By Eric Coronado Jr.: I’m eight years old, and it is one of a handful of times that my dad has picked me up throughout my childhood. We drive to his friend’s house, a mobile home with a ton of cars parked along the street outside. It’s dark out, but the windows are glowing, and there’s a muffled but rowdy hum from within. I ask what we’re going to do, and he tells me we’re there to watch a fight.
Stepping inside, my eyes immediately begin to sting from the thick smoke of dozens of cigarettes being burned at once, and I am instantly sent to the kid’s room at the end of the hall. Inside, children run rampant, displaying generally feral behavior, shooting Nerf guns, bouncing balls off one another, and wrestling on the floor. This is not my kind of party.
I step back out into the hall leading toward the living room, where strange men are shouting at the glowing screen where two men are blurrily heaving punches at one another. I’d never seen a boxing match before as my mom had no interest in the sport, but I’d definitely heard the name Julio Cesar Chavez before, and maybe even De La Hoya. And on the screen before me, they bobbed and weaved and exchanged glossy red gloves with almost artistic form. I’d been in a few fights already, but they were NOT like this. Intriguing. But I am unmoved.
It was not until another visit some years later that my dad pulled out a VHS tape and stated that we were about to watch one of his favorite fights. Sloppily Sharpied on the front of the tape was the title, “Barrera/Hamed.” He told me his version of the story. That Hamed was a showboat and that he thought too highly of himself. He told me that Hamed was a silly fighter who fought a bunch of nobodies and finally ran into a real champion. He told me that Hamed was exposed on that night. I listened with slight bewilderment, having never considered that a fight could have a backstory.
The tape started rolling, and Hamed floated towards the ring on a disk-shaped trapeze. My dad noted that he made Barrera wait in the ring for a half-hour. At this point, I didn’t know that on fight night, the little things could be significant things, so thirty minutes didn’t sound like a major deal to me. I do recall feeling slightly sympathetic as Hamed was pelted with a beer that splashed all over him during his grand entrance. My innocent mind imagined what it must have felt like to feel like you were above the world, literally and figuratively, only to be soaked in someone’s backwashed alcohol just before your big moment.
I remember thinking that both men looked quite unremarkable as they stood before the referee. By this time, I’d seen Mike Tyson and Roy Jones Jr., both extraordinarily intimidating-looking men. These were the type of people my mind conjured up when I thought about a pugilist. Chiseled, brawny, thick-necked destroyers. But in the ring, on the screen in front of me, stood two scrawny-looking men, who looked like they might return to their day jobs behind a counter or making phone calls, explaining to their coworkers why their noses were swollen or why they had a black eye.
When the fight started, my untrained eyes quickly made note of Barrera’s stance and movements. It was what I’d expect to find if I opened up a textbook about boxing. He carefully pushed around the ring with balanced steps and kept his hands held high against his face, elbows pinned to his sides. His face was strikingly blank, even as Hamed made silly faces and stared with wide eyes. He had a daring intensity about him. On the other hand, Hamed looked like what I assumed I might look like if I were to enter the ring at that stage in my life. He appeared to have a wily way of being that he was very confident in. Waiting for a moment that stubbornly kept evading him, yet he continued trying. Over and over, he jumped and lunged, and continuously, his head would snap back, exposing the crown of his head to the camera. Barrera would throw numerous jabs in a row while circling away from Hamed’s southpaw power shots, bobbing Hamed’s head around as he tried to turn to meet him. At one point, I guess Hamed zigged when he should’ve zagged and was caught as he tried to lean away, giving the appearance that he’d been lifted off of his feet by a punch. I gasped. The replay clarified, but it was still quite a sight.
This seemed akin to the classic tale of the tortoise and the hare. The flashy, gifted, undisciplined, and brash competitor drank a little too much of his own Kool-Aid and was trounced by his steady and methodical opponent. In the twelfth round, Hamed swung wildly, and Barrera deftly avoided the shot, spinning Hamed into some kind of police-type hold and slamming him into a corner of the ring as if he’d caught him shoplifting. The referee docked Barrera a point, something that I didn’t know was an option, and the fight continued.
Despite knowing nothing about either fighter until watching the grainy footage on my dad’s living room TV, I did pick up a few things through the commentary. Hamed was very much favored to win, and Barrera hadn’t been given his proper dues prior to the fight as an accomplished fighter. Barrera utilized fundamental techniques to avoid the powerful and unorthodox Hamed’s wild shots. Barrera was once seen as a brawler but was able to refine his technique and present the performance that won him the night.
I was hooked. I started watching fights whenever I could. I watched De La Hoya defeat Vargas with a flurry of punches that forced the referee to jump in and stop the fight. I watched Roy Jones Jr. move up to heavyweight to defeat John Ruiz, then scrape by Antonio Tarver in their first fight, and ultimately get knocked out viciously in the rematch. I joined a boxing gym and started sparring, which gave watching fights much more depth. I became a lifelong fan of the sport.
Years later, I’ve read into the undoing of the shining featherweight star that was Prince Naseem Hamed. The pride that came before the fall. I’ve read about how he spent much of his training camp prior to the Barrera fight trying to shed weight and about how he began to soak in his celebrity status and became distracted, pulled in many different ways leading up to their clash. I’ve read about how Barrera was determined to succeed in the biggest night of his career and how he trained like a machine in Big Bear. But none of this has diminished the significance of the fight for me and for my life. I couldn’t have imagined when my dad pulled out his self-taped recording of a fight that I was being introduced to one of the great passions in my life, but in life, as in boxing, the little things can be significant things.
What fight made you fall in love with boxing?