Can Errol Spence Jr. Put American Boxing Back In The Ring?

Published on ozy.com


As chaos erupts around him, Errol Spence Jr. simply smiles and saunters into the boxing ring. It is his homecoming — the first time he’ll defend his title in the Dallas area — and he has everything to lose. A defeat at the hands of Carlos Ocampo, a largely unknown Mexican boxer regarded highly enough to make him a mandatory opponent, would cost Spence millions and a spot among the top pound-for-pound boxers in the world. And yet, with everything on the line and seemingly everyone in the crowd of more than 12,600 screaming in anticipation, Spence appears calm, as always.

A highly decorated amateur and 2012 Olympian, Spence has thrown his hat into the ring with the world’s best boxers. His success is the sport’s success, helping secure its future in the United States — while putting to bed the tired notion that boxing is dead. Beyond the 683,000 who watched the Ocampo fight on Showtime in June, Spence’s appeal is visceral, even in football-mad Dallas: Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott and several other players were among the sold-out crowd.

Spence, 28, honed his skills at Vivero Boxing Gym, a converted automotive garage in the Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas. Gene Vivero, the gym’s owner, “knew [Spence] was an athlete” the first time he saw him. And though Spence’s athleticism allowed him to pick up boxing’s subtleties, not all athletes are boxers. “Sometimes when they get punched in the nose, they go play soccer,” Vivero says of the many kids who trickle in and out of his space. Spence kept coming back.

Spence did grow up playing Texas’ No. 1 sport, lining up at running back and idolizing the Cowboys’ Emmitt Smith. But his slight build didn’t make him a great gridiron fit, and he took to boxing swiftly. Spence remembers Vivero as an old-school gym: “hot … no air conditioning, no nothing.” The high temperatures and humidity of North Texas can make training unbearable. But perhaps it’s Spence’s familiarity with the uncomfortable, rooted in Vivero’s gym, that makes him so calm, composed and, most of all, confident in the ring.

He was only an amateur when a heckler at the Texas Golden Gloves tournament first nicknamed Spence “The Truth.” As Spence earned multiple national championships and watched documentaries and fights of boxing greats, his dream became increasingly realistic and seeped into all aspects of his life. “I want to be the best at what I do and be mentioned with those greats. I mean, it’s only right,” Spence says.

Fighting in the 147-pound welterweight division, which has historically boasted some of the sport’s best, Spence aims high. “He has a pinpoint jab, solid power, good balance, a crippling body attack [and] hand speed, and he throws his punches in combination,” says award-winning boxing writer and historian Carlos Acevedo. Those attributes are only augmented by Spence’s southpaw stance. And yet, as talented an offensive boxer as Spence is, Acevedo points to the left-handed fighter’s needed improvement on defense. “He tends to drop his hands when on the attack, and head movement seems to be an afterthought.”

These deficiencies have yet to cost Spence — whose record stands at 24–0, with 21 knockouts — likely because there are few boxers in the world who can exploit them. Unfortunately for Ocampo, he is not among them.

As the fight began inside the Ford Center at the Star, Spence and Ocampo appeared cautious. In the first minute, they each threw a few pawing jabs and feints to the body, attempting to figure a proper distance between them. As they did, the previously raucous crowd settled.

Despite being the clear underdog, Ocampo, unintimidated, landed a few solid punches to Spence’s ribs. With less than 30 seconds left in the first round, it even appeared Ocampo’s left hook momentarily stung Spence. And then, with three seconds remaining, it happened — so suddenly it wasn’t clear until the replay why Ocampo was writhing in pain, his face contorted as he struggled to breathe.

Spence had ended the fight in the first round with a perfectly placed punch to the liver — among the most painful of locations. And as Ocampo remained floored minutes past the 10-second count, Spence smiled and celebrated while the arena again roared. Spence had reduced Ocampo to a placeholder, a name added to the résumé of his quest for greatness.

The knockout also announced Spence’s place among a small group who will lead the future of boxing in the United States, just as Floyd Mayweather leaves the ring. If he can garner mainstream attention, Spence may appeal to the wider public in the same way “Sugar” Ray Leonard did. While Spence might lack Leonard’s megawatt smile, his quiet charisma and confidence have won over Bible Belt fans in the Dallas area — suggesting a wider marketability. Of course, it all depends on how he fares in the ring. It’s increasingly clear that Spence’s chief rival as the face of American boxing is Terence Crawford (33–0), who dominated a world champion in June. Before either of them stakes any definitive claim to greatness, he will have to face the other.

After the fight, as the crowd is still yelling its approval, Spence says this wouldn’t be his last time fighting at home. Someday, he wants to fight at the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium, which seats north of 100,000 — perhaps against Crawford. “You fight there, and you know you’ve made it. You sell out that, you’re an iconic figure,” says Spence. “If I can do that, then I made it to the pinnacle of the sport.” Audacious? Sure. But it’s how The Truth rolls.

How to Steal a Frozen Burrito

Originally published at TheRumpus.net


When I was hungry and broke, I’d steal frozen burritos from grocery stores. They never caught me as stealing the burritos (or for that matter, anything else) required patience and really good mentors—namely, my cousin and his two friends who, collectively, called themselves the Shrimp Bandits.

The Shrimp Bandits were in their late teens when they terrorized the frozen sections of grocery stores across El Paso, Texas. They’d developed a simple scheme for stealing frozen shrimp. At first, it was just two of them; to protect the guilty, we’ll call them Shrimp Bandits 1 and 2. They’d simply walk into a grocery store, grab bags of frozen shrimp—always the large, thirty-one to forty count bag that’s already cooked, peeled, and deveined—and run out as fast as possible, hoping to find safety by hiding between nearby houses. After a few close calls, their technique evolved.

They incorporated a getaway driver who’d leave the car running near the front of the store. He’d stand close, pretending to unload an empty propane tank. While he did that, the two original Shrimp Bandits entered the store. Shrimp Bandit 1, who was the fastest, took the shrimp and ran out while Shrimp Bandit 2, the fatter of the pair, stood near a red DVD-rental kiosk. His job, aside from whistling to the getaway driver to signal Shrimp Bandit 1 was on the run, was to interfere if someone gave chase. If security or a worker ran after Shrimp Bandit 1, then Shrimp Bandit 2 would get in their way, allowing Shrimp Bandit 1 an extra few seconds to jump into the getaway car. They’d always leave Shrimp Bandit 2 behind and eventually meet at a prearranged place where the three would split the take. There was no money—there never was—just frozen shrimp.

Authorities never caught the Shrimp Bandits. Just as suddenly as they appeared, they disappeared. The Shrimp Bandits didn’t stop stealing because of a sudden change of conscience or moving on to stealing something of higher value. Rather, each of their mothers—who likely asked once or twice where all the shrimp came from before they just quietly ignored it—told them to stop bringing home so much shrimp. They stopped stealing because their moms ran out of freezer space.

At the height of their banditry, I saw five perfectly stocked refrigerators full of bags of frozen shrimp. Since there was no black market for shrimp, at least not in El Paso, the bandits and their mothers got stuck with the product. They also couldn’t move it in Juárez—El Paso’s sister city across the border—since their price for shrimp was already cheap. Plus, the long lines to cross into Mexico resulted in the shrimp thawing out before they could sell it. No one is crazy enough to buy warm shrimp in a bag. Had the bandits packed a cooler full of frozen shrimp, the Mexican police, which inspected incoming cars, would inevitably demand a kick-back that’d further bite into any money made.

