Sal Alessi couldn’t sleep. Something told him the digital scale Jorge Diaz kept in his room might be off, and if Diaz was even a quarter of a pound over the 124 pound limit, his “Fight Night in The Keys” would be over before it began.
It was just a hunch, but Sal lived on hunches. So first thing Friday morning, he piled his boys into Juan Arias’ courtesy van to put them on the official scale downtown. What Alessi did not know is that the official, official scale would not arrive in Key West until boxing commissioner Tom Molloy brought it that afternoon. The one everyone else was using, the one borrowed from the high school wrestling team, meanwhile, was riding around in the trunk of Si Stern’s’s car. But Juan wants to be accommodating, so he has arranged with a friend who works on the loading dock at the Publix supermarket to use theirs.
“You’re going to weigh me on a meat scale?” Diaz asks incredulously as they pull up in front. “No way. What if it says I’m over? Which one do we go by, mine or the Publix?” Juan drives the Pound for Pound boys back to the hotel, who are still chortling about the screw-up. The Top Rank executives are waiting out front to meet them, but the boys have their eyes fixed out the other window at two blondes who are climbing into a red Mustang convertible.
“Boy, I’d take one of those,” Diaz says.
“The Mustang or the girls?” I ask.
“Neither. The car next to the Mustang,” he says, pointing at a black BMW sedan. Brad Goodman, the matchmaker for Top Rank, overhears him and dangles the keys in front of Diaz’s eyes. “Here. Take her for a spin. She’s mine.”
Goodman is one of those guys in the boxing world who knows everybody, and nobody knows. To put a fight card together, he calls on friends in every major market. In New Jersey, it’s the Lynch brothers. In Chicago, it’s Dominic Pesoli. In the upstream battle to become a championship contender, he’s the keeper of the locks and channels, giving one fighter a break and flushing away the dreams of another.
On the day before the big match, his job is simple: to make sure everybody shows up, at the weight they have contracted to fight. He notices that Diaz is walking around with an Arizona Tea can and pulls him aside. “Loose the liquids for 24 hours,” he says. “Chew this and spit. I know a guy who lost two pounds just in spit.”
A Sissy Who Can Punch
I ride down to the weigh-in later that day with Ron Peterson, a manager from Minneapolis whose fighter Scotty Ball will be going up against Si’s man Marcus Upshaw. Ball, 24, is a boxer only when he has to be. Until last year, he was a machinist in an auto parts factory outside Rochester, but he was laid off when the auto industry tanked.
With a baby due in August, he signed with Peterson to earn some extra money fighting in the Indian casinos around Minnesota and has put together a respectable 11-6 record, with six knockouts. “He looks like a sissy, but he can really punch,” Peterson says. When Peterson was offered a $4,000 purse to bring Ball down to Fight Night in The Keys, he jumped at the chance.
“I’m like that old prospector looking for gold,” he says. “You go through a lot of fighters, but you’re looking for that one nugget who is going to set you up for life. I had a guy a couple years ago who I thought was it. He was like 16 and 0, then he got in with someone who could punch and it was all over. Poof! All your dreams are gone.”
The weigh-in is being held in the same courtyard behind Big Uns where Ricky Jackson used to stage his bubba matches. Big Uns is the sports bar Si owns under his strip club, and the boxing commissioners have set up shop at the back bar to check paperwork while the official doctor conducts physical exams on a nearby pool table.
Besides the fighters and managers, the weigh-in attracts a number of local luminaries Si has lured in with VIP tickets and a free buffet, reporters and photographers from the boxing press, there are a growing number of attendees who-–how do I say this delicately––look like they just flew in on the Buda Bing charter.
Soon enough, the courtyard starts filling up faster than detention hall at St. Anthony’s on Halloween. In short order, I meet two Hall of Fame matchmakers on vacation from Philadelphia and Baltimore, a retired promoter from Las Vegas, and three shadowy figures from New Jersey who won’t give me their names but joke they have flown in to be Carl Moretti’s bodyguards. “We keep him out of trouble in the bars,” one says.
One of the men looks like someone I know in Wisconsin, so I ask if he has relatives there. “The only guy I knew in Wisconsin was Vince Lombardi, and he’s buried in Secaucus,” he says. Do you have a monument to him there like they do in Green Bay, I wonder. “Yeah, it’s a rest stop on the New Jersey turnpike,” his buddy says.
The paperwork is going slowly. The two heavyweights who will anchor the show kill the waiting time without acknowledging the other’s presence. Odlanier Solis, 29, the Cuban gold mendalist, is a bundle of energy, playing foosball with the other fighters, signing posters and mugging for the cameras with his one-year-old son.
His opponent Carl Drumond, 35, the Costa Rican champion, sits in a chair on the deck, quietly hiding behind his sunglasses.
The weigh-in will soon confirm a new trend in boxing. Heavyweights are getting heavier. Solis will come in at a hefty 268.5 pounds. Drumond will weigh 228.5. Both are heavier than Mohammed Ali or George Foreman were in their prime, and they are vying for the chance to take on the current champion, Wlvadimir Klitschko, who is 6’ 7” and weighs 269 pounds.
Mr. Fast Hands
Before things start, Juan wants me to meet Brad Solomon, who will be Damian Frias’s opponent. Juan saw him fight in Atlanta and swears “he has the fastest hands since Sugar Ray Leonard.”
“So you’re Mr. Fast Hands,” I say, thinking a little levity might break the ice. He breaks into a broad smile. That’s when I see his top five front teeth are all gold-plated. “How’s that working for you?”
His manager Charles Ferguson quickly jumps in. He thinks maybe I’ve gotten the wrong impression. “The teel are real,” he reassures me. “It’s just one of those things kids are doing these days. He wanted gold teeth, so he’s got gold teeth.”
Good to Go
Carl Moretti, the senior vice president of Top Rank, kicks off the weigh-in with appropriate thanks to the local promoters, sponsors and friends (no mention of the bodyguards.) Key West is a terrific venue, he says, with a family atmosphere that “will expose boxing to a whole different set of fans.” The weigh-in itself is anti-climatic. No in-your-face challenges, insults or boasting. The boxers step to the stage, strip down to their underwear (mid-calf briefs not boxers, in case you were wondering), step on the scale, then pose for photographers facing their opponent in that cheesy fists up shot you see in program books. (Diaz weighs in at 124 pounds exactly.)
When it is over, Solis gathers his entourage and drives off. The Pound for Pound Boys climb back in Juan’s van to get to sleep early at the hotel. The only fighter in no particular hurry to leave is Drumond. I follow him out to Duvall Street where he stops in a T-shirt shop to pick up a few souvenirs. Most of the officials at the weigh-in assumed that as a Costa Rican, Drumond knows only a smattering of English. In the souvenir shop, it’s clear he speaks English fluently, especially in the company of women.
He picks out a Key West hoodie, then another shirt, all the while flirting with the woman behind the counter. When she finds out he is one of the fighters, she presses a beaded necklace in his hand and prays. She is praying that he has a great victory tomorrow night, that God will protect him, and that he will return home safe. In Drumond’s eyes, however, you can see his mind is focused on only one thing: where is she going to be after the fight?