Two hours before the fights begin, the boxing ring is a clean canvas framed by loose ropes and illuminated from above by stars of blue neon. Surrounding the ring, the wooden floor at the Palisades Garden roller rink in North Park is covered in a gridlock of 1000 folding chairs, all of them empty. Distant ventilators puff weakly in their losing struggle with the listless air. Off to one side, in a dingy alcove where skaters usually exchange their shoes for skates, two Mexican fighters doze on benches along the wall. They weighed in hours ago, but since they had to cross the border from Tijuana illegally, they cannot return home to rest before the fight. Beside them the video game “Missile Command "portrays a tired, silent sequence of blast-offs and explosions. In a small office off the alcove, fight promoter Frank Carillo and state athletic inspector George Johnsen go over last-minute paperwork, Carillo signing checks for tonights purses, the highest being $600, most of them in the $200 range. They glance up when fight organizer and matchmaker Eric Bonilla strides in, looking sharp in his red silk shirt, black slacks, black cummerbund, and black, pointy-toed shoes. His jet-black hair rises stiffly above his hard, Puerto Rican face, annealed by thirty-seven professional fights. His nose is a tangle of flesh spreading in several directions, his eyebrows are creased by old cuts, his eyes look like two overripe olives, and his chin is shaded by a stiletto goatee. He stops long enough to say he's here, then is out the door and working on dozens of final details in preparation for the fight.
It is early September, and Bonilla has been working steadily on this fight since July. Carillo, the promoter, wants to hold regular professional bouts every month, and he left it up to Bonilla to organize this first one, from matchmaking to selling tickets to arranging publicity to posting fliers, hundreds of small tasks that the twenty-seven-year-old ex-fighter boasts are his way of “taking over boxing in San Diego.” You get used to hearing such bluster in the fight game, particularly in San Diego, where boxing has been struggling since long before its ancestral home, the downtown Coliseum, became a furniture warehouse in December of 1979. But behind Bonilla's bombast is the premise that there’s a vacuum in local boxing that is waiting to be filled, and a place in the local sporting scene for regular boxing matches. “And I’ll be the promoter, trainer, everything,” says Bonilla in his chuckling, street-jive-serious way. “The only thing I don't have is the most important thing — the money.” Bonilla’s brash confidence has an ingratiating quality to it, but while many local fight men express affection and respect for him, he hasn't fooled anybody. “Eric has three strikes against him,” explains Bill “Murf” Murphy, a local trainer and gym owner. “He doesn’t have any money, and that represents all three strikes in this game.”
Two days before fight night, which Bonilla has billed as “San Diego versus Tijuana” because each of the six bouts matches fighters living in the U.S. against those living below the border, Frank Carillo asked Bonilla to meet him for early-moming coffee at a Bob’s Big Boy in Chula Vista. Bonilla has arrived early and is nervous. Since approaching him to assemble the fight, the forty-year-old Carillo has stayed out of it, tending to his business affairs, which include a string of dental offices in Salinas, Santa Maria, and Calexico. (Carillo lives in Alpine.) “I’m smart, see,” Bonilla is saying as he sips orange juice and glances nervously at the front door of the restaurant, looking for Carillo, “but I’m playing chess with people I shouldn’t be playing chess with. In boxing I can do it, I can do it in the ring. I’m good at it, but in business I’m still learning.” Bonilla leaps to his feet when Carillo arrives, and escorts the nattily dressed promoter to the booth. Carillo wears a gold necklace and bracelet under his open-necked shirt. His trim mustache frames a patient, intelligent mouth. He's come to inquire about certain details, especially advance ticket sales. Bonilla does not have good news, but he slides around the issue like a boxer slipping a boomer to the belly. “I haven’t checked with Joe Lopez [owner of the Fifth Avenue Boxing Club), or Mike Randle (one of the boxers on the card who is selling tickets], or Carmen,” Bonilla says, referring to some of his ticket outlets, “but it’ll be okay, man, we’ll do okay, we got a good card.’’ Carillo impresses on Bonilla how important it is to get a full accounting of all outstanding tickets before the day of the fight. “Any outstanding tickets are considered sold by the athletic commission,” Carillo says, “and we gotta pay taxes on them.” (The state charges a five percent sales tax on boxing tickets.) The subject shifts to the state licenses that all the boxers are required to have, and Bonilla shows him a packet of licenses he’s taking up to the athletic commission in Los Angeles the next day for renewal. Carillo’s face flushes with anger. “Next time, no license, no fight,” he says, holding his voice down. “That takes a lot of your time, you know; you can’t be worrying about those things. That’s a manager’s responsibility, that’s why they get one-third of the purse.” Bonilla nods his head, mumbling something about how much he likes Joe Lopez, in whose gym most of the American fighters are training. “The thing about Eric,” Carillo comments to a reporter sitting at the table, “is that he doesn’t think like a promoter, he thinks like a fighter. He’s very considerate of fighters, he identifies with them, but maybe that’s just what San Diego needs right now.”
