Taking A Real Beating

In Piedras Negras, a peaceful Mexican town on the Texas border, most people work in the maquiladoras. For the dreamers, there are the boxing gyms. Taped to the gym walls, among the pinups, the miniature shrines to the Virgin of Guadalupe and the life-size cutouts of boxing hero Julio Cesar Chavez, you can often find the name Fernando (El Negro) Ibarra on faded fliers advertising local fights. Ibarra was a boxer. His father, who believed his son could lift the family out of poverty, often went to the local gym to watch him train. After Ibarra turned professional, he would periodically give his mother part of his earnings, which, when he started going to the United States to box, usually totaled about $400 a fight. He used to tell her, "Wait, Mama. We're going to make it."

That was before one night last January at the Regal Riverfront Hotel in St. Louis. Nobody had told Ibarra, a mediocre boxer who supplemented his paydays by cleaning the Piedras Negras reservoir for $18 a week, that his opponent would be Ratanachai Vorapin, the world's No. 1 contender in his weight class, a man who has earned $50,000 for a single fight. "I had this big illusion that I could beat him," the 23-year-old Ibarra says. But 49 seconds into the sixth round of the eight-round bout, a moment Ibarra cannot remember, a single crushing punch changed his life forever. Three brain operations later, he speaks and walks with difficulty. The extent of his injuries is what makes the fight noteworthy--not that it was allowed in the first place. There are dozens of Mexican boxers for whom the names and rankings of their opponents in the United States are mere details, for whom the only chance of victory there is landing a lucky punch. What matters is whether these migrants can continue to work in one of the U.S. entertainment industry's most punishing jobs.

Mexican boxers go north for the same reason as other migrants: getting beaten up, like picking fruit, is a job fewer and fewer Americans are willing to do at the going wages. Over the last decade, Mexico has become the most important supplier of boxing opponents to the United States--and occasionally to Europe. "It's supply and demand," says Eric Bottjer, who matches fighters for New York-based promoter Cedric Kushner. "If you call a gym in the United States, you're lucky if you can get one guy in the weight class you need. If you call any gym in Mexico, you'll get four or five." This is especially true in the lower weight classes, since most Mexican fighters are small, like the 5-foot-2, 120-pound Ibarra. But, Bottjer adds: "No one is going to fly a guy from Mexico to the United States to win a fight. He's not going to draw any fans. That's not the purpose of bringing him up." The purpose, those in the boxing industry readily admit, is to provide opponents for promising fighters. For some promoters, that means grooming their prizefighters with challenging but winnable bouts. For others, it means finding easy opponents to add victories to a record, ensure a win for the hometown hero or tune up a champion for an upcoming title fight.

Mexico is famous for its own world champions, such as Chavez and the late Salvador Sanchez. But odds are that if a U.S. fight includes a Mexican, he will lose. Take California, which has more fights than any other state: since the beginning of 1998, Mexicans have traveled north to face an opponent there 220 times--more than a quarter of all bouts--but have won just 41 times. NEWSWEEK has identified more than 70 Mexican boxers who repeatedly visit the United States and get beaten up (graphic). Many have good--though often unverifiable--records in Mexico before going to the United States. Most are managed by the same half-dozen men. And most live along the border in towns like Piedras Negras that are easily accessible to the United States, even if that sometimes means swimming across the Rio Bravo and eluding the U.S. Border Patrol. In the United States, $100 for each three-minute round is at least 10 times what the same job pays back home--and more than enough to risk your neck for.

California and texas have long been the most popular U.S. destinations for Mexican boxers. For several, those border states have become steppingstones to fights deeper in the United States. Missouri, where the Ibarra fight took place, had 43 boxing shows last year, up from just nine a decade earlier. In 1996, in response to the changes in the industry, the U.S. federal government passed a bill that created a national ID system for boxers and required states to supervise all fights. But it has remained difficult to track Mexican boxers--a problem that led to talks between boxing officials in both countries this past summer. "We were getting a lot of Mexican fighters whose records we couldn't confirm," says Greg Sirb, president of the Association of Boxing Commissions. "In some cases we couldn't even tell who they were."

