By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
By Angelica Leicht
By Jeff Balke
By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
In a gritty arena in southwest Houston, Aaron Navarro, a trainer with tattoos crawling up his neck, scoops out several hunks of petroleum jelly from a jar and slathers it across Benjamin Flores's taut 126-pound frame.
A coach, two trainers and a few friends shuffle in and out of Benjamin's dressing room, which is little more than a ratty couch and walls with unfinished paint streaks.
Nineteen-year-old Benjamin is short and thick, although the single light bulb hanging from the ceiling shows the tiny ridges of his rib cage. Benjamin takes a few swipes at the air and hops from foot to foot. Little is spoken, and every man in the room trains his gaze on the five-foot-six featherweight.
"Body shots. Inside. Uppercuts. Uppercuts," says Terrell Triche, one of his trainers. The words come out as a half-whisper.
Walt Hailey, Benjamin's coach, takes out a glove and dances around him in a tight circle, Benjamin unloading cannon blows into Hailey's mitt. THWAP! THWAP!
Navarro steps back into the room.
"What'd they tell you?" Hailey asks.
"They're gonna start pretty soon," says Navarro. "I don't know what pretty soon means. Five minutes, five hours " Ticket sellers are still herding people into the building. They're not here for Benjamin; his is the first fight on the card. The crowds have come to see the son of Julio Cesar Chavez in his U.S. debut. Chavez is still God within the Mexican boxing community, and they've come to find out if Hijo Jr. will be their Jesus.
Benjamin slips on his black and white gavan, a blanketlike cloak with the Virgin of Guadalupe stitched into it over his nickname, El Michoacano, or the one who comes from Michoacan, his home state in Mexico. His father used to be called El Michoacano when he ran a restaurant of the same name. In that, Benjamin has inherited both the nickname and his father's dream.
"Andale," Benjamin allows. It's one of the few things the stone-faced fighter has said all night. The crew eases out of the dressing room, into the darkness of the crowd below and toward the bright lights of the ring.
Benjamin wants to be a fighter. But not like this.
He's beaten the No. 1 amateur featherweight fighter in the United States and the No. 1 from Mexico. But that means nothing, because Benjamin Flores belongs neither here nor there. He can't fight for the United States because he's not a citizen. He could fight for Mexico, but there's no guarantee the U.S. would let him back in this country once he crossed the border.
He is a fighter without a country -- a pugilist caught in the gears of globalization.
Tonight, as he takes his first step into the professional ranks at the International Ballroom, he will also take home a modest cash prize. The money will seal him off from ever competing on an Olympic stage.
Benjamin Flores has good range, timing and endurance -- everything that he would need to get to Athens this year, except for the right passport.
The first time Benjamin Flores pulled himself out of the Rio Grande, his clothes sopping wet and the spring air biting into his skin, immigration police carted him back across the border.
The 11-year-old had traveled by bus with his older sister and uncle, 424 miles from their hometown. They regrouped at a motel along the border. The following day they plunged back into the river, but were again caught when they emerged on the American side.
On the third attempt, the trio slipped through the net of border guards and met up with Benjamin's father, Miguel Flores, who already had a U.S. work permit and lived in Houston with Benjamin's mother and younger brother. Miguel drove them straight to the Harlingen airport, hoping to skirt the road checkpoint outside town by flying them out.
"Try not to be scared, because once they notice you're scared, they'll ask for papers," Maribel Munoz, a close family friend, advised Miguel. It may have been the look in his eyes that gave them away. Inside the airport, immigration authorities stripped Miguel of his children and brother and escorted them back to Mexico.
A frantic Miguel called Munoz. "What am I going to do now?" he cried. "They took the kids away." Munoz, a Mexican-American born in California, decided to fly down. On the way out, she tried to soothe Benjamin's panicked mother: "One way or another, I'll bring back the kids."