Frank Carillo with Eric Bonilla
Carillo is a businessman who used to be an amateur fighter. He has recently promoted six fights up north, three in Watsonville and three in Santa Maria, and he has come to San Diego to put on some local fights in an effort to develop good fighters whom he would support with promotion contracts. He has fronted about $7000 for this fight, and he doesn’t expect to make money on it, but he would like to break even. “It stops being a hobby when you lose money, I guess,” he laughs. Carillo has promotion contracts, the rights to organize fights, with several fighters, including Mexican featherweight Rocky Alonzo, super flyweight Gilberto Roman, and lightweight Geraldo “Dracula” Dervez (who enters the ring in a black cape). He also has a contractual piece of Reuben Castillo, his nephew, who is considered a contender for the world junior lightweight title. Carillo says candidly that no promoter can earn enough money organizing small fights to make it worth the trouble; what he’s doing is providing a way for fighters to develop and to prove themselves, so that he might take them on and promote them up through the higher rankings. “The only guys who are really making money as promoters are Don King, Bob Arum, and Lou Duva,” says CariRo. “Until you hit the big time like them, you’re gonna be in the red.” And what makes Carillo think he can eventually compete with them? “Ninety percent of the guys in boxing aren’t very smart,” he says. “I’ve met King and Arum, and those guys are dumber than I am. If I can make it in my business — I’m not a dentist, I didn’t graduate from high school, and I’m a minority — then I can make it in theirs.”
Carillo, like others in the local fight game, sees a lot of potential in San Diego if fights are mounted consistently. The biggest problem here is an arena. Promoters have held fights in several local roller rinks and at the Lakeside Rodeo Grounds, but they say the optimum place would be the Sports Arena. However, they all claim the Sports Arena is impossible to deal with because manager Peter Graham asks for $3500 in rent, and also wants all the parking and concession revenues. This means that at least 3000 fans, a relatively enormous number, would have to attend in order for the promoter to break even. “The Sports Arena would be perfect, but nobody can work with Graham,” says state boxing inspector George Johnsen. “One night his ushers almost threw me out.” Cabrillo says local fans can still get back into the habit of attending boxing matches if the bouts are held regularly at the same place. He’s planning another fight at Palisades Garden on October 11, with some better-known fighters. Rocky Alonzo will be fighting then, and over coffee at the Bob's Big Boy, Carillo and Bonilla discuss the possibility of luring some other reputable fighters from Mexico. Felipe Urquiza would be one. He was rated number four in Mexico at one time, had a 33-0 record, but has lost a few fights recently. Still, he’d be a draw for the Tijuana fight fan. Another would be Marcus Geraldo, a middleweight who has fought Thomas Hearns, Marvin Hagler, and Roberto Duran. Carillo says Geraldo would be asking for a $15,000 purse. “But if he knows he’s going to win, he’ll take a couple, three thousand dollars,’’ Carillo comments, “but then what are we giving the fans?’’