The men who broker their fights are well known. At the center of Ibarra's story is German Barrientos, a 41-year-old used-car salesman whose family has run a gym in the border town of Nuevo Laredo for three decades. For many Mexican boxers, the gym--a dimly lit room with a decaying roof, a carpeted boxing ring and a bench press that uses flywheels from an automobile clutch as weights--has become a gateway to fights in Texas. Barrientos took it over from his father in the mid-1980s. He says he manages about 10 boxers, regularly taking them to bouts in the United States and collecting 33 percent of their earnings from each fight. Three years ago he made headlines when one of his boxers died after being knocked out in Texas. Rey Hernandez, who had lost 16 of his last 24 fights, had been matched against an up-and-coming undefeated fighter.

Ibarra was one of several fighters Barrientos had recruited from Piedras Negras. Barrientos had eyed him since their first meeting in 1989, when Ibarra was 13 and starting out. His father, Fernando Sr., accused his son of partying too much and training too little. But Ibarra, who became known as "El Negro" for his dark skin, began racking up victories against weaker local boxers--far weaker than the opponents he would later face in the United States. At 17, he got married, and his wife moved in. Two years later, after they had a baby, the marriage fell apart, and Ibarra gained custody of his daughter. He turned professional in 1996. Barrientos had stayed in touch.

Professional fights in Mexico often pay less than $50. Not much of a payday, but Ibarra's family needed the money. Two of his sisters, both mothers of toddlers, also lived at home. Ibarra's father hadn't worked for years; his mother supported the family by selling lottery tickets. Two years ago the family turned the front room of their house into a snack shop. Painted with the red and yellow label of Superior Beer, it brings in about $10 a day. Inside the house, there is a framed picture of Joe Louis on the mantel. And across the gravel yard, past the chickens and the old box spring, is the shell of a house that Ibarra had slowly been building with his boxing earnings.

The neighborhood is a collage of corrugated iron, cinder blocks, barbed wire, stray dogs, gravel streets and an occasional outhouse. It breeds boxers. Another Barrientos fighter, Javier Narvaez, lives several blocks from Ibarra. As a teenager, he got hooked on sniffing glue and joined a street gang. Nine years ago, at the age of 22, he heard a radio ad for a local boxing tournament, and with a month of training, knocked out his opponent in two rounds. To get to his first two professional fights in the United States--both in Texas--he says he had to cross the border illegally. Broader and more muscular than most Mexican fighters, he trains in the evenings, often hanging a punching bag inside the brick frame of an abandoned house. Several programs from his fights inflate his record. But the true numbers are 9 wins, 9 losses, 1 draw. Of the nine fights in the United States, he has won only one, back in 1994. But Narvaez is happy enough to bring home dollars, for which he thanks Barrientos. "He's a good person. It's his job," says Narvaez, whose own full-time job is in a maquiladora, making telephone jacks for $9 a day.

Down the street lives Javier Diaz, the man who had originally introduced Ibarra and Barrientos. Just over 5 feet tall with a powerful chest, tiny hands and scars on his eyelids, Diaz has fought professionally 98 times since his debut in 1981. Barrientos considers him one of his stars. And Diaz began that way, with 16 straight wins in Mexico. Then he started going to the United States to fight. He has won there only twice in 41 attempts, the last time in 1983. The records of his last three opponents there were 27-0, 32-2, 14-0. In the course of losing, Diaz earned enough money to buy his parents a house. Often he has gone to the United States on two days' notice to fight an opponent whose name he learns at the weigh-in. "They know Mexicans won't say no," says Diaz. "They'll always go and give a good fight."

Diaz still fights occasionally, but is now trying to make it himself as a manager and trainer. Ibarra often trained in the two-room concrete shed Diaz had turned into a gym next to his house. It was so small that fighters often backed into each other. Once Ibarra told Diaz that he never wanted to fight in Mexico again because the pay was too low.

