hispanic Heritage Month for 15 years, has run Spanish-language commercials with English subtitles, and, through ESPN2, simulcast Monday Night Football games in Spanish. Many teams also offer Spanish-language radio broadcasts, including 2 of the most popular NFL teams among Hispanics; the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers.

While the league attempts to attract the growing Hispanic audience, its overall viewership has declined, for a  variety of reasons. Former players and recognizable names have noted the dangers of football and their unwillingness to let their children play. With declining participation in youth and high school football, it appears that parents share that same concern. This drop has even affected Texas, whose high school football, the famed Friday night lights, has an almost mythic tradition bordering on religion.

 

However, across Texas’s southern border in northern Mexico, the popularity and participation in football—or fútbol Americano, to distinguish it from what we call soccer—increases. Academia Juárez is among the number of Mexican high schools that field a football team. The school is in Colonia Juárez—an American Mormon colonies that’s been in Mexico for over 130 years.

Like many religions, Mormons have a complicated history in the United States—largely due to theirpolygamous practices, though in reality, the large majority have always been monogamous. Yet, by the mid-19th century, Protestants increasingly considered Mormons less-than white—in terms of race. “By the 1840s, they’re talking about a Mormon race,” explains University of Utah history professor and author ofReligion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness, W. Paul Reeve. “By the 1860s they’re talking about the defined set of group physical characteristics [and] that Mormon polygamy is not merely destroying the traditional family, it’s destroying the white race. And that polygamy is producing a degraded, deformed, degenerate body.”

Considering Mormons as less-than white eased the hesitancy around the discriminatory practices of the period. Reeve adds, “How do you justify an extermination order against a group of people that look like you? One of the ways you do so, is to suggest that they’re, in fact, not like you.” As a result, before the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints arrived in Utah—a state they’re usually associated with—they were “repeatedly persecuted and driven from New York to Ohio, to Missouri, and to Illinois.” It was in Illinois where the state governor jailed the leader and founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith. Authorities charged Smith with inciting a riot after he ordered a newspaper and printing press—operated by dissident Mormons, critical of his teachings—destroyed.

On June 27, 1844, a group of 200 men, dressed in disguise with their face blackened, entered the jail and murdered Smith, his brother, and two of their associates. More than a decade of anti-Mormon violence had come to a head. “The death of the modern mahomet will seal the fate of Mormonism,” the New York Heraldproclaimed. “They cannot get another Joe Smith. The holy city must tumble into ruins, and the ‘latter-day saints’ have indeed come to the latter day.” But rather than killing the religion, Joseph Smith—already considered a prophet by his followers—became a martyr and Mormonism, led by Brigham Young, continued. Young guided them west and the Great Mormon Migration arrived in the Salt Lake area of Utah in 1847, then, a Mexican territory.

In the late 1850s, debates against Mormonism continued as the Republican party ran on a platform to keep the “twin relics of barbarism” from expanding into the United States’ new territories. The first was slavery. The second was polygamy. 6 years later, in the midst of a Civil War fought over the first relic, congress passed and Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act—an attack on the second relic—to “punish and prevent the practice of polygamy in the territories of the United States.”

But with the ongoing Civil War and no funding towards its enforcement, the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act was toothless. In the 1880s, the government enforced laws against bigamy when it passed the Edmunds Act and the Edmunds-Tucker Act. Attempting to avoid persecution, some Mormons headed south to Mexico.

“[Mormons] start looking across international borders as colonies of refuge from the federal crackdown that’s taking place in the United States,” explains Reeve. “Some will establish colonies in northern Mexico.” Mormons had previously gone to Mexico as missionaries, even translating parts the Book of Mormon into Spanish. But they had never attempted to start a colony there. Historically, whoever’s controlled Mexico has considered its northern borders a distant land.

Whether it was the Spanish or Mexican government, in that part of their country, to govern it they first had to populate it; gobernar es poblar, after all. When Mormons sought land, attempting to escape from the United States, the Mexican government quickly sold them about 8,000 acres of what became Colonia Juárez. It remains there today since, as Reeve states, “the colonies…persist to the present because people have established roots there and continue their communities.”

Today, Colonia Juárez is a picturesque town about three hours south of the much larger Ciudad Juárez and the United States-Mexico border. Its white Mormon temple and greenery contrast against the surrounding desert of northwestern Chihuahua. Its tranquility hides a tumultuous history; from the Mexican Revolution, when most Mormons fled north and fewer returned, up to more recent problems with drug cartels. Part of what unites Colonia Juárez’s population of about 1,000 is football.

“We love football,” answers Lance Romney when asked what the sport means to Colonia Juárez. Romney is the head coach of Academia Juárez Lobos; the private, bilingual high school that opened in 1897, a dozen years after the colony’s founding. For over 6 decades, Academia Juárez has taken part in organized football, of which Romney is among the few to have played beyond high school, as a member of Tec de Monterrey’s team.

