HANDS OF STONE REVIEW: Watch on Netflix

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Hands of Stone: The Humanity of Roberto Duran & Panamanian Anti-Imperial Politics
Film Review*

By Rudy Mondragon
Twitter: @boxingintellect

Hands of Stone is a movie that should have been made a long time ago. It is an important biographical film about Panamanian professional boxer, Roberto Duran (Edgar Ramirez), directed and written by Jonathan Jakubowicz. What is significant about the film is that it situates Duran as the protagonist. It is rooted within Panama’s political climate and United States manifest destiny imperialism of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, which allows for the unveiling of Duran’s complex humanity.

The last film that shed light on the life of Duran was ESPN’s No Más documentary, which actually focused on Sugar Ray Leonard. The film explored Duran and Leonard’s heated rivalry, seeking the truth behind Duran’s infamous “quitting” in the 8th round of their 1980 rematch. In the end, the documentary more so served as a healing process for Leonard, who felt he never got his due credit for beating Duran in their rematch.

Hands of Stone is all about Duran, starting in 1971 when he defeated Benny Huertas at the Madison Square Garden. This was a turning point in Duran’s career as he first met Hall of Fame boxing trainer, Ray Arcel (Robert De Niro). The film ends with Duran beating Davey Moore for the World Boxing Association Super Welterweight title in 1983. Although the film does not mention it, Duran would eventually go on to be regarded as one of the best lightweights of all time.

The flashbacks in the film are important because they take us back to Duran’s formative childhood. Through them we are able to better understand Duran’s upbringing and political development. The January 9, 1964 Martyrs’ Day Riot for example, is shown as having a direct impact on Duran. At the time of the conflict, Duran was 12 years old. United States soldiers killed 21 Panamanians, mostly students, who resisted US occupation and protested over sovereignty of the Panama Canal. Not only did Duran grow up poor, but he also had a first hand account of the harsh realities of US manifest destiny and geopolitical imperialism in Panama.

The film also captures heartfelt scenes that illuminate Panamanian moral victories over US power. This is what makes Hands of Stone a politically charged sports film rather than just a watered down movie about a sport. In one scene, Duran yells at a US officer, “You in jail!” With this, Duran was expressing his awareness of the affects of the mental and physical colonization that was taking place in his homeland. In calling out their false sense of power, the future world champion was signaling the need for US military officers to liberate themselves from being used as imperial tools for a greedy, money hungry US government.

The rivalry between Duran and Leonard is more than just sport. It symbolized an opportunity for Panamanian’s to resist US power and colonialism. Duran’s hate for Leonard stemmed from his political disgust with US foreign policy, occupation, and control of the Panama Canal. In order to achieve a victory over the US, Duran would need to beat their idol: The Golden Boy, Sugar Ray Leonard. This is the fascinating part of boxing. Boxing rivalries are not just about two fighters who are pinned against each other in the ring. Boxing rivalries embody nations, political ideologies, power, and enacted identities that are used to spark the emotions and alliances of fans.

Hands of Stone is victorious in providing the necessary context to see beyond the popular narrative that Duran was simply a savage beast that hated Leonard. Their rivalry was deeper than that. Duran, who once said “The poor are born happy,” was not at all thrilled to make acquaintances with the corporate friendly fighter that Leonard once was and represented. For Duran, Leonard was implicated in US power and domination. For a short moment, Duran’s victory over Leonard united the people of Panama because it symbolized a moral victory over the Yankees.

The cinematography beautifully captured and retold the story of what took place in their 1980 matches. At times I was not sure if I was watching a movie or actual fight footage from Duran and Leonard’s fights. From Duran shoving Leonard at the end of the 15th round, to Leonard unleashing two body shots at Duran as he walked away, the ring action truly showed why boxing is a like a sacred choreographed dance. The film showed the intimacy and personal relationship prizefighters share inside the squared circle. Fighters give each other their best efforts and as a result, they develop unique bonds inside and outside the ring.

Beyond the taunts, shoves, insults, and animosity, Hands of Stone demonstrates the unique and intimate relationship that Leonard and Duran will always share, a relationship that people outside of boxing can never fully understand.

*Originally posted September 19, 2016

Angel Garcia: Boxing in the Era of Trump

By Rudy Mondragón
Twitter: @boxingintellect

The January 18 press conference for the highly anticipated March 4 showdown between Keith “One Time” Thurman and Danny “Swift” Garcia showed how Trumpism is seeping into the bloodstream of the sweet science. Politics is indeed not separate from the sporting world.

At the press conference, Angel Garica, father and trainer of Danny Garcia, took over by engaging in trash talking and mental warfare against Thurman. This is part of the game. Danny Garcia is not the trash talking type, he does his talking in the ring and often presents himself as a professional in front of the media. This might be why his father does so much of the trash talking, knowing well that it creates a drama that helps promote the spectacle of boxing.

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What took place at the press conference was Trumpism rearing its disgusting faces of anti-immigration, jingoism (hyper-patriotism), and sexism. Notice I did not use racism, although that is an additional facet of Trumpism. Many media figures are quick to say that Angel’s use of the N-word (See video below) was a disgusting example of racism. I disagree as the media has not substantially explained why it is an example of racism. For them, it is simply a headline.

