Frontline Diary: 'Question De Honor'
Chris Williamson brings Boxing Monthly a fascinating Frontline Diary from Panama, including observations and insights on plastic surgery, the local boxing scene and the upcoming Luis Concepcion vs Khalid Yafai bout ...
Arriving a few hours early at a more-or-less deserted 'Gimnasio Pandeportes-La Basita' in the Chiriqui province of Panama, I strike up a conversation with Victor Quinnones, an affable local man who works for the main sponsor of this event, drinks company 'Ron Abuelo'.
Victor is a terrific storyteller and will later introduce me to some very interesting people, including Panama's most successful promoter Rogelio Espino, owner of 'Promociones y Eventos del Istmo' who promote this show and guide WBA super-flyweight champion Luis Concepcion, who is set to defend against Britain's Khalid Yafai in Manchester on 10 December. More on that later.
Quinnones is friendly with the movers and shakers in the Panamanian boxing scene and even features in the Roberto Duran biopic 'Manos de Piedra/ Hands of Stone'. Quinnones smiles and holds his hands aloft reenacting his screen moment as he says to watch out for him celebrating in 'Duran's' corner during the scene when Roberto wins the WBA junior-middleweight title against Davey Moore at Madison Square Garden. Quinnones reveals the scene was actually filmed here in Panama. First bell on this night sounds at 7.30, so we arrange to meet later.
Espino tells Boxing Monthly this is the final show he will promote this year. "Most of my shows are in Panama City, but I like to promote here, especially in the lead-up to the holidays. This place feels like a vacation for me," he says with relaxed charm and asks if I have visited the stunning nearby mountain town of Boquete yet (I have). Espino offers BM some time later to discuss Concepcion vs Yafai.
This event is billed as 'Question De Honor' (Quinnones tells me Panamanians enjoy their tag-lines) and is an eight-fight bill in total. At floor-level tables are set out, although much less formally than at a dinner show in the U.K. A scoreboard, used mainly for basketball, reads: 'Siempe coca-cola'.
First up are two debutants, Leonardo Puente and Ismael Santos. Santos looks far less prepared than Puente, an impression extending to his use of regular trainers rather than boxing boots. A sharp left to the body in the second makes Santos wince and turn away, so the referee stops the bout.
On the same night the British John (Wayne) Hibbert fought his final bout, a Panamanian namesake wins his debut here against perennial loser Alvin Cedeno. If he showed nothing else, Cedeno at least walked to the ring confidently to Gwen Stefani's 'Rich Girl' which was so odd that I quite liked it. Perhaps Hibbert was less impressed since as Cedeno went to touch gloves, the debutant launched straight at him. Hibbert's technique is far superior and he drops Cedeno several times before the referee waves it off in the third.
Before travelling to Panama a female friend on a work assignment here made the bizarre observation that cosmetic surgery in Panama will often include posterior enlargement as well as chest augmentation. Since Boxing Monthly is interested largely in the sport I'll leave it at that but one of the round card girls in particular seems to confirm my friend's assertion. (Wolf-whistling remains exactly the same here as in the UK, by the way).
Next up is a wonderfully named pair - Nestor del Cid against Willy Silva in a six rounder at middleweight. Silva sports a Nike-style swoosh tattoo on his left arm and 'just did it' (apologies; I know) in a hard fought decision win.
The network TV channel 'RPC' show a huge volume of boxing in Panama, including weekly classics and 'Los Mejor Del Boxeo', a live show currently celebrating a 41-year run. They broadcast tonight as well as at least two radio stations. I'm seated next to the radio commentators who are very amiable and shout their picks before each bout. By around 9pm the crowd arriving on the floor is noticeably more glamorous.
A local derby of sorts sees Chiriqui fighters Nelson Guillen and Gilmer Baules duke it out in a wild affair. Baules appears too emotional and expends much of his energy trying to demonstrate to the crowd how tough he is, including a comical moment where he bangs his own gloves together immediately before being floored from a well-timed left hook. Baules, far too wide with his punches, literally throws his gumshield at his trainer when walking back to the corner. It seems that in the third the referee had had enough of this posturing as he stops the bout after Guillen bundles Baules to the floor. Of course, Baules uses yet more energy complaining bitterly.
One corner of the arena sells the sponsored rum, another local 'Atlas' cerveza and a third serves meals. We choose between chicken and fish together with Panamanian staple of rice and beans. The joke is that when tiring of rice and beans you choose beans and rice.
