Jack Johnson and Texas

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Photo from Galveston’s Rosenberg Library.

If you are in Texas, Sunday is officially Jack Johnson Day.

Johnson was born in Galveston which, as a port city, had the largest slave market west of New Orleans. Johnson’s parents were former slaves. At 13, Johnson worked on the Galveston docks. This is where he learned to fight. He then moved to Dallas and worked as a carriage painter. This is where he learned to box.

Galveston was one of Texas’ major cities until 1900 when a hurricane destroyed the city and killed upwards of 12,000 people—it remains the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history. According to Johnson, in the days after the disaster, when people stood atop their rooftops to escape drowning, “avaricious men” used their boats to rescue people but not before charging them a few dollars.

“When I encountered them,” Johnson said, “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.” Johnson also says during the Galveston Hurricane, he helped feed the hungry, care for the sick, and bury the dead.

Almost six months later, in Galveston, Texas Rangers arrested Jack Johnson for prize fighting. They also arrested his opponent, Joe Choynski. Released after 3 weeks, Johnson left Galveston.

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Joe Choynski and Jack Johnson in jail. Photo from Galveston’s Rosenberg Library.

In 1908 Johnson became first black heavyweight champion. Galveston officials planned a parade that they ultimately canceled after learning Johnson would attend with his white wife. Johnson’s multiple marriages to white women led to him being sentenced to prison for violating the Mann Act. During the trial a group in Midland, Texas, sent a letter to the prosecuting attorney. They told him that if he killed Johnson, they’d contribute $100,000 for his defense.

After his conviction he lived in Europe and across Latin America. In 1920, while living in Mexico—during their revolution—Johnson turned himself over to U.S. authorities in San Diego county, across from Tijuana.

When Johnson discovered authorities planned to drive him to Chicago, through Texas, he pleaded that they drive around the state. He feared “being attacked by citizens of the State of Texas at some point through which they might travel.”

This year, on Sunday, marks the 25th anniversary of then-Texas governor, Ann Richards, proclaiming March 31st as Jack Johnson Day. “It is important,” the governor wrote, “for all Texans to recognize and celebrate the special place Jack A. Johnson held in the sport of boxing and in the history of our state.”

Jack Johnson Official Memorandum State of Texas 2 - B46 F30
Photo from SMU’s DeGolyer Library.

 

In the Shadows of Big-Time Boxing

Published on HannibalBoxing.com


Inside a dimly lit room, Rafael “Listo” Gaitan sits backward on a chair. His forearms rest on its top rail while his father, Rafael Sr.—or “Knuckles”—wraps his hands. Listo’s other cornermen, each in matching shirts, look on. They joke and smile.

Five other boxers and their cornermen stand around. Each has laid claim to an area in the room effectively serving as the red corner’s locker room. Inside, boxers are in various stages of their prefight routines that are determined by where their names appear on a hand-written list taped to the wall. It’s the order of fights.

And so some are just getting dressed; others, like Listo, are getting their hands wrapped. The boxer who will fight first has his gloves on. He hits the mitts and that unmistakable sound of boxing gloves pounding leather-covered palms echoes through the room. Words of encouragement follow each loud-sounding combination. “There you go! There you go!” A brief silence before the thumping sounds continue. “There you go! There you go!”

At 7:41 p.m., as the sun sets and the lower edges of the westward sky turn orange, a man in a black suit enters. As he opens the door, the slightly muddled sounds of music—a mixture of hip-hop and Mexican banda—becomes clear. “First fight, let’s go,” he says. The boxer who was hitting the mitts leaves, along with his people. They shout encouraging words to their man as they walk out. Once they’re gone, a relative peace comes with a little more room.

Without the commotion, you see a boxer wearing red gloves, sitting in the corner. In silence, he stares at the floor, as if wondering how and why its uneven stains appeared. It’s the pointless questions that help distract the mind. Listo, sitting in his green trunks that bear the patch of a local drywall company that sponsors him, and t-shirt a shade darker, continues getting his hands wrapped. He and his team have been in this cramped room for close to an hour. His time to fight is almost here.

He, and everyone inside this Old-West-themed nightclub in Irving, Texas, will fight on the Ides of March. They will fight in front of a few hundred people, many of them friends and family of each boxer, on the night before one of this year’s most anticipated fights: Errol Spence Jr. versus Mikey Garcia.

The distance between here and there—AT&T Stadium, host of that fight—is about a twenty-minute drive. But in terms of national importance, it’s a world apart. These are fights that happen every weekend across various parts of the country. Besides local boxing media, these fights are largely ignored and only become visible retroactively.

A larger audience will go back to these fights only if one of these boxers makes it out of here and to a bigger stage. Only then will national media look back and see where it all began. These boxers fight largely in anonymity, with the hope of one day making it to the height of Spence and Garcia. That’s where the Gaitan family wants to reach.

***

“We had him at a young age,” Knuckles says of Listo, his first-born son. “That’s what ended my boxing career.” He was seventeen when he found out he would be a father. Listo’s mother was fifteen. “I was happy because my life was a little different,” the father remembers, “You know, growing up in trouble and in the streets, it actually motivated me to become a man faster.” Still, coming from a boxing family, back in Durango, Mexico, and being around the sport his entire life, Knuckles hung a heavy bag in his garage that, on certain days, he would go out there and punch.

