Frontline Diary: Buffalo Soldiers in Nicaragua
If boxing has generally come to be considered a niche activity struggling for mainstream coverage in newspapers and on television, in Nicaragua at least, it remains strikingly visible.
National free television carries the sport regularly and enables fans to gather in bars to watch and debate the fights. The most widely read national newspaper, 'El Nuevo Diario', carries boxing stories daily - usually featuring pound for pound king Roman 'Chocolatito' Gonzalez - along with a regular diary column named 'Punch', which lists snippets of boxing news alongside photographs from around the world.
Boxing here is a clear second - beaten only by baseball - in sporting popularity and you can expect intelligent, well-informed discussion with locals of both genders, young and old.
Alongside its love for the 'sweet science', the country makes a terrific visit for the boxing enthusiast because despite enduring a recent history scarred by natural disaster, war and continued poverty, Nicaraguans remain incredibly welcoming hosts.
Sport provides a natural catalyst for revealing this openness and, by way of example, at the coastal town of San Juan del Sur I was quickly invited by locals to play eleven-a-side beach football prior to each sunset, while being humorously referred to during play as 'El gringo'.
So it was in the capital, Managua; arriving at the 'malecon' (pier) area of 'Puerto Salvador Allende', my intention was to check the timing of a boxing show held later in the day. Happily, I was greeted and introduced to former two-weight world champion and a promoter of the show, Rosendo Alvarez.
Alvarez (pictured left) is the only man to blemish the great Mexican Ricardo Lopez's record, flooring him for the only time in his career during a pulsating 1998 technical draw in a minimumweight unification, the first of their two bouts. Typically warm and charming, Nicaragua's third world champion (following Alexis Arguello and Eddie Gazo) spoke at length about his fascinating life and career (a conversation which will be featured in a future article) and invited Boxing Monthly to sit ringside with him and his good friend, Jorge Jarquin. Known during his ring career as 'El Bufalo', Alvarez now runs 'Bufalo Boxing Promotions' with his wife Ruth Rodriguez.
It's the festive period and the capital is stiflingly hot as a huge seasonal parade spans from the centre of the city to the pier. In 'Parque Luis Velasquez', disabled competitors in wheelchairs play basketball in front of an impressive crowd.
The main event was originally scheduled to feature long-inactive, unbeaten former IBF bantamweight champion Randy Caballero, but contractual complications (Caballero is signed to Golden Boy Promotions) prevent him from appearing. Bufalo remain confident of doing some kind of deal to bring him to Managua though because, "the people want to see him". Word at ringside is that Randy's younger brother Rommel is a terrific amateur and one to look out for.
The atmosphere is terrific and, incredibly, the event is presented for free. The upcoming Alvarez article will detail how this works and the fabulously mixed crowd of families and children create a wall of open-air noise. Eliezer Gazo (13-7) and Eddy Castro (15-14-2) fight a spirited minimumweight bout. Gazo wears Muay Thai style shorts and dances energetically after each bell, perhaps swaying two of the three judges as he pips a majority decision.
The round card girl arrives for the later bouts and sneezes courtesy of a mild cold. This is her third boxing event and her outfit bears the name of 'Victoria Clasica', one of two popular beers brewed locally. If my opinion is worth anything, its taste is slightly superior to its rival, 'Tona'. A middle-aged female timekeeper's face is a mask of concentration as she carries out her duties.
In the best fight of the night, bantamweights Alexander Espinosa and Bryan Perez wage war in a scheduled eight rounder. As the fighters are introduced to the crowd I notice a young man in the crowd wearing a white T-shirt bearing the words 'Copa Alexis Arguello' with an image of the late icon.
Jarquin - a tremendous raconteur and a walking boxing encyclopaedia - says he grew up in the same district as Arguello and that an uncle and aunt of his made Alexis's shirt and shorts. "When he became champion [by lifting the WBA featherweight title vs Ruben Olivares in 1974] in Los Angeles, my uncle was there," Jarquin comments proudly.
In common with many Latin America boxers, the ringnames don't disappoint: Espinoza (12-0-1) is 'Supernova', while Perez (9-3) is known as 'Dynamita'. Both men start quickly and sharply. Perez hurts Espinoza with a left hook in the first before the 23-year-old returns the favour with a carbon copy attack. I scribble 'educated slugfest' as we await round two.