For three years doug hartmann, a St. Louis businessman, had mulled the idea of promoting boxing matches. Finally he decided to make a debut in the business: Friday, Jan. 29, at the Riverfront Regal Hotel. It was to be a first-class show, with five fights on the program. To arrange the fights, Hartmann hired one of boxing's best-known matchmakers, Peyton Sher, who usually works for the world's most famous boxing promoter, Don King.

That connection helped Sher line up Vorapin, a Thai fighter who is promoted by King. With 17 straight wins and an overall record of 34 wins--24 of them by knockout--and 3 losses, he was ranked as the No. 1 challenger in the world in the junior bantamweight division (115 pounds). Most of his fights had been in Thailand, and now he was looking to accrue some experience in the U.S. before seeking the world title in his weight class. He agreed to fight for $25,000, half of what he earned for a fight a month earlier in Florida. The bout would be eight rounds, two fewer than he was used to fighting.

Sher began his search for an opponent. He called Ruben (Blackie) Ramon, a "booking agent" in San Antonio, Texas, who is well known for his connections in Mexico. Sher told Ramon that he was looking for a 118-pound fighter to face Vorapin. Ramon called Barrientos in Nuevo Laredo. In early January, Barrientos contacted Ibarra with the offer: $600 for eight rounds. Ibarra says he refused. Not because of the opponent--Barrientos never identified him--but because Ibarra believed he was out of shape, and the pay was too low. Barrientos, though, says that Ibarra agreed to fight. And that was the message that got back to St. Louis. Sher says he was satisfied with the matchup.

According to Ibarra's official record--5 wins, 3 losses and 3 draws--he had never fought more than six rounds and never knocked out anybody. But Ibarra and his handlers claim that he has more than 20 wins in unregistered fights in Mexico. Sher based his assessment not on Ibarra's record, but on what he calls an "impressive performance" against another high-ranked boxer, Will Grigsby, the previous November in Minnesota. In fact, that fight lasted only 45 seconds. When the boxers butted heads in the first round, both suffered cuts, and the bout was declared a technical draw.

On Monday, Jan. 25, Barrientos contacted Ibarra to remind him about the fight. Ibarra said he wasn't in shape and would not go. But later that day, after the offer was bumped to $1,100, Ibarra's attention turned to his half-built home on his family's lot. He says he thought: "With the money, I can finish the house." The next morning before dawn, Ibarra went jogging with his friend Diaz. Then he got on a bus to Nuevo Laredo, a three-hour ride from Piedras Negras, spent a day at Barrientos's gym and then flew with his manager to St. Louis. Barrientos now says that Blackie Ramon never told him the name of the opponent. "I always ask who the opponent is," Barrientos says. "Matchmakers and promoters lie. They say, 'He's an easy opponent. He doesn't hit hard.' " Ramon says he identified Vorapin. "If you book a fight and the manager agrees, and his fighter's not in condition, what can you do?" he says. "When you get in the ring you've got to kick a-- or they're going to kick yours. That's the nature of boxing."

The fight had to be approved by the State of Missouri. Tim Lueckenhoff, the administrator of the Office of Athletics, says that his commission--unlike those in other states--cannot prevent a bout just because it is a mismatch. All that matters is that both boxers pass a cursory physical the day before the fight. Lueckenhoff, who had never heard of Ibarra or Vorapin, says: "It didn't enter my mind as being a serious mismatch."

At the weigh-in the day before the fight, Ibarra saw his opponent for the first time. "He was all muscles," he remembers. Ibarra, who looked narrower and softer, weighed 120, two pounds more than Vorapin. The next night, as the fight was announced, Ibarra learned his opponent's No. 1 ranking. "German told me before the fight that if I beat him I'd have a shot at the world championship," he says. But during the fight, "I could not connect. He was too strong for me. I just had to cover myself. That's all I remember."

The television commentators described Vorapin as "a big banger" and Ibarra as "one of those tough kids from the streets of Mexico." That is how Mexican opponents are often described in the United States, which is sometimes true. But more often it is an allusion to a quality that makes them ideal opponents. There are American boxers who make their living by losing fights, but, as Lueckenhoff points out: "When a Mexican fighter comes up, you know he's going to fight. We don't have to worry about him taking a phantom punch in the first round like he went down with a shotgun." That night at the Regal, the 818 fans, seated around tables, sipping Budweiser out of plastic cups, had paid more than a total of $22,000 to watch boxing. They wanted action.