Bonilla and Carillo agree to talk late Wednesday night (the fight is on Thursday), and on the way out of the restaurant Carillo mentions a television interview about the fight that was conducted the night before in Tijuana. Bonilla is surprised to learn of it. “I didn’t want you to do it because of your Puerto Rican accent,’’ Carillo says, a little embarrassed, and Bonilla graciously agrees. “Sometimes they laugh at me down there,” he chuckles as he opens the trunk of his dilapidated Pontiac Grand Ville and pulls $500 cash out of a box filled with fight tickets. He counts out the money for Carillo, representing about twenty-five tickets Bonilla has sold, and after telling the promoter he’s off to distribute fliers, the two part ways, Carillo to his charcoal Mercedes, Bonilla to his rattletrap.
Eric Bonilla, pt. 2
“Frank’s nice,” says Bonilla as he starts the eight-cylinder engine, “but a businessman to the teeth.” The car’s hood floats about three inches above the body it’s wired to, threatening to flip backward over the windshield as Bonilla heads down the freeway toward the National Steel and Ship Building Company (NASSCO). “A lotta Chicanos work there and they’re revolutionary, man, they’ve built on violence,” Bonilla explains. “Just like this country, it was built on violence . ” He gives a staccato laugh at his mock profundity. Bonilla’s own life has been built around violence. A Puerto Rican raised in the Bronx, he was a young punk who eventually became vice president of a street gang known as the Savage Skulls. “I challenged to fight the president of the Black Spades when I was fifteen,” boasts Bonilla, “and I got real famous. He wouldn’t do it.” His family sent him back to Puerto Rico when he was in the eleventh grade, but his trouble-making continued, and he ended up joining the Navy to avoid a jail term. He was assigned to the USS Ogden in San Diego, and was recruited for the ship’s boxing team. After he was discharged in 1976, he started boxing professionally almost immediately. When he quit in the spring of 1982 (because of a detached retina), his record was 19-12-5, “and I was just starting to get into the big money.” He got $5000 once for fighting in Caracas, Venezuela. He’s still paying for the operation on his eye.
After he quit fighting, Bonilla entered City College and faced two avenues for making a living: selling drugs or staying in boxing. He chose drugs. “But it got to the point where I started having to hurt people, and I’ve got a good heart. I couldn’t do it. If I’m gonna make it, man. I’m gonna make it legal.” But while boxing may be legal, it’s not exactly sanitary. “It’s the most cutthroat business in the world, man, ” Bonilla says as he parks his car on the street near NASSCO. “Figure it out — who in their right mind would want to get hit in the head? It’s convicts, ghetto kids — trash, you know. They kill motherfuckers in this business.” He laughs unjoyously. “But I love it. It’s my life.”
Palisades Garden roller rink
This is not his day. After about ten minutes of slipping fight fliers under windshield wipers, Bonilla is stopped by two NASSCO security guards and told he doesn't have company permission and must remove each flier. Chagrined, he picks up most of the announcements, and after jiving with the guards and getting their tentative assurances that they’ll attend his fight, he turns to step across the San Diego Trolley tracks. Bonilla doesn’t see the fast-closing trolley, and only a yell from the guards freezes him in a half step before the speeding red hulk, its horn honking, obliterates the ex-boxer. “I'm serious man,” he chuckles, climbing back into his car, “this ain't my day.”
At the General Dynamics plant on Pacific Highway, Bonilla decides to ask permission before he distributes fight fliers on parked cars in the company lot, and the reply is swift: no. Frustrated, he guides the big Pontiac south, toward Tijuana, where he needs to make arrangements for picking up the Mexican boxers in San Ysidro the morning of the fight (all but two of the Mexicans have passports; the other two sneaked across the border four days before the fight, and have been sleeping at the Fifth Avenue Boxing Club), and he has to talk to Cheto Torres, owner of a popular Tijuana boxing gym and manager for one of the Mexican fighters on the card in the upcoming bouts.
