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The Smart Money’s On The Favorite

Boxing used to be a lot more popular than it is now.  There seemed to be big fight going on all the time, especially in the Welterweight and Middleweight divisions, where there was always a scrum for the number one spot.  I never knew better boxing analysts than those 7th and 8th Graders back in 1980-1981 at LeConte Junior High.  They were old school, like little Bert Sugars (only substituting Dodgers caps and candy cigarettes for Bert’s fedoras and stogies), offering not only their insights, but also the prospect of a wager.

Generally, boxing fans tended to gravitate towards Heavyweights, maybe thinking the bigger the better.  But we 7th Graders, perhaps owing to our diminutive size, were attracted more to Hagler, Hearns and Duran.  Big guys yes, but maybe a little more approachable, and fast (all the things we believed ourselves to be).  Speed and power were the important factors; each of the three fighters had his own balance of each and thus earned his own loyalists at our school.

And nobody had any time for defensive specialists like Sugar Ray Leonard, the 1976 Olympic Champion whose climb up the rankings was greeted with not only derision but occasional charges that “the fix was in.”

Round 1 – Enter George- the Middle Man

   In the Spring of 1980 everybody I knew was excited at the prospect of Roberto Duran coming along to expose what we thought were Leonard’s many flaws, that he was too slick… a light puncher… that he ran (we may have lived in a flashy city like Hollywood but we wanted our boxers to brawl).  My friends Shavarsh, George, and I never gave this guy any respect.  Shavarsh was already a fan of Roberto Duran (Hands Of Stone) anyway.  George kinda dug “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler, with his kooky “Destruction Destroy” ethos, and I was a fan of Detroit’s own Thomas “The Hit Man” Hearns.

Of us fans, George was kind of the leader; he engineered most of the betting anyway.  He seemed much older than he really was; so the other kids thought him a go-to guy for boxing advice (and he’d hold our money).  But he was also an irreverent kid who would show up to school covered in mosquito bites- even in the winter, even in Southern California.  Several of us half believed he must have commuted in daily from his native Philippines.  He’d grab a Bic from someone and circle the bug bites on his arms and draw a little dot in the middle, as if he’d stumbled upon some talisman to finally keep them at bay.

He was usually pretty quiet and did mysterious things like the bug bite thing, it kind of added to his adultier mien.

Round 2 – Leonard vs. Duran

   The last week of school he collected $10 bets from those few who were willing to wager on this one; for the fight was at the end of June and nobody knew where he lived (though we thought it was in Little Armenia) or if they’d ever see their money.  But he still talked up Ray Leonard and collected a few tens to balance those that were going for Duran.  He always let everybody know up front that winners got $7.

Come to think of it, I believe George was the youngest bookie in LA.

That summer, somebody gave Ray bad advice for he tried to slug it out with “Manos de Piedra” and he lost the decision in Montreal (my guy Tommy Hearns scored a knockout victory that summer too).  By the time the 8th Graders convened we were all still talking about it.  George made good on his few payouts and stepped it up for the next one.  The fight season was just heating up.

Ray: Sluggin’ it out for a loss

Marvelous Marvin Hagler won a fight in late September that even George couldn’t talk up, as far as interest.  His opponent was some British guy named Minter that nobody respected.  For the kids at LeConte, the only thing worse than being a flashy boxer was being a white flashy (or just white) boxer.  That’s just how it was, after all these guys didn’t exactly “grow up” watching Jake LaMotta.

“Raging Bull” was released at the end of 1980 and its slower talky cadences, along with the fact that it was shot in black and white, did not make it Junior High friendly.  Any of us who saw it either viewed it as a work of fiction (because of the white boxer) or as a rerelease of a really old movie.  When it won Best Picture at the Oscars the next year we realized maybe we just didn’t “get it.”

A lot of us wanted to see Hearns fight Duran, power vs. power, how great would that be?  But instead there was to be a rematch between Leonard and Duran; and there was a lot of interest for George.  So high was our trust for him that he collected money from all over the school for this one.  Clearly we just wanted to look like Las Vegas guys too; poker games had also started among our little boxing clique.  Gambling was grown up and it just looked cool to give our money to a middle man.  So we did.

And Sugar Ray’s toe to toe performance in “The Brawl in Montreal” actually earned him a few fans among us. But nobody was ready for what transpired in the rematch.

Round 3 – Leonard vs. Duran II

  Leonard showboated and frustrated Duran, especially in the middle rounds, even sneaking in a bolo punch.  In the middle of the 8th, Roberto just walked away, saying “no mas, no mas.”  Nobody could believe it, Sugar Ray may have won; but I think he’d lost the few fans he’d picked up at LeConte Junior High.  He just didn’t behave like the badass we’d seen that summer, he’d gone back to dodging and weaving, the stuff we hated.  Plus he embarrassed Duran, and we pint sized boxing lifers didn’t like that at all.

