Throughout history, boxing has embraced wave after wave of newcomers. Irish boxers made their mark early, as did Italians, and even Jewish fighters. Despite the success of Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, and Sugar Ray Robinson, it was only after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s “color line,” that there was a true surge of black talent in the ring.
These groups not merely enriched the sport, but also became a means of both acceptance and assimilation for their communities – all the while providing key streams of revenue for the sport itself.
Today, boxing is global, with contenders hailing from as far away as Eastern Europe, Britain, Germany, Africa, and Asia.
But most of all, today is the era of Latin fighters.
Our film not only focuses on the boxers and the disparate lands – Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Argentina, Panama, Nicaragua, Colombia, Venezuela, etc. – from which they have arrived, but also on the economic and political factors that have made such an explosion of talent not merely possible, but indeed inevitable.
We go backward in time to explore how boxing was brought to Argentina in the 1860’s by British sailors, and to Cuba by Americans; then follow its spread throughout the Caribbean, thanks to the spread of the sugarcane industry.
We contrast the macho posturing of Panama’s Roberto Duran (a stance that backfired thanks to his unforgettable uttering of “No mas” during his fight against Sugar Ray Leonard) with the bullfighter-like grace of Nicaragua’s Alexis Arguello, a dropout who became known as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world, then overcame problems with substance abuse, failed marriages, and even Sandinistas to become mayor of Managua. That leads to a look at the relentless attack of the great Julio Cesar Chavez, whose non-stop pressure and powerful left hooks to the body stand as the quintessence of what’s known as Estilo Mexicano.
We also explore emergence the emergence of Latino boxers on an international level. From Mexico, they range from Ruben Olivares to Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, as well as scores of others. From Puerto Rico, father and son champions Wilfredo Vasquez Sr. and Jr., plus Ivan Calderon, Daniel Santos, and more. Further south, we continue on into Argentina and Colombia with champions such as Sergio Martinez and Yohnny Perez. Then onward we go across the Caribbean.
The rivalry between the different lands the make up Latin America gives us a chance to compare and contrast the styles they’ve engendered. That, in turn, permits us to explore the manic devotion of the fans – or as they’re appropriately known in Spanish, fanaticos – who identify with their fighters, as well as the flag under which they fight, in a way that exceeds anything displayed by their Anglo counterparts.
Not surprisingly, the Latino fan base is a dream-come-true for fight promoters — living and breathing boxing; supporting their heroes and their countries with pride, cheers, banners, and flags; and above all, buying tickets, as well as pay-per-views, in a way that surpasses any of the previous immigrant groups that found, or forced, their way into boxing.
Inevitably, a look at the Latin-Americans who have come to this country to box has led to a discussion on a different group with Spanish surnames: U.S. born fighters of Latin descent. In addition to examining the careers of stand-outs like Manuel Ortiz, Fernando Vargas and John “Quiet Man” Ruiz, who became the first Latino to hold a world heavyweight title, we also examined the differences between two eras by comparing and contrasting boxing’s two “Golden Boy” personalities from California.
First, in the 1940’s, there was the charismatic Art Aragon, who had the misfortune of fighting prior to the advent of national TV, when for all practical purposes anything west of the Mississippi was terra incognita or unknown land. As a result, Aragon, even to hardcore fight fans, is better known for having dated Hollywood starlets than for his exploits in the ring. Then there’s the recently-retired Oscar de la Hoya, who catapulted from Los Angeles to international acclaim by following an Olympic Gold Medal with ten professional titles in six different weight classes – in the process becoming the first American of Latin descent to own a national boxing promotional firm.
We’ll also enter the realm of “What Might Have Been” and “What May Someday Be” by examining Cuba’s National Decree 83a, the law passed in Havana in 1962 that made professional sports illegal. Since then, Cuba has won nearly half of all gold medals at World Amateur Boxing competitions, and has dominated Olympic boxing. To this day people speculate about two hypothesized and often-discussed fights that never came to fruition: a heavyweight title fight that would have matched Muhammad Ali against Cuba’s three-time Olympic champion Teofilo Stevenson, and another heavyweight championship bout that would have pitted Mike Tyson against Cuba’s great Felix Savon. Those “dream” match-ups, much like other hypothetical fights that boxing fans have forever fantasized about, such us Sugar Ray Robinson vs. Kid Chocolate, leave us wondering how much richer professional boxing would be if, in addition to the occasional defector who winds up on American shores, Cuban fighters were ever to become full-fledged participants on the world stage.
In tracing the evolution of what has become a “Latin” era in boxing, we have inevitably explored the economics of the sport as well. The New York Times estimated that 85% of the audiences in attendance at Madison Square Garden were of Puerto Rican descent at a recent match between Puerto Rico’s Ivan Calderon and Africa’s Joshua Clottey. With the exception of championship bouts in places like Las Vegas, the largest audience for boxing matches today is predominantly Latino.
“El Boxeo” is a project that deals with race, language, culture, economics, politics – and above all, boxing. It’s an oral history – a story told by fighters, boxing experts and historians, announcers, commentators, comedians, sportswriters, actors, spouses, entertainers and fans – people like Bob Arum, Miguel Diaz, Jose Sulaiman, Francisco “Paco” Valcarcel, Larry Merchant, Al Bernstein, Victor Ortiz, Jimmy Lennon Jr., Juan Laporte, Mia Rosales St. John, Richard Steele, Hanna Gabriel, Armando Muniz, Pepe Correa, Roger Mayweather, Orlando Canizales, and many others — complemented by fight footage, archival photos, and memorabilia. Done in two versions – one predominantly English, and the other largely Spanish – it’s a project whose time has come.