Bonilla has worked primarily as a matchmaker for local fights, and he’s proud of his skills in pitting fighters against each other. At this level, matchmaking is a delicate art. Most young fighters who show promise are snapped up by managers or advisers who know what their fighter needs in order for the two of them to hit the big money: a string of undefeated fights, preferably w ith a lot of knockouts. The small-time matchmaker’s job is where the interests of the boxing entrepreneur and the fight fan diverge, and this is one of the reasons boxing has declined here. So many local fights, including those of the world-ranked James “ the Heat” Kinchen (33-0-1) and “Sweet” Irving Mitchell (26-1), have been such obvious one-sided setups that the fight fan has begun to wonder if he can justify paying ten or fifteen dollars to endure them. In this “San Diego versus Tijuana” card, Bonilla says he thinks each fight is turned about “60-40” toward the American boxers. He admits to wanting to help build up Martin Morado, who is fighting Pedro Magana in the main event (Frank Carillo is interested in eventually backing Morado), and though it isn’t exactly stated openly, everyone around Joe Lopez’s Fifth Avenue Boxing Club, where the Americans are training, knows that most of the other Mexican opponents are “fish,” destined to have their bones picked clean.
Bonilla’s luck remains sour. Five minutes after crossing the border, his car’s left front tire blows out, and the Pontiac limps to a stop on the road along the river. An inspection of the tire reveals it to be a treadless patch-work, smooth between sections where the rubber has given way to the nylon belts. “Man, I don’t let nothin’ get me down,” Bonilla sighs as he pulls his spare out of the trunk.
After lunch at Camitas Uruapan, Bonilla buys a used tire for seven dollars at a shop on Agua Calientes Boulevard, across from the two new skyscrapers, and moments after he pulls back out onto the street a policeman signals with his flashing lights in Bonilla's rearview mirror. The car’s California registration has expired, according to the sticker on the license plate, and the cop wants to cart Bonilla to the jailhouse. “This is all I need, man,” he says as he reaches into the back seat to grab a fight flier. He shows the cop the handout and explains what he’s doing in Tijuana, and he invites the officer to the fight. The terse reply in Spanish is, “I’m not a boxing fan. This is a fifty-dollar fine.’ ’ After fifteen minutes of haggling, Bonilla extracts five dollars from his wallet and hands it over, and then he’s on his way. “And I could use that money, too, man,” he says, driving toward the Zona Norte. “If you ask me, I think we just oughta get outta here!” Luckily, the cop didn’t look at the envelope on the dashboard from the DMV, the one that says Bonilla’s driving privileges have been suspended because of too many traffic tickets.
Cheto’s Boxing Club is on the fringe of the Zona Norte, in Plaza Santa Cecilia at Avenida Revolucion and First Street. At the far end of the gym, away from the open doorway on the plaza, is the boxing ring. In front of the ring are three “heavy bags,” the big punching bags on which fighters practice body punches. There are also a couple of speed bags, and two “double-ends,” small punching bags connected by taut cables to the floor and ceiling, used to develop balance. Large mirrors on either side of the room reflect an eternity of boxers in the middle — young contenders, addle-brained palookas, eager children, hopeless fat boys. A hall of dreams.
Rogelio Juárez, Rafael Espinoza
Cheto Torres greets his old friend Bonilla, and the two discuss details of the upcoming fight. Cheto has just one fighter going up, Rogelio Juarez, who was scheduled in the standby bout but who is definitely fighting, since one of the Americans on the card has withdrawn because of a hernia. Juarez’s opponent will be Rafael Espinoza who, like Juarez, is a young, charismatic, talented boxer from Mexico. Torres tries to talk Bonilla out of the matchup with Espinoza. ‘ ‘Cheto wants a fish,” Bonilla explains on the way back to his car. “I told him, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah,’ but I want a good fight.” Some of the American boxers have also pressured Bonilla for easy opponents. “They all want to hear, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah,’ but you have to have some good fights.” The pull of opposing forces shows on his contorted face.