Angel’s use of the N-word is more so an example of a light skinned Puerto Rican man from North Philly who has more than likely used the N-word within a cultural context of understanding. For many people I have spoken to over the years, the use of the N-word by Latino peoples is used with an understanding that the word holds a great deal of historical weight. The use of that word is directed at people where mutual love exists. Some have even told me that the word is only used towards people they would be willing to die for and kill for. In other words, the N-word, used within a cultural context of mutual love, understanding, and respect, has a totally different meaning than Angel’s use of it at the press conference.

This is not to say that I excuse Angel’s use of it. Using the word outside its cultural context opens up the meaning of the word for many interpretations, racism being one of them. But its more complex than that. The tone and intention of the way Angel used it was not racist. But his use of it in public promotes a misunderstanding and disregard of the historical use of a word that has been used by white men with racial and economic power during slavery for example. A word that has been historically used as a tool to stigmatize and negatively label black people in relation to white people and white supremacy. It also signals to people that the N-word can be used irresponsibly, ignoring the dark legacy of the word.

Angel’s use of the word in public also impacts and offends black people who do not have a personal connection to the user of the word. Though Angel’s use of the word was not intended to hurt anyone, the impact of that word, outside its cultural context, can have offensive affects on people. That is how powerful that word remains today. I would bet money that Angel would not use that word in a completely new setting with black folks he did not know. The reason for this is it is outside of his cultural context, involving new people that he does not know. The use of the N-word in that new context would be a form of disrespect because there is no mutual bond or connection to the people of that cultural space.

Although I say his use of the N-word was not intended to disrespect Keith Thurman (I would argue “Bitch ass” and “My son gonna fuck you up” intended to disrespect and challenge Keith), a question still remains to be answered. As a bi-racial man who is read as black, what impact did Angel’s use of the N-word have on Keith Thurman? This is an important dynamic that has not been explored.

Trumpism reared its nasty faces in the form of anti-immigration, jingoism (hyper-patriotism), and sexism. When I first met Angel back in 2014, he shared his thoughts on immigrants and boxing. This is something that Angel has been passionate about, the idea that Americans should fight Americans only. This echoes Trump’s philosophy that he recently shared in his inauguration speech: “Buy American and hire American.” Angel Garcia embodied this idea when he said that the only respect he has for his son’s opponent is that he is an American fighter. Ironically, Angel Garcia is of Puerto Rican descent, which has a long colonial history with the US as Puerto Rico remains a colony and unincorporated territory of the US. Despite that imperial legacy, Angel presents himself as a staunch supporter of Trump.

Towards the end of the presser, Angel had this to say:“God bless America. Where Donald Trump at? Come get him. I want to see Trump. Trump, where are you? Make America great again.”Need I say more? To my knowledge, this is the first clear example in 2017 that demonstrates Trump politics entering the sphere of boxing. It is ugly and contradictory of boxing as this sport has historically recruited poor black and brown fighters from all over the world. It is a sport that exploits people and denies them of basic employee benefits. Boxing heads who stand for Trump makes little sense to me. It seems more fitting that boxers would stand United Against Trump.

After Angel’s Donald Trump rant, he finished off by directing some harsh words towards boxing publicist, Kelly Swanson. I’m sure Swanson told Angel to knock it off, that is her job after all. I think it would have been better if Angel had simply ignored her plea, but rather than let it go, Angel directed harsh words towards this woman by saying, “I’ll jack you up!” Actions like this should not be normal and accepted. This is not what it means to be a man. Yet, under the new presidential regime, it does not seem like sexism, patriarchy, and misogyny will be challenged or dismantled (the people will continue these efforts despite Trump’s lack of care and conviction on these serious matters). As recently as this morning, Trump disregarded the powerful Women’s Marches that took place across the nation yesterday. Not to mention Trumps history with male entitlement over women’s bodies and their right to choice. Given these disturbing times, the question of what it means to practice healthy forms of masculinity is critical!

As mentioned earlier, the ideas that Angel Garcia has about immigration and his hyper-patriotism is nothing new. The question I leave readers with is to what extent do the beliefs and words of Donald Trump provide a green light for conservative and hate filled ideas to emerge? In response to his dad’s theatrics, Danny Garcia stated “I’ve heard Trump say Worse!” This may be true, but Angel Garcia nonetheless echoes many of the toxic ideas that we see in Trump.

As a boxing expert, fan, and critic, I also question the art of trash talking. Can trash talking manifest within reason, innovation, and creativity? Riding the curtails of hate speech to inform one’s engagement in mental warfare against one’s opponent is a misuse of a high status platform. The boxing world can do better. I believe it can.

Pugilistic Defeat & Struggle: Jonathan Walley’s Fight Experience Part II

By Rudy Mondragón
Twitter: @boxingintellect 

Fight Night 

The night of the fight was finally here. July 30th marked the day that Jonathan Walley would raise his arms in victory. This was the plan. What transpired, however, was the beginning of Walley’s biggest pugilistic struggle.

I drove to Van Nuys early in the afternoon to pick up my tickets for the KO Boxing With The Stars event from Jonathan. Instead of receiving tickets from him, I was greeted at the door by his older brother. From the doorstep, I could hear Walley’s voice and the shower head running. I looked over to the bathroom window and saw an excessive amount of steam exiting. Jonathan was still trying to cut weight.