It's interesting to note that Rogelio Espino also pays for his meals; in fact he makes a point of carrying several plates back to his table, which provides a near-slapstick moment when the hapless Baules stops and complains to Espino about the referee as Rogelio is balancing two plates of food on the way back to his party.
Next up, Ivan Trejos upsets and hands southpaw Edgar Valencia his second defeat in a terrific split decision win over six rounds. Trejos does an excellence job (buoyed by his trainer's instruction) of avoiding Valencia's favoured straight right by circling to his own right. The atmosphere for this contest is outstanding and the standard of action noticeably superior to the earlier prelims. As they enter the sixth, we debate who will win while enjoying the fabulous action.
In another upset, Mexican middleweight Gilberto Flores Hernandez moves to 26-17 (20) handing Nicaraguan knockout-artist Jordan Reyes a first loss in eleven bouts. Reyes, whose ring moniker is 'El Tigre', prowls to the ring to 'Eye of the Tiger' and had finished all his previous opposition inside the distance. Reyes also has Costa Rican heritage and carries a small flag of each country to the ring.
Hernandez chooses Cleto Reyes gear, so one pair of shorts is emblazoned 'Jordan Reyes' another 'Cleto Reyes'. This is the first bout scheduled for 'Ocho Asaltos' (eight rounds) and doesn't disappoint as the boxers' styles mesh well and the action is constant. Reyes' honey punch is his right uppercut, although when it lands Hernandez takes it well. Another split decision goes in the Mexican's favour and Reyes bolts in disgust.
Boxing is so popular in Panama that each province has a separate boxing commission, each sporting its own logo. The officials, of whom there are many, sport natty pink shirts with the commission badge displayed.
The co-main event really delivers as wildly popular local lad Daniel 'Macarron' Miranda wins yet another split-decision over previously unbeaten Galindo Cardenas at 130lbs. Cardenas, who now lives in the capital, starts boxing brilliantly until Miranda floors him as the bell sounds at the end of the first. The next eight rounds is a breathless back and forth war with both hurting the other repeatedly. As the decision is announced, the arena goes crazy.
Prior to the main event, the president of the national journalists' association is presented with a massive trophy by Espino and the officials for long and outstanding service.
On the stroke of midnight, main event fighters Bryan 'La Roca' De Gracia and Gilberto 'Farallon' Cortez have a tough act to follow, but somehow manage to save the best for last. Contested for a vacant, regional WBA featherweight title and bizarrely scheduled for nine rounds, local man 'La Roca' finally finishes Cortez in the very last round of an absorbing back and forth affair.
De Gracia, now 20-0-1, is incredibly popular and already sports several sponsors stitched to his shorts, including 'Java Juice'. His favoured punch is undoubtedly the left hook and his impetuous style reminds me of Fernando Vargas. It helps that De Gracia looks like 'El Ferroz' too.
De Gracia has Cortez down and hurt in the fifth but the follow-up is wild and Cortez, a welt under his right eye, does an excellent job of tying the local man up. In the very next round Cortez regroups and has De Gracia hurt with a series of straight right hands, followed up with punishing body shots. De Gracia battles back in the eighth, and finishes the fight with his honey punch, the left hook, leading to jubilant scenes in the early hours.
If this is Panamanian boxing then sign me up for more.
Deep into the morning Espino tells Boxing Monthly he's very pleased with the entertainment value, "especially the main event". He's happy with De Gracia although cautious not to progress him too quickly. "He needs to continue improving his boxing skills. He's a strong fighter with a great punch and lot of power, but I would like him to practice his boxing," Espino smiles.
BM learns from Quinnones that Espino had plucked WBA super-flyweight champion Luis Concepcion "from the streets," on his path to the top of the sport. Espino is modest about his role but confirms he signed Concepcion as an amateur and has guided his entire professional career. Concepcion became very popular when he starred in the Panamanian 'Contender' style TV show 'The Last Warrior'.
"He gained a lot of fans from the TV show and then became champion in Panama in I think 2009 [interim WBA flyweight title against Mexican Omar Salgado, becoming full champion in 2011] and then again he had a great performance in Japan [winning the WBA super-flyweight title against Kohei Kono in August]," Espino states.
Espino says UK fans can expect a very well-prepared Concepcion, something he candidly admits hasn't always been the case. "Concepcion has probably lacked discipline in the past and I've been surprised at how hard he has worked [preparing for the Yafai contest] actually."
Espino says he is "pretty confident," his man will win in Manchester adding that the method of victory: "depends on Yafai. It can be a distance fight or earlier. He [Concepcion] knows Yafai is a great boxer and considers this a tougher fight than even the [Kohei] Kono fight. He has trained harder than before for this fight."