Since few risked buying what was, in essence, second-hand shellfish, the Shrimp Bandits resorted to giving away what they stole. For a few months around the summer of 2005—I remember this well because, as a way of settling their nerves, they listened to Jay-Z’s “Dear Summer” after each successful heist—within a five-mile radius in east El Paso, it became common street knowledge that if you wanted free shrimp all you had to do was know where to ask. All you had to do was knock on the garage of a yellow house on the corners of Diego Rivera and Manuel Acosta Drive—fitting street names for the Shrimp Bandits who once, while high, told me they saw their shrimp stealing plan, and execution of it, as artistry.

I first heard about the Shrimp Bandits’s exploits directly from them. Like many low-level thieves of limited intelligence, they were eager to tell their story. I didn’t believe it so I begged to see it firsthand. It didn’t take much to convince them and I was there for several of their shrimp runs, standing by a payphone that had been demoted to a late-night bathroom spot. From there, I saw everything: a clear sight line to the back of the store, where the frozen section was. To my right was the red DVD-rental kiosk, and all I had to do was turn around to see the getaway driver pretending to be refilling his propane tank.

After seeing it all in action, I realized three things. First, they were serious. Second, they weren’t artists. And third, related to the previous note, their methods were seriously flawed, which, in my view, would’ve eventually gotten them caught. These were the flaws I learned from when I stole frozen burritos.

If you ask me why I did it, I can’t give you a proper answer. I was hungry and didn’t have much money, but it wasn’t like I was homeless or went to sleep starving.

Perhaps I felt some type of Mexican, working-class nihilism. My mother and father moved to the United States to give me opportunities they never had. There’s a burden there, especially when you are remarkably average and silently haunted by voices whispering, “You haven’t done enough to justify others’ sacrifices. You should be more than this.”

In the world I came from, doctors and lawyers born from immigrant families were the exception rather than the rule. As a matter of fact, I didn’t know any doctors or lawyers in the immigrant families I grew up with. The feel-good stories featured on television made me feel like shit. It must be nice to be educated, I’d think to myself, feeling resentment at the pit of my stomach.

With no practical knowledge of the complicated mechanisms for obtaining a higher education, people like me just fell through all those cracks the lie between daydreams, unrealistic expectations, and sensible goals. Sometimes people like me end up working, quite literally, alongside our fathers. The American Dream gets reduced to learning how to speak English without an obvious accent—measuring success by how little translation is required when watching crime and action movies.

So, as far as stealing frozen shrimp or burritos is concerned, well, it felt like affirming a certain level of intelligence. Not books smarts but a mixture of street smarts and bravado, both always held at a premium when one lives in a place—both physically and mentally—that’s otherwise forgettable and lacking a sense of power.

Or maybe that’s just an excuse for why I stole frozen burritos.

The first thing I realized was that of all the frozen items to steal, frozen shrimp may have been the worse choice, save for frozen pizzas. But even pizzas are eaten with greater frequency than shrimp. Eating shrimp was expensive and thus, a rarity. And, at least for those of us who lived in the Chihuahuan Desert, shrimp denoted a level of class—one can’t eat them while wearing sweats without feeling out of place. It’s almost disrespectful to do so.

Frozen burritos, however, were as far removed from the upper class as one could get. Some Mexicans would not even consider fresh burritos to be authentic Mexican food—whatever that means. So, in a sense, a frozen burrito, made in bulk and shipped with labels and names to denote some sort of cultural affiliation (there are never any wrappers saying Connor, Tanner, or Dustin’s Burritos), was a bastardization of food that already lacked a father.

In terms of practicality, frozen burritos were perfect to steal. Unlike the shrimp bags which were bulky and had lots of empty space within them, frozen burritos come in compact wrappers. And like pizza, but easier to steal, there’s an ease in eating burritos that make them a much more convenient choice.

Anyone could eat frozen burritos anywhere, while wearing anything, while doing whatever. Since I was hungry, it mattered little that I found frozen burritos disgusting. Their flavor and texture of unevenly heated canned beans made worse by knowing Juárez—where according to some, was where burritos originated—had the cheapest and best-tasting burritos anyone’s ever had. But I didn’t have time to go to Juárez, plus stealing fresh, delicious food felt more like a crime than taking what passed as burritos from some faceless, billion-dollar conglomerate.

I also realized that one just can’t just go into a store and begin pocketing things; that’s reckless and a sure way of getting caught—which almost happened to the Shrimp Bandits on several occasions. Instead, I planned obsessively, considered all potential variables.

Among the most important lessons is recognizing differences: which cameras see different angles, which cameras weren’t even turned on, and which objects were in fact cameras though they didn’t appear to be. There’s also a huge difference between cameras and security, and while most stores have the former, they don’t equate to being the latter. Also, though I never tested it, I assumed there’s a difference in reaction between stealing from a store that’s family-owned and operated and taking from a national grocery store. It was easy to imagine that someone who owned a store and set their own rules was much more likely to use force than an employee of a major corporation, who may be disgruntled with their pay and hours, might be. But by far the most important difference was knowing the surrounding areas of stores. This knowledge informs everything.

The surrounding area of a store is the greatest indicator of its level of concern regarding stealing. The more affluent the area, the less security they’ll have. If the area is not only affluent but has a high number of retirees, they might as well have a sign advertising how easy they are to steal from. Meanwhile, grocery stores in lower socioeconomic areas can have multiple security guards on duty at a time. To keep it simple, I kept away from grocery stores that catered to the Latino population. These stores usually had a Western Union, jewelry store, and/or check cashing stores that charged inordinate amounts of interest on payday loans. Each of these added to the raw cash coming in and out of the store, which translated to an increased security presence.

In El Paso, where over eighty percent of the population is Hispanic, discerning which store caters to which ethnicity isn’t easy. Had I kept stealing frozen burritos when I moved to Dallas, this difference would have been much clearer. So again, for the sake of simplicity, in El Paso, I targeted grocery stores where people were much more likely to speak English over Spanish. Stores in areas where they saw outsiders as Mexican rather than Mexican American. But stealing from grocery stores in the upper-class part the city meant I had to be careful to not stand out. The first time I stepped into one of these stores—not to steal, just to case the place—I was genuinely taken aback by its differences from stores in working-class neighborhoods. Everything appeared and felt different.

Unlike the light-colored, drab floors with florescent lighting I was used to, the flooring and ceilings in these stores were of a darker color, which, when combined with the drop-down lighting, gave a more modern feel. Most of their produce was several days away from being ripe, unlike the produce found in stores I shopped in which had to be consumed within a day or two after purchase. These stores didn’t have that smell, which is probably a mixture of dried blood from the meat section, overripe produce, and industrial cleaning products. Most surprisingly, these stores had large red coolers next to the freshly baked French bread. Inside were stacks of freshly made tortillas from a tortilleria right down the street from where I lived.

I was angry. Not only angry at how much better the upper-class ate, but that they could eat authentically—for lack of a better word—with little effort or risk of having to travel outside of their comfort zone. But I took comfort in knowing I’d soon be eating for free, and felt satisfied that the storees wouldn’t even know anything had happened.