Unlike professionals, amateurs are expected to make weight the day of the fight. Rather than resting, focusing, and relaxing before his fight, Walley was forcing his body to make weight to remain eligible for his evening contest. Jonathan’s day started with a 6am run in the gym while wearing his sauna suit. After his run, he went into the jacuzzi and steam room to force himself to sweat some more. He then went home for a nap and when he woke up, he went straight to the bathroom to create a steam room like environment in his home (this is when I came to pick up the tickets). Next, Walley showered to freshen up, put his sauna suit back on, and went back to the gym for another run. From the gym, he walked home (3 mile walk) in his sauna suit under the summer sun to sweat off more weight. On top of all this work, Jonathan still had to fight.

I arrived to Los Angeles Valley College and found a seat in the old school wooden bleachers of this community college’s basketball gym. It definitely was a night of stars, as notable figures were in attendance. Obba Babatunde (The Notebook, John Q, and Philadelphia), Laila Ali, and Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav to name a few. Amongst the stars were parents, family members, and friends supporting the many amateurs who were scheduled to fight that night.

After a couple of exciting matches, it was time for Jonathan to fight. Originally scheduled as the co-main event attraction, there were some last minute schedule changes that moved up Walley’s fight sooner than expected. Obba Babatunde, the emcee for the night, announced Jonathan, prompting his entrance to the ring. Nothing happened. The crowd looked towards the locker room entrance, but Jonathan was not walking out. After a second announcement by Babatunde, Walley finally appeared. He seemed to be in a rush, still trying to put on his head gear for the fight. From my perspective, it seemed like something was off. Walley looked physically ready to fight, but looked flustered and mentally  uncomfortable.

Jonathan fought three hard rounds. At times it seemed like his mind was working faster than his body, not being able to execute his game plan, falling short of his abilities and skills as a counter-puncher with power. Maybe the hard work to make weight over-fatigued him, or the schedule change threw him off mentally. Whatever it was, Walley was not performing like his usual athletic, skilled, and intellectual self. Something definitely wasn’t right.

The final bell rang and it was time to hear the judge’s decision. It was a close fight. Judge’s scorecards called for a split decision, in favor of his opponent, Ivan Beltran. This wasn’t what Jonathan envisioned. He came to win, yet the reality, on this night, was Jonathan experiencing his first career defeat.

Post-Fight Rollercoaster 

Boxing is not like any team sport. Boxers don’t compete in three-game series or on a weekly basis. On a sports team, you have a collective community you compete with and a shorter amount of time to think of defeat as you are expected to get back on the court/field to perform. For Jonathan, athletes in team sports have “shorter memories of defeat.” He states that in boxing, you are alone and therefore, “you hold on to that shit.” This is what I call the arc of redemption* in boxing, which is the traumatic time a boxer experiences between defeat and their next match. For boxers, the arc of redemption can last months, even years, before they are able to step back in the ring to correct their career paths.

I sat down with Jonathan five months after his first career defeat. For the most part, he was in high spirits and energized every room we walked into. As we began our conversation, the first thing Jonathan shared with me about his defeat was that going into the fight, he felt he was better than his opponent and that he did not expect to lose. He went from being a confident fighter to all of a sudden feeling emotionally drained and alone.

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He originally had plans to hang out with friends after his fight. He felt that things changed as a result of losing. “I lost and then there was no party… there was no party… everyone went out to eat and my phone was dry as fuck.” At one point, Walley questioned whether his friends would have given him love had he won. Maybe his friends just didn’t know how to support him at this crucial moment in his life. Either way, Jonathan’s mind, the mind of a fighter, went towards a dark space where loneliness sank in, and feelings of abandonment felt real. Jonathan occupied a mental space at the extremes of sadness and anger.

The days that followed were extremely difficult on his overall wellbeing. He had a hard time sleeping, didn’t want to talk to anyone, and despite draining himself to make weight for his fight, Walley did not have an appetite. Jonathan explained to me that, being the food lover that he is, it was especially difficult feeling hungry and not having a desire for a meal.

In an effort to turn his struggles into a positive, Jonathan decided to leave the state of California to get away. At this stage, Walley was avoiding people and wanted to process defeat in isolation. When people asked where he was, he would tell them he was in Las Vegas, including me. The reality however, was that he was in Arizona reflecting on his defeat and life.

Even though he wanted to be alone to process, Jonathan realized that he needed words of affirmation and validation from his loved ones to help him overcome this vulnerable period of his life. Although he did receive some, he also recalls the negative energy he felt from his critics and the silent voices around him. “It wasn’t about the things they could’ve told me,” Jonathan said, “it was more the things that was said not to me, and then, the things that wasn’t said at all.” In other words, Jonathan found out people turned on him and spoke negatively about him behind his back. He also wished people would have been more vocal and attentive about his struggle instead of remaining silent.

Although Walley feels like he has learned from his first defeat, he doesn’t feel like he will ever fully recover from it. When it comes to experiencing his first defeat, Jonathan feels that “you can’t play it off and say you don’t care.” Defeat in a boxing context is still a new thing for him and a day doesn’t go by that he doesn’t think about it. He had a tentative match scheduled for the end of January, but with the unstable nature of amateur boxing, that fight was called off, further prolonging Walley’s opportunity at redemption.

