The boxing ring is all set up in Mallory Square when I arrive for the main event. The usual array of jugglers, tourists and trinket peddlers have been replaced by TV engineers putting the last minute touch on camera platforms. A sweeping vista of sailboats in the sunset provides the perfect backdrop for Top Rank Entertainment’s broadcast of “Fight Night in The Keys”.
Si Stern, the indefatigable promoter, is making the rounds of local radio stations with one last appeal for fans. “. . . and this year we’ve got T-shirts, really great T-shirts with the poster on the front for only $10. So come on down.” Carl Moretti, the Top Rank executive in charge, chats casually with the fighters as they file in. All he needs now, he says, is a good fight.
Moretti is hoping an exciting title match between his heavyweight, Odlanier Solis, the former Cuban Olympic gold medalist, and his Costa Rican opponent Carl Drumond will force Vladimir Klitschko, the reigning heavyweight champion, to give Solis a shot at the world championship. “If he can score an impressive knockout, and he looks good on television, and the fans like him, this will build that momentum. It’s all about whether TV wants you and the fans like you,” he says.
The Ring Girls
Before the match starts, Si brings in the ring girls, recruited from his strip club “Teasers” for their athletic prowess and scholarship. Between rounds, they will parade around the ring holding up placards announcing the next round.
Si’s son Gary, 50, is in charge of getting them in and out of the ring. “You can strut and show as much as you want,” he counsels them, “but don’t ham it up too much during the broadcast.” He might as well be preaching abstinence in a whorehouse. The longer the night goes on, the more the girls try to out-do each other with their bumps and grinds.
Florida State Champions
The first three bouts are all for Florida state titles. The first pits Si’s fighter Marcus Upshaw against the skinny kid from Minnesota, Scotty Ball. They trade punches for three rounds, but Upshaw’s arms are longer and his punches land while Ball’s whistle through the air. After three rounds, Ball’s manager throws in the towel. “My boy didn’t get hurt, he just got tired,” he says as he follows his fighter out of the ring.
Damian Frias is next up, fighting for the Florida state welterweight title. His opponent is Mr. Fast Hands himself, Brad Solomon. In the ring, I soon discover Damian is not Damian anymore but “Devo” Frias, the name stitched on the side of his trunks, and “Devo” is clearly a crowd favorite. It’s a good match, eight rounds. The two fighters begin circling the ring, sizing each other up, and the first time they pass, I notice that Fast Hands has his own moniker “Busy Bee” stitched on the butt of his trunks.
Frias stalks his prey determined to pin him into a corner, but Solomon is too quick for him. He circles back, then attacks with a dozen quick jabs to the stomach and head. None is hard enough to take Frias down, but they leave him no room to counter-punch. Si sits quietly in a chair just below the ring. He follows every flurry of punches intently, not cheering, not scowling, but studying his man. Looking to see what’s in him. Not much, it turns out. The longer the match goes on, the more bewildered Frias appears and the more daring Solomon is with his quick combinations.
The judges score every round for Solomon, 72-18, and he wins a unanimous decision. Frias retreats silently back to the locker room, where he sits with his head between his legs. Meanwhile, Fast Hands wraps the belt around his waist and trots around the ring showing it off. It looks like a manhole cover with the Florida state seal stitched to an inner tube.
I ask him what he’s going to do with it. “I have three national Golden Gloves and a world title,” he says. “I keep those hanging on the wall in the shop. I guess I’ll put it there.”
Diaz vs. Lopez
For the Diaz-Lopez fight, I slip into the front