Vorapin delivered. He knocked down Ibarra in the second and third rounds. In his corner, Ibarra hunched back on his stool, listening to Barrientos. "Don't trust him," Barrientos can be heard saying on a tape of the fight. "Do you hear me? He's going to work on you with his right." In round four, one TV announcer said of Ibarra: "He's trying. All you can ask of a fighter is that he tries." At times Vorapin broke into a grin as Ibarra tried to dance out of his way. Forty-nine seconds into round six, Ibarra, backing up toward the corner, let down his right hand. Vorapin fired a single left hook. Ibarra snapped back against the corner post and slumped onto the canvas. In the heat of the excitement, one TV commentator celebrated the blow: "Oh! Look at that shot! He caught him right on the button! He won't recover from this one! His eyes are back!" In fact, after a few minutes, Barrientos helped Ibarra to his feet and they walked back to the dressing room. Ibarra sat down. Then he passed out.

Arturo (Finito) Estrada, another boxer Barrientos had brought from Mexico, watched the paramedics load Ibarra onto a stretcher. Estrada had shared a hotel room with Ibarra and had heard his worries about not being prepared for the fight. For a moment, the 28-year-old from the coastal city of Tampico wondered if the same could happen to him. Then the television introduced him as "one of those tough street Mexican fighters" with a record of 22-26-1. What was not said is that of his 15 fights in the United States, dating back to 1993, his record was 0 wins and 15 losses. After that night, it would be 16 defeats.

Back in piedras negras, there was a knock on the door of the Ibarra house. It was Diaz, who had been contacted by Barrientos from St. Louis. El Negro had been hurt. The next day his mother and sister, who both had papers to cross the border, headed north to San Antonio, where Barrientos picked them up and drove them to St. Louis. Hartmann, the promoter, rented an apartment for them for several weeks, gave them money for food and, for Ibarra's match, paid them $1,500--$400 more than the offer El Negro had negotiated. A blood vessel had burst in his brain, leaving him in a coma for two weeks and, doctors believe, with some permanent brain damage. In the course of three brain surgeries and three months in the hospital, Ibarra racked up a debt of $140,000. He occasionally fades into incoherence, and his gait is wobbly. There is a dent in the right side of his head where surgeons removed--and then reinserted--a section of skull to uncork the pressure building in his brain.

By the time Ibarra arrived home, in late April, the fight was big news along the border. U.S. lawyers have filed suit against the hotel, the fight promoter and Sher, the matchmaker. The defendants have denied any wrongdoing. In Mexico, boxing regulators began circulating a list of seven middlemen they say are unscrupulous. The Mexican newspaper Reforma printed a story saying the country's boxers were being used as "cannon fodder." The Nuevo Laredo boxing commission suspended Barrientos for not having sought its approval to take Ibarra to the fight, a rule that Mexican officials hope the U.S. state boxing commissions will start helping them enforce. Barrientos has denied that he did anything wrong; four months later a court overturned the suspension. One of boxing's most famous figures, Jose Sulaiman, president of the Mexico City-based World Boxing Council, calls the Ibarra fight "one of countless examples of unethical promoters and agents taking Mexicans to the United States to be exploited." But that's not the way most boxers who travel north see it. To them, it was a tragic accident that could not have been prevented. It will not stop them from seeking glory--or dollars--in the United States.

After flooring Ibarra, Vorapin got his shot at a world title. He lost, on a 12-round decision, to Mark Johnson, an American. For his part, Ibarra whiles away the time at home. Lately he's been having the same delusion over and over. He tells people that a boxing agent has just called him. His next fight is scheduled in Las Vegas against a world champion. "I have to train. To beat him. Then I'll get revenge against the Thai," he says, slouching in a living-room chair. His father shrugs, and then with a sense of pride, says: "He wasn't a bad boxer. He faced the No. 1. He could have been knocked out in the first round. He took a pounding for six rounds."

Taking A Real Beating | News