One of my earliest boxing-related memories happened when I was seven. On a warm Saturday night my parents took me to my favorite restaurant, the one that served awesome grilled hamburgers and had a Super Mario Bros. machine in the back. Whenever we visited, I would gobble my meal as fast as possible so I could nag my dad into giving up a few pesos to feed the video game machine. This night, however, no haggling was necessary; I don’t remember the exact amount my dad handed me, but I do remember getting bills instead of coins. Before I dashed to the arcade, my mom gently took my arm and told me, “Don’t spend it too quickly; we’re going to be here a while.”
If I had paused to question why my dad wanted to donate a small fortune to Nintendo, all I needed to do was look up at the TV screens scattered around the restaurant. That night, El Gran Campeon Mexicano, Julio Cesar Chavez, put his undefeated record on the line against the formidable Meldrick Taylor in what promised to be a battle for the ages. Our home not yet acquainted with the wonders of cable TV, my dad took us out for dinner so he and my mom could see the contest.
While they watched the pre-fight shenanigans, I played. But despite my best intentions to heed my mom’s advice, my pockets were soon emptied of tokens thanks to Mario’s habits of touching evil turtles and jumping into voids. Thus, I sulked all the way back to our table, too ashamed to even think of asking my dad for more money. I reached the table while round three played on the screens; my mom turned to me and asked me to sit down and be quiet, because “people are watching.”
It took years for me to realize that the mood at the restaurant during those opening rounds was not the norm when dozens are watching a big-stakes boxing match. Boxing crowds are usually rowdy: cheering, hollering, whistling, stomping, and beer-chugging are their habits. But that night, at least in the opening rounds, everyone at the tiny restaurant found precious little to cheer for, as Taylor was clearly out-boxing Chavez and pulling ahead on the scorecards.
My videogame blues quickly dissipated, replaced by a sense of surprise at the solemn atmosphere that prevailed in the eatery, pierced only by isolated yelps and the occasional “chingado!” from some nearby table. Food remained on plates untouched, glasses filled to the brim. People hardly moved; they just watched while the waiters stood lined up against the wall, stretching their necks to see the screens. It was obvious something serious was going on, something that kept everyone’s feet tapping anxiously under the tables, left hands clasped to their rights as if in prayer. Most of all, I was taken aback by my dad’s intense focus on the TV.
I found the atmosphere fascinating and intimidating, and decided I would invest myself wholly into the fight, just like everyone else. Maybe because I thought it would be cool to take on an “adult” concern, which this fight clearly was. Or maybe I was just very much taken by my dad’s interest in the fight, as I’d never seen him pay that much attention before to anything on TV. If this was so important to him, and to my mom, and to the rest of the audience in the restaurant, then this had to be big. Whatever this was, I wanted to be a part of it.
By the middle rounds Taylor was pocketing them like Mario pocketed coins, and this is when I made a quick mental inventory of what I knew about the event. Chavez’ face was already familiar to me, as it was to millions of Mexican kids, from his frequent appearances on newscasts and on the front page of newspapers, and I don’t mean the sports section. I was also aware of boxing as something grandpa watched religiously, alone in his room every Saturday night on a tiny black-and-white TV. I also had a poster of Rocky IV in my room; like any warm-blooded seven-year-old boy who’d watched it, I loved that movie.
Upon realizing that Chavez’ opponent was black, another piece of the puzzle fell into place. “He’s a gringo!” I said to myself, as I knew all black people on TV were American. This realization single-handedly doubled my interest in the affair. Mexico’s love-hate relationship with the USA was the sort of stuff eight-year olds discussed during recess at school. Our conviction in the superiority of American-bought clothes, fast food, and toys was as strong as our indignity at the fact the USA “stole” swathes of Mexican territory “back in eighteen-something,” as our history teacher so helpfully put it.
Having identified the participants and the stakes involved, the next step was, crucially, to find out who was winning. Staring at the screen, it became clear Taylor was doing a lot more punching than Chavez. Julio looked a bit lost to me in there, chasing after Meldrick only to get hit in the face three or four times before he even punched back once. Or at least that’s the way it looked to me. There was no way for me to know which punches landed and which didn’t, but a fight is a fight, no matter your age, and if someone’s punching a lot, and the other guy’s not, then that surely means …
That’s when the harsh truth hit me like the turtle-shell that knocked Mario off the screen on my last coin: Chavez, our guy, was losing. There was no denying it. All the signs pointed to this fact: Taylor’s machine-gun activity rate; Chavez’ frustrating apathy; the Mexican’s corner’s desperate pleas between rounds for more punches; and last but not least, the eerie silence and gloomy mood in the restaurant, which grew bleaker with each passing round.
But a faint glimmer of hope emerged as the championship rounds approached, when the camera zoomed in on Taylor sitting on his stool, a not-so-triumphant look on his busted-up face. Hushed “oohs” could be heard all around when the camera focused on Meldrick’s swollen, deformed mess of a mug as he sat on his stool. No matter the scores, this made it evident Chavez was definitely getting some work done in there, perhaps enough of it that turning the tables remained a possibility.