Football was first played in Mexico in late December of 1896 through January of 1897, when the University of Missouri faced the University of Texas in a series of exhibition games. “Football has been introduced in this republic,” wrote an El Paso Times reporter, stationed in Mexico. “[The teams] were well received and the president sent a note to the managers of the clubs bidding them welcome.”

As with most things during Porfirio Diaz’s presidency, taking part in football—even as spectators—was aimed towards making Mexico seem modern in the eyes of outsiders, namely the United States and Europe. But although the exhibition games in Mexico City drew thousands, football wasn’t immediately popular.

Mexican newspapers wrote that football was “rough as well as savage, unpolished, and dangerous.” One newspaper described the game as: “The players jumped on the top of one another, charged, bucked, and struggled, forming a human tangle, very disagreeable to behold.” Another newspaper simply wrote of football: “It was a game fit only for cowboys.” The game left such a poor impression that even a year after the exhibition games, a political cartoonist drew a pile of players with “En El Foot-ball (Barbaro juego de pelota yankee)”—at football (a barbarous Yankee ballgame)—as the caption. It took decades before Mexico played football at large-scale.

“My grandpa, Max Spilsbury, he was…the one who started football in northern Mexico, from what I understand,” says Romney, wh,o like other colony residents, traces his roots to its founders. Romney is also a distant cousin of former Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, whose father, George—also a former candidate for the nation’s highest office—was born in the nearby Colonia Dublán; another American Mormon colony about 15 miles away and founded around the same time as Colonia Juárez. In fact, most students in Academia Juárez live in Colonia Dublán, as the 2 are the last remaining original Mormon colonies in northern Mexico. Students from Colonia Dublán get bussed to Academia Juárez daily. That same bussing is an unavoidable part of the sport for the Lobo football team.

“For the longest time, we’d travel to the U.S. every weekend to play our different games,” says Romney. “We’d travel to Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas—west Texas, mainly. We’ve done that ever since we started.” This meant traveling upwards of 4 hours to play football, and sometimes being forced to stay overnight.

The Lobos and their opponents used to alternate travel—one year they’d play on the road, the next, their opponent would travel to Colonia Juárez. But during the past decade-and-a-half, as violence from the drug wars escalated, teams from the United States refused to play in Mexico. Romney explains, “Once things got crazy with all the cartel problems and violence in the early 2000s, the U.S. teams wouldn’t travel to play us anymore. We continued to still go out there.”

In recent years, the level of participation and competition in northern Mexico has risen, so that the Lobos are no longer forced to play solely in the United States. They now compete in a Chihuahua state league but, due to their location—the closest “large” city is Nuevo Casas Grandes, which has a population of less than 60,000—travel hasn’t drastically reduced. And yet, if football keeps growing in Mexico, that too, may change.

Football’s growth in Mexico continues, despite the increasing concern over the sport’s safety within the United States. That’s not to say football, south of the border, isn’t concerned with safety. The Chihuahua state league plays according to NCAA rules that prohibits leading with the helmet and punishes excessive physical play. In Mexico, increased safety also means playing with new, state-of-the-art equipment. Gone are the days when teams played with old, outdated helmets and pads that teams from the United States gave away.

They also know of the safety concerns, though as Romney acknowledges, their level of awareness is not the same as in the United States. Still, as he points out, the sport continues to grow, despite whatever safety concerns there are. “Now we have high school teams, varsity teams, JV teams, all the way to Pop Warner leagues. They are starting younger and younger so I don’t think it’s slowing it down. If anything, [participation] is continuing to increase here in the state or in Mexico, in general…Mexico loves football. Loves American football.”

Football, more than any other sport with possible exception of boxing, has historically been a measure of masculinity. But unlike boxing, whose participants mostly come from lower social classes, football cuts across class divides. This wide spectrum of participation becomes clear when considering that, for the first 44 years of college football, the national champions were all Ivy League teams.

Not incidentally, the rise of football’s popularity coincides with Muscular Christianity, a religious movement that originated in Britain then came to the United States and emerged, from the late 19th century and into the early 20th, as a way of reaffirming masculinity during the Victorian culture.

American Protestants worried their religion and churches had grown effeminate, and since relative peace eliminated serious wars—the usual method of affirming masculinity—sports were a way out of society’s perceived over-feminization. Like Protestantism, but for different reasons, Mormonism also faced its own questions of masculinity.

In the late 1800s, Wilford Woodruff, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, pushed for social respectability while officially renouncing polygamy, even excommunicating anyone with more than one wife. Sports became a path to “re-masculinize Mormon men” after the demise of polygamy. Inspired by its Protestant counterpart, this movement was later called Muscular Mormonism, and football was among the sports to “save” manhood.