Relatives and neighbors gathered at the family's northside home and hunched over rosaries, praying for the children's safe arrival. But the fourth, fifth and sixth attempts all ended in failure. On the seventh try, Miguel picked them up and dropped them off outside Harlingen. Benjamin, his 14-year-old sister and uncle wandered out into the woods, planning to meet at a rest area on the other side of the checkpoint.
Four hours passed and there was still no sign of them. Miguel couldn't wait any longer -- he had to go find them. He hopped out of the truck, but before he could tear off into the woods, Munoz stopped him and took his U.S. documents away.
It was a calculated reduction of risk; if he got caught with the others without papers, they would probably just boot them all back across the border. If he had his documents on him, he risked being pegged as a coyote and he could lose everything.
As Munoz circled, Miguel searched desperately for his family. When the children finally popped out of the brush, accompanied by their uncle, they wore terrified expressions and muddy shoes. Munoz took them to a hotel to get cleaned up. The drive back to Houston was virtually silent. No one felt like saying much. They were exhausted, overwhelmed and, for the first time in a long time, back together again.
Benjamin peels off the aluminum foil tab from an apple juice can, revealing a long scar that curls around the pinky knuckle of his right hand. The scar has a story, but not a boxing story.
"This is one of the marks that I know that is never going to disappear for me," Benjamin says. His black hair is shiny and slicked back and he has broad cheekbones, bronzed skin and a surprisingly complete set of white teeth. He cocks his head thoughtfully to the side as he recalls the accident, chiseling his words out in workable English.
He got the scar as a boy while helping out with the family's agricultural work in Michoacan. Every day after school at noon, he would wade out into the crops with his grandfather, where they would harvest lettuce, tomatoes and corn.
"Sometimes when the work was too hard, we didn't have time to go to school," he says. And when summer temperatures soared, the green fields would trap humidity like a suffocating blanket. One day as Benjamin was hacking away at grass stalks with a scythe, he slipped and split his hand open.
"I think that's one of the things that is making me push in boxing; I remember when I used to work over there, and that's one of the things that comes to mind," he says.
While Benjamin Flores toiled in the fields of southwest Mexico, his father was doing much of the same north of the border. The elder Miguel, now 40, first came to the United States at age 13 and drifted up and down the Pacific coast looking for seasonal work. He met Maribel Munoz in Lodi, California, where she ran a labor contracting business. Munoz stayed close to her workers; she would travel with them from farmland to farmland, sometimes sleeping out of her car, too, if there was nowhere to put up. When she moved to Houston, Miguel and his wife followed.
"In California, Miguel used to be a person that if somebody would pick a fight, he'd fight. And he was a good fighter! But he was like a street fighter," says Munoz. "And I always tell Ben, I says, 'Your dad, when he used to get in fights, he never lost. He never lost a fight.' "
In his younger days, Miguel had been a fearless back-alley bruiser -- he fought in bars, in fields, everywhere, in fact, but inside the ring. He says, through an interpreter, that he would fight about three times a week, battling until someone couldn't get up anymore. "It was a guy thing," he says, laughing at the memory.
Benjamin finally made it to the United States in April 1996 and began living with his parents for the first time at their "humble house" on the north side of town. That part of the transition went okay, he says. His mom and dad had all of the same strict rules that he had followed when he was living with his grandparents. School was another matter.
He went home weeping after the first day -- not being able to read or speak a word of English, everything felt so foreign he was dizzy. It finally settled in that he had lost all of his friends from back home. And joining a class with just two months left in the school year didn't help him to blend in. When Benjamin got back to his house that spring afternoon, he begged his mother not to make him go back.
Miguel grew fearful that Benjamin would want to return to Mexico -- that their exasperating efforts to bring him into the United States would add up to nothing, that where border patrol had failed, language would beat them. He tried to stress to Benjamin the opportunity he had in America.
Things got better. Benjamin realized that everyone else in class had the same problem he did -- the fifth grade group was, after all, being taught English as a second language. He made a few friends, and slowly the English words began emerging from the fog.
His father, meanwhile, had plans for his after-school hours. Miguel felt that he had to get his son into a sport right away -- teenagers in America, he deduced from TV, find trouble too easily.
