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.

"Right now, I think I'm going to be scared crossing the river and everything," he says. "I don't cross the river no more."

As Benjamin slides into the ring, he looks across at his first professional foe, Terry White, a spindly black featherweight from Waco who wears his hair in cornrows. Benjamin waves to his family in the crowd and smiles a little. They were given 35 free tickets for tonight, and it looks like they've taken advantage of every single one of them. He makes the sign of the cross, as his grandmother taught him to do before every round. When the bell goes off, White comes in sharp, but Benjamin rebounds with a flurry of blows. In no time at all, Benjamin has him up against the ropes, and a deafening roar shudders the ballroom.

As Benjamin steps into the ring, he leaves behind the 
amateur ranks.
Daniel Perlacky
As Benjamin steps into the ring, he leaves behind the amateur ranks.
At 12, Benjamin poses with former champ Raul 
Courtesy of Benjamin Flores
At 12, Benjamin poses with former champ Raul Marquez.

The crowd -- a sea of Hispanic faces, nearly all of them male -- has rallied behind El Michoacano. Benjamin pounds a left hook to the jaw and the referee calls the fight. TKO in 42 seconds. It feels almost premature for a moment in his life so long in the making. He exits the ring and ducks into the crowd, signing autographs, giving hugs and posing for pictures.

Most days he can't believe that he's gotten this far. He takes home $800 for the match, keeping it all for himself. His coach, Hailey, who is retired, takes nothing, training his fighters for love of the sport. Admittedly, if he had Olympic gold he might pull down more, but it's still better than when he was stuck out in the crops.

"Sometimes I feel funny when people go to me and they tell me, 'Sign that autograph' -- and I feel like, man, if y'all woulda known where I come from, y'all wouldn't be asking for autograph," he says. His momentum to date helps heal the disappointment of not being able to compete in Athens. If he's angry, he doesn't admit it. Resignation seems a better fit. "Some things, they're not for you," he says.

Both Miguel and Benjamin's mother, Oliva, worry about the risk of boxing, having seen, in Miguel, the danger of a head injury, though both cope in different ways.

"After, when he's 30 years old, when his career's over, I don't want him to have any scars or anything like that. I want him to be like when God brought him to the earth," says Miguel, through an interpreter. "That's why I push him so hard.

"This [boxing] is not a joke. This is serious -- that's why I push so hard, so that won't happen. Yeah, I'm worried about my son forgetting things or having mental problems because of those kind of injuries."

His faith is wrapped in sweat -- the sweat of Benjamin training hard, following the rules and being prepared when he takes that risk. Miguel says he worries only when the boys start slacking off in practice. Benjamin and Miguel Jr. parrot those same lines of faith, believing, at least outwardly, that if they work hard, they have nothing to fear, that tragedy will never disable them like it did their father.

Oliva doesn't go to practices. She does make the fights and the Mexican food that constitutes Benjamin's diet. And for reassurance that Benjamin will make it home okay, she clings to a force not rooted in four-mile runs or ten-round sparring sessions.

"Yes, it is too dangerous. But you can't change anything," she says through an interpreter. "I always put my hand up to God and hope that nothing bad will happen."

During the week, Benjamin helps her out at the family taco stand. When he's sitting around the house, he watches videotape of his idols -- Chavez, Oscar de la Hoya, Marco Antonio Barrera. Last year, he graduated from Sam Houston High School, and he hopes to attend North Harris College in the fall, but more than that, he wants to be a world champion.

"I wanna be somebody, like, not because I'm going to put somebody else's name up there -- I wanna put my own name up there," he says, his tongue tripping tightly over the syllables. "I wanna be somebody in my life. Somebody that people recognize."

After the fight, he changes out of his trunks, slips on a blue oxford shirt and drifts back out into the crowd. He's surprised. Dalia, his girlfriend, has shown up, for the first time ever. As they talk in the back corner of the crowded ballroom -- just a few faces among hundreds -- he can't bring himself to watch the rest of the main event.

It's not him up there at center stage. Not yet. He waits patiently for his opportunity to strike.

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