It seemed the Shrimp Bandits robbed during any time of the day, mostly when they were bored. Unlike them, I figured between 5:30 a.m. and 9 a.m. was the sweet spot. Anything earlier and employees might have thought I’d been up all night. Anything later and they’d think I was unemployed. Both increased the likelihood of me being viewed with suspicion. I also dressed for the role, which meant as plainly as possible. I wore nothing memorable that could have stood out or offered an identifying marker. Not wanting to draw attention, I kept away from bright colors and never wore shorts or sandals. This was also for practical reasons—shorts had little holding room and sandals were a tripping hazard. Instead, I wore high socks (picture the basketball player, Jason Terry) covered by boot-cut, relaxed fit jeans.

As I dressed before each frozen burrito caper, I made sure my socks still held their elasticity. I ran in place while wearing them, all to make sure they didn’t sag and defeat their purpose. They were thick, green, and stretched to just below my knee cap. They were Army-issued and given to me by my father. Once satisfied with the socks, I’d take my hand and inspect the inside of my sneakers—high-top black Chuck Taylors—checking for anything that might slow me down. I’d flip the shoes and remove anything from their bottoms. Little pebbles caught between the ridge patterns can easily cause one to slip on hard floors. Once all of this was complete, I’d carefully put my shoes on, slowly so the sock wouldn’t jumble around the toes and heel.

I once heard that the first thing legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden taught his players was how to properly put on their socks and shoes. Any wrinkle in the socks or loose flap inside the shoes could cause blisters. I always thought of that story when I put on my socks and shoes before I double-knotted the laces and made sure my belt held my pants firmly in place.

I never took frozen burritos from a local store. The Shrimp Bandits did this all the time and therefore, couldn’t return to buy a simple tomato without feeling they were being watched. Stealing from a local store also increased the likelihood of seeing someone you know. And when every second counts, someone stopping you for a quick “hello” can make all the difference.

After I picked a store, I studied the parking lot: which exits led to where, which entrances were most busy, and whether the back of the store was an enclosure. Since I was a one-man operation, I parked as far away from the store as possible, closest to the exit I’d be driving through. To park at a distance sounds counterintuitive, but I knew that if I were being chased, I could use my athleticism to my advantage by putting distance between myself and the chaser. Had I parked as close to the store as possible, I would’ve negated that advantage. So, I parked away from the building—and pedestrians—leaving the car door unlocked while, one last time, making sure my socks were pulled up, my shoes tied, and pants secured.

Of all the memorable things during my exploits as a frozen burrito thief, a feeling I’ll never forget is that of the ice-cold air conditioning hitting my body as I entered the store. The juxtaposition of the hot, summer mornings of the El Paso-Juárez borderlands and the air conditioning power of these stores couldn’t have been more glaring. The grocery stores I was used to had a dampness to them—a swamp cooler effect that could make the indoors feel more uncomfortable than being outside. In the grocery stores in my neighborhood, a subtle sweat on your covered chest and thighs would develop, made worse by the floor’s stickiness and the subsequent sounds of queeek, queeek coming from your shoes with each step you took.

Conversely, these fancier grocery stores had an icy feeling to them. Refrigerated air conditioning, powerful to the point one could feel it ten feet before walking through the front doors. It felt so relaxing that if I could replicate a feeling, I’d want to feel that relief of walking from the hot outdoors into the wintry wonderland of those grocery stores.

Once inside and in front of the freezers, I’d patiently look around and even check out prices. The point was to get the most expensive frozen burritos available. This I’d learned from watching the Shrimp Bandits, who always chose to steal the most expensive shrimp. Why settle for only $.79 bean and cheese flavors when you can have the best for free? I’d get something with protein, something with chicken and meat. But always, always, always, I’d also get two of the cheap bean and cheese burritos.

With frozen burritos in hand, I could have run and likely gotten away but there were only a few upper-class grocery stores in El Paso. Had I run out of each one of them, they’d soon recognize me and the entire scheme would have to end. I didn’t just want to eat for one day; I wanted to feed myself for a lifetime. So instead of grabbing and running, I kneeled, pretending to tie my shoe—shielding the inside my leg with the opposite shoulder—and slid the burrito under my pant leg and into my socks. I placed them on the front and back of my calves but never the sides. Most people will see you either from the front or back and the bulk in your lower legs will blend in. But if the frozen burritos are on the side of your calves, it’ll look awkward.

I eventually grew comfortable with multiple cold burrito wrappers pressed against my lower leg. I also learned to alter my walk, just slightly, to decrease the noise made with each step I took. Few things invite suspicion as walking in and out of a store empty-handed. So, to appear less guilty, I’d pay for the two $.79 burritos. The total was always $1.71—less than $2 for ten frozen burritos if you counted the other eight I had stuffed in my socks. Each shin had two, vertically placed and on top of one another but not stacked. Two more against each calf. All eight held in place by socks that tightly hugged me below the knee.

Relax. Don’t look around. Say “hello.” Smile, but not too much. Take the change. Say thank you. Leave.

Every time I walked out of the store, car keys in hand and frozen burritos burning cold against my legs, I felt a slight jolt. This was adrenaline that, since I wasn’t burning it off by sprinting out of the store like the Shrimp Bandits had done, I had to restrain. I also had to quiet the inner voices telling me to look over my shoulder and see police chasing me. I had to convince myself there were no police coming after me. Fighting the urge to look back was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. So much of stealing frozen burritos is having the nerve to pull it off, to appear as calm as possible during a moment when your mind is a rough storm.

From my car to the grocery store and back to thee car, it’s almost as if I was two people: one going through the motions and another on the outside, looking down at everything.

The thing about stealing frozen burritos and not getting caught, is that you, almost inevitably, begin to wonder what other things you can take. You begin to justify your actions, daydreaming that if caught and given the opportunity to tell your story, you’d become something close to a folk hero. I began to dream that people, like me, would understand completely why I did what I did. That, even though I never gave to others from my spoils, I’d become some sort of grocery-store Robin Hood—my own version of Pancho Villa, simply by taking something from a corporation so rich they’d never even notice it was gone. Corporations too fancy to even consider setting up shop in our neighborhoods.

But since I stopped with the frozen burritos heists before getting caught, there’s no potential for such sympathy. Rather, telling my story now, devoid of an actual antagonist, I’m reduced to nothing more than an idiot who, for about six months in my early twenties, ate mostly frozen shrimp and burritos.

Too Mexican for Americans. Too American for Mexicans.

Published on D Magazine.


It’s a Tuesday evening in late March, cool enough for a sweater but just warm enough to feel comfortable without one. The sky has been gray and wet all day, alternating between steady, fine mist and pounding rain. It’s all enough to disrupt any semblance of midweek enthusiasm. And yet, inside Al-Amir—a Lebanese restaurant and club in Arlington—a group of friends, members of Pancho Villa’s Army, gathers hours before they’ll travel a few miles to AT&T Stadium. There, they’ll join tens of thousands more and cheer for what’s likely the most popular soccer team in the United States—the Mexican national team.

Pancho Villa’s Army, or PVA, is a barra, or fan club, with thousands of members across the United States. Many of them travel the country to watch and cheer on their beloved Mexican team. At matches like tonight’s—a World Cup warm-up against Croatia—they scream and beat drums and wave Mexican and PVA flags, trying to intimidate, or at least distract, the opposition. Dressed in El Tri’s green, red, and white, most wear dog tags with the PVA logo on them. Some wear sombreros and large Mexican flags as capes. Others wear scarves around their necks that have “Pancho Villa’s Army” printed on one side. The other, if lined up perfectly, looks like a bandolier with a brown-and-tan version of their namesake’s face.

