MEXICO CITY — The rapid staccato of boxing gloves smashing against leather speed bags resounded in the Romanza Gym, a facility that's down at the heels and redolent of sweat but that enjoys an outsized legacy as a "cradle of champions."
On a recent afternoon, an aficionado who'd slipped into the gym could hardly wipe the grin off his face: There was Juan Manuel "Dynamite" Marquez — one of Mexico's most admired boxers — sparring, his fists exploding.
"Soccer and boxing: These are the two favorite sports of Mexicans," said Eudaldo Naranjo, a carpenter who'd just wandered into the tiny gym in a gritty Mexico City neighborhood.
Boxing has faded in the United States, eclipsed by extreme ultimate fighting, hurt by a lack of homegrown heavyweight stars and banished to small audiences on television pay-per-view. But south of the border, the sport remains hugely popular, aired almost every Saturday evening on national television. Bouts draw steady ratings, and top boxers claim masses of followers.
Mexicans have reason to take pride. As a nation, Mexico punches far above its weight. Only the United States, a nation nearly three times more populous, has produced more world titleholders.
"The Mexican public carries boxing in its heart," said Jose Sulaiman, a trainer, promoter and the longtime president of the World Boxing Council, one of the four international associations that oversee professional boxing.
"We have more than 100 world champion boxers in our history. ... People say, 'Boxing is what brings us glory, so let's support boxing,' " Sulaiman said.
Soccer may be Mexico's national sport, but boxing speaks to the never-give-up inner grit and warrior spirit that Mexicans say date to Aztec times.
For better or worse, Antonio Margarito, a lanky super welterweight, brought those qualities to the fore in November when he squared off with Filipino slugger Manny Pacquiao, the world's top boxer and one of its highest-paid athletes. The fight left Margarito's face lacerated; only later would he discover a career-threatening fracture to the orbital bone around his right eye.
Asked afterward why he carried on even as Pacquiao's blows left him nearly disfigured, Margarito responded: "We Mexicans fight to the finish."
"That's what differentiates Mexican boxers from other nationalities: their sheer grit, their sheer determination," said James Blears, an Englishman who's worked for two decades as a sports and news reporter in Mexico.
"Mexican boxers come to fight. They don't come to put on an exhibition of the noble art of boxing — hit and don't be hit. They weigh in and they start throwing punches from beginning to end," said Blears, a former amateur boxer himself.
Many Mexicans can easily recount the feats of their greatest boxers, such as Julio Cesar Chavez, the welterweight from Sonora who went undefeated in his first 90 fights. Carlos Zarate, Kid Azteca and Vicente Saldivar were all savage punchers. While the Mexican-American Oscar de la Hoya was born in East Los Angeles, Mexicans claim the retired "Golden Boy" as one of their own.
The Romanza gym is tucked on the second floor of a two-story building in the Iztacalco neighborhood. During the day, temperatures climb to sauna-like levels in the three-room facility.
The gym's proprietor is Ignacio Beristain, 71, a legend himself for the technical prowess of his stable of boxers. On June 12, he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, N.Y., alongside a weepy Mike Tyson and a wisecracking Sylvester Stallone.
Beristain built his reputation as a remarkable trainer partly on the backs of his work with Daniel Zaragoza, his first world champion, and Gilberto Roman, who went on to win the super flyweight world title. The combination of their names is what gives the gym its name.
"Twenty-two world champions have come out of this gym," Beristain said with a matter-of-fact tone. "That's why they put me in the hall of fame. No other gym in the boxing world has had so many champions. At least, that is what I am told."
Blears called Beristain "a genius. He gets the best out of his fighters."
Sweat, perseverance and a desire to climb out of poverty are on display, as one might expect. A few retired fighters evince an air of sadness, and their stories of fortunes earned and squandered also don't surprise. But given the fury and violence of the sparring, one quality outside the ring does seem surprising: The young boxers are invariably courteous and deferential, particularly to Beristain.
"It's my dream to box in Caesars Palace in Las Vegas," said a slight but chiseled 125-pound featherweight, Nery Antonio Saguilan Vargas, who sported a Mohawk of curly black hair. His record is 28 wins and one loss, and he awaits a larger payday at any moment.
Saguilan Vargas, dripping wet from a sparring session, patiently answered a foreigner's questions, then asked, "Will that be all, sir?"
Slighter yet was Edgar Garcia Lozano, an 18-year-old bantamweight who spends four hours a day on a bus traveling to the gym from his home in Toluca, outside Mexico City. His career choice doesn't thrill his parents.
"They support me, but they are afraid, because the sport is so tough. You can damage your retinas," Garcia said, pointing to his eyes.
On another day, Juan Manuel Marquez entered, and a frisson traveled around the gym. Marquez has won world championship titles at featherweight, super featherweight and lightweight, and he'll appear at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas on Nov. 12 for a return bout with Pacquiao, his nemesis. His guaranteed purse is $5 million, while Pacquiao will get $20 million.
