Promoters, painters and punchbags

Letter from Mexico City

Boxing analysts here have been jostling for months to get the plum assignments covering the Sydney Olympics, because the most likely medalists for Mexico will be in the ring. Lightweights Miguel Cotto, at 63.5 kilograms, and Cristian Bejarano, at 60kg, along with flyweight Daniel Ponce, at 51kg, make up a trio of tough Mexican contenders who will be shouldering a hefty share of national pride throughout the Olympic boxing tournament.

Boxing analysts here have been jostling for months to get the plum assignments covering the Sydney Olympics, because the most likely medalists for Mexico will be in the ring. Lightweights Miguel Cotto, at 63.5 kilograms, and Cristian Bejarano, at 60kg, along with flyweight Daniel Ponce, at 51kg, make up a trio of tough Mexican contenders who will be shouldering a hefty share of national pride throughout the Olympic boxing tournament.

Their role model is Oscar de la Hoya, 27, a handsome champion from East Los Angeles who won gold for the United States eight years ago. Ask any Mexican and he'll rate 'the Golden Boy' as a local by proxy. De la Hoya's Las Vegas prize fights regularly draw hundreds of fervent Mexican fans from every social strata, and they liken him to the boxing legend, Julio Cesar Chavez - still touted as the Lord of the Ring.

Winning high-profile amateur bouts is probably the best route to a professional career, but, in non-Olympic years, many Mexican boxers choose to embark on the pro circuit very early on - sometimes even swimming the Rio Grande and entering the United States without documents in order to earn dollars by taking on opponents north of the border. Frequently, these inexperienced young boxers turn out to be over-matched and underpaid.

Jose Sulaiman, president of the Mexico City-based World Boxing Council, complains of "countless examples of unethical promoters and agents taking Mexicans to the United States to be exploited."

The perception is that gringo promoters seek out Mexican "cannon fodder" for cut rates, because there is an endless supply of willing young toughs in the lower weight categories bursting out of the barrios, particularly in the sleazy bordertowns near Texas and California. In reality, little money trickles down to those willing to take a beating. But since local bouts can bring the loser as little as $50 (£30), Mexican boxers prefer to go north for glory, glamour and at least 10 times the take-home pay.

Latina women, with carefully padded breasts, are beginning to take up boxing as well, and draw big audiences. But there is growing resentment that unknown Mexican boxers, inevitably billed in the US as 'tough street fighters' who will keep slugging away, are kept misinformed and are purposely mismatched.

When the wealthy fight promoter, Don King, came to Mexico City a few years back and was mugged for his Rolex wristwatch, there was an odd undercurrent of admiration for the plucky pickpocket who pulled it off. The press joked that Mexico City sneak thieves finally had provided a reason for that famous hair to stand on end.

One of Mexico's most prominent young painters, Emiliano Gironella Parra, recently commemorated that visit with a portrait of the notorious promoter. Clutching a stogie with manicured fingers and a knuckle-duster ring emblazoned with a dollar sign, Don King smirks from the canvas, which is framed by gold-toned chains and six pairs of puny brown-skinned pugilists, labelled "made in Mexico". It's the centrepiece of an exhibition "In this Corner", which pays homage to the boxing ring and its larger-than-life characters.

Gironella is gearing up for the World Boxing Council's convention in the Mexican capital next month by linking up with eight other artists and writers who share his passion for boxing. "Like cockfighting or bullfighting, boxing suits the Mexican soul," he says. "We excel at it." Intellectual heavyweights such as the writers Joyce Carol Oates and Norman Mailer have extolled the elemental appeal of boxing as a battle of strength and psyche that strips away anything extraneous. Curiously, professional boxing used to be banned from broadcast on Spanish television because of its brutality, although there was no such squeamishness over weekly bullfights to the death. Yet the art exhibit is due to open late this year in Barcelona and Madrid, presenting boxing as high concept: like a Fight Club with unexpectedly cultured members.

The boxers portrayed by Gironella seem to be punching their way through pain, and their faces strain over muscles bunched like slabs of beef. But the artist also is captivated by the drama of the fighting world, both inside and outside the ropes. One striking painting shows the French singer, Edith Piaf, with white hands crossed like a corpse, opposite the boxing great, Marcel Cerdan. Roses and skulls keep them apart beneath a sketchy prop plane. "They were lovers, in spite of themselves," the artist recounts. "Piaf once dreamt of a horrible airplane crash and cautioned the champion not to fly between New York and Paris. He cancelled his ticket, but his plane landed on schedule without a hitch. So he took the next one - and it crashed. Piaf was devastated."

The work of Alfredo Garcia Revuelta, a Spanish painter in the same exhibit, also draws on fighting legend for a surreal effect: a weirdly blank-eyed boxer has eyeballs on the tips of his gloves that allow him to see where to punch. "It's like the old timer Panama Red," Emiliano Gironella explains patiently to non-aficionado. "He was blind at the end, except for his fists."

All eyes will soon be on three amateur Mexican boxers in Sydney, watching their matches out of passion and pride. Artists and con artists alike will be looking for inspiration.

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