Pancho Villa was a Mexican general and revolutionary with a conflicting history who’s increasingly remembered in mythic terms. To some (including some Mexicans), he was a ruthless opportunist. To others, Villa was a hero who fought against the United States’ influence within Mexico and reaffirmed a sense of national pride. Along with using Villa’s likeness as its logo, PVA structures its group like a military hierarchy—presumably based on Villa’s División del Norte, which at its peak was among the largest revolutionary armies to exist in Latin America.

Every new PVA member begins as a soldado—soldier. The highest rank is general, a designation that belongs to Sergio Tristan, an Austin-based attorney who founded Pancho Villa’s Army in 2011. Members of PVA refer to Tristan as “El General” more often than they call him by name. At just about every Mexico game, you’ll find either El General or El Coronel—Rich Guel, second in command—dressed in the latest PVA t-shirts. Below them are captains, each charged with overseeing city chapters, or battalions, of which there are at least 35 spread across 14 states. Randy Diaz is PVA Dallas’ captain. With Jovany Alejo and Hector Valdez, his two right-hand men, he’s planned for tonight’s game for months.

They’ve organized everything from where the before and after parties will take place to where traveling members of the PVA—some from as far away as Oakland—will stay. They’ll even make sure that everyone follows the group’s strict, nonviolent code of conduct. But for them and many others, joining PVA, even cheering for the Mexican national team, goes much deeper than watching soccer with friends. As Mexican-Americans, cheering for the Mexican national team instead of the United States has to be more than that.

Like most members of PVA, Randy, Jovany, and Hector grew up watching Mexico play. They inherited their fandom from parents and relatives born in Mexico who then carried their passion for Mexican fútbol across the border. Jovany—a sergeant-at-arms in PVA and the only one of the three born in Mexico, though he grew up in the United States—sees the choice as simple. “I’ll always be Mexican,” he says while making it clear he’s grateful for every opportunity the United States has given him and his family. Everyone is grateful; no one here hates the United States. But neither are they blinded to its problems.

“This whole immigration thing has always been around me and a part of me,” says Hector, a lieutenant in PVA, who was born and raised in Dallas but whose father is from Nuevo Laredo. His experiences made his choice to support Mexico’s team easy. “Growing up, things you see around you, you know? The hate you feel from other people,” he says. “Not feeling welcomed or wanted, it doesn’t make me want to root for a team that said racist things toward you, that doesn’t want you in this country.”

He adds, “To me, it’s more like, ‘You guys pushed me this way. To not want to be a part of what you’re doing.’ And then when Trump comes into office and stirs the pot, it makes it even worse.”


Last year, North Texas—labeled by authorities as an “area of responsibility”—was among the areas with the highest percentage increase of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) arrests, spiking by 71 percent since 2016. The agency arrested more people in the Dallas area than anywhere else in the country. And as often happens, politics end up seeping into sports and affecting why and how people cheer. There’s a privilege in watching sports merely for entertainment.

Randy, tasked with rebuilding the Dallas battalion after a change in leadership two years ago, sees the group as more than an occasional gathering to watch soccer. It’s about friendship and bonds, of which fútbol is just one. “The chapter has turned into more than just something to do,” says a pensive Randy. “It’s way more than that—for me.”

Despite their Mexican heritage and cheering for Mexico, members of PVA aren’t immune to common Mexican criticisms of Mexican-Americans. All three, along with many other members of PVA, traveled to Mexico City for a match last year. Incidentally, Mexico was playing the United States. And though each say people treated them well, at least in person, when Mexican websites featured articles on PVA, the comment sections made clear that Mexicans saw them differently.

“They see us as pochos,” Randy says. A pocho is a slang term used by Mexicans to describe those who they share a heritage with but who they perceive as having lost part of their culture since moving to the United States. Essentially, a pocho is a Mexican who has become Americanized. They aren’t outright rejected but, instead, are considered something less than “authentic” Mexican. Authenticity is fluid with various definitions. Ask someone from Mexico City what being “Mexican” means and their answer will differ from one given by someone in the north, south, or coastal parts of the country. At the same time, each of their answers will probably include living in Mexico.

“To say that PVA has been fully accepted over there in Mexico? No. Can’t say that,” Randy says. “I’d be lying if I said that.” But as PVA, with each passing game, gets more national attention and its membership grows, Hector feels that lack of acceptance will change. “Basically, they’re gonna have to accept PVA. We’re here to stay, whether they like it or not.”

Some within Mexico assume that because a group like PVA consists largely of Mexican-Americans, their fandom is not as pure. That, living on the north side of the U.S.-Mexico border, they cannot possibly comprehend what it’s like to live and die with the south side’s national team. That they are, somehow, shielded from feeling the disappointment and frustrations that are a part of cheering for Mexico’s fútbol team—a team with a passionate fan base despite never advancing past the third round of the World Cup. Further, Mexico always seems to lose in the most heartbreaking fashion. To suggest members of PVA don’t feel this agony is untrue.

The latest instance of this Mexican heartbreak occurred during the last World Cup. Like all fans of Mexico, Randy, Hector, and Jovany vividly remember the team losing to the Netherlands on a horrible penalty call. Say “No era penal”—it wasn’t a penalty—and every fan of the Mexican national team will instantly know what you’re talking about. The phrase is equal parts declarative and mournful, and proof that, just like life, fútbol is unjust. For Mexico fans, anguish that leaves you in tears comes every four summers.

“We endure a lot,” Randy says, before offering an almost philosophical analogy. “It’s like when you grow up in a tough neighborhood. You see all kinds of stuff growing up. At the same time, when you get older, you get out of it and it makes you who you are. It makes you stronger because of it. I mean, I’m going in prepared for [heartbreak], of course. I hope for the best but I expect the worse. I just always think like that, just because—the disappointment won’t be so big anymore.”

Jovany and Hector sit silently, nodding in agreement. The latter breaks his silence and adds, “Growing up a Cowboys fan, you’re used to disappointment.” All three laugh as if it helps to ease the residual feelings of frustration.

“But you never know, man,” says Randy, as if suddenly finding a nugget of deeply buried optimism. “These kids that we have right now, some call them the best squad we’ve ever had. I semi-agree.”

Back inside Al-Amir, each arriving member of PVA gets a warm greeting. They are friends even if they haven’t seen each other since the last Mexico game or even longer. When they meet again, they shake hands and hug, smile and laugh. Like an attentive host, Randy—wearing a red band with a white C for “captain” around his muscular left bicep—walks around making sure everyone and everything is fine.

Both El General and El Coronel arrive and are immediately recognized. But even the newer, lesser-known soldados are friends with someone. That someone will, in turn, introduce them to other members of PVA and they’ll instantly bond. They all speak mostly in English, though if a phrase is better expressed in Spanish, they’ll effortlessly switch. It’s a kinship based on a common heritage and a love of Mexican fútbol, but it’s also one deeper than that. Some things need not be explicitly said. And as drinking loosens dancing legs and singing lungs, these bonds strengthen.

Another soccer match, U.S. vs. Paraguay, plays on televisions behind the bar. If they even notice it, no one seems to care. Instead, everyone sings along as the DJ plays Christian Nodal’s “Adiós Amor”—a song about walking away from an unrequited love despite still adoring the one you are leaving.