It may be the last fight left in Marquez, who at age 37 is finding that his reflexes have slowed. But the history between the two puts a dash of picante in their third bout.
In 2004, Pacquiao sent Marquez to the canvas three times in the first round of their featherweight championship fight, but Marquez fought back to claim a draw that supporters say he actually won. Four years later, they met for a junior lightweight championship, and Pacquiao won on a controversial split decision.
"He knows that he's never really beaten me," Marquez said as a trainer prepared to tape his fists.
Unlike many other fighters, Marquez has qualifications outside the ring. The son of two government workers, Marquez became an accountant before he quit to become a full-time boxer in 1999.
"My family comes from lower middle class or even below that. ... We were eight brothers. Imagine what it is like to buy toys for eight kids, and on a government salary," he said.
Despite his fame, Marquez stays away from ostentatious displays of wealth and remains a stay-at-home family man to his wife, Erika, two sons, ages 13 and 6, and a daughter, age 4.
"The money is too hard to earn to waste," he said.
He allowed a photographer to snap away behind him in the ring during a sparring session, putting his strong left uppercut and a powerful right jab on display. The slapping of his gloves against his trainer's pads boomed around the gym.
While training on the speed ball, Marquez delivered one wallop that deflated the bag.
Even as he's capable of delivering and receiving tactical violence, Marquez shows neither rage nor fury. Before each bout, Marquez said, he feels only respect for his opponent "and nerves about what can happen. But I believe the nerves go away with the bell of each round."
A less-experienced boxer, 23-year-old Gilberto Gonzalez Garcia, looked on as Marquez trained. Gonzalez said he'd fought bouts in Japan and China, and he thought that the encouragement of fellow Mexicans toward their boxers is a driving force toward victory.
"You feel that support from the whole country. It motivates you. It helps you come out ahead," he said.
And for Mexican boxers, yes, that will be all, sir.
4 MAJOR ASSOCIATIONS GOVERN BOXING:
World Boxing Association — The oldest of the major groups, the WBA has roots back to the 1920s in the U.S. but took its current name in 1962. Latin Americans have led the WBA since 1974. Its headquarters are in Panama.
World Boxing Council — Established in 1963 by the United States and 10 other countries. It has its headquarters in Mexico City. It now comprises 161 countries.
International Boxing Federation — Once a U.S. boxing group, the IBF took shape in 1984 to give up-and-coming boxers an international platform. Its headquarters are in New Jersey.
World Boxing Organization — The smallest of the sanctioning bodies. Puerto Rican and Dominican businessmen started the WBO in 1988 after disagreeing with policies of the WBA. Its headquarters are in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
CURRENT MEXICAN CHAMPS OF MAJOR ASSOCIATIONS:
World Boxing Council:
Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. (middleweight)
Saul "Canelo" Alvarez (super welterweight)
Humberto Soto (lightweight)
Jhonny Gonzalez (featherweight)
World Boxing Association:
Juan Manuel Marquez (lightweight)
Jorge Solis (super featherweight)
Hugo Cazares (super flyweight)
Giovanni Segura (light flyweight)
World Boxing Organization:
Juan Manuel Marquez (lightweight)
Orlando Salido (featherweight)
Jorge Arce (junior featherweight)
Julio Cesar Miranda (flyweight)
Ramon Garcia (junior flyweight)
Raul Garcia (mini flyweight)
International Boxing Federation:
Miguel Vazquez (lightweight)
Cristian Mijares (junior bantamweight)
BOXING'S WEIGHT CLASSES:
In an effort to match opponents fairly, boxing classifies fighters by their weight, a recognition that the heavier the fighter, the more momentum behind a punch and the greater a fighter's ability to withstand a hit. These are boxing's weight classes. A fighter may fight above his weight class, but not below it.
Mini flyweight or straw-weight: up to 105 lbs
Junior or light flyweight: 105 lbs to 108 lbs
Flyweight: to 112 lbs
Super flyweight or junior bantamweight: to 115 lbs
Bantamweight: to 118 lbs
Super bantamweight or junior featherweight: to 122 lbs
Featherweight: to 126 lbs
Super featherweight or junior lightweight: to 130 lbs
Lightweight: to 135 lbs
Super lightweight, junior welterweight or light welterweight: to 140 lbs
Welterweight: to 147 lbs
Super welterweight, junior middleweight or light middleweight: to 154 lbs
Middleweight: to 160 lbs
Super middleweight: to 168 lbs
Light heavyweight: to 175 lbs
Cruiserweight or junior heavyweight: more than 175 lbs to 200 lbs
Heavyweight: more than 200 lbs
VIDEO ON MCCLATCHY
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
McClatchy Newspapers 2011