A Fire Burns Within review!

Having witnessed firsthand the passion of Panamanian boxers, there is something magical about their attitude and approach to the sport. Walk into any gym in the country and watch the attention to detail, the focus, and the myriad styles; for many young fighters, that type of education is impossible to receive anywhere else.

Therefore, it’s no secret that countless fighters have traveled to Panama to sharpen their skills. Three names that grace this list are Alexis Arguello, Wilfredo Gomez, and most recently, Jamaican Nicholas “The Axe Man” Walters.

Initially, Alexis Arguello was sent by his manager, Eduardo Roman in 1974 to Panama to train with Curro Dossman. After Arguello’s eye-opening loss to a superior boxer, Ernesto “Nato” Marcel, in 1974, Roman knew firsthand that Panama resembled a boxing enclave that was more advanced and specifically more beneficial to fighters under 140 pounds. He was also cultivating connections with military brass, who, in the early to mid-1970s, controlled the sport. According to Roman, Panama and Mexico had created the ideal boxing blueprint to follow, while Nicaragua was still struggling to find its boxing identity.

Although the combination didn’t lead to a world championship (Arguello won his first title after he left Dossman), Arguello got the necessary work and experience. Innately, Arguello understood what he needed to work on and take from several trainers he worked with including Dossman, Mexico’s Pepe Morales and Cuyo Hernandez, and, later, Eddie Futch.

Similarly, Puerto Rican icon Wilfredo “Bazooka” Gomez also established his boxing roots in Panama. In the early-1970s, he started his boxing education in Panama under the tutelage of Pellin Avila and Plomo Espinosa and eventually fought Panamanian Jacinto Fuentes to a draw in his professional debut in 1974. When Gomez returned to Panama in 2003 after a long layoff, he attributed a lot of his boxing success to his time in Panama.

“I have great memories of my time in Panama,” Gomez told reporters in 2003 when he returned to Panama.

However, Gomez returned to local trainers in his homeland to propel him to his first world title. In subsequent interviews, Gomez would call Panama his second home.

Most recently, Panama has adopted featherweight world champ, Nicholas Walters. Haitian businessman and boxing insider, Jacques Deschamps, who joined Hector Villarreal, Dr. Roberto Grimaldo and others to form Premium Boxing Promotions, brought Walters to Panama and currently represents him. Walters, who trained with his father and former professional boxer, Joe Walters, since he was five, was a “pure treasure found by Deschamps” according to Villarreal.

Walters wields an axe sharpened by the top Panamanian trainers. A coincidence? I think not.

“It’s probably the different styles that Panamanian boxing has that brings them here,” said Panamanian boxing manager, Carlos Gonzalez.

Recently, Walters earned his biggest victory to date as he systematically broke down an experienced and classy champion in Nonito Donaire behind a consistent jab, an equally as impressive uppercut, and a straight right hand that rivals the best in the sport. The victory was not lost on the Panamanian people.

“We are all happy for Walters,” said Gonzalez. “He is like a Panamanian to us.”

Yet, it wasn’t the offensive onslaught that proved to be his best attribute. Walters could have easily panicked, or even wilted, under Donaire’s left hook in the first couple rounds. In fact, a lesser, more inexperienced fighter may have sprinted out in the third round after being tagged at the bell ending the previous round and looked for the quick knockout. Instead, Walters went back to his jab, stayed composed and relied on combinations to set up a right hand that had fight people immediately talking retirement for Donaire. His composure and poise are hallmarks of another Panamanian fighter, Anselmo Moreno, who, under the same trainer, Celso Chavez, faced his biggest challenges during difficult sparring sessions in Panama.

It would be easy to suggest that one-punch power compensates for other mistakes, but Walters is anything but one-dimensional. Having spent a lot of time working in the highly regarded Pedro Alcazar Gym in Curundu, a district in Panama City, Walters is not a fighter who relies on one-punch power to get himself out of trouble. Rather, he’s a tactical fighter who knows when to take charge or sit back.

More importantly, Walters doesn’t blindly wade in and throw punches as some knockout punches do. He patiently waits for openings to present themselves and then capitalizes. When you train in Panama, you see excellent, hungry fighters on a daily basis. In addition, with a proven trainer like Chavez, Walters is always learning.