"I didn't want him to have friends that would invite him to go drink beer and do drugs," Miguel says through an interpreter. (Even today Benjamin is kept on a tight leash. He's not allowed to go out at night and party and has a strict bedtime.)
At first they tried soccer. That lasted about a week.
"I do like soccer, but not in the way of playing," says Benjamin. Out on the field, he chased after the ball, never quite sure why he couldn't catch up to the play and not quite grasping the concept of "position." Annoyed and uncoordinated, he gave it up. Miguel had a second plan. He took his son to Heights Gym.
"Before I came to here, I'd not even see a gym, a boxing ring. When I first started boxing over here, it was my first time. Never seen no fights, nothing," says Benjamin. "Basically everything was because my dad told me to be something, to be somebody in my life."
The first day at the gym Benjamin just watched; the second day he learned to throw the jab. And very soon after that he crawled inside the ropes. Slipping on the gloves for the first time, he found himself laughing out loud -- giddy at the strangeness of it all -- but then something clicked.
"I was nervous that he would step outside because of the first punch -- that he would be afraid of it," says Miguel.
His father had sent him into the ring, but something genetic, almost primal, kept him there. It was the hit.
"I like it! I like it," he says, flashing a devilish grin, fumbling for the right words. "I always like to get the hit, because my blood, it starts getting hot."
In Mexico, Benjamin came home from school and went straight into the fields. In the States, Miguel made him go straight to the gym every day -- he treated it like his son's job, since Benjamin didn't have one. There were days in high school when he would call his father for a ride and Miguel would make him run home as part of the training. He began lifting weights, running and sparring. Sometimes Miguel has him chop wood to stay in shape. The point, Miguel says, is to keep Benjamin busy and prepared. He says he pushes his kids hard because his father raised him the same way: with the belief that nothing comes easy in this life.
"One of the things that my dad, he don't like, is that I like to talk to girls," says Benjamin. He calls Dalia, the girl he's dated since middle school, "a gift from God," but says she's never been allowed to come over to the house. "He don't let me have a girlfriend, but I'm a boy."
He shrugs as if to chalk it up to natural law. Dalia has never attended one of his fights.
"In boxing, if somebody ask me if I have a girlfriend, I'm going to say no, because I don't have girlfriend in boxing. Whenever I come to the gym, I don't have no more girlfriend," he says. "After the fight, after I do my job, all right. You can come with me. But before that -- stay away from me." His father's grit has rubbed off on him. It shows up when he relates to Miguel Jr., his 11-year-old little brother who also became an amateur fighter with more than two dozen bouts under his belt.
"I don't like to spar with him, because I don't like to hit him, because I feel like sad. He's not that Mexican," Benjamin says. "He don't like to work that hard and I do like to work hard I get, like, impatient."
As a young man, Miguel never found himself in a fight with rules. Benjamin, on the other hand, has never fought without them. It's something he says his father doesn't entirely understand. "I'm really scared to fight outside the rings," Benjamin says. "Some people, they look for trouble but I say, 'I don't like to be fighting outside the ring.' "
According to Munoz, Miguel Flores was never afraid of anything. But in the late '90s, he had an accident. Miguel was working for a lumberyard at the time. He had already lost some of his vision from a previous injury when he cut open a metal band wrapped around a pile of logs and it snapped back into his right eye. This made it difficult to gauge distance. At 7:30 in the morning one day, he fell nine feet to the ground from a stack of wood. When he woke up in the hospital nine hours later, he had a cracked skull, a broken wrist and severe injuries to his back and knee.
"Before, he could climb 12 feet up on a ladder, 14 feet, it wouldn't bother him," says Munoz. "He's traumatized." The former street fighter has been unable to work since then. He now helps out at the family's taco stand near their house. He takes between ten and 12 medications a day. He's had two cornea transplants, three wrist surgeries, one knee surgery, and there is talk of back surgery as well. Perhaps worst of all, because of the head trauma, he has difficulty memorizing things.
He has taken the U.S. citizenship test three times. Each time he has failed.