The next round, exhilaration spread all over the place. With Chavez in adamant pursuit of a diminished Taylor and finally letting his hands go, men cursed approvingly at every left hook while women’s whooping punctuated every right cross. Adrenaline overtook my body, and I watched breathlessly as both warriors dueled tirelessly in the middle of the ring. When the bell rang to end the ninth, I found myself punching the air and hollering with the rest of them. The only other time I’d felt like this was when I watched Rocky overcome dismal odds in derailing the Siberian Express otherwise known as Ivan Drago. But this was way better. This was the real thing, arousing real passion, not only in myself, but in all those adults with whom I now felt a very real connection.
While I was happy Chavez was inflicting some damage–if not necessarily winning–at the same time I felt bad for Taylor and his bloodied mouth and swollen face. For a kid who once locked his bicycle in a storage room for three months after a pretty unspectacular tumble and a couple of scraped knees, it was impossible not to admire Meldrick’s courage in fighting on. This is when I broke the unspoken agreement to not bother my dad in any way, shape or form as long as the fight went on. Hesitatingly, I turned to him and asked, “If he’s winning, how come he’s so hurt?” My dad turned to me right away and answered with an excited flutter in his voice, “Chavez is getting to him and his hands are hard as bricks!”
“Round ten is coming up, there’s two more after this one. I think Chavez can win, but he’ll have to knock him out,” he continued, as a teenager and his dad nodded in agreement from the neighboring table. Just a couple of lines from my dad, spoken as if he was discussing the fight with a buddy, made me feel fully validated. Whatever this was, I was part of it now.
It all culminated in that infamous ending, the one that has kept fight fans talking for 25 years and will keep them talking for decades to come. With seconds left in the final round, Taylor chased Chavez into a corner, thus falling squarely into Julio’s trap, who, with a swift motion, put Taylor against the ropes to clock him with a right cross and send him to the canvas. We bounded from our seats like ten dozen jumping jacks all released from their boxes at the same time. All around me people counted at the top of their lungs, “TRES!” while Taylor grabbed the ropes, “CUATRO!” Steele held up his fingers “CINCO!” in front of Taylor’s face “SEIS!” Then Taylor turned to his corner “SIETE!” while Steele yelled something at him “OCHO!” But the referee shook his head “NUEVE!” and hugged Taylor as if holding some abused victim. “DIEZ!!!”
And that was it.
Chavez celebrated onscreen, a dejected Taylor walked back to his corner, and his furious trainer rushed the ring. It was all over, for better or worse. My dad was in utter disbelief; a childlike, face-wide smile painted on his face. Whooping and high-fiving people all around him, he eventually turned to me and slapped my hand so hard it turned bright red. I didn’t care. I was ecstatic too. I had never experienced anything like that, and it’s possible I never will again. On a single night I discovered the magic of sports, realized my inner patriotism, did some major bonding with my dad, and got a hell of a story to tell next Monday at school: “Of course I saw the fight! I watched it with my dad! We kicked USA’s butt!”
In sports-writing, hyperbole is rampant: “Everything is on the line!” “This is do or die!” “It’s now or never!” But only a child can get so caught up in a sports moment that those assertions become literal truths, at least for a little while. Watching boxing as an adult–or any sport for that matter–takes away a huge chunk of the fun, because we’re aware of so many real-world, adult, no-fun factors while watching that they completely overwhelm the unadulterated passion through which a more innocent viewer experiences the same event. The world wouldn’t have ended for me, or for my dad, if Steele had allowed Taylor to hear the final bell and earn the points win he deserved. But in those dying seconds of round twelve it certainly felt that way to me.
That night awoke the boxing fan in me, but it also represented a peak in that fandom. Perhaps the highest peak. Thanks to Chavez’ and Taylor’s amazing display–coupled with the intense and suspenseful atmosphere in the restaurant–my excitement while watching a fight will never again be that strong or that pure, and isn’t that a little sad? From that moment on, the filter through which I enjoy boxing would only get more and more polluted by an increasing awareness of the politics and money that both propel and poison the so-called Sweet Science. Being oblivious to those factors is a luxury only children can afford.
Maybe this is just a twisted way of trying to justify what happened to Taylor that night, but each of us has a way of interpreting sporting events, and this is what I choose to take from that night: if nothing else good came of it, at least that thrilling battle between Taylor and Chavez marked me for life. If my dad hadn’t brought me to the restaurant, maybe I never would’ve become a fight fan. And while it’s true these days that boxing probably gives me–as it does many other fans–more headaches than joys, I wouldn’t trade my memory of March 17, 1990 for anything in the world. Just like when my dad asked me with a smile the next day if I would’ve preferred to play video games all night instead of watching the fight, I mustered all the incredulity I could get into a single look and then blurted out a resounding, “No way!” –Rafael Garcia