“At Pedro Alcazar Gym in Curundu you find every day more than 100 fighters between 105 to 135-140 who have a natural talent and have learned a lot during years,” said boxing personality and manager, Hector Villarreal. “A powerful manager who really knows the game and has a promising amateur boxer sends him to Panama and has a sort of possible opponents to draw a career map and to learn from during sparring sessions.”

The Panamanian boxing fraternity is a family. Everyone has an opinion about the classic stylist, Ismael Laguna, the defensive genius, Hilario Zapata, the legend, Roberto Duran, but the natural comparison has to be with the featherweight standard, Eusebio Pedroza. Despite being more aggressive and physical in his prime, Pedroza was also a huge 126-pounder who helped redefine the weight class. Pedroza was a specimen who used to intimidate fighters with every inch of his 5-foot-8 frame. Even though Walters is lankier and more likely to stay on the outside and pick his shots, I still see a little of Pedroza in Walters.

What I do know is that Walters joins an elite list of fighters who used Panama as a foundation to jump start his career. And that may just prove to be the best education that any boxer can have.

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“We get into boxing out of necessity, not because we like it” – Julio Cesar Chavez

One can revel in the beauty of a perfect swing, an unforgettable goal, the smoothness of a jumper or the steel nerves of a Super Bowl quarterback during a last-minute comeback. Whatever gives a sports fan that euphoric feeling, it’s safe to say there is nothing quite like watching a Latin boxer fight. The style is a mixture of elegance, beauty, violence, persistence, but most of all it stems from places that most people will never, ever comprehend prompting Mexico’s former world champion Fernando Montiel to definitively say, “Boxers are forged by blows.”

Every boxer has a backstory, the exposition as to why he entered the sport. Showing an appreciation for every fighter who has stepped into the ring, Alan Swyer’s new documentary, El Boxeo, utilizes numerous voices of boxers, trainers, journalists, historians, and promoters, to not only tell their stories in each individual round, but also to pay homage to a sport that elevated some and destroyed others.

Early on, Swyer juxtaposes footage of Roberto Duran and Alexis Arguello with interviews and helps set the tone for the rest of the film. From Oscar De La Hoya to Ruben Olivares to Julio Cesar Chavez, Swyer taps into the minds of the finest Latin fighters of all time. Devoid of pretense, the fighters dissect the decisions that shaped their lives both inside and outside the ring. While Olivares educates the audience on the perfect hook to the liver inside the ring, Chavez perfectly sums up the reality of most Latin fighters outside of it when he states, “We became boxers out of necessity, not because we liked it.”

Despite the insight from the more notable fighters, it is the collective voice of everyone involved that reveals the true essence and establishes the emotional core of the sport throughout the film. Whether it is the sorrow of hearing Puerto Rican stylist Ivan Calderon lament about growing up in a foster home, or welterweight contender Victor Ortiz discussing the absence of his parents or former lightweight champ Rodolfo “El Gato” Gonzalez revealing, “It felt so bad to see my mother and father not being able to eat a meal,” each vignette provided depth to the film.

Yet, it was the lighter moments that injected life into the nearly two-our documentary. Fueled by the energy of Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, who excitedly talks about Latin fighters and their salsa dancing prowess, the director also brings the audience ringside with Argentina’s Sergio Martinez, who chronicles the Argentinian style and the gifts of Carlos Monzon. Even Sugar Ray Leonard gets into the act when he characterizes the style of the Cuban fighter as “muy bonito.” As with most conversations on the best Latin fighter of all time, the topic reverts back to Duran, when, in one of the film’s high points, Puerto Rico’s Paco Valcarcel tells an unforgettable story involving Roberto Duran and Fidel Castro.

What was a bit hard to accept was the argument that often surfaces in boxing debates that one fighter is perceived as “more Hispanic” than another boxer. If anything, this documentary refutes any testimony that suggests that the obscene measurement has any place in this sport, or any, for that matter. The issue of De La Hoya’s authenticity dominated the Crossover Appeal Round. De La Hoya openly discusses his willingness to identify as a US citizen with Mexican roots. Later, he adds, “I was the American Dream. Then when I fought the great Julio Cesar Chavez, the criticism started flying everywhere.” Conversely, it was difficult to negate what De La Hoya accomplished; talking about how fearless De La Hoya was as a fighter, Trampler says, “He never ducked anybody.”