To Ray’s disbelief, for Roberto, it was no mas.

The next spring, there were Lightweight and Flyweight fights that generated little interest, for the guys were small like us.  And it went unspoken (although we would never admit) that if they were small like us, then they couldn’t have any power.  And you had to have power.  So we bided our time and honed our skills at Five Card Stud.

Round 4 – Leonard vs. Hearns, respect the underdog

    But we watched any fight that aired, Alexis Arguello, Wilfred Benitez or whoever; and waited for the Sugar Ray Leonard -Thomas Hearns fight that was brewing for that fall.  Now sophisticated 9th Graders, we started to cut out the middle man, George (who didn’t mind at all) and placed bets directly with each other.  The easy money was on Hearns but the long shot attraction of Leonard attracted a few nibbles.  Unfortunately I was not among the nibblers, for I’d never bet against the Hit Man.

Ray didn’t box in this one; he fought, and stopped Hearns in the 14th Round.  He suffered a detached retina but earned the permanent respect of all of us, because he’d beaten, fair and square, a scary guy with a great right hook.  We learned a lesson about the underdog; never count him out in a fight.

That December, two icons from before our time, the 70’s, fought their last fights.  Joe Frazier’s ended in a draw, and Muhammad Ali, the Greatest, having stayed too long in the game, lost to Trevor Berbick in a mismatch that never should have happened.  It seemed like there were a lot of mismatches those days in the Heavyweight division.  Also, the Champ, Larry Holmes, was not that popular among us, probably because our parents had told us he’d “never be Ali.”  He’d fight and hold people at bay with his jab, then win on points, that’s how it looked to us.  He was slow and already old.

Round 5 – The Great White Dope

   I think the matchmakers in boxing took note of Holmes’ comparative lack of charisma so they scheduled a fight with Gerry Cooney, an Irish New Yorker and of all things, a White Guy.  But Gerry could fight.  He had a left hook that he used to devastating effect in several previous knockout wins.  His arrival to prominence must have been a godsend to Don King, who immediately dubbed him “The Great White Hope” at the start of what became a promotional whirlwind.

Everybody at school leading up to the fight bets (as well as trash talk) lined up over this one.  And it was along racial and ethnic lines, or I should say, how complected you were.  If you were, say, Shavarsh’s (who was Armenian) shade or lighter (like myself) it was assumed you had to go for Cooney.  Everyone darker was expected to go for Holmes.  Ours was already a very racially charged school, and this was a racially charged fight, with a lot of unfair assumptions being made all around.  Like that I had to be going for Gerry Cooney, who my friends were gigglingly calling the “Great White Dope.”

Well, I was totally going for Gerry Cooney!  After all, I’d never seen a white boxing champion and I felt a vague (not being Irish) kind of ethnic pride.  I also didn’t like the way Holmes had manhandled my mom’s hero, Muhammad Ali, two years before.  I was really excited about the fight but tried to mask my enthusiasm; it just seemed so cliché that I’d be going for Cooney.  Fearing a loss of credibility, I didn’t want to give my friends what they expected on this one.

There were three days to go, then two (can’t wait!), then one; then on June 11th my mom drove me over to my friend Enrique’s so we could watch it on Pay per View (affordable back then).  He and his brothers laughed at me when I entered the room, they also laughed at Gerry’s shamrock trunks during the introduction.  This was going to be a long night.  In a confident (or arrogant) gesture, I’d bet all three brothers separately.

Gerry actually did pretty good for most of the fight, even rocking Larry a couple of times after he himself was knocked down early.  But Holmes was just too much (I could see that night that Larry Holmes was a great boxer in his own right), and the fight was stopped in the 14thafter Larry had rearranged a few of Gerry’s facial features.

Gerry rockin’ that Shamrock

There wasn’t too much razzing, neither from the Lopez brothers, nor the other kids at school.  Some of them encouragingly said, “maybe next time” or “you’ll get another chance” as if it was I and not Gerry who had lost the fight.  It was just my turn to be on the down side, George, Shavarsh, Enrique; we all won and lost in seemingly equal measure in those years.

I never lost interest in boxing and as I got older I actually learned a lot more about “the sweet science.”  The fans sure have seemed to drop off through the years, but I remain.  The favorites usually win, just like they always have, but every once in awhile an underdog comes along to keep things interesting.  I’d learned some things, though, like to never put any more money on foes that my friends would openly laugh at.   Or on anyone who’d wear shamrock trunks.

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