Sunday, December 16, 2007

The National Boxing Championship

They’re real and raw and not so concerned with image. Most of them are guys who are driven into the ring, guys who look at people walking by in three-piece suits and have an urge to pull them down. Boxers seem to live lives that have all the elements of a story, even before their ability in the ring makes celebrities out of them.
~ Gary Smith, Sports Illustrated senior writer on boxers


Unlike my trip last weekend, I planned on watching some of the best boxers in Colombia yesterday. That is why I arrived at el coliseo El Salitre an hour before the scheduled 4 p.m. start. It was a relatively short taxi ride. The best boxers had traveled to Bogotá and fought in qualifying bouts all week with just two undefeated fighters remaining in each weight-class (11 total). Hence, yesterday’s competition determined 11 national boxing champions, with the bouts in order from lightest to heaviest boxers, who would then fight in Guatemala and Trinidad for spots in the Olympics.


When I walked into the stadium, the first fight had begun. Unlike professional fighting or the Golden Gloves tournament I had watched in Chicago, there is little fanfare. No scantily-clad ring girls, no food or merchandise vendors, no ticket counter. Entrance was free. There was a room where they handed out press passes but they weren’t necessary. I could sit or walk wherever I wanted. The stands were virtually empty, except for the boxers and some family and friends. The loudest cheers could be heard from the boxers’ teammates. A handful of photographers stood around at ringside. The local television news stations were conducting interviews after they saw a fight they liked, but it would only be run as a secondary story to Bogotá’s own La Equidad competing for the Colombian professional soccer league championship.

For me, it was a blast. Since I’ve never been to a professional fight, it was the best boxing I’ve ever seen. Just after arriving I saw Cartagena Coach Felipe Noda Vazquez, who I had met last weekend, giving his 48-kilogram boxer instruction in the corner of the ring. When he saw me, he turned and shook my hand. Keep in mind this was during the middle of a championship fight.

Don’t take this example of kindness as a lack of seriousness. Halfway through the competition I needed to use the bathroom so I walked to men’s room, which is located near a room where the fighters warm-up. As I was walking in the warm-up room there was a big commotion. Someone was holding one of the Bogotá coaches back during an argument with another team’s coach as other coaches and officials and fighters swarmed around them. The officials cleared the room so I had to use another bathroom, and nothing ever happened between the coaches.




When I finished using the bathroom I was walking in the stands when I spotted a young boxer wearing a Cuba jacket. I asked him about it, since I had been to Cuba, and we started talking as there was a break in the action. He was from Córdoba, a region along the Caribbean coast. I showed him a few photos I had taken and before I knew it I was chatting with his teammates. It was difficult to understand them since they were from the coast. They spoke fast and chopped off the endings on many words. This is normal for costeños, or people from the Caribbean region. Out of the seven Córdoba boxers that had made the trip to Bogotá, three had earned a gold, silver, and bronze medal in their respective weight-classes. They were young guys, 20 or 21, and were mostly lightweights.

In fact, their only national champion, Óscar Negrete, had fought the very first bout of the day at 48 kilograms. He wore a white Yankee cap as seen in the group photo (above) that we took in the ring after the final bout. Negrete was the only boxer who knew some English phrases as he had traveled to Chicago in October with a few other Colombian fighters for the World Amateur Boxing Championships. Not bad for a 20-year-old kid from rural Colombia. He, like his teammates, were ordinary young men. They lacked any sense of entitlement that you encounter with national-caliber athletes. Negrete even asked me how I had heard about the boxing championship. I couldn't have an extensive conversation with him and his teammates since my Spanish comprehension and their accents clashed. Yet I enjoyed sitting with them in the stands – munching on a handful of flavored peanuts Negrete had poured into my hand – as we watched the heavier boxers square off in the ring. I think they felt the same, savoring their time in a big city until they made the 18-hour car ride to Córdoba.





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