"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."
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."
"I've tried everything," says Maribel Munoz. "I've called immigration, I've gone to immigration. I says, 'Can he go on a boxing team, something?' And they says no."
Although he came over illegally, Benjamin now has a work permit to reside in the United States and travel freely within its borders. His citizenship was contingent on his father first becoming a U.S. citizen. Since the accident, however, that has become difficult, if not impossible, for Miguel. Munoz says that she petitioned to get a disability exemption from the test, but that her efforts to submit medical proof of his condition haven't panned out.
What's more, when Benjamin turned 18, he became less likely to benefit from a more automatic citizenship should his father be able to pass the test. Benjamin's hopes for applying on his own don't look promising, either. Munoz's most recent visit to immigration offices turned up a waiting period of two to four years before he can achieve permanent residence status -- which is a step shy of full citizenship anyway. Immigration bureaucracy has all the clarity and precision of stereo instructions, and even though she's sought legal counsel for help, Munoz says the family could not afford the attorney fees that might grease the wheels and speed up the process.
"We got to the point where I says, 'Look, I'll find someone to marry you to -- just as long as we can fix your papers,' " she says. "But then we're risking it also."
His second option was to try to compete for a spot on the Mexican Olympic team. Hailey, his coach who had previously been president of the USA Boxing Gulf Association, brokered a fight last August that brought some of the top amateur Mexican boxers to Houston. Ostensibly it was a team match, but Hailey says the point was to get Benjamin duking it out against their No. 1 guy, Juan Castaneda.
"Supposedly, if they did that then and he beat him here, it wouldn't be hard to bring him over there to fight in their national championships. They would be real interested," says Hailey. "So he beat the guy." But Benjamin's papers do not allow for re-entry. In fact, if Benjamin had left the United States to compete in Mexico's qualifying tournament in November, he would have risked being barred from the country for up to ten years. What's more, a week before the fight, Hailey says, he was informed the tourney would take place in Mexico City, not in Mexicali as he had first been informed.
"I think they pulled a fast one on us," says Navarro, the trainer, who suspects that grudge politics were involved -- that because he lives up here, he's not a "real Mexican." Hailey thinks there might be some truth to that. "If they live in Mexico, then they're Mexican. But if they live here, then he's one of us, he's not one of them."
But he's not one of us -- not yet.
"He's caught in the middle," says Munoz. She adds, "He's not a bad kid. He's not asking the government to support him or anything. He just wants to go fight and come back. I mean, they should at least let him do that. But they won't. They won't."
"You got a young kid who wants to do something with his life and yet this is what stops him," she says. "Immigration. Mmm-mmm." She shakes her head and takes a pull on her cigarette.
For a young boxer with Olympic aspirations, the decision to turn pro is much more of a crossroads than a basketball or hockey player with comparable talents. Unlike several other Olympic sports, boxing remains closed off to the professional ranks. According to Julie Goldsticker, director of media relations for USA Boxing, the Amateur International Boxing Association sets that rule.
"Allowing pros to box in the Olympics would completely destroy the amateur program," says Robert Voy, president of USA Boxing and a member of the AIBA executive committee. "Our goals are different." He argues that it would dilute the purity of the youth program and endanger the safety of participants. Although the issue has been debated, Voy says he cannot foresee the AIBA position changing.
Thus, Benjamin took his time before deciding to turn pro.
"That's a once-in-a-lifetime deal," Navarro says, talking about the Olympics. "You can win a pro championship when you're 45 years old and you can retire and come back. You can only fight in the Olympics as a one-time thing.
"Once you turn pro, you can never come back."
It is the forbidden fruit in the garden of amateurism. And in the end, Benjamin Flores had to go forward.
"I want to go to Mexico, but I want to go to Mexico with papers, something that guarantees me that coming back. Because I don't go to Mexico just, like, coming back crossing the river and everything. I don't think I'm going to do that," he says. "I think that I was more Mexican before than I am now. Because the Mexican, they work for everything, they fight for everything.
"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.
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.