They sing with emotion, hard-earned from being intimately acquainted with sadness—apart from the one born out of loving the Mexican national team. These are, after all, the children of those who, in search of opportunity, left loved ones and their home country’s familiarity. That choice led to many being called traitors when in Mexico. And here in the United States, some of them get told to go back to their country. This is who they are and part of what bonds them: understanding what it’s like being too Mexican for Americans and too American for Mexicans.


Identity is a messy, even contradictory, construction. It’s muddled further by the irrational passions of sport. In fairness, there are fans of Mexican heritage that not only root for the United States national soccer team, but are members of the American Outlaws—a counterpart fan group to the PVA. But they aren’t here.

By the time the game starts, optimism is naturally high despite many fans sitting inside AT&T Stadium with clothes wet from walking miles in the rain. The perfectly lined pitch, goal, and its netting all look especially white when contrasted against the green field and crowd where, again, green is the color that stands out.

Most of the more than 79,000 in attendance are here to watch Mexico play. For 90 minutes, they’ll forget it’s raining outside. Perhaps, at least for the night, they’ll even forget whatever problems come from the current political climate: where they fit in, whether they feel welcomed, or—despite being born here—how they’ll respond the next time they’re told to go back to their country.

In June, when the heat suffocates North Texas and the area longs for the cool and cloudy nights of early spring, Mexico will play in the World Cup. The games will matter. Maybe too much. Maybe with good reason. By the time the World Cup begins, the games may act as a welcome distraction from continuing ICE arrests or, perhaps, even the beginning phases of the United States constructing a wall along its southern border.

If the history of Mexican soccer teaches us anything, it is this: there will be a game where the team looks better than expected. A game where even the most realistic will allow themselves to dream. They’ll imagine a summer that they, along with every other fan of Mexican soccer, north and south of the U.S.-Mexico border, will always remember. They’ll imagine this is the year when euphoria, rather than heartbreak, will mark the summer months.

Before each game, just like at AT&T Stadium, they will sing loudly when the Mexican national anthem plays, all of them dreamers in some capacity. Some will sing to the point of tears. And for those few minutes, they will forget, or ignore, that eventually Mexico will break our hearts.

Waiting for Errol

There’s a bright-red sign, flashing beside a door. The word “OPEN” flashes 5 times then, one letter at a time, they flash again. First the O. Then the P. And so on until “OPEN” gets spelled out. The sign flashes 5 times again, drawing attention to a place minimal in how it advertises itself. A black brick wall with the simplest of black fonts on the building’s fascia reads, “Boxing Gym.”

R&R Boxing Club 18

What appears like a 6-pound shot put ball—with a green and white swirl pattern on it—holds the front door open. The back door is also wide-open; presumably to allow the outdoor’s humid air to flow through. The familiar smell of a boxing gym is the first thing you notice. It’s not offensive, but neither is it pleasant.

It’s always obvious when someone new walks into a boxing gym. Everyone—both the new person and those there—do a quick calculus of who is who. Who is a pro. Who is not. Who used to fight. Who never has. Who has a kind face. Who does not. And, though it’s rarely said out loud, who can beat the shit out of who, how quickly, and how.

“Can I help you, boss?” a man asks while getting his gloves tied. He has a prosthetic below his right knee. I wonder what happened. I want to ask but I don’t. Instead, I explain my reason for being there. “I’m here to interview Errol.”

“Cool,” he says, “he should be here in a bit.” He then walks to the heavy bag. Without waiting for the piercing sound of the timer marking another 3-minute round’s beginning, he punches. He circles to his right as if the sweat-stained bag has an orthodox stance. He punches again. You can see a sweat ring developing around the neck of his heather grey-colored shirt. About 10 feet away from him, there’s a man sitting on the floor and reading his phone. He too is sweating.

R&R Boxing Club 17

As with most boxing gyms, it’s hot inside. The heat’s made worse by the simple fact it’s mid-May in north Texas. The high temperature was around 87 degrees though with humidity, it felt like 102. It’s much hotter inside the gym to where waiting outside feels like a relief.

The gym shares the building with a Mexican restaurant that sells barbacoa de borrego. There’s a tire shop is next to the restaurant. Every few minutes you hear an air impact wrench, taking off another lug nut. You don’t hear it but you can imagine the sound of a tire bouncing slightly off the ground before a worker rolls it away to get fixed. The gym’s neighbor is a shop that sells work boots.

I was standing outside, wondering if every nice car that drove by marked my wait’s end, when a man—who must have seen my camera—said something I quite couldn’t make out. Something about if I wanted to take a picture of a shoe. As he got closer, he smelled of alcohol and carried a work boot with a nail poking into its bottom. He limped and wore only a sock on one of his feet. “I paid $200 for these shoes. They are supposed to have a warranty,” he said in his broken English.

I ask him, in Spanish, what happened. Relieved that he could express his frustrations in the language he knows best, he suddenly speaks confidently. In between expletives, he says he stepped on a nail and considering how much he paid for work boots that came with a warranty, he brought them back. I’m not sure if he expected new boots, the shop to cover his medical bill, or something else. Whatever he wanted, they told him no. Annoyed, he says next time he’ll buy work boots at Wal-Mart, pay only $40 and get the same level of protection. He limped away and back into his car. I went back inside and waited. I looked around.

All gyms line their walls with pictures and posters of boxers intermixed with a few motivational quotes. A sign, written in Spanish, says, “You have 2 options…Throw in the towel and quit or use it to dry your sweat and keep going.” There’s another motivational quote, this one written on a dry-erase board, that simply says, “Do more say less.”

Of all the pictures, three boxers seem to occupy the most space: Errol Spence, Muhammad Ali, and Julio César Chávez—the father, not the son. Though, there’s at least one poster of junior; it’s in the bathroom. If you stand there, while urinating, and look at his eyes on the poster you get the sense that junior is trying hard not to look down.

R&R Boxing Club 10

While looking around and waiting, a woman walked through the door. The same man that greeted me—who apparently, when not beating the punching bag, doubles as the information desk—asks how he could help. She inquired about joining the gym. The man’s shirt had turned a dark-colored grey and while wiping his sweat off, as best he could with his boxing gloves on, told her about the gym’s basic membership. The MMA instructor is no longer there so kickboxing class is on hold. He also told her the owner wasn’t there. He pointed to a picture on the wall and said, “if you ever come back, that’s what he looks like.”

She suddenly recognizes a picture though it’s not the one of the owner. “It’s Freddie Roach,” she says excitedly. “Yea,” the sweating man answered, “we are the home gym of world champion, Errol Spence.” She doesn’t seem to know who he is. Or, maybe she does but doesn’t care.

R&R Boxing Club 9

She leaves and we all return to what we were doing before she arrived. Everyone, in their own way, waiting for something or someone who may not even exist.

 

 

 

 

The Hope and Doubt of the NFL Draft Explained for Those Who Don’t Know or Care 

Every year in late April, the NFL holds its draft. Over the course of 7 rounds, teams choose college players who they believe will help them win games. An attempt at parity, the NFL structures its draft with the worst teams—based on the previous season’s win-loss record—picking first in each round. So, barring any trades, the worst team picks first, the second-worst picks second, and so forth until the previous season’s Super Bowl champions pick last. The NFL has designed the system to benefit the worst teams. And still, some teams continually pick towards the top of the draft. The Cleveland Browns are one of those teams. And with the NFL Draft hosted by AT&T Stadium, 10 minutes from my house, I thought I’d attend and purposefully look for fans of the Cleveland Browns. 