Listo, at five years old, saw that bag and emulated his father. “I remember seeing that heavy bag in the garage, hanging up,” says Listo. “I’d see my dad hit it and I was like, ‘I’m gonna hit it too.’  That’s what I saw, and I decided to go for it.”

Too young to train in a gym, Knuckles converted the family garage into a boxing gym. Out of that garage Knuckles trained Listo and other family members. Brothers and cousins—male and female—learned to fight there. And with the eldest son, the father noticed that everything he taught his namesake quickly learned. “Este cabrón es listo,” Knuckles thought. “This fucker is smart.” He called him Listo. The name stuck.

As an amateur, Listo won a gold medal in the 2015 national championships. A few years later, he won Texas’s Golden Gloves tournament. Each of these victories, along with the many others, gave the Gaitans a sense of validation. “It’s like, man, we actually did something,” Knuckles remembers feeling. And now, as a twenty-year-old at the start of his professional boxing career, Listo continues fighting with goals of accomplishing something great.

Boxing is a poor man’s sport. But that phrase also applies to what these boxers earn. At this level—the untelevised club shows—none of these boxers are making money. They get paid, but once you were to calculate the months of training and the costs associated with it, there’s no money. For every Spence and Garcia who eventually fight their way to earn millions, there are thousands of boxers who get paid as little as a few hundred dollars—perhaps less.

Listo, like most boxers, works full-time. Each morning, before his job at a car dealership’s parts department, he wakes up hours before the sun rises. He runs. He finishes with enough time to shower and get ready for work, which starts at seven in the morning. He returns home around 5:20 p.m., rests for about thirty minutes before he and his father—also after a long day’s work as a diesel mechanic—drive from their North Texas home in Grand Prairie to a gym in Irving.

They get there at around 6:20 p.m., sometimes later, depending on traffic. They train for a couple of hours, usually finishing by 8:30 p.m. They return home, shower, go to bed, and wake up to do the same the next day. So long as they are chasing their dream, they’ll do the same every day after that. And potentially, fighting on this card—promoted by Garcia Promotions—can help them and everyone here reach that goal.

“My first fight was at a small ballroom show,” says Mikey Garcia who, along with others, helps run his family’s promotional company. Somewhere, someone must have at least a snippet of Garcia’s first fight in front of a few hundred people. It’s those type of fights that Garcia Promotions, along with the help of others—Dallas’s Montoya Boxing Gym, in this case—organize.

“Some of these kids didn’t have a stellar amateur career to be able to sign to a big promoter, to sign to a big manager where the networks are behind them,” Garcia explains of the boxers on the card. “They just don’t have that. But that doesn’t mean they can’t fight. That doesn’t mean that they don’t have what it takes to make it.”

The road to making it in boxing, however one defines that, is full of potholes. Even those who don’t follow boxing know the potential problems. They’re such a part of boxing they’ve become cliché.

“You hear a lot of stories when you in this business,” Knuckles explains. Stories of managers and promoters putting their boxers in fights with little notice, acting as late-replacement opponents. Others take their young boxers, fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds, to Mexico for short money—even shorter once the promoters and manager’s cut comes—where they fight against grown men with much more experience. When that young boxer realizes his team doesn’t have his best interest in mind, he tries to fight under someone else, only to find out he has a contractual obligation.

“They [can’t] fight with no one else,” Knuckles says of these boxers. “So they’re just like, ‘Fuck boxing.’ Now they’re fathers, they got a regular job. You think about it and you’re like, ‘Damn. This dude, if he wouldn’t have gotten screwed by that person he could have been . . . a champion.’”

The Gaitans almost found themselves in that situation before Listo’s pro debut. Ready to fight for a local promoter, they even considered signing a multi-year contract with him. “I got a message from an unknown fighter.” Knuckles remembers. “He said, ‘Watch out for this dude, he’s a fucking snake. He don’t pay.’ Thank God that we didn’t [sign a contract].’”

Listo’s and his father’s goals remain grand. Like many young boxers before him, Listo aims for greatness that’ll be remembered long past the days he’s done fighting. “That [is] my long-term goal,” says Listo. “To be able to leave my mark on the sport. To be able to be in the history books with the greats.”

***

Back in the locker room, at 7:56 p.m., the first boxer who left returns. He and everyone around him are smiling. Unless you pull back the trash bags and dark linen covering the room’s doors and windows, you can’t see the ring from the room. But you assume he won. “Next,” a person on his team says, with a tone mimicking a butcher looking for the next person to serve. The boxer talks and, as he does, it becomes clear that he won. It’s always easier to critique your deficiencies after a win. Everyone around him looks happy.

With his hands wrapped completely, Listo stands and moves around. Everyone in the room gets a little closer to each other. They give him space to break a sweat; it’s the courtesy every boxer gets. All stay out of his way as he punches through the air, imagining an opponent not yet there.

A few minutes later, the door suddenly opens. Mikey Garcia walks in clapping, followed by about a dozen people. Many more would have entered the room if not for the door being forcibly closed to keep them out. Garcia talks with the boxers, takes pictures, and gives words of encouragement. Before Garcia exits, Listo and his team pose for a photo.

