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Kenny Weldon, Holyfield's trainer who grew up in Galena Park, has watched a once-vibrant local fight community advance and recede. He says the heyday of amateur and professional boxing stretched from 1945 until 1970. "You could go to the professional gym and every day you were there you'd see two or three champions -- Joe Brown, ex-lightweight champion, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier -- who had come to town to box," he says. "Just the best the world had to offer trained or fought in Houston."
In more recent decades, however, he says Houston's status plummeted and became known as "opponent city," a place where talent was not nurtured, but rather "thrown to the wolves."
"I think the slump came when they took local boxers and started using them as cannon fodder," he says. Still, in the last few years, a tidal wave of budding talent has washed up in local gyms. Weldon believes Houston is on the cusp of a second golden era of boxing.
James A. Carter is registration chair for the USA Boxing Gulf Association office. "Four years ago, they'd put on a boxing show and sometimes we'd have to cancel it because we didn't have enough fighters to make matches," he says. "About four weeks ago, they had a boxing show out in Bellaire with 46 fights." When he took over registering amateurs in 2000, he says, they were lucky to get as many as 400 members. In 2003, Houston had 735 fighters and 55 boxing clubs. Who are the new faces?
Carter explains: "Until 1984, when I was still coaching at the Salvation Army Boys & Girls Club, I had 90 percent or more of my boxers that were black," he says. "When I gave it up in 1994, about the same number boxing was Hispanics.
"You go to these boxing shows and you can see about two-thirds of the show is Hispanics. It has doubled up in the past four or five years."
At the professional level, Jim Browning reports that Browning Boxing, his Houston-based promotions organization, has seen steady growth since its inception in 1997. His monthly show regularly draws 2000 people, and he credits much of the success to the Latino market.
By some measures, boxing has overtaken soccer as the sport of choice for Hispanics in America. According to the ESPN Sports Poll, 65 percent of Hispanics claim to be boxing fans, compared to 45 percent who identify interest in professional soccer. In a report on the sport's health, an HBO executive said that 68 percent of Latino males watch boxing once a week. And Telefutura, a national Spanish-language television network, has seen ratings for its boxing programming outpace fútbol to gain several slots in its top ten for viewership over the past two years.
"They're keeping the sport alive," says Ignacio "Nacho" Lopez, co-director for Julio Cesar Chavez promotions. "It's definitely something that the Hispanic macho public likes.
"Valiancy is a Hispanic trait -- the culture will not let you be a coward," he says. "If you're a coward and you don't fight to the end, you're called the worst words in the Hispanic culture -- it's like you don't even exist That's why a Hispanic boxer never quits in the ring, because he knows that if he does, he'll never hear the end of it."
The local Hispanic community -- 33 percent in Harris County, according to the 2000 census -- was a deciding factor in Lopez's choosing to bring Chavez Jr.'s first U.S. bout to Houston. What's more, with the huge subset of mexicanos locally, Lopez knew he'd be able to draw an audience that would "go berserk about Julio Cesar Chavez."
Certainly the macho element of boxing plays a huge role in its popularity with Hispanics. More broadly, though, boxing traditionally has been seen as an immigrant's sport, from its black-and-white days of Irish and Italian brawlers. Few sports can offer so literal a metaphor of fighting your way out of the barrio. "Boxing is a poor person's sport," says Kenny Weldon. "It is the blue-collar worker, the people who work, who emphasize labor, unions -- they've always loved boxing."
Aaron Navarro, Benjamin's trainer, adds another point: "A lot of it has to do with we never get real big yet. You don't see that many six-foot-nine Mexicans. We don't have any 240-pounders; we don't have any NBA stars.
"In boxing, you can be 106 pounds and you can be a world champion."