Even if some sound more convinced than others, everyone here—at the NFL Draft—has an opinion. Players get compared across generations, often with caveats; He reminds me of a Brett Favre, but smaller. There is an inherent optimism to every NFL draft. Months of team speculations and player evaluations translate to hope. That eternal hope that is the only reason many watch. A hope that remains unquestioned until the moment the team you cheer for, makes their selection. At that point, optimism turns towards doubt.

You remember the supposed “can’t miss prospects,” who woefully missed. Maybe, you wonder, we should have taken the other guy—and it’s always we or us, as if we are part of the team. Maybe the guy we drafted is too short. Maybe his low-level of collegiate competition made him appear better than he is. Maybe that knee injury from high school, never fully healed. Maybe his arm is too weak. Maybe he’s too short. Too fat. Too slow. Too dumb. Maybe because he’s all these things, picking him will set us back a decade. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe. These are the mental games of the draft and no fan base feels both its hopes and frustrations like those of the Cleveland Browns.

By any measure, the Browns are the worst team in the NFL. There’s a good argument they are the worse team across all major sport leagues. They didn’t win a single game in the 2017 season and only won once in 2016. In the past 3 seasons, they’ve played 48 games and only won 4. They lost 44 times. You need not be a football or even sports fan to understand the dreadfulness of that ratio.

But now, it’s late April, a few months from the 2018 season and the Browns have yet another chance to improve their team. Within the first 40 minutes of the draft, so long as they pick the right players, the Browns can greatly improve their future and along with it, the lives of their fans—especially if they pick a franchise quarterback.

Fans often talk of a franchise quarterback in mythic terms. They play what’s supposedly the most important and difficult position in all of sports. Ideally, quarterbacks are the leaders, the hub which the entire franchise—even more; a city, a region, a world-wide fan base—revolves around. At the minimum, having a franchise quarterback means that for at least a decade, a team need not worry about filling the most important position in sports. At its best, having a franchise quarterback means teams are perennial Super Bowl contenders.

Because of what’s at stake, teams and their fans can lose themselves trying to find their savior. They’ll convince themselves that a prospect has something special. That this is him. This is the player that will help take away the pain of losing. And if he does, especially in a place like Cleveland, they’ll become immortal. Parents will name children after him. Fans will get a tattoo honoring the savior. The city will give him its keys and proclaim that day as his. If they win, everywhere they go, they’ll draw a crowd of smiling, thankful fans. “Thank you, thank you,” they’ll say, reaching out to shake his hand or at least, touch his shoulder.

But, if it’s not him, and rather than winning, losing continues, fans will shun him. They’ll call him a disappointment and others will freely proclaim their hate.

——————

There are contrasting emotions that come from being a fan. Therefore, even when cheering for the lowly Browns, their fans cling to hope. Of course, not everyone—though they remain a fan—is hopeful. Some, rather than calling themselves pessimists, claim themselves as realists. This is exactly how Nolan Conn described himself.

“I’ll be honest with you, I don’t really think it matters,” Conn answers when asked who he hopes the Browns pick. “Anybody that we pick is going to blow…we have no defined organization, meaning there’s no process in place. Whoever we take, it’s going to be dysfunctional. There’s no answer.”

Conn is 25-years-old and from Cleveland. Within the context of sports, his friend described Conn as “very sad.” Whether he’s a pessimist, realist, or sad, Conn traveled from northeast Ohio to Arlington, Texas—host of this year’s NFL Draft. That’s over 1,200 miles and 18 hours away by car. If flying, it’s close to a 5-hour flight. That’s quite a distance to travel, especially if you think what happens today, matters little. And yet, because he can’t stop caring about the team that’s continuously given him heartache, he’s here—along with many other Browns fans.

If you walk around the draft’s festivities alongside Browns fans, you’ll realize that fans of other teams look at them a little different. Every fan base shouts things at others, especially rivals. Fans of the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles yell and point at each other. Fans of the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers, along with a variety of others, do the same. There are a lot of faceless voices that randomly yell, “fuck the (any of the 32 teams).” Well, expect for the Jacksonville Jaguars. No one seems to care about them enough to hate them. On the other side of the spectrum, seemingly every fan base dislikes the New England Patriots. But of all the friendly and not-so-friendly mocking that occurs in the draft, fans take a perverse joy in saying things to Browns fans.

There’s a mocking tone with which they’ll randomly ask, “Who you taking number 1?” as if they know the answer is trivial and whoever they choose will become a name added to the long list of failed hopes. Some fans of other teams will randomly yell at Browns fans, pointing out how terrible their team is, like they’ve discovered that no one else knows. “Mistake by the lake!” yells a man, unprompted, who was just walking by and saw the brown-colored jerseys. He wore a jersey of the Buffalo Bills; a team who’s largely remembered for playing in 4 straight Super Bowls and losing them all. OJ Simpson played there. This is who mocks the Cleveland Browns.

And yet, others see someone wearing a Browns jersey and they’ll stare with a sympathetic glare. They say nothing but look. It’s the look of, “Damn. You root for the Browns. I feel so sorry for you.”

There are few things like waiting for the first pick of the draft. Some years, the pick is obvious. Other years, like now, there’s no clear consensus. This uncertainty wrecks fans—like those of the Browns—who have the most to gain from the draft. Theoretically, choosing twice in the first 4 picks, can propel the Browns into a winning future. But emotionally, so much heartbreak inevitably makes Browns fans hesitant to believe things will get better soon.

All things considered, Browns fans are among the most loyal in all of sports. Here in north Texas, the Dallas Area Browns Backers (DABB) are a group of over 300 fans who each Sunday during the football season, meet across 5 bars and cheer for their beloved Browns. Ken Hill, a lifelong Browns fan born and raised in Ohio, is DABB’s president. “Always been a fan,” says Hill who wears an orange-colored Cleveland Browns hard hat to match his orange-colored, sleeveless Cleveland Browns shirt. “Grew up hugging a football. From the time I was 12 years old, was going to be a professional player with the Cleveland Browns.”

Unlike Conn, Hill is older—born in 1952—and much more optimistic. He believes the Browns will win 8 games this upcoming season. Considering the past 3 years, this is a remarkable statement. To him, this draft and who the Browns pick, is pivotal. Hill, and everyone, knows they need a quarterback. And yet if they draft a quarterback who they’ve mistakenly identified as their savior, the Browns will not just continue their losing and suffering, but will live with the regret of another wasted draft. This is the impossible riddle that awaits Browns fans.

“I’m really nervous about all the latest rumors today that just came out about Mayfield,” Hill confesses with a genuinely worried look. Baker Mayfield is the quarterback from the University of Oklahoma. Mayfield is brash, maybe arrogant. He is talented, maybe too short. In the days leading up to the draft, there’s a sudden and surprising speculation that the Browns will draft Mayfield with their first pick—essentially tabbing him as their savior. A Cleveland sports-talk radio host is so convinced this is just one of the draft’s many wild rumors that he’s promised to eat horse shit if the Browns pick Mayfield first. This type of conviction does little to calm concerns of fans like Hill.