In the mean time, Walley has to sit with the thought of his first defeat for six months, maybe more, before he can step back in the ring for his chance at redemption. What does a boxer do during that long time frame to physically, mentally, and spiritually heal? Talking about it with people is a good start. Talking about defeat and the emotional rollercoaster one goes through is not a sign of weakness. If anything, it is a sign of strength. Strength because Jonathan displayed vulnerability in sharing this experience of struggle with me. Opening up to one person about hardship is a brave act, but a willingness to share one’s story of defeat with the rest of the world is a manifestation of courage.

Jonathan’s road to recovery is embodied in stic.man’s hip hop track titled, Joe Louis from The Workout album. This track is about the famous black boxer, Joe Louis, who is considered one of the best heavyweights of all-time. One of the bars in this song states, “If you stay ready, you ain’t got to get ready,” which is what I see Walley doing as he waits for his next scheduled match. That is what he knows best. Staying in the gym keeps him feeling alive, ready, and prepared in case he is asked to fight on short notice. At this point, to overcome this difficult phase in his career, Jonathan manifests stic.man’s lyrical hook in Joe Louis: “I train to live, I live to train. It’s go hard or go home, no pain, no gain.” There is no quit in this young man. Healing through boxing and training is a one day at a time process.

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As difficult as it was for Walley to open up, what I admired the most was that he made no excuses of his defeat nor belittled his opponent. He respects the decision. He respects Ivan Beltran. He accepts defeat and welcomes the ups and downs that come with it. One things for sure, Walley is eager and ready to rise up again.

*Special thanks to Dr. Samantha Sheppard for helping me think through this idea of temporal struggle in boxing to construct the concept of boxing’s arc of redemption.

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The photos below are of Jonathan Walley training at the Roy Jones Jr. Fight Academy in Las Vegas, Nevada the morning before our conversation 

Boxing & Beyond: Jonathan Walley’s Pre & Post-Fight Experience Part I

By Rudy Mondragón
Twitter: @boxingintellect 

In This Corner…

Jonathan Walley is a 22 year old amateur boxer. Prior to boxing, Walley was a standout basketball player who had athletic scholarship offers to well known institutions of higher education. During his high school career, however, Walley got into trouble and found himself serving time in a juvenile center known for functioning like an adult state prison.

As a result of his detainment, Jonathan lost his scholarship offers. He tried community college, but it wasn’t fulfilling for him. Then, one of his closest friends introduced him to the sport of boxing. Walley described this moment as, all of a sudden, finding himself in the “best situation possible.”  It was at that time that he met reputable trainer, Joe Goossen, from the Ten Goose Boxing Gym in Van Nuys. For Walley, Goossen has since become a fatherlike figure who teaches him lessons about life, principles, and morals.

It was at Ten Goose Boxing Gym where I first met Jonathan in the summer of 2015. Though he is a great athlete, it wasn’t his boxing skills that caught my attention at the time. It was the Black Lives Matter t-shirt he unapologetically wore that drew me in. In the Post-Ali era of boxing, where politically charged boxer-activists are hard to find (they exist though, trust me), it was refreshing to see Walley openly demonstrate his politics via his choice of fashion.

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During our interview, Walley made sense of Black Lives Matter with a medical analogy to critique the idea of “All Lives Matter.” He stated, “it is like going to the doctors office with a broken arm and having a doctor suggest examining your leg instead… all bones matter, right, they do, but if this one’s broke, lets focus on this one.” In other words, Walley understands the importance of getting to the root issue of systemic problems. Without a functioning bone, the body cannot continue. Without addressing racism and power, this country cannot fully heal from the traumas of the past.

This two-part article focuses on Jonathan Walley’s experience as an amateur boxer who was dealt his first career defeat. I had the honor and privilege of sitting down with Jonathan before and after his July 30th, 2016 152 pound amateur match in the Elite Male division against Ivan Beltran. Jonathan displayed the excitement and confidence of a young man who was ready to enter the ring only to then hear him speak his truth about the sadness and loneliness he experienced after defeat. Below is Part I, which explores Jonathan’s pre-fight moments where his mind, body, and spirit were in tip top shape. Part II (forthcoming) will focus on the vulnerability and struggles he experienced after defeat.

Fight Week

It is Tuesday night during fight week and Jonathan’s demeanor is serious and focused. He is mindful of his food and liquid intake as anything too heavy can jeopardize his goal of making the 152 pound weight limit. We sit down for the interview during the dinner hour. I ordered a sandwich and offered Walley a meal. He respectfully declined the meal offer, but took me up on a glass of lemonade. He is the type of fighter who stays in the gym in order to be ready to fight at any moment. It is also a way for him to maintain his weight given his love for food. I asked him if the sacrifice of limiting his food intake the week of the fight was worth it. His response was one of optimism and positivity. He doesn’t see it as a sacrifice but more so part of the process. With less than 5 days till fight night, Walley is on a strict meal plan, no longer eating whole meals in order to make weight.

As a boxer, Jonathan describes himself as a “non-violent person.” He doesn’t limit the conceptualization of boxing as simply being a violent sport. Instead, he describes it as a “dangerous sport” that is no different than the dangers we experience on a daily basis in life. Walley engages in this dangerous sport because of his family, friends, and followers. He thrives on the aura he absorbs from them when they watch his fights. It keeps him motivated and energized. He loves to put on a show for them because he believes they provide him with the necessary validation and recognition to grow as a person.