Rogelio Juárez, Rafael Espinoza, pt. 2
Racing toward the border, Bonilla is saying, “Man, I gotta get outta here before something else happens.” The wait at customs looks short as the Pontiac rattles past the border vendors, and Bonilla lets out a short victory whoop. But it’s premature. Before he’s even up to the border gate, the ride gets choppy; incredibly, he has another flat, this one in the rear. “The struggle continues,” he says dejectedly as he pulls up beside the secondary search area, trying to laugh at his plight. “I’m serious, man. I’m serious. This is not my day.”
Since the mid-1970s, boxing has not enjoyed many good days in San Diego. Old-timers say this used to be one of the best fight towns in the country, featuring regular Friday-night bouts in the Coliseum at Fifteenth and E streets downtown. They say that in those days, the Forties, Fifties, and Sixties, it was local boxers who brought in the fans, partly because of the elaborate system whereby a talented novice could move up the ladder toward fighting in the main event. Through a series of preliminary fights, each one a little more prestigious than the one below it, local boxers would develop a following, and fight fans would come to watch their favorites progress toward shots at the world titles. Local boxing legend is peppered with such heroes, men like Lee Ramage, who lost a close one to Joe Louis for the heavyweight championship; Johnnie “the Bandit’* Romero, who was the state champion welterweight for a time; Dick Ramies; Mike Payan; Chick Musgrove; the Hogue twins; and of course Archie Moore. “These kids were hungrier then,” contends Jimmy Torrescano, who worked as a comer man at the Coliseum and remains an insatiable fight fan. Torrescano was sitting in the alcove of Palisades Garden, waiting for the San Diego versus Tijuana fights to begin. ‘The fans used to be lined up around the block for some of them, like Dick Ramies, who had eight fights in nine weeks, and none of them went past three rounds. He hit a guy and you headed for the door — the guy wasn’t going to get up.” Torrescano worked the corner for men named Gorilla Jones and Turkey Thompson, and he was there for the Coliseum’s last fight in December, 1979, between Spud Murphy and Dave Madrid. Since then he’s seen fights at the Fox Theatre, the California Theatre, the Community Concourse, and various other unsuitable venues. “The problem now is there’s no place to fight, and the training facilities are bad. They used to train right there at the Coliseum, guys had their own lockers and everything. And now, just when it looks like boxing’s gonna take off again, the bottom falls out. Every time.”
The last promoter to book a fight in North Park’s Palisades Garden was a cab driver who had little money. It was in November 1983, and it rained the night of the fight and only about one hundred people attended. But now there are some serious promoters who have some money, men like Mike Altingerof Golden Star Promotions, who is trying to establish city boxing championships, and Frank Carillo, the new boy in town. Joe Bradley of Chula Vista is also fairly new here and he’s in the process of reacquiring his promoter’s license from the state. He’s promoted and managed in northern California, but fell on hard times when one of his top boxers was sent to jail and another turned up dead in the Sacramento River. “The talent’s here,” says Bradley, who works in the family real estate business. “You’ve got world-rated [James] Kinchen and [Irving] Mitchell, and the best thing going now is this kid David Gutierrez, who went to the Olympic boxing trials. Altinger, Wambold, us, Carillo, we’ll all be going after him to set up fights. ” Gutierrez, who lost to Mark Breland in the final rounds of the Olympic “box-offs,” lives in Chula Vista and attends UCSD. He has decided to turn pro, and is looking for his first bout. “Gutierrez would be a big draw to the Hispanics here in Chula Vista,” says Bradley.
This question of “draw” is central to the plight of local boxing. The blood sport has suffered image problems in recent years, due to a combination of ring deaths, serious injuries, and other major blows. Certainly Howard Cosell’s much-publicized renunciation of the professional version of the sport was a major setback; and Muhammad Ali's metamorphosis from a quick-witted polemicist to a slurry dullard is a sad reminder of the debt that all boxers, even great champions, must pay. But boxing’s decline here is due to more than just this perception of its brutality.