“I don’t think he’s big enough,” explains Hill of Mayfield who stands 6 feet and 5/8 inches tall and weighs 215 pounds. Leading up to the draft, prospects get prodded and measured. Numbers impact how we view these college players. Hence, besides knowing how fast they are, how high they jump, how strong they are, we know how tall they are and how much they weigh. Other projected top quarterbacks measure 6 foot 3 inches, 221 pounds; 6 foot 5 inches, 237 pounds; and 6 foot 4 inches, 226 pounds. In a game of giants, Mayfield is relatively average. But more than that, it’s a former player whose drawn comparisons to Mayfield that raises concern.

“I don’t need to go through Johnny Manziel number 2,” says Hill. Johnny Manziel was just as brash, maybe arrogant, talented and—just like Mayfield—short. In 2014, the Browns drafted Manziel in the first round. Not even 2 years later, the Browns got rid of Manziel after various problems, including allegations he struck his then-girlfriend and shattered her eardrum. As part of a plea deal, authorities dismissed the charges and Manziel entered rehab and anger management classes. Over 2 seasons with the Browns—and his only seasons in the NFL—Manziel played 15 games. It goes without saying but Manziel was not the Browns’ savior. Many Browns fans don’t think Mayfield will be either. Others, if they draft him, may talk themselves into believing he is.

——————

It’s a pleasant north Texas afternoon with the temperature in the upper 60s. There’s a slight breeze but overall, there’s nothing that would make a liar out of anyone claiming the weather is great. If it wasn’t for the emotions born from anticipating how the draft will take form, it may as well have been a perfect day. But instead, some Browns fans—Nolan Conn included—gather around a large screen set up outside AT&T Stadium telecasting the draft happening inside the stadium. They are surrounded by thousands of fans of other teams. Ken Hill was one of the lucky few who get to watch the draft from inside the stadium. As president of DABB, Hill says the Cleveland Browns organization sent him those tickets. The rest of us, stand outside and watch.

At 7:07, local time, the screen reads “Cleveland Browns On The Clock.” Conn is there with 2 friends. All three, hold blue, aluminum bottled beers and wear Browns-related clothing. Unlike his 2 friends that appear relaxed, Conn is visibly anxious. He continuously shifts his weight from one leg to the other. Conn walks around, pulls his pants up—as if it’s an exercise to burn the excess energy. He interlocks his fingers behind his Browns cap, and waits. Every 30 seconds or so, he’ll look up at the screen to see how much time remains before the Browns make their first pick.

Waiting for the first pick feels slower than the months-long process leading up to the draft; the speculation, the rumors, which teams will trade picks, which team will choose a players higher than expected, and which players—and by extension, the teams that picked them—are most likely to fail.

At 7:15, the screen says, “The Pick Is In.” Finally.

Conn stands with his arms crossed. A minute later commissioner Roger Goodell walks to the podium and all—both inside and outside the stadium and likely many others sitting at home—instinctually boo him. Many see Goodell as a dictator-type of commissioner. The booing stops when he speaks.

“With the first pick in the 2018 NFL Draft,” Goodell says, “the Cleveland Browns select Baker Mayfield, quarterback, Oklahoma.” The crowd—again, both inside and outside the stadium—groans. It sounds like a loud, “OHHHHHH!” Some laugh. No one cheers. Some fans look at each other in disbelief. “The Browns shit the bed again,” someone says loudly. Conn walks away from his friends.

“I think they wasted a pick,” Conn says, not even 2 minutes after the Browns’s first pick of the draft. “I know I said, ‘it didn’t matter’ earlier, but Darnold was the pick.” Sam Darnold, whom Conn thinks was the right choice, went to the New York Jets, 2 picks later. If Darnold becomes great and Mayfield does not, Conn and many others can claim they always knew. If Darnold becomes the Jets’ savior and Mayfield fails, it’ll mark yet another heartbreak for the Browns and their fans. Fans like Conn will grow old and tell their children and grandchildren something like, “I was there, standing outside AT&T Stadium, when the Browns passed on Darnold. It was a cloudy and rainy, horrible day.”

Their children may ask, “Darnold? The greatest quarterback that’s ever existed? The winner of 8 Super Bowls? He could have been on the Browns?”

“Yes, Baker. That Sam Darnold. He could have been one of us. But you know how that goes.”

The best and worst thing about the NFL Draft is that no one knows what will become of these players. Everyone’s opinion seems based on an expert’s assessment. Fans will talk of a player’s size, their strengths and weaknesses, as if they did more than just listen to a podcast, read a column, or watch a television segment in which an expert gave their evaluations. Those same evaluations that fans then, either consciously or not, pass off as their own.

But for all their knowledge, there are times when the experts miss on their evaluations. This is not a criticism but rather a statement that injuries, opportunities, or even getting drafted by a team like the Browns, can alter a player’s potential. Conversely, there may be a team that drafts a player—that no one expects anything from—who could become great. Perhaps even their savior.

Adding to the lack of immediate clarity, it’s also completely within the reason that a team may select a player and their fan base all agree that he was the correct choice, only to find out years later, the pick was entirely wrong. This is the maddening uncertainty of the entire process. But also, because no one knows what will become of each player, it keeps hope alive.

In some odd, round-about way, there are moments when it feels like the Browns fans are better able to understand the absurdity of it all. The NFL Draft is a traveling, fantasy world that sells the future for ignoring the present. Unlike others, the Cleveland Browns’ fan base seems to have their expectations grounded in the simple understanding that the brightest of hopes can turn to the darkest of failures. To lose, often in a gut-wrenching way, forces one to reflect on how much and why they invest in a team doing well. And yet, before we can consider them more enlightened than other fans, they—for a variety of reasons—are also the ones that despite knowing the likelihood that this will not end well, continue cheering for a team that’s continuously and historically, brought them more grief than joy.

 

 

 

The Importance Of Boxing Gyms In Latinx Communities

Originally published on BESE.com


Around 4:30 in the afternoon, they arrive. The youngest about 8, the oldest looks like he’s in his early 20s. Some come alone, straight from school. A few parents drop off their kids while two fathers accompany theirs. Every person who steps into the building—an old converted mechanic shop with lettering of what it once was still visible under a coat of white paint—shakes hands with those already there. It’s a small gesture, but it sets a discipline.

They tie their shoes as those who ran yesterday say so with relief. Those who’ll run today say it with dread, especially since it’s surprisingly cold and rainy for a late April afternoon in the Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas. Some wrap their hands and put on boxing gloves, others reach for the jump rope. A loud, piercing bell signals another 3-minute round. With that bell the young boxers inside Vivero Boxing Gym train, each following a different order of a schedule written in black marker on a plain white sheet of paper that’s taped to the inside of one of the garage doors. Gene Vivero, the gym’s owner, watches.

Vivero bought the building and opened the gym 25 years ago. For 35 years he worked for Dallas Power and Light, beginning as a cable splicer, working inside manholes before retiring as a Field Construction Coordinator. There’s a picture of Vivero as a construction worker, wearing a hard hat and smiling. It’s almost lost among the various other pictures and posters of boxers. A former amateur boxer, Vivero opens the gym 6 times a week including weekends. He picked the Oak Cliff neighborhood largely for its affordability and because as a predominately Latinx area of Dallas—there’s 3 boxing gyms within a 1-mile radius—this is the type of place where boxing thrives.