Walley emphasizes that an amateur career is an important time for one to find themselves. By this, Walley means finding his fighting style and the right weight to compete in when he turns professional. Yet, this idea of finding himself also deals with identifying the necessary coping strategies to deal with the high pressures that come with the grimy boxing industry. The coping mechanisms necessary to deal with the struggles that come with defeat or career setbacks. Jonathan is finding out what he is made of. As quickly as one’s confidence sores in boxing, it can quickly be taken from them. Jonathan is learning how to embrace the idea of struggle to become a better man.

Jonathan feels he has done the excruciating work in the gym necessary to come out on top. He describes his training environment similar to a hot sauna. At the Ten Goose Boxing Gym, it feels as if the heater is turned up, the body heat of other boxers training increases the temperature in the gym, and on top of that, it is the peak of the summer season. These are not the most comfortable of training conditions. Yet, Jonathan smiles the entire time he paints this picture for me. The hard work has been done in the gym with Joe. He doesn’t fear the possibility of losing. He doesn’t believe in such a thing.

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The remainder of Jonathan’s prep work for the fight consists of watching his weight, light workouts, and intellectual engagement. The intellectual side of boxing consists of strategy, deconstructing an opponent’s style, and learning from boxings greatest stars. Walley’s intellectual engagement comes in the form of studying fights on YouTube. For fight week, Jonathan’s video line up consists of the 1993 match between Pernell Whitaker and James “Buddy” McGirt, the 2004 match between Floyd Mayweather Jr and DeMarcus Corley, and the 2013 fight between Mayweather and Robert “The Ghost” Guerrero. He does this is to study Whitaker, Guerrero and Corley, who are southpaw fighters (left-handed) just like his July 30th opponent. Walley is a student of the boxing game who does the physical and mental work in and outside the gym.

Closing Thoughts 

Going into this fight, Jonathan knows his family supports him. He also knows that they do not like the fact that he boxes. It is the dangerous nature of the sport and the aftermath of a fighter’s career that worries them. Many times, boxing is all boxers have and as a result, they struggle once their careers are over because they do not have a back up plan. Jonathan believes he is different in this regard.

Walley’s back up plan involves food. Jonathan loves to eat and feels like a career in the food industry is in his future. He wants to open his own restaurant one day. The idea of a “back up plan” for boxers is an important topic of conversation that should be discussed with both amateur and professional fighters. It is a topic that deals with their present lives as fighters and the future they envision for themselves once their careers are over.

Boxing is a brutal sport that requires a back up plan. The reality, as Jonathan explains, is that majority of boxers do not have college degrees or come from homes where parents hold middle class jobs or have their own businesses they can pass on to their children. So what does a boxer do once their boxing career is over?

Engaging in this type of conversation is one of taking a fighter’s humanity into consideration. It deals with the well-being of the fighter after their bodes are no longer able to entertain boxing fans. Do managers talk with their fighters about life after boxing? How about promoters? Is there a system in place that supports fighters in this regard? I would say no as it does nothing for the movers and shakers of the boxing industry who are concerned with the bottom line: making money.

As Jonathan’s amateur fight on Saturday loomed, it was uplifting to know that he was thinking about his life after boxing. In a sporting industry that denies its employees minimum salaries, pension plans,* or health care, it is critical that boxers take control of their careers, their minds, their bodies, and their spirits. Jonathan is an agent of his own future and we should take note of it.

Stay tuned for Part II of “Boxing & Beyond: Jonathan Walley’s Pre & Post-Fight Experience.”

* California Professional Boxer’s Pension Fund has existed since 1983 and holds $5.3 million dollars for retired boxers over the age of 50 who meet certain criteria. Pension funds for boxers varies by state and is not currently a federal issue. Many boxing agents have advocated for the regulation of boxing in order to address issues of minimum salary, pension plans, and health care to name a few.

BMB Presents: “Boxing & Beyond”

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Boxing & Beyond is a new installment brought to you by the blood money boxing team. Blood money boxing is committed to bringing you multifaceted commentary that focuses on the sport, individual boxers, politics, and all that comes with the good and bad and in-betweenness of the sweet science.

Boxing & Beyond will consist of 6 articles starting in January 2017. These pieces will look beyond upcoming matches, results, and summaries. This series will explore the intimate lives of boxers, exploring themes of struggle, success, and early beginnings to name a few.

If you have a topic you would like us to cover, please feel free to contact Rudy Mondragón at rudym@ucla.edu.

 

 

A Day With Andre Ward [Pictures]

By Rudy Mondragón
Twitter: @boxingintellect

No better way to spend Halloween than visiting the training grounds of boxing trainer Virgil Hunter and Andre Ward in Hayward, California. It was Ward’s official media work out in anticipation of his November 19th match against pound for pound great, Sergey Kovalev, which will take place at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

I left my friends home in Richmond mid morning to make it on time to Ward’s 12pm scheduled workout. It was a beautiful morning in The Bay. The sun was out and the air was fresher than the stuff we breath in Los Angeles. I hit I-880 going south and exited Industrial Blvd. As I made my way around the neighborhood, I could feel its working class vibrations. It was a Monday morning and the workers were out getting their hustle on, including Andre Ward and his team.