Though no one likes to state it openly, it is widely understood that the drop in attendance at the Coliseum coincided with the passing of good white boxers and the dominance of excellent black boxers. Promoters say privately that white fans don’t attach themselves to local black boxing heroes, and that blacks as a group would rather watch fights on television than attend them in person. The recent ascendancy of Hispanic boxers has been good news for the promoters, who point out that the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles consistently sells out its boxing matches because they most often feature young Mexicans pitted against each other and against South Koreans and Europeans. Boxing is the closest thing Mexico has to a national pastime. Promoters who see San Diego as a potentially good fight town have one eye cast below the border.
Promoters also want to expand their market into the ranks of middle-class families. “We want our fights to be a place where a man is willing to bring his wife or girlfriend, or his kids,” says Frank Carillo. He and others in the business sense that the makeup of the fight crowd is swelling to include people other than bloodthirsty riffraff, blue-collar brutes, and the relatives of one-time contenders. “More sophisticated people are interested in boxing now, ’’ Carillo contends, ‘ ‘but the only way to keep them interested is to give them good fights, on a regular basis. ” Another factor in the local wooziness of the sport is the sea change that has occurred in the amateur boxing programs. Wes Wambold, who now manages James Kinchen and Irving Mitchell, the two top-rated local professional fighters, was a coach for amateur boxers here in the 1960s, the glory days. “I think there was more talent here in the Sixties,” says Wambold, “because the amateur program was much better.” Wambold claims that the two best amateur boxing teams in the country—those of the Navy and the Marines—were right here. “It used to be that every ship, every base all over the world had its own boxing team,” he explains. “And the Navy districts held championships in four different regions, then the two coasts would fight, and then you’d have an all-Navy championship.” Many of these champions would then advance to the Olympics. “Now, all the good fighters in the Navy are taken to Norfolk, Virginia, and put on one team. You don’t develop talent that way.” Wambold, like most other boxing men, decries the lack of good boxing trainers everywhere, not just in San Diego. Good trainers are so rare that the loss of even one, such as Junior Robles, of National City, continues to reverberate for years. Robles, a former amateur champion, worked out of a gym at Eighth and Palm in National City, and was renowned for helping stray kids distinguish themselves as amateur boxers. His skills were respected throughout the nation, and he was chosen to be a coach for the United States Boxing Team, with whom he died in a plane crash on March 14, 1980, on the way to a boxing match with Poland. Devotees of the sport say his death, and that of the team members, dealt a devastating blow to amateur boxing everywhere, but particularly to San Diego. It’s taken almost five years, but the man who became head coach at the Eighth Avenue gym, Rudy Elias, has finally been able to reestablish an effective amateur program, and is holding regular tournaments again.
Though Wes Wambold says, “There just isn’t that much boxing here in San Diego,” others in the business clainrthe reverse is true. “What Wes really means,” counters Bill “Murf” Murphy, “is that nobody’s paying any attention to Wes Wambold.” Murphy and his wife Bet, along with their son Spud (who is working on a comeback as a fighter), recently opened a new boxing gym at Eleventh and Broadway downtown, next to a pool hall. Murphy acknowledges that between 1979 and 1982, boxing did fall off sharply here, but over the last couple of years it has started to pick up again. He moved here in 1976 from Colorado, where he was a chief organizer of amateur boxing, and fora while he ran the Boxing Club of America on Fairmont Avenue in Southeast San Diego. “San Diego could be big,” says Murphy. “There's more fighters here than you see in the gyms. A lot train privately, in their homes. There’s some good promoters working now, but the thing about San Diego is there’s no opportunity for amateur fights.” About fifteen fighters train at Murphy’s gym now, and he expects more to find their way to him as word spreads of the roomy facilities he offers.