“[Boxing gyms] kind of helps keep [kids] off the street,” says Vivero. “But personally, I like to tell them…You better find you something to do because this is a tough way to make money…you don’t want to bank on this. Because one injury and you’re out. One knockout and you’re out. I mean, that’s it. It’s over.”

Boxing is indeed a rough way to earn a living. For all those who train in gyms across the country, only a small percentage will turn pro. An even fewer percentage will make a living just from boxing. An even fewer, a small fraction of a percentage, will reach fame, glory, and fortune. And yet, despite the odds, world champions began in Vivero Boxing Gym. At an amateur level, the gym has also produced several national champions and even trained a few Olympians.

Across the United States, especially the southwest, gyms like Vivero’s are largely within Latinx communities. These are real, old school boxing gyms. The type where ring ropes get wrapped in duct tape. Where dried blood and sweat stain mirrors and walls. When it’s hot out, these gyms feel as if they’re boiling. When it’s cold out, the heating system can’t keep them from feeling frozen.

Beyond just teaching boxing, some of these gyms are community centers. They’ll offer tutoring, music, and English classes. Others help the parents of these young boxers study for their citizenship tests. Through it all, boxing remains the hub around which these activities revolve within these communities that get left behind. But, for better or worse, that is changing.

In recent years, like many other once-ignored areas, Oak Cliff has undergone a transformation. “They are building these houses, you know, they are remodeling,” Vivero explains how he’s seen the community slowly change since he’s owned the gym. This change has affected the area’s demographics as more “business people,” as Vivero calls them, move in.

Asked if he worries the increasing property taxes will eventually, like many other gyms, force him to either close or move, Vivero defiantly says, “They can move me out if they pay me enough. I’ll build [a boxing gym] down the street, you know. I mean…that’s the reason I came over here.”

By here, Vivero means Oak Cliff. And Oak Cliff is like many Latinx communities that, today, exists throughout the country. They may get altered and maybe even forced to move elsewhere. If they do, boxing gyms will also make that migration and remain pivotal to the communities. And when they do, people like Vivero will continue teaching the sport.

Unlike any other sport, boxing is more than just the act itself. It’s an outlet for a variety of things—anger, hope, frustration, dreams, etc. And every day Vivero is there, he sits on an old leather barber’s chair, surrounded by filing cabinets that act as lockers, and watches. He’s a strict but caring man. Quiet for minutes at a time as if he is contemplating something, but always watching. Like every gym owner in these neighborhoods, Vivero nows who’s new, who’s coming in, who hasn’t been there in days, who’s gloves belong to who, and who will run that day. 

He sits until, with his authoritative voice, he suddenly breaks his silence. “Don’t cross your feet,” Vivero tells a boy. The boy, about 8, purposefully crosses his feet and says, “What? Like that?”

“Yea,” Vivero answers, “don’t do that.”

Conscious of his footwork, the boy returns to punching the heavy bag, grunting each time. He punches until the bell rings. Sweating and panting, he walks over and drinks from a water fountain that’s likely been there for a quarter-century. Another boy walks in from the rain, shakes hands with Vivero and then with the other boy, and then gets ready to train. Whether it’s in Oak Cliff or another Latinx community across the United States, boxing gyms like Vivero’s, provide a place to do more than just fight.

“There’s no answer”: A Browns Fan’s Agony

IMG_3437A friend of his, described Nolan Conn as “very sad”—at least within this context. But within the first 2 minutes of talking to Conn, he seemed more pessimistic, even apathetic, than sad. “I know, I know, I know, I’ve been dealing with this for a long time,” Conn answers my claim of pessimist. By this, he means being a fan of Cleveland sports. And being a fan—even if a sad, pessimist, or apathetic one—he traveled from Cleveland to Arlington, Texas. This is where I met him and his friends, in the NFL Draft where the Cleveland Browns picked twice within the first four selections—the first and fourth picks.

By any measure, the Browns are the worst team in the NFL. There’s a good argument they are the worse team across all major sport leagues. They didn’t win a single game in the 2017 season and only won once in 2016. In the past 3 seasons, they’ve played 48 games and only won 4. They lost 44 times. You need not be a football or even sports fan to understand the dreadfulness of that ratio.

But now, it’s late April, a few months from the 2018 season and the Browns have yet another chance to improve their team. Within the first 40 minutes of the draft, so long as they pick the right players, the Browns can drastically improve their future and along with it, the lives of their fans—especially if they pick a franchise quarterback.

“I’ll be honest with you, I don’t really think it matters,” Conn answers when asked who he hopes the Browns pick. “Anybody that we pick is going to blow…we have no defined organization, meaning there’s no process in place. Whoever we take, it’s going to be dysfunctional. There’s no answer.”

The NFL Draft has become one of the most popular sporting events precisely because it gives the illusion that, unlike what Conn suggests, there is an answer. Whatever question a team and their fans may have, a potential answer is there. And yet, many supposed right players have turned out wrong. Again, seemingly no other organization has picked more wrong players than the Browns. Maybe it’s bad luck. Or, perhaps Conn is right, it’s an organizational problem.

IMG_3477At 7:07 pm, the large screen set up outside AT&T Stadium telecasting the draft, reads “Cleveland Browns On The Clock.” I’m not even a Browns fan and I can feel the anticipation. I look towards Conn and while his 2 friends look relaxed, he’s anxious. I was wrong about Conn, he’s far from apathetic. He continuously shifts his weight from one leg to the other. Every 30 seconds or so, he’ll look up at the screen to see how much time remains before the Browns make their first pick.

At 7:15, the screen says, “The Pick Is In.” Conn stands with his arms crossed. A minute later that pick is announced. “With the first pick in the 2018 NFL Draft,” commissioner Roger Goodell says, “the Cleveland Browns select Baker Mayfield, quarterback, Oklahoma.” The crowd groans. It sounds like a loud, “OHHHHHH!” Some laugh. No one cheers. Some fans look at each other in disbelief. “The Browns shit the bed again,” someone says loudly. Conn walks away from his friends.

Maybe I should have left him alone, with his thoughts. But I didn’t and instead I asked him about those thoughts. “I think they wasted a pick,” he answered bluntly. “I know I said, ‘it didn’t matter’ earlier, but Darnold was the pick.” Sam Darnold, whom Conn thinks was the right choice, went to the New York Jets, 2 picks later. If Darnold becomes great and Mayfield does not, Conn and many others can say they always knew.

At 7:34, the screen says again, “The Pick is In.” Since Conn mentioned there were no answers and whoever they chose would fail, I don’t know what reaction to expect. I don’t know if there’s a player that would make him smile or nod in approval. I’m not sure he knows either. Still, he remains anxious. He walks around, pulls his pants up—as if it’s an exercise to burn the excess energy. He interlocks his fingers behind his Browns cap, and waits for the commissioner to announce the Browns’s 4th pick.

“With the fourth pick in the 2018 NFL draft,” Goodell says, “the Cleveland Browns select Denzel Ward, defensive back, Ohio State.” The crowd, again, groans. Conn, eyes wide, smiles but not of satisfaction. He motions to his friends—a thumb point behind him and raised by his jaw—it’s time to go. Sensing his frustration, they don’t disagree. I move towards them. “Before you go, Denzel Ward?” I ask. Knowing what I meant by my poorly phrased question, only Conn answered. “That’s crazy,” he says while rapidly walking away.