I reached the parking lot of the gym, but the buildings all looked the same. I saw two gentleman talking in the parking lot and thought to ask them for directions. One was dressed in construction attire and the other in a Halloween costume of sorts atop a fork lift. I asked them if they knew where the gym was. With ease they responded, “straight ahead boss.”

Assuming I would hit traffic on the road, I arrived to the gym ahead of schedule. This gave me some extra time to explore the gym, take pictures (see below), talk with media, and engage in conversation with a bright young amateur boxer named Joey Spencer (Click here for his Instagram). Spencer is a 15/16 year old from Linden, Michigan (25 minutes south of Flint). He recently moved to The Bay to train inside Virgil Hunters Boxing Gym where Andre Ward training sessions become a classroom for the young pugilist.

At his young age, Spencer discussed how he intentionally uses his amateur fights to raise funds for good causes. It was refreshing, but not surprising to hear that boxers like Spencer use their platforms to give back to their community. He was also well aware of the Flint water crisis and the relief efforts put forth by the Dirrell brothers (boxers from Flint) and Claressa Shields. It is worth mentioning that Claressa Shields, two time Olympic gold medalist for the US, will make her professional boxing debut on the undercard of #WardKovalev. History will be made on the night of the 19th on multiple levels.

I also had a humbling experience talking with Virgil Hunter. I confused a Nazim Richardson quote (swim without getting wet) for one I thought Virgil had said. Rightfully so, Hunter corrected me, but we continued to talk. We spoke about his intimate relationship with his fighters. He sees them more than bodies, they are like his grown up children. Beyond the bright lights, media events, ShowTime All Access, and overall commodification that takes place in the boxing industry, there are many stories of vulnerability, intimacy, family, love, struggle, and humanity. Hunter’s relationship with his fighters is evident of this on many levels. These are the stories that need more in-depth exposure and sharing. Boxers are trained and disciplined to fight, but they are also sons and daughters, siblings, parents, hustlers, and human in their imperfections.

My interactions with Ward were limited. I did get to ask him which song he wanted to enter the ring to for his fight against Kovalev. I also asked him who made that decision. He said he would be picking the song, but wasn’t sure at the moment. He mentioned the possibility of using a song by Hip Hop artist, Bizzle. The reason for this is because Ward believes the song gets him pumped up and contains a positive message. Him picking his own song due to its content showed me the level of intentionality and agency Ward has.

What touched my heart the most was the fact that Ward spent an extra hour talking with youth from a nearby juvenile institution. Ward talked about his story, family upbringing, struggles, and how his faith helped him stay on track and focused. At one point, Ward used hip hop music to educate the youth. He played “Just Sayin” by Bizzle. The boxing gym turned into a classroom and the lesson was about the downfalls of capitalism and consumerism, nurturing one’s consciousness with knowledge of self, and embracing change.

Ward acted in the spirit of Bizzle’s words: “I don’t care if you signed up to be a role model or not, Kids gon’ follow you regardless, It come wit the fame”

Inside the gym, Ward demonstrated his ability to use his lived experience to become relatable to the youth and share wisdom with them. Granted, the power structures that maintain the juvenile system, school to prison pipeline, and hyper-criminalization of black and brown youths no doubt needs to be changed. What is important is that Ward used his sphere of influence to do something. He started a dialogue and created a space where the youth spoke about their passions, their dreams, and their struggles. It was truly an intimate and vulnerable space where boys and men were speaking freely. Some would even say thats the way to start a process of liberation.

Best of luck to Andre Ward and his team come the night of November 19th.

Hands of Stone: The Humanity of Roberto Duran & Panamanian Anti-Imperial Politics

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By Rudy Mondragon
Twitter: @boxingintellect

Hands of Stone is a movie that should have been made a long time ago. It is an important biographical film about Panamanian professional boxer, Roberto Duran (Edgar Ramirez), directed and written by Jonathan Jakubowicz. What is significant about the film is that it situates Duran as the protagonist. It is rooted within Panama’s political climate and United States manifest destiny imperialism of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, which allows for the unveiling of Duran’s complex humanity.

The last film that shed light on the life of Duran was ESPN’s No Más documentary, which actually focused on Sugar Ray Leonard. The film explored Duran and Leonard’s heated rivalry, seeking the truth behind Duran’s infamous “quitting” in the 8th round of their 1980 rematch. In the end, the documentary more so served as a healing process for Leonard, who felt he never got his due credit for beating Duran in their rematch.

Hands of Stone is all about Duran, starting in 1971 when he defeated Benny Huertas at the Madison Square Garden. This was a turning point in Duran’s career as he first met Hall of Fame boxing trainer, Ray Arcel (Robert De Niro). The film ends with Duran beating Davey Moore for the World Boxing Association Super Welterweight title in 1983. Although the film does not mention it, Duran would eventually go on to be regarded as one of the best lightweights of all time.