Espinoza again hurts the 19-year-old Perez early, this time with shorter hooks and the crowd screams. Espinoza bounces around the ring confidently, demonstrating excellent footwork. Even at this early stage, Perez is jabbing from distance and seems keen to catch his breath. When Espinoza does close this difference, Perez lands hard body punches. The well-schooled Espinoza periodically turns southpaw.
As the second round ends, we are already watching an incredible fight, so much so that the referee encourages both corners to keep it up. Jarquin had greeted the referee, a personal friend, prior to the fight.
As the third starts, the open air atmosphere is so loud it almost seems created for TV. Perez continues his body attack and Espinoza fails to disguise the pain as his face strains under the pressure. Both fighters are lean and clearly well prepared.
The fourth continues in the same breathless vein as they exchange vicious hooks. Espinoza knocks Perez's gum-shield out, then Perez returns fire and an uppercut has his foe hurt. Perez's gum-shield is knocked out a second time as blood spurts from his mouth and he appears almost drunk from the onslaught. Espinoza is relentless and I scribble 'amazing fight' as Jorge and I cheer from ringside. Even the round card girl - more often than not typing 'whatsapp' messages when not on duty - can't take her eyes off this one.
The fifth sees Espinoza pressing like a man possessed. He detaches Perez's gum-shield from its wearer once again, prompting the referee to warn the younger boxer and remove a point for what he judges to be a deliberate stalling action. By the sixth, Perez mounts a rally which seems like a last burst of energy. By now Espinoza can better withstand these punches and remains relentless.
Sure enough, Espinoza knocks the tiring boxer's mouth-guard out twice more and the referee calls off a superb bout. There is some discussion as to whether to register a TKO but the fight is officially announced as a disqualification. Espinoza is certainly one to watch.
Jorge tells me that the docks area used to be a very bad neighbourhood. President Ortega's government smartened it up very recently and has started charging a nominal 5 cordobas entry fee (around $0.15) with the intention of keeping poor and potentially desperate criminals away.
"It used to be this area was full of prostitutes and housed bars which someone like you and I could not enter [safely,]" he says. "Now there is lots of security and it's safe for foreigners."
With Randy Caballero unable to fight Aramis Solis at super bantamweight, Alvarez's hot prospect, Ramiro Blanco (15-1-3) is promoted to headline against the Mexican in his place. With Alvarez predicting to BM that Blanco could be the new 'Chocolatito', and following the previous barnburner, it seems like a near-impossible task to live up to such glittering billing.
The Mexican Solis (15-4) is first into the ring and fist bumps my new friend Jorge as he walks past confidently. Solis wears Manny Pacquiao style shorts with flames emblazoned on them. Incidentally, word at ringside is that Alvarez and his friend President Ortega are looking to broker a visit from the WBO welterweight champion, partly for the promotion of sport and partly in his political guise as a Philippines senator.
As the first round begins, a scuffle past the far side of the ring is quickly calmed by security. Jarquin gives me a look as if to say: "See, I told you it was safe here now!'"
Although less intense than Espinoza v Perez, the protege Blanco looks a very classy operator. Both exchange hard left hooks to the body and switch up to the head.
By the third Blanco is imposing his will on the Mexican who looks to be suffering from the pace, while the youngster remains a little wild and his hooks look a little wide.
To our surprise the Mexican refuses to answer the bell for the fourth round, complaining of chest pains. Medical staff quickly administer help to the stricken boxer, with Alvarez taking the time to ensure Solis isn't seriously injured while the local man celebrates in a respectfully muted fashion.
As a memorable night draws to a close I reflect that I've learned that Roman Gonzalez is loved and revered here not only for his incredible skill and achievement, but because 'Chocolatito (Little Chocolate)' exhibits 'humilde' (humility), surely an unusual description for a superstar sportsman in the modern age.
Perhaps enjoying a talisman like Gonzalez is one reason why Nicaraguans retain such passion for boxing. If they are smart - and all the signs are that they are - Roman Blanco and the next generation of boxers will take their cues from their countryman, the current WBC super-flyweight champion, four weight world titlist and the best fighter in the world.