The other main gym downtown is the Fifth Avenue Boxing Club, owned by Joe Lopez. It’s a converted saloon whose cramped quarters are plastered with yellowing fight posters and brown newspaper clips. Twenty-three professional fighters work out in Lopez’s gym, and about half are under managerial contract to him. At one time he had Eric Bonilla under contract. When Frank Carillo came to town looking to stage a fight, he contacted Lopez, who suggested that Bonilla would be a good organizer. “There are more fighters here than there ever have been before,” says Lopez, sitting in his grimy office and drawing deeply on a cigarette. “Television is looser now, like ESPN, they do a lotta boxing, and the Olympics, and now the big money, it’s all brought a lotta guys in here.” The sounds of men hitting the speed bag and skipping rope and sparring mingle with the stench of old sweat and rancid towels, and it all wafts into the sweltering office. “It’s a different era now,” he continues. “There’s a lotta material; everybody has material, that’s the main thing, and there are about five gyms operating now.” Lopez says that many local fights in the past have been blatantly one-sided affairs, and that some of James Kinchen’s fights turned people off for that reason, but that now things will be different because of the increasing number of talented boxers. Even so, through the haze of cigarette smoke and the thudding of fists, something Bill Murphy said rings more true: “A lotta people in this business, they not only connive, they dream. And when something doesn't work out, they dream their way around it.”
A boxer gets KO'ed
It’s 7:40 on the night of the fight, and boxing inspector George Johnsen is saying to Eric Bonilla, “Where’s the doctor? He’s supposed to be here at 6:45 to check all the fighters. This is a big problem, Eric. We can’t start the fight without the doctor.” The same doctor was also late for the weigh-in earlier in the day, and Bonilla is disgusted. “That’s what I get for not doing it myself, man. I asked Joe Lopez to get the doctor, and look what happens.” Bonilla grabs the telephone in the small skating rink office and furiously dials the doctor’s home number. The slow recording on the doctor’s answering machine makes him madder, and then he tells the machine, “Hey, man, you’re the fight doctor, man, you’re supposed to be down here. What’s the problem?” He drops the receiver and bustles out to deal with fight fans who want to get in free because they claim he’s their friend.
Bonilla had dreamed of a $15,000 gate (he is to receive one-third of any profits), but as the clock edges toward eight it’s obvious that the turnout is low. By the time the doctor arrives, smiling a bemused smile as Bonilla chews him out (“They were gonna fine me $300 because you’re late, man!”), only about 300 seats are taken, at prices ranging from ten to twenty dollars apiece, and the gate receipts are a paltry $3175. It’s a patient crowd, evidently accustomed to the vagaries of small-time professional boxing, for there is no catcalling and foot-stomping as the time advances well past eight o'clock. The holdup is due partly to Bonilla’s mistake of giving the first two boxers the wrong size gloves (eight ounce instead of the required ten ounce), which have to be cut off and replaced, and partly due to a mad search for suitable comer stools, which nobody remembered to bring. (Folding chairs have to suffice.) Finally, at 8:25, Danny Milsap ducks through the ropes into the ring, and in apocalyptic tones developed in his years as the ring announcer at the Coliseum, he introduces the boxers in the first fight.
Twenty-four-year-old L. J. “K-O” Canty is a journeyman boxer pitted against relative newcomer Gabriel DeSilva of Tijuana. As the fight develops into a unilateral slugfest for Canty, who’s wearing tiger-striped trunks and works as a janitor during the day, it becomes obvious that the one remarkable thing about DeSilva is that Archie Moore is in his comer. The potential that Moore sees in the young fighter isn’t so obvious to the crowd or to Canty, and the referee stops the fight a round early, in the third round.
The second fight, between Mark “the Shark” Hazzard and Eduardo Gonzalez, is even more unbalanced; Hazzard knocks him out in twenty-five seconds. It is only the second professional bout for Hazzard, who works at the All American Car Wash in Imperial Beach, and it earns him $200.
The third fight, between Mike “Tango” Randle and Hector Fernandez, is equally unremarkable. Fernandez was put on the card just the day before because Randle’s first opponent had to withdraw; Eric Bonilla had driven deep into a poor section of Tijuana to find the fighter, who hadn’t fought in a long time, and sign him for the fight. Fernandez wanted $500, but agreed to take $400. In the ring his flabby body shows how long it must have been since he’s trained, and he looks ridiculous beside the lean and muscular Randle. Randle, who works as a private security guard, plays with him the first round and pounds him silly before the referee stops it in the second.
