Passport to Nowhere

Benjamin Flores wants to box in the Olympics. But he isn't a U.S. citizen, and he can't risk returning to Mexico.

"We can study, you know, he'll learn it, and then all of a sudden it's gone. He forgets," says Munoz, who assists with the family's immigration efforts. "And it's hard because he wants to help Ben, but his father has to be a citizen before Ben does."

Near the end of an interview, she adds, "There are times you can see the tears in his eyes, because he can't be there for the kids."

Benjamin celebrates his first professional fight -- and 
first pro victory.
Daniel Perlacky
Benjamin celebrates his first professional fight -- and first pro victory.
During the week, the family runs a taco stand on the 
north side.
Daniel Kramer
During the week, the family runs a taco stand on the north side.

The television cabinet in the Flores household groans under the weight of some 50 boxing trophies, all crowding for space and glittering green, blue and gold colors. Benjamin thinks back to when he was a kid and watched featherweight Rocky Juarez, a Houston native, return from Sydney with a silver medal.

"Everybody, they were there waiting for him. He was on the news; they were waiting for him at the airport," he says. "I wanted to go to Olympics, because everybody sees you on the TV."

In 1997, a 13-year-old Benjamin had his first fight as an amateur.

"I was tired. I was real, real, real tired," he says. So tired, in fact, he could barely keep his gloves up against the 98-pound black kid he battled for three one-minute rounds. "It's easy for me right now. But in those days, you know, three rounds, one minute -- it's a lot!" He won the match; the first of 25 consecutive victories that impressed onlookers and fired up Benjamin.

While he takes pride looking back on this early success, he adds that his sights were always set on bigger, better targets. Miguel confides that he worried about his son a lot in those days, because Benjamin's ascendance meant that he was always matching up against someone who had had more practice.

About three years ago, when he moved up to 125, Walt Hailey took over as his coach. Hailey, a 69-year-old retired systems analyst for IBM, has seen a lot of boxing in his 39 years in the Houston fight scene. He discusses Benjamin outside the gym one afternoon, slouched in the captain's seat of his maroon van, flexing a squeeze weight in his swollen, doughy hands.

"He was a tough kid. He had a lot of desire, and he was a hard worker," says Hailey, croaking out the words from a mouth that barely opens. "He works hard as far as the boxing training was concerned. I thought he had some natural ability."

Kenny Weldon, a veteran coach for several decades here, is even more awestruck by Benjamin's potential.

"I believe he is Roberto Duran-like. I believe he is the best prospect that I have seen in Houston for many years," he says. It's quite a vote of confidence coming from a guy who trained Evander Holyfield. He calls Benjamin "very capable of becoming champion of the world."

"This kid is the baddest dude in the land at his weight," he says. Observers describe Benjamin as the classic Mexican fighter -- a pug who goes inside, bobs and weaves, wants to trade blows and ultimately have the fight decided by a body hitting the canvas. Benjamin has probably inherited that from his father; after all, nobody scores points in a back alley.

As an amateur, Benjamin had about 80 fights, only seven of which ended in losses. His defining moment came in the summer of 2002 at the Ringside National Championships in Kansas City, Missouri. Benjamin had scrapped his way into the final round, but he faced Aaron Garcia, a tough featherweight from San Diego ranked No. 1 in the country. Garcia had actually accompanied Rocky Juarez to those Sydney Olympics as an alternate for the U.S. team. The Ringside tournament drew several hundred coaches and more than a thousand fighters.

"And as soon as everybody found out we were fighting [Garcia], they thought we'd already lost," says Aaron Navarro, Benjamin's trainer. "I was worried that if it went to a decision, they'd give it to him, because he's got a name." Benjamin slugged it out with Garcia over the course of four two-minute rounds. Neither was willing to back down. When Benjamin returned to his corner, his training crew reminded him of the previous year at Ringside. They felt they got jobbed in the final match because Benjamin was a no-name. He took second place that year, losing to Manuel Perez in the men's 125-pound division.

Navarro egged him on: "Don't let them do what they did to you last year." Benjamin could almost hear the distant echoes of his father: Make a name for yourself. Benjamin made his statement. He won in a unanimous decision.

"That's when these other people had to start taking note of him," says Navarro. "We always thought he was that type of fighter, but that put his name in other people's heads."

Going to the Olympics is not just a noble dream -- a chance to carry the flag, represent your country and get weepy when the orchestra swoops in -- it's also the quickest way to ignite a professional career. Aaron Garcia's coach, Jorge Padilla, agrees that if Benjamin had "the prestige of being an Olympian, people in the business of boxing are interested in how he'll develop as a pro -- especially if they win medals."

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