Even more intriguing than revisiting some of the footage and interviews with the Latin legends was the political discussion that defined Cuba Round Seven. Old footage of Che Guevera and Castro was intricately woven into this round, as interview subjects discussed the Cuban greats such as Teofilo Stevenson, Jose “Mantequilla” Napoles, Kid Chocolate, and Sugar Ramos as well as the impact of the Cold War on the sport and various elements of the Cuban amateur program. Debates raged on regarding Ali and Stevenson, and the success of the Cuban fighters who have defected over the years. In a later round, the discussion turned to the possibility of a Latin heavyweight champion.

No matter where a Latin fighter hails from, there is something uniquely different and beautiful about each one – the way he carries himself, the ring movements, the power, the courage, and the compassion that he shows for his opponents. We, as fight fans, are drawn to them.

In an article the late Jose Torres wrote for Ring Magazine on the emergence of the Hispanic fighter, he said, “First it was the Irish, then the Jewish, the Italian, the black, and, most recently, the Hispanic fighter who sought his way out of the ghetto and fought his way to fame and fortune with the only tools at his disposal, his hands.”

It was, and is, simple. Most of the men featured in the film didn’t love the sport, but they embraced it because they had to. But maybe the underlying point of the film that Swyer wanted to convey was that beneath it all, those Latin fighters made us love them and the sport. And after one hour and forty-seven minutes of going back to the glory days, that’s all that really matters.


Best Rounds: Crossover Appeal and Cuba

Best Interview Subject: Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini

Knockout Fight Footage: Mando Ramos vs. Sugar Ramos

Hits: “Obviously they had a great product to work with” – Oscar De La Hoya referring to himself and how he was marketed.

Misses: “Oscar was never a great fighter. A great fighter is (Felix) Trinidad.” – Bob Arum




Beauty of Alexis: A true representative of all Latin fighters

“I can say that I took the message and responsibility of (all Latin America) because I did it. I can look back and say I did a good job. I stood up to the expectation and represented this country with dignity and respect. I desired to be somebody. I am not ashamed. If I were born again, I’d do it again. I represented this nation in a positive way. I can tell the youth that I was always the best at my game.” – Alexis Arguello

For many athletes, the charm and magic that defines them rarely transcends beyond the playing field. For the late Alexis Arguello, everything that made him authentic and irreplaceable stemmed from the manner in which he treated all people away from the ring. There was no pretense.

Whether you were the celebrity in the front row or the fan waiting around for an autograph after the fight, Arguello spoke to you as if you were the most important person in the room. He remembered people’s names and would recite them again years later. When he shook your hand, he looked you directly in your eyes, not through you. Even Arguello’s opponents found it difficult to gain an edge against him. “I don’t think anyone thought I could beat Arguello, not even my fans from Corpus Cristi. But it was my fault because I only wanted Alexis. I didn’t want anyone else,” recalled Roberto Elizondo, who suffered a stoppage-loss to Arguello in 1981. “When we saw each other before the fight, he went over and introduced himself to my wife and asked how old my son was.”

For so many people, it’s nearly impossible to believe that Alexis is gone. The soft, welcoming manner in which he greeted you. The honesty. The engaging smile. Gone. His longtime manager and father figure, Eduardo Roman, intimately knew how special Arguello was. From the moment that they began working together in the 1970s, Roman looked at Arguello like a son. “He used to come to my house and sleep for weeks at a time,” Roman said. “He was always laughing and joking. He had a very good character. He just went there to the hammock to find peace.”

Forget about the knockouts and the fierce discipline he exuded between fights. Put aside the political conflicts that took hold in the early 1980s. Arguello was much more than a boxer; he was a friend, a father, a brother, and a man with a good heart. “He was always speaking about the Indian that he was. He said, ‘I am an Indian.’ He was touched by the poverty of the people, and would do whatever he could to help them,” said friend, Renzo Bagnariol. “When he was mayor, every morning you would see a big line of people asking for things, and he would never let them down.”

And he didn’t. Arguello fought for people who had nothing. That passion is sorely missed.

“His faith and honesty that I miss,” said Nicaraguan Sergio Quintero. “… Most people can be replaced physically, but Alexis is irreplaceable because of how noble he was inside and outside the ring.”

Alexis Arguello would have turned 62 today. To this day nearly five years since his death, Arguello’s legacy will continue to live on in the thousands of lives he touched.

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