The fourth fight, between the standby fighters, is as good as the other fights were bad, but this was the fight that Cheto Torres tried to avoid. His fighter, twenty-year-old Rogelio Juarez, has had only one other professional fight, which he won by a knockout, and Torres claims that Juarez is so feared in Tijuana that the manager had to pay 20,000 pesos to the other boxer just to get him into the ring. The other fighter, Rafael Espinoza, is in his early twenties, and has had just two professional fights. As the two well-conditioned fighters touch gloves in the middle of the ring, cigar smoke hanging like tear gas above their heads, the crowd seems to snap to attention. The superiority of these two Mexicans is unmistakable.
The first round is a nonstop fusillade of blows landed equally by both fighters. Espinoza, who is slightly taller and enjoys a longer reach, connects with hooks from both sides, but their damage is minimal because he hits with the side, not the front, of his fists. Hes what is known as a "slapper," and he is sacrificing the power of his blows because he doesn't “turn them over," in boxing parlance. Juarez is a quicker puncher, a straight jabber with a strong uppercut, and he strikes continually beneath Espinoza’s hooks. As the boxers move around the ring, the crowd cheering constantly, George Johnsen marvels, "Now you’re seeing what a couple of preliminary fighters should look like." The crowd’s absorption in the battle becomes total, and its cheering is a token of appreciation for the spectacle, rather than a demonstration of partisanship, because practically no one has seen either of the two fighters before. When the bell rings after three minutes of sustained fury, applause escorts the two men back to their comers. For the first time all evening the attentions of the crowd are not focused on the sexy card girl (whom Eric Bonilla had met at a gas station two days before the fight) parading around the ring in a miniskirt while holding above her head a card announcing round two.
The next three rounds of the four-round bout are more of the same, with both fighters making subtle tactical shifts to strengthen their respective defenses. The collective pulse of the crowd quickens as both men dish out and absorb punishment by turns, and demonstrate that the appeal of boxing is rooted as much, maybe more, in the combatants’ ability to survive pain as to inflict it. A good fight takes the observer through a progression toward the hearts of the two participants, until finally everything but pure desire is stripped away. What remains is a kind of dialogue between two superbly conditioned bodies and minds, in a language that is universally understood.
After four rounds of constant, intelligent action, the last bell brings the crowd to its feet. The faces of the two boxers glow with exhaustion as well as victory. The shouts of "Draw! Draw!" are the equivalent of hravos at a successful symphony concert. The judges see it as a standoff, and the cornermen embrace their fighters in expressions more of awe than of triumph. George Johnsen shakes his head and says, "You’re looking at two world contenders, there."
The two remaining fights, including up-and-comers Martin Morado in the main event and Rudolfo Ambris in the last preliminary, don’t approach the level of intensity or skill of the one between the Mexicans, but the crowd seems fulfilled. As the last spectators file out the door and the boxers are handed their checks by the boxing inspector, Frank Carillo admit. that he probably lost $2000 because of the poor turnout, "but I don’t give up that easy. We'll keep promoting here." Eric Bonilla, who just saw snitches of the fights as he scurried around the roller rink, says he's surprised some of them were so one-sided. Bonilla says he's learned that "if 1 don’t do everything myself, it won't get done. ’ ’ Carillo says he’s learned that it’s impossible for Bonilla to try to do it all alone, and next time Carillo himself will be more involved in the promotion. Actually, the fight on October II will be a co-promotion with both Carillo and Mike Altinger of Golden Star Promotions putting up the money. Bonilla will be the matchmaker, and he claims he’ll be the chief ticket seller, "the two most important jobs. I’m gonna sell more than $2000 worth of tickets for this one," Bonilla promises, "and then I’m gonna take over boxing in San Diego. I’ve got the brains, I just act dumb."