In the discussion over safety in football, it’s easy to find those arguing the sport’s supposed demise signals something grave about manhood, and even the country. Some concept of manhood will seemingly always need saving. Despite all the prophesized end of football, we’ll likely never see the sport fully disappear—even if its rules don’t drastically change. We underestimate what being a man means across various cultures, and the lengths some men will go through to prove that label. This is a different argument than the future of the NFL. This is about football as a sport and questions of identity.

How we identify ourselves, gets complicated the more layers we add. What it means to be Mormon, or white, or a Latino Mormon—the fastest growing membership demographic—or a football fan, or a man are all answered at a personal level.

I asked Lance Romney how he identified. He is, after all, a member of a religion with a complicated history both in the United States and in Mexico. In the United States, a full understanding of his religion is hampered by myths. In Mexico, Romney speaks fluent English and Spanish, has fair skin, light-colored hair and eyes which stand out from his community. He, like other members born and raised in the community, essentially sees himself as a Mexican-American living on the southern side of the United States-Mexico border.

“I’ve been raised to love both cultures, to love both traditions,” Romney said. “American Christmases and Mexican Christmases, we still celebrate the American holidays and we celebrate the Mexican holidays…We take the best of both worlds and combine them.”

This combining of two worlds has led Romney to not just play but coach football; a sport whose popularity rises in one of his worlds while it declines in another. And like with many things in a browning society, football’s future in North American may rest with Latinos.

 

 

12 Years After His Death, Eddie Guerrero’s Legacy as a Fronterizo Still Resonates

Very few things grow in the Chihuahuan Desert, where El Paso–the westernmost part of Texas–meets Juárez, the northernmost point of the Mexican state of Chihuahua. Colored rocks, surrounded by long rows of rock walls are a common part of the area’s home landscaping. Either that or simply weeds and dirt, both more common than grass and trees in the barren desert. To grow either requires great investment in time and money—assuming there are no watering restrictions. And even then, sandstorms that seemingly come once every month-and-a-half will likely damage both. On those days, the sky turns a light pink, and you hear what sounds like a low-powered sand blaster hitting house windows and cars. The sand blasts mixed with the sun and dry heat–born from months between rains–eats away at anything colorful. This is where Eddie Guerrero comes from, and this is where we return to, 12 years after the wrestler’s death.

 

As it’s caught in the middle between a decade and a 15-year anniversary, remembering the dozen years since his passing is not a particularly attractive activity. But then again, I never associated glamor with Guerrero. And though he is largely known for his WWE wrestling, I first saw him–and this is how I still remember him–away from the televised events of multimillion dollar wrestling corporations, and removed from the celebrity he found later in his career. I used to watch Guerrero fight in the Gimnasio Josué Neri Santos—a gym in downtown Juárez, less than a mile from the border separating two countries.

 

 

The gym was in rough shape back in the late 1980s. Its bathrooms were almost unusable, and low-dimmed lights kept one’s vision from fully taking in the surroundings. It was never clear if the lights were purposefully set low to disguise the gym, or if that was the extent of their illumination. If you went there enough times, however, you instinctually learned that, after controversial matches, you had to be wary of getting splashed by what filled the cups thrown into the ring. If you were lucky, that liquid was beer, though it was hard to distinguish it from the agua de riñon that misted over the ring. Still, every Tuesday and Sunday, the gym hosted lucha libre nights, with Europe’s “Final Countdown” serving as the theme song both in person and on television.

Among other luchadores who regularly fought in Juárez were Rocky Star, who rumor had it, was a local pharmacist. So did Rey Misterio Sr. and, on a special occasion, the priest-turned-luchador Fray Tormenta—the inspiration for the main character in Nacho Libre—wrestled and sold key chains as part of his fundraising to support an orphanage. Around the time of Eddie Guerrero, Konnan also started wrestling in Juárez. He wore a mask, had the physique of a superhero, and at first, didn’t speak, then communicated only in English to keep his mysterious aura. I watched Konnan turn heel—it was the sort of act that could break a prepubescent child’s heart, if not for Eddie Guerrero.

Guerrero differed from the other luchadores. My uncle and grandmother–who often took me to the lucha libre, and who had watched for decades–mentioned that Guerrero was part of a legendary wrestling family. That wasn’t what made him stand out, though. The youngest of the Guerrero family was charismatic, with long hair that went past his neck. Because he didn’t wear a mascara, he appeared younger than other wrestlers, and he was also more athletic, and with a slimmer build, than the usual luchadores, who years later we described as “old man Mexican buff”—thick, flat-chested torsos with powerful arms and a layer of fat covering their muscles. Someone like El Santo was “old man Mexican buff,” Eddie Guerrero was not. There was also something else about Guerrero that made him different: the way he spoke and the things he said.