The flashbacks in the film are important because they take us back to Duran’s formative childhood. Through them we are able to better understand Duran’s upbringing and political development. The January 9, 1964 Martyrs’ Day Riot for example, is shown as having a direct impact on Duran. At the time of the conflict, Duran was 12 years old. United States soldiers killed 21 Panamanians, mostly students, who resisted US occupation and protested over sovereignty of the Panama Canal. Not only did Duran grow up poor, but he also had a first hand account of the harsh realities of US manifest destiny and geopolitical imperialism in Panama.

The film also captures heartfelt scenes that illuminate Panamanian moral victories over US power. This is what makes Hands of Stone a politically charged sports film rather than just a watered down movie about a sport. In one scene, Duran yells at a US officer, “You in jail!” With this, Duran was expressing his awareness of the affects of the mental and physical colonization that was taking place in his homeland. In calling out their false sense of power, the future world champion was signaling the need for US military officers to liberate themselves from being used as imperial tools for a greedy, money hungry US government.

The rivalry between Duran and Leonard is more than just sport. It symbolized an opportunity for Panamanian’s to resist US power and colonialism. Duran’s hate for Leonard stemmed from his political disgust with US foreign policy, occupation, and control of the Panama Canal. In order to achieve a victory over the US, Duran would need to beat their idol: The Golden Boy, Sugar Ray Leonard. This is the fascinating part of boxing. Boxing rivalries are not just about two fighters who are pinned against each other in the ring. Boxing rivalries embody nations, political ideologies, power, and enacted identities that are used to spark the emotions and alliances of fans.

Hands of Stone is victorious in providing the necessary context to see beyond the popular narrative that Duran was simply a savage beast that hated Leonard. Their rivalry was deeper than that. Duran, who once said “The poor are born happy,” was not at all thrilled to make acquaintances with the corporate friendly fighter that Leonard once was and represented. For Duran, Leonard was implicated in US power and domination. For a short moment, Duran’s victory over Leonard united the people of Panama because it symbolized a moral victory over the Yankees.

The cinematography beautifully captured and retold the story of what took place in their 1980 matches. At times I was not sure if I was watching a movie or actual fight footage from Duran and Leonard’s fights. From Duran shoving Leonard at the end of the 15th round, to Leonard unleashing two body shots at Duran as he walked away, the ring action truly showed why boxing is a like a sacred choreographed dance. The film showed the intimacy and personal relationship prizefighters share inside the squared circle. Fighters give each other their best efforts and as a result, they develop unique bonds inside and outside the ring.

Beyond the taunts, shoves, insults, and animosity, Hands of Stone demonstrates the unique and intimate relationship that Leonard and Duran will always share, a relationship that people outside of boxing can never fully understand.

GGG vs. Brook: Prediction

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By Rudy Mondragón
Twitter: @boxingintellect 

Gennady Golovkin versus Kell Brook is another match up where one man jumps two weight classes to challenge the other. First, we had Amir Khan jump up to 155lbs to take on Saul “Canelo” Alvarez. That fight ended with Canelo knocking out Khan in the 6th round. Will Golovkin, also known as GGG, knock out Brook, to grow his KO streak to 23?

Kell Brook shared with The Guardian that he was killing himself, mentally and physically, to make 147lbs. Moving up to 154lbs would make the most sense for Kell, yet he decided to take on the most feared man at 160lbs. For Brook, this is an opportunity to claim the biggest win in his career. There is more to lose for GGG and everything to gain for Brook.

Brook has a cosmetically impressive record of 36-0 (25 KOs). His biggest win (majority decision) was over Shawn Porter back in 2014. This was his biggest test, but at the welterweight limit. He has not been tested at 154 or 160. What makes GGG versus Brook different from Canelo versus Khan, is that Brook is undefeated and his chin has never been questioned. Tomorrow night’s fight will reveal many truths about Brook.

GGG should win this fight. It is a stepping stone to setting up his fight with Canelo Alvarez. GGG is stronger and has proven that his chin is made of concrete. However, a close examination of their weigh-in revealed that GGG might be drained for tomorrow’s contest. His spirit at the weigh in can be described as low, exhausted, and mentally fatigued. This depends on who you speak to however, as some will say his demeanor at the weigh-in was calm and collected, ready for tomorrow night’s match.

Brook is the faster man. His media workout showed that he has not lost any speed despite putting on the extra 11 or so pounds. His speed, elusiveness, boxing skills, and mental strategy can prove to be the difference maker tomorrow if in fact GGG is not close to 100 percent (Let’s be real, no fighter is ever in tip top shape come fight night).

Brook will go 10 rounds and have early success. The extra weight will take some time to adjust to, so Brook will fade in the later rounds, giving GGG the opportunity he will need to score his 23rd straight (T)KO victory.

When you take a step back and look at GGG versus Brook, you will realize that this is part of the promotional tour for the eventual GGG versus Canelo mega-fight. Of course, GGG needs to beat Brook first, but when he does, it will place Gennady and Alvarez one step closer to giving the fans what they want: a true middleweight mega-fight spectacle.

All that said, being a fan of the underdog, I do hope that Brook upsets GGG and disrupts the master script of boxing. I love it when promoter’s behind the scenes plans are made void by the boxers they have positioned to be pawns in their chess match. Rise up Brook, don’t be their pawn.

 

Reviving Modern Day Boxing Rivalries

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By: Rudy Mondragon
Twitter: @boxingintellect

Does boxing need new boxing rivalries for its revival? Personally, boxing does not need to be revived. It is not dead, but the content provided to fans is malnourished and underfed.