Soon after Garcia leaves, Listo puts on his Mexican-flag-colored ten-ounce gloves. He hits the mitts with his co-trainer Hector Vazquez, called “El Diamante” during his fighting days.  A rumor going around the boxing gym says that, as an amateur, Vazquez fought Errol Spence Jr. five times; it says the man now holding the mitts for Listo won each of those fights. After every flurry of punches, Vazquez gives soft-spoken, almost whispered advice. Listo nods.

“How you feel?” Knuckles asks. “I feel good,” Listo responds. There’s a tension in that area of the room that wasn’t there before. There are no more jokes among themselves, saying the color of their shirts makes them looks like a landscaping crew. They now wait.

And it’s that wait that feels especially taxing. They know they’re ready. Listo has sparred against David Benavidez and learned from it. They’ve made their 175-pound weight limit. They’ve sold their t-shirts and their allotment of tickets. They’ve made arrangements with the teenage mariachi singer who will lead them singing into the ring. Listo has shaken hands, smiled for pictures and even held babies. And now, he’s ready to fight.

“Listo!” a man wearing a suit and a lanyard, finally opens the door and yells into the room. Wearing a mariachi hat, Listo and his team walk the back halls of the club. One last quiet moment before they enter the room, and then ring, to a loud ovation and people chanting his name.

“Lis-to! Lis-to! Lis-to!”

He has lots of friends and family that buy tickets to his fights. “Nuestra gente”—our people—the Gaitans call them, feeling it disrespectful to call them fans.

Inside the ring, in the corner, his father says a few words that only they know. The bell rings and less than six minutes of fight time later, the father walks behind the son with a proud smile on his face.

They walk back to that temporary locker room where—for the first time all night—they feel a sense of relief. They go back to joking and smiling. It feels natural.

There are more handshakes among the team and Listo gives interviews to local boxing media. He wipes the sweat from his face while answering questions. He gets dressed then goes out to take more pictures and shake more hands. “Thanks for your support,” he says while smiling. “Thanks for coming out.”

You Can Never Leave the Border Behind

Published in Texas Monthly


When I think of la frontera—the El Paso–Juárez borderlands—the first thing that comes to mind is the oppressive heat and dust, and our attempts to defy them. When I was growing up, those suffocating summers during which months pass without a single raindrop made me fantasize about winter and fall and even worry that they’d never arrive again. I feared we’d live the rest of our days waiting for the faint smell of wet dirt.

Since few things grow without water, the default landscape on this stretch of the border is patches of dirt separating islands of weeds or poured slabs of concrete bounded by small fields of river rock with the occasional outcropping of yucca. Where one might expect idyllic white picket fences, there are only rough rock walls. A lush, green yard is a privilege in the blow-dryer weather. To grow and maintain one requires a sizable investment in a monthly water bill—and if there are water restrictions, a willingness to break the law as well.

Even more extravagant than the occasional lush lawn are the fountains. On many blocks you can spot a few houses displaying them as the front yard’s centerpiece. When new, the fountains are run by their proud owners as they were meant to be run. The sound of water pouring into basins is almost loud enough to drown out the hum of the motorized pump, working hard in the desert to make it seem as if the water will never stop flowing.

Making something appear natural where it’s not meant to be requires discipline. Faking it, month in and month out, must be exhausting for a fountain’s owner. And so, eventually, the water does stop flowing. When it does, the sun and the dust storms start eating away at the fountain’s paint—and then, in time, the material beneath the paint too. The once beautiful fountain, a testament to a homeowner’s moderate affluence, turns into a crumbling monument to the abiding harshness of desert life.

My parents were born in this place, on the south side of the El Paso–Juárez borderland. My mother, Norma, finished the Mexican equivalent of high school, and my father, Roberto, ended his formal education in fifth grade. For a while, he sold lemons on street corners. My mother was seventeen when she married him. He was four years older, lived a block away from her, and, because my maternal grandparents disapproved of him—with his long hair and penchant for getting into street fights—she essentially had to run away to live with him, his mother, and his six siblings.

In 1980 my father’s search for employment eventually took him to Chicago. He found a job working for the census and a place to live, with a cousin who had also moved there from Juárez. A month after he arrived, he sent for my mother. Undocumented and three months pregnant, she crossed at the international bridge without incident. “Things were different back then,” she tells me in Spanish. “All I did was say ‘American,’ and I crossed.” She boarded an airplane to Chicago.

My parents quickly learned that it’s difficult to live far from family. You miss the holidays, birthdays, and even simple visits to homes filled with cousins, aunts, and uncles. That distance is magnified when you live in a place with different customs, a different culture, and a different language, doubly so when there’s a baby in the house. And so, a little more than a year after my mother crossed over the border, the three of us returned to Juárez. We lived in a small apartment atop a tortillería and carnicería. My father worked as a mechanic in El Paso’s Segundo Barrio; every day he’d cross the border to get to his job, and every evening he’d cross back. I could always tell when he arrived home by the loud, screeching sound of our wrought-iron gate sliding open and the roar of his motorcycle growing louder as it crept closer and then shut down.

We had great times during those years. Both sides of the family lived within a couple blocks of each other in a neighborhood where seemingly everyone knew each other, and because Juárez had yet to become dangerous, we lived a comfortable life. It was home. But as my immediate family grew, that apartment didn’t get any bigger. When it became clear that our situation wasn’t going to improve, my father did what so many working-class men before him have done: he enlisted in the U.S. Army.