Guerrero was from El Paso, on the other side of the border. And though he likely spent as much time in Juárez as in El Paso—as many of us who live on the United States-Mexico borderlands do—he went to school on the north side of that divide, at Jefferson High School–or La Jeff, as we used to call it. If you listened to Guerrero close enough, you could hear him speaking Spanish with an accent, the sort that, if he wasn’t who he was, could get him described as a “pocho”. Seemingly every time he spoke, he mentioned not just Juárez but El Paso. “Arriba Juárez, arriba Mexico, arriba El Paso,” he’d say during interviews. Guerrero was a fronterizo, one who was at home on both sides of the El Paso-Juárez border.

 

Growing up between border towns, one is surrounded by things that connect and divide. For all the recent talk of building a structure to further divide the United States-Mexico border, a rust-colored, 18-foot-high fence has separated El Paso and Juárez for close to a decade. Before that, shorter chain linked fences separated the two cities while sandwiching the Rio Bravo—also known, depending on perspective, as the Rio Grande. Both terms have become ironic nomenclature for a concrete river bed that, in the middle of the desert, is waterless for most of the year. International bridges connect that artificial divide; it’s artificial only because border towns, though in different countries, are more alike to one another than they are different.

A place like El Paso will always share a culture with Juárez that makes it more alike to its Mexican sister city than to the rest of Texas, let alone the United States. The same is true in reverse. In fact, before 1848, the El Paso-Juárez borderlands were one place: El Paso del Norte. Then, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgonamed the Rio Bravo as the border dividing Mexico from the United States and separated El Paso del Norte into two. City officials eventually renamed the Mexican side Ciudad Juárez in 1888, honoring Benito Juárez who, during French intervention, moved the seat of the Mexican government there. The United States side, then, became the sole owner of the “El Paso” name.

 

Few people from the El Paso-Juárez borderland reach fame and recognition. Juan Gabriel, the most famous of the fronterizos, was an anomaly in many ways, some of them obvious. Tin Tan—who epitomized the bicultural identity though his Pachuco character— is also from Juárez, though he was born in Mexico City. Second only to Juan Gabriel, Tin Tan is likely the most important El Paso-Juárez fronterizo in terms of popularity and cultural importance. On the infamous side, there was Richard Ramirez, who grew up in El Paso and became known as a serial killer, the Night Stalker. Supposedly, during his trial in the late 1980s, someone spray-painted a highway billboard on the outskirts of the city that normally read “Welcome to El Paso”—the vandals added “home of Richard Ramirez.” In short, Eddie Guerrero was among the few from the El Paso-Juárez borderland to gain recognition outside of the frontera.

I don’t remember when I stopped paying attention to wrestling, and by extension, Eddie Guerrero. It was around the time I moved from home. However, I remember when I saw him again: while changing channels and randomly passing a WWE event. As he was much more muscular than I remembered him, it took a few minutes to fully recognize him but when I did, I felt a certain pride. I do remember when I first heard he died—I had returned home. The phone rang, and my mother picked up, only to hear my uncle tell her to tell me some hard news: Eddie Guerrero got out of El Paso long enough to tragically die at the age of 38.

The El Paso-Juárez borderlands are the type of place where you grow up hearing others talk about how they long for escape. Since I left as soon as possible, I suppose I was no different. No matter how far you go, however, being from there influences one’s psyche. There is no escape, and it’s not until you leave that you realize how the area and its rugged allure influences how you see the world, and how you feel and find yourself within it. Outsiders in each of their respective countries, fronterizos’ isolation often leads to them being mischaracterized, reduced to secondary actors as violence overrides any notion of beauty. This is the historic tension of borders that can serve more as reminders of conflict and violence than anything else.

 

Gimnasio Josué Neri Santos is in an area that was especially hard-hit by Juárez’s drug wars. During that time, the area around the gym, which was once a tourist destination, became a ghost town. With some success, city officials have revived this area. If you walk from El Paso, on Avenida Juárez– “La Juárez,” as we call it–you’ll see a large mural of Juan Gabriel covering an entire side of a 9-floor building. On the bottom right-side, there’s a quote from him: “Felicidades a toda la gente que está orgullosa de ser como es.” Congratulations to all the people who are proud of who they are. A street west of La Juárez is Calle Mariscal which has murals of Tin Tan covering a building. That street runs next to the gym where Eddie Guerrero once wrestled as a relative unknown. The gym looks renovated with new exterior and interior paint.

On the other side of the border, less than a mile from where he attended school, there’s a mural—about 6 feet high—of a smiling Eddie Guerrero. It’s chipped and fading, but fitting of the aesthetic from where he came from.


Originally published on Remezcla.com