This article stems from three things: The recent Nate Diaz versus Conor McGregor rematch that was fueled by a theatrical script of mutual animosity, Robert Garcia’s thoughts on this UFC rivalry and how boxing needs one like it, and reflections from a conversation I had with my colleague and best friend, Edgar Villeda.

The Diaz/McGregor rematch was so intriguing for fans because of the pre-fight hype both men provided. Bottles were thrown at a press-conference, middle fingers were pointed, and each fighter’s camp almost participated in an improvised, yet very real, rumble. These are the elements that casual fans buy into, leaving actual talks about the competitiveness of the fight to UFC freaks and some experts.

Robert Garcia weighed in on this rivalry. He said this kind of rivalry is what boxing needs. Boxing these days is missing the entertaining villain roles that Ricardo Mayorga and Fernando Vargas developed so well. For Garcia, “boxing becoming a business” (PPV matches mainly) is what is hurting the sport, leaving little room for exciting boxing narratives to be developed.

I mostly agree with Garcia, but I will say that boxing did not just become a business, it has always been that. What is hurting the sport today is the underdevelopment of characters and trash talking that lacks creativity. Don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating for WWE theatrics. I am saying that fighters using stereotypes to trash talk is not prolific but more so unambitious. McGregor calling Diaz a “crackhead ese” is nothing special. It is simply a racially charged trope used by a white dude to get fan and media reactions.

During my worthwhile conversation with my colleague and best friend, we discussed the great boxing rivalries of our time. Edgar and I were left thinking, “when was the last real boxing rivalry ?” We briefly looked to Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao. However, this was the type of fight that Robert Garcia was speaking of. A big money event that fans had demanded for years. Knowing that, there was no need for Floyd or Manny to engage in any pre-fight hype to get fans interested. It was already sold.

We talked about the Antonio Margarito and Miguel Cotto rivalry. However, this event was fueled by the already established legacies of the Mexico versus Puerto Rico rivalry. The anticipation of the fight itself was all fans needed to get hyped. It was competitive and both men fought at the height of their respective careers. Great rivalry, but the pre-fight theatrics and spectacle were missing.

Sergio Martinez and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr was an entertaining rivalry full of pre-fight trash talking. But lets be real, fans knew Martinez was the superior athlete and boxer who was only vulnerable to the power of the under-disciplined silver spoon. Fun rivalry, but four years later, does anyone really reminisce on the excitement this rivalry produced?

If I had to pick, I would say the most exciting boxing rivalry in recent time has to be between Floyd Mayweather and Oscar De La Hoya. In 2007, Floyd was looking to establish himself as an independent man in boxing. This fight was his opportunity to graduate from being “Pretty Boy” to “Money May.” Floyd did not hold back throughout the promotional tour. From imitating the “Golden Boy” to bringing a chicken with a gold medal to the stage.

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Floyd presented himself as a confident black man who honestly accepted the challenge to assume the role of the new infamous modern day boxing villain. It was a well developed role that he made his own. Sure, most of his trash talking consisted of emasculating Oscar and challenging his manhood. As problematic as that is, I focus on the new and creative ways that Floyd presented his trash talking. It was an art that flipped the script on the culture of trash talking in sports. As a result, the boxing world stood still and watched. Floyd became public enemy number one in the eyes of Mexican boxing fans. Mexican fans who typically questioned Oscar’s career, were now in solidarity with the East LA native.

Before this fight was the 2002 match between Fernando Vargas and De La Hoya. I would say Floyd studied this rivalry well because Vargas performed a classic villain role. Rooted in his attempt to escape from the shadows of De La Hoya, Vargas’s dislike of De La Hoya was motivated by Vargas’s desire to uplift his own identity. His own humanity.

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This fight took place a year after the 9/11 attacks and Vargas had no plans in promoting US Nationalism and Patriotism. Instead, he presented himself as a proud Mexican fighter who embraced his Aztec past and was proud to enter the ring to live music by Vicente Fernandez. He questioned De La Hoya’s manhood and racial, ethnic, and cultural integrity. Again, we can have a conversation about this and how problematic that is, but Vargas did these things having full confidence of himself. That is pretty American if you ask me.

The modern day boxing rivalry is missing what Fernando and Floyd once brought to the table. Organic creativity that stems from each man’s identities. These two men fueled two of the most classic boxing rivalries of the past 2 decades. How did they do this? Both men knew they would assume the B-Side politic of villain in relation to the “Good Mexican,” De La Hoya. They embraced this role, but on their terms. Through creativity, honesty, and vulnerability, both men forced the public to consume them as they were.

Today’s boxing rivalries need just that. Boxers who stay true to themselves and commit to their own theatrical scripts to put on exciting pre-fight events. We don’t want puppets, we want honest fighters who put themselves and their politics on the line.

Knowing that the social structures of the boxing industry continue to be ultra-traditional and neoliberal, we have a long way to go before we can expect boxers to step away from racially charged, homophobic, and emasculating trash talking. To step away from these structures, boxers being true to themselves and taking on the challenge to find creative approaches to building up fights is a start to reviving modern day boxing rivalries.

**Special thanks to David Martinez for sharing his archives with me. You can find his work at http://dmboxing.com/**