For the next eight years we lived in places like Colorado and Germany, places vastly different from la frontera. Arriving at Fort Carson, near Colorado Springs, our first stop, we first noticed how green and cool it was. We felt like outsiders in just about every way. But those feelings were alleviated when we heard others speaking Spanish. Even if it was spoken in a different accent than our Spanish—many of our fellow military families were from Puerto Rico or other parts of Mexico—it reminded us of home. Those were people we missed when it was time to say goodbye.

In the mid-nineties, with the military downsizing, my father got out of the Army just in time for me to enter high school. We returned to the desert, but this time to El Paso. Our first few years back on the border, my father worked as a janitor at an indoor swap meet. My mother worked at a Tonka toy factory; the company had moved its facilities from Minnesota years earlier in part to save money on labor costs.

Both of them constantly stressed the importance of getting an education. One evening when my mother and I were driving from Juárez back to El Paso, the mood turned serious when I asked her what she would think of me dropping out of high school. “You’d be ruining your life,” she sternly answered. I never mentioned it again.

Most Mexican working-class families speak of education with reverence, as if it’s a magical force that will enable its possessor to break free from the physical and emotional toll of low-paid manual labor. The work my parents did was honest work and important work; civilization couldn’t keep going without people with the strength and skills to lift and hammer and fit things together. But it’s hard work that can break your body and offers little in the way of financial reward. Most people who do that sort of work hope that their children will do something less punishing, something that will secure other opportunities for future generations. To my parents, getting an education meant that their sacrifices would count for something. And I, one of the first of my family born on the northern side of the Rio Grande, was expected to turn education from a dream into something real.

Perhaps the most difficult conversation I’ve ever had took place after I graduated from high school, when I told my family that I was leaving town—not to attend college but to work construction. Though my mother held strong long enough to not do so in front of me, that night, through the thin wall that separated our bedrooms, I heard her crying. When I told my grandmother of my plan, she seemed confused and gave me $60. I took that money, a basketball, two pairs of dress pants my father gave me—“for when you go to interviews”—and left la frontera.

I’ve often thought about that decision. Why did I, seventeen at the time, do something so self-destructive? Though I certainly didn’t think of it in those terms then, I do remember feeling afraid that I’d get to college and—unlike my high school classmates, who seemingly had it all figured out—fail miserably. I figured that, like most of the men in my family, I’d eventually end up in construction anyway, so why not cut out the few years of academic floundering and get to work instead?

Before I walked out the door, my mother, with her right hand, made a cross over my forehead and repeated a phrase she must have told me thousands of times each morning before I left for school: “Abusadillo desde chiquillo” (“Stay vigilant despite being young”), advice rooted in the belief that street smarts were as valuable, and at times more valuable, than the knowledge gained from books. It was an odd sentiment to express to someone who had just let his family down by forsaking college. But perhaps it was such ambiguities—the belief that education is important but machismo may be even more valuable—that had ultimately undermined my confidence.

Searching for work, I spent the next three years in various parts of Arizona—Phoenix, Tucson, little towns named Thatcher and Camp Verde—before returning to El Paso, where I kept doing the same sort of labor. I worked at almost everything construction-related—electrical installation, highway guardrail repair, laying pavers. In between my steady gigs, I worked as a day laborer, which meant that I had to sign up for work so early that the traffic lights were still blinking red. That time of the morning, when nothing but infomercials played on the television in the labor office’s waiting room, I’d sit there, in clothes that were stained no matter how many times I cleaned them, hearing once again about a magical knife that cut cans, leather, and tomatoes, and I’d wonder about the choices I had made.

And all the time, I read. Books offered me a retreat from the work’s physical demands—a few moments when I could slow down, give my body a rest, and enter another world. Because my grandparents would often tell me stories about Pancho Villa and the Mexican Revolution, I read Frank McLynn’s Villa and Zapata. I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X and learned that mistakes can often be fixed, a lesson I needed all too desperately to learn. Victor Villaseñor’s memoir Burro Genius was especially revelatory. He came from a family not that different from mine, and yet he became a writer. I realized that if Villaseñor could do it, then it was possible that I—an ESL kid who once struggled to enunciate the differences between “three” and “tree” or, even more embarrassingly, “booger” and “burger”—could be something other than a construction worker. These daydreams were particularly vivid during the hottest parts of the summer, days so hot that I envied the people who worked for minimum wage at Walmart. “At least they have air-conditioning,” I’d think.

That was my life. It wasn’t a life I particularly liked, and I struggled to ignore the voice in my head telling me that I’d wasted all the advantages that my parents had worked so hard to give me.

Then, one day, while I was laying a concrete slab with fellow workers, my mother drove past. I only knew about it because later that day, in front of my siblings, she told me she’d seen me and felt lástima—pity—that I’d squandered opportunities that few in my family had been offered. She noted that I spoke English and was a high school graduate—both rarities in my family then—and yet I worked construction, which required neither. Then, in a measured tone that made hearing the words much more painful, she told my younger brother and sister to use me as an example of what not to be.

Realizing you’ve broken your mother’s heart isn’t an easy thing to experience, especially when she says so in front of two people who should look up to you. It was all I could do to breathe, swallow, blink, and stop myself from crying. Even today, when I think of that conversation, I have to take a moment, catch my breath, and steady myself.

Still, change doesn’t come easily. A routine, even one you dislike, feels safer than the unknown. It was years before I finally summoned the courage to make a change.

On my first day of class at El Paso Community College, I arrived early so I could sit close to the door—in case I wanted to flee. I was 28, and I worried that I was too old, that it had been too long since I’d last sat in a classroom, that I no longer knew how to be a student.

But I fought those urges and stayed. And with the help of a few professors, I thrived. Years of working outdoors had given me a perspective that others lacked. Compared to laboring under the brutal southwestern sun, reading a book and writing about it felt easy. It didn’t hurt that a woman I’d recently met, who a few years later became my wife, was a high school teacher and encouraged my enthusiasm.

After a year, I transferred to the University of Texas at El Paso. It was there that a professor suggested that I apply to a PhD program. I’d never considered such a thing. Frankly, I didn’t even know what a PhD program was. Still, with his encouragement, after graduation I applied for and received a fellowship to Southern Methodist University’s doctoral history program. It was time to leave la frontera once more.

My first month at SMU, I once again had to fight the urge to run away. “I shouldn’t be here,” I thought, as I looked at the Mercedes and Maseratis in the student parking lot in this upscale Dallas neighborhood. I often walked past the university’s service workers and felt I had more in common with them than with my fellow students. When I heard them speak Spanish, I thought of home and was tempted to say something—something more than “¿Qué onda?”—to let them, or myself, know I was one of them. But I worried they’d see me as no different than the students I felt so alienated from. So I said nothing.

But I knew that that sort of self-pity was pointless. I couldn’t help but hear my father’s voice: “Ponte a trabajar, cabrón.” (Loose translation: “Get to work, dumbass.”)

During those first few weeks at SMU, I struggled. I imagined the absurdity of returning home a failure and facing loved ones who not even a month before, during a going-away party, had told me how proud they were of what I’d accomplished. I came to understand the loneliness my parents must have felt when they first settled in the U.S., a country where they didn’t speak the language, didn’t understand the ways of the people who sat above them on the social ladder, and had only the faintest idea of how to help their children climb that ladder.

In October of my first year at SMU, my parents came to visit me. They were struck by how green everything was, but what caught their eye—and mine, when I first arrived—were the fountains. SMU has four large fountains that are grand with water that gushes so loudly that if you close your eyes, you can imagine yourself beside a raging river.

My parents stood and stared at one of the fountains, seemingly entranced by the spectacle of this aquatic wonder. But, perhaps because I had spent so much of my life building things and fixing things, I couldn’t help but wonder how many thousands of dollars and man-hours are expended every year on the fountains’ upkeep. Contemplating those gorgeous cascades, I saw something else too: the distance between the aridity of the desert and the excesses of a lush university campus, the gap between where I came from and where I am now and the uneasiness that comes with the transition from one to the other.

As much as they pushed me to create a life for myself that was different than the one they lived, my parents don’t really understand what I do at SMU. “I read, and I write about what I read,” I explain in Spanish, with a sense of embarrassment and even guilt. “I’m trying to be a doctor but not a real one.” This seems to satisfy them.

Looking at that water soar up into the air and cascade to the ground, they surely understood that their son had found his way to a place very different from our desert home. A home I miss and still fight the urge to run back to.

No Man on Earth Can Beat Errol Spence Jr., and He Knows It

Published on Dmagazine.com


While everyone surrounding him stood still, Errol Spence Jr. bounced from one foot to the other. When he stopped, he banged his silver-colored gloves against each other and walked from the hallways of AT&T Stadium toward the ring on the 50-yard-line. He’d sometimes punch across his body as he took a step. Other times, Spence simply walked with a stoic look. Everyone around him looked serious, except the Lancaster High School’s marching band, which belted out an energetic version of Big Tuck’s Dallas anthem “Southside Da Realist.” Even Yella Beezy, the Oak Cliff rapper who performed “It’s On Me” as the boxer walked to the ring, looked as unanimated as anyone can look while rapping into a microphone to a crowd of over 47,500.

Spence’s opponent, Mikey Garcia, waited in the ring. Like Spence, Garcia’s ring entrance was grand. Red, green, and white lights shot like lasers across the stadium. Unlike Spence, Garcia smiled. He wore a black tejana that contrasted his mostly white ring attire. Once inside the ring, Garcia kissed those white gloves and extended them to the public.

All week, at the public events leading up to Saturday night’s fight, Garcia was the crowd favorite. At Tuesday night’s media workouts, the people chanted his name in two syllables. “MI-KEY! MI-KEY! MI-KEY!” At Friday’s weigh-in, they did the same and when the announcer introduced Spence, it even sounded like the hometown fighter got booed. Watching men fight often arouses a sense of tribalism that extends beyond a shared location. Everyone around boxing understands this. Some, attempting to appeal to boxing’s largest and most influential fanbase, have even claimed themselves honorary Mexicans. This, among other reasons, was why Garcia, the underdog, received such an ovation.

When Spence ducked and stepped between the second and third ropes to enter the ring, he flashed a slight smile. It looked enormous on the screen that hangs above on the field. He sang along to the music that blared across the stadium so loud that talking practically required you to yell in your neighbor’s ear.

Spence walked around the ring. Garcia bounced on his feet and punched at the air. Spence retreated to his blue corner, where a man removed the boxer’s hat. He then unzipped Spence’s shirt. Once you have boxing gloves on—duct taped around the wrists so that the knotted laces don’t come loose—you can do little for yourself besides fight. With his sleepy eyes, Spence looked across the ring as Garcia’s corner held their man’s world championship belts above their head, all four of them. Spence’s corner raised their single belt; the only one that mattered for this fight. It was the belt Garcia wanted.

The moment before a major fight begins—when the boxers are half-naked, standing some three feet from each other and listening to the referee’s instructions—is unlike any other in sports. Butterflies collide in your stomach. Your palms feel slippery. Everyone is focused on the ring.

Jerry Jones, along with several past and present Dallas Cowboys, were there. They too awaited the opening bell’s ring. As did the beautiful people who, almost as if by nature, sat closest to the ring. Boxing of this magnitude, where it becomes a national event, attracts many people who are there to be watched. They flaunt what they have: expensive and form-fitting clothes, shiny shoes, silicone bodies, big hair, shiny wrist pieces that tell time, expensive cologne and perfumes. This is who, regardless of their overall interest in boxing, watched Saturday night in Arlington.

For those who don’t follow boxing, it’s easy to assume there’s no technique or intelligence to fighting. The point is to knock out an opponent, they’ll often say, ignoring that such a description is akin to saying the point of football is to score the most points. But scoring those points or beating those people isn’t the sport. It’s the calculation involved in doing it. And in the first few rounds, Spence carefully determined what he could and couldn’t do.

Spence jabbed—that most simple and effective of punches—to control the distance between him and Garcia. If you control the distance, you control the pace. Garcia, a master technician, understood this better than all and, when he attempted to move in, Spence’s jab kept him out. When Garcia got inside, Spence pivoted away, reset his distance, and punched Garcia again.

In the fourth round, Garcia’s face turned red. In the fifth, sensing the fight was slipping away, Garcia became more aggressive. But when he did, he only exposed himself to Spence’s punishing style, which often hides his fighting intelligence. In fact, many thought Garcia’s presumed superior boxing skill and IQ was his only way to win. But against Spence, neither of those attributes were clear. Garcia looked befuddled, and you increasingly saw it in his eyes.

Sometimes when you sit ringside—among the media, who are far from the beautiful people—you hear and see things that, because of angles, cameras can’t even pick up. You see spit and blood, shining in a brilliant red, land on the crowd. You hear the glove’s leather make a brutal, thumping sound when it connects on the bare, sensitive parts of the body that a boxer can’t train into being immune from pain. You hear a boxer moan. They gasp for air. Sometimes you see a look in their eyes that makes you feel pity. It’s a look that’s part embarrassment, part frustration, and all disbelief. Garcia had that look.

By the middle rounds, Spence had everything he needed to know about Garcia. He knew that so long as he wasn’t reckless, Garcia couldn’t hurt him. And as the fight progressed to its later rounds, Spence moved closer to Garcia. Their foreheads touched as Spence pounded away at Garcia’s body. Garcia backpedaled, Spence followed.

Out of an instinct to protect his kidneys, liver, and lungs, Garcia lowered his elbows and left his head exposed. Soon after, Garcia’s head violently rocked back or to the sides. Sweat flew from his head. You could see his people—fans, yes, but more so family, so confident leading up to the fight—were more than concerned.

Garcia’s corner—his brother and father—wanted to stop the fight but their fighter said no. He believed he could still land a punch that would alter the night. That’s the assertive side of machismo. The passive side says part of being a man is taking a beating like one. And so, instead of stopping the fight, Garcia’s corner let him go. And as he did, you looked at his brother and saw him moving his head around the red ring post. He was, in essence, trying to get an unobstructed view of his baby brother taking the beating of his life.

The irony is that Garcia’s career would have been better served had he been knocked-out in the first round. Or the second, or the third, or any time before the end. But instead, Garcia fought all 12 rounds. They turned increasingly brutal toward the end. Younger men than Garcia have lost their fighting careers taking beatings like the one he took.

He chased greatness a level too far and had to content himself with not being embarrassed. After the fight, as he did after each round, Garcia gave a slight fist pump. He lost. That much was obvious. But the implied consensus was that at least he lost like a man. Only in boxing and its odd and complicated subculture, can one claim the worse kind of Pyrrhic victory in loss.

Before a boxer at this world championship level loses, they think they are unbeatable.. Everything about their past affirms this belief. Every road, both taken and not, becomes proof of destiny.

An undefeated world champion boxer lives with a confidence most others will never know. They walk and talk differently. And though they may have other insecurities, fighting—that most simple and visceral of actions—isn’t one.

If he slept at all, there’s a good chance Mikey Garcia awoke Sunday morning feeling the effects of losing. There is the physical toll, no doubt. He took the type of savage beating that humbles even those with the most arrogant of hubris. But the most important side effect is mental. Within 48 minutes, Garcia’s entire boxing identity crashed. Everything he once believed—about himself, about his place in boxing history, about becoming immortal—all of it was ruthlessly interrupted. And in that place in the mind and soul where self-confidence once ran unimpeded, self-doubt now stands in a corner. It stands silently, but it’s there.

Garcia may still be an all-time great boxer. He may even end up with a better career than Spence. But he will never be undefeated again. He may take solace in saying the loss came from chasing greatness. But chasing greatness and failing is more than just trying. The type of person who takes on that challenge and fails is generally the type that can’t just move on. They are haunted by that shortcoming. At best, they’ll learn from that night that they discovered a painful truth. At worst, their unquiet and doubtful mind will paralyze them. Never will Garcia enter the ring completely sure no man can beat him.

Errol Spence Jr. still has that.

Spence is arguably the best boxer in the world and he’s a local. He didn’t win a new title, and he easily won a fight many expected he’d win. But this fight wasn’t without consequence. Spence could have lost it all, like Garcia did. Had he lost, Spence’s nickname—The Truth—would have gone from an affirmation to one bordering on delusion. But he won. And on Sunday morning, he woke up perhaps from the most restful sleep he’s had in months, still believing that if all things were equal, there isn’t a man walking this earth that can beat him.

 

Eduardo Wanted to Box, but he Couldn’t

Young Eduardo wanted to box professionally. He believed he could. For a while he even trained in Guadalajara; a gym named Azteca. But even though it’s often considered a poor man’s sport, boxing was too much of a luxury for him.

“In el rancho, there was no way to support me boxing,” Eduardo, patriarch of the Garcia family, says in Spanish. Always in Spanish. “My father and mother, we were all very poor.”

His dreams all but dead, Eduardo had to contend himself fighting amateur bouts organized by a local priest in his Michoacán home. Eventually, Eduardo moved to the United States. He had children.

“When I came over here, I began to train my kids,” he recalls. “And the first champion was Roberto.”

After Robert came Fernando Vargas. And after Vargas came Mikey, the youngest of his children. He trained them to world championships while working as a produce picker in Oxnard, California. “I learned it because I loved it,” Eduardo says of boxing. “I asked questions and watched.”

Decades ago, Eduardo realized his professional boxing career had to end before it even began. Today, he’s a grandfatherly figure with slicked back, thinning gray hair. His neatly trimmed mustache is the same color. Eduardo is a few days away from watching his youngest son attempt what some see as improbable: move up in weight to beat Errol Spence Jr. and crown himself a welterweight champion.

A few days away but until then, he watches as fans, waving Mexican flags, gloves, and pictures, yell out to his sons, and even grandson, for autographs and pictures. He hardly speaks, sometimes you barely see him. “Big G!” some will yell towards him. They ask him for a signature. They even ask him—the abuelo who wanted to box professionally but never did— if they can have a picture.

Boxing Garcias (2)
Eduardo Garcia with sons Robert and Mikey.

Mikey Garcia’s obligation to meet a boxing dream he never imagined

Published on Yahoo Sports.


ARLINGTON, Texas — Mikey Garcia wears a nice suit while he sits inside a largely empty AT&T Stadium.

Outside, it’s cold and rainy. Inside the billion-dollar stadium, everything looks and feels perfect. Most of the people there are in public relations, janitorial workers charged with keeping everything clean, or tourists who have paid to walk around the immaculate stadium. It’s about 90 minutes before a scheduled mid-day press conference where Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys and the stadium, will join Garcia and his March 16 opponent, Errol Spence Jr. They will pose for pictures and answer questions related to their fight on Fox Pay-Per-View. They will talk of the fight’s importance and how it’s fitting that AT&T Stadium, which can seat upward of 105,000, will host it.

In his first professional fight, in 2006, Garcia fought in front of a few hundred people in a Southern California ballroom. This is a long way from where he began. An even longer way from how he once saw boxing. And now, Garcia prepares himself to attempt what many see as foolish. He has not only chosen to fight Spence — a man that others who fight for a living seemingly avoid — but Garcia is entirely confident.

Talk to Garcia and you soon see he’s convinced he can beat Spence. It’s a conviction beyond the usual things a boxer says when trying to sell what everyone else sees as a mismatch. There’s an audacity to Garcia. And you can’t understand it without knowing who and where he comes from.

Boxing comes easy for Garcia, the son of immigrants

It’s a common beginning for many parents of Mexican-Americans. Born into limited possibilities, any attempt to make something of themselves required them moving away from home.

“My dad had a third grade education in Mexico,” Garcia says. He repeats himself. “Third grade. My mom had a fifth grade education. They were raised in a poor home. … They got married and they had their family but there’s hardly any future.”

Like many before him, Eduardo — Garcia’s father — left the familiar for the United States’ unknown. He worked for as long as the produce he was picking, required. When it ended, he returned home to Michoacán. When the picking season began again, he returned to the United States, again.

“He was able to finally bring his whole family to the States,” said Garcia, “ … they were able to become residents here.” His parents worked different jobs at different factories until they moved to Oxnard, California. More back-breaking manual labor.

“I still remember my dad, my mom, coming home on certain evenings,” Garcia recalls, his tone slightly lowered. “Their clothes dirty, muddy. Red stains everywhere [on] their boots from working the strawberry fields.”

From time to time, Garcia drives by those fields. He sees people working, the way his father and mother once did. He feels chills across his body. “Sometimes it brings tears to your eyes,” Garcia said of those visits. “You get emotional, like, ‘Damn, my dad was out here doing this.’ It’s hard, back-breaking labor. It’s tough. All with intent and the dream of one day giving us a better future. A better life.”

Decades after his mother and father first worked those fields, Garcia remembers, and it’s doubtful he’ll ever forget. He now feels a responsibility to add to the boxing legacy of the Garcia family, which his father also began. He feels that same responsibility to fight for his fans. It now feels like an obligation. And that feeling — so far as boxing is concerned — wasn’t always there.

“When [Mikey] started boxing we didn’t really think he was too serious about it,” remembers his brother and trainer, Robert, a former world champion. “He never really wanted to go to the gym at all.”

Mikey is the youngest of seven children. So young that he grew up closer in age to his nieces and nephews than to his sisters and brothers. It wasn’t until he was 13 years old that Garcia, almost as if by coincidence, first fought. He was at a local boxing event to cheer for his nephew. When a young boxer there, lacked an opponent, Robert had his little brother fill-in. With borrowed equipment and without formal training, Garcia fought.

“It came like a natural thing for me, and I liked it,” Garcia said. “That’s how my amateur career started. But again, no interest in a future in boxing. I just thought it was like a little pastime, something to do.”

Boxing came easy for Garcia. Something he could take or leave. And as he became a professional boxer and won world championships, that ambivalence remained. “Winning the titles or defending the titles, we got happy, the family was happy,” Robert remembers. “But for him it was just another win. Nothing special.”

The way the youngest Garcia explains it, back then, he boxed only for the money. Through boxing he could buy a house, a car, perhaps even gain some financial security for his young family. He had grown up with dreams of being a lawyer or a police officer, but never a boxer. And, in fact, in the spring of 2014 when he found himself in the courtrooms, battling his former promoter, Top Rank, over a contract dispute, Garcia even welcomed the break.

“Honestly, I didn’t really care for the sport like that, so whatever, it can take as long as they want,” Garcia remembers thinking, hardly worried he was losing prime years of his athletic career inside a courtroom and not a boxing ring. “I don’t care. I’m having a good time, I’m enjoying my time off. I’m finally living. I’m not worried about training, I’m not worried about diet.”

But with no end in sight and already a year into litigation, something changed. From home, he watched as other boxers won titles and achieved success. Suddenly, he worried that if he never boxed again, he’d never get to show his full potential. Garcia missed boxing.

“I just [wanted] to fight,” he said, having felt that competitiveness burn. That feeling that isn’t quite jealousy but still makes your stomach feel a certain way. “I wanted to prove to everybody that I’m much more than what they had seen.”

As he said, the lawsuit against Top Rank became personal. It dragged on for over two years before he secured his freedom and gained control of his career. But by the time he fought again, in July 2016, thirty months had passed. He returned with a sense of urgency and a different mindset. “I felt like I owed it to my fans, like I owed it to my people, to show that I’m much more,” Garcia said of his return and seeking legacy-building challenges.

Counting Spence, the combined records of the six opponents Garcia has faced since coming back to boxing is 137 wins and only four losses. Four of those opponents hadn’t lost. Counting Saturday, those fights will have taken place across three different weight divisions.

“Now that I came back I was no longer interested in just the economic, financial dependency from the sport,” Garcia said of his increased level of opposition.

“I know what I’m capable of. My dad, my brother, know what I’m capable of. They’ve seen me in the ring sparring. They know me better than anyone else … I have all these other tools and people still haven’t seen that. So that’s why I decided to push for this fight … I knew that when I moved up to welterweight, [this] was the man I wanted: Errol Spence.”

Only Spence stands in the way of boxing glory for Garcia

The press conference begins. Security turns away a few fans, holding gloves, at the door. Jerry Jones wears a blue-colored suit that makes the color of his eyes look like the purest ocean. Spence wears a dark blue turtleneck fitting of the weather. At times, during his introduction, Garcia stands at the podium and seems uncomfortable with everyone staring at him. He looks a bit out-of-place; as out-of-place as a billion-dollar stadium nestled in between some businesses with store front signs written in Spanish.

If you didn’t know who Garcia was, you wouldn’t immediately think he’s a world-class athlete. You wouldn’t know that he’s a victory away from a boxing glory that until recently, he never sought.

“I want to be great,” he said. “I want to prove to everybody that I am great.”

Already highly regarded, if he beats Spence, many will consider Garcia the best boxer in the world.

“It’s unbelievable that we are here,” he tells me, between us talking about our fathers. We stop just short of our sentimentality becoming overtly clear. By here, he means boxing in front of tens of thousands in person and millions more worldwide. Here, boxing, for the sort of money that adds immeasurable distance between him and those strawberry fields. This is, without question, a different place than where Garcia’s from.

Sometimes you see a life that could have been yours: a produce picker out in the sun, a construction worker out in the rain, or someone, inside, cleaning the mess you made. If you think about it too long, it makes little sense how you avoided it. But you did. You end up in a place you never imagined. You understand how fortunate you are and because it was hardly realistic to have even gotten this far, you think you may as well go for it all.

“Of course, we’re never going to forget from where we come from,” he said. “I just … ,” he pauses briefly, thinking of something to justify what he just said. Something. Anything to help explain what motivates him to attempt the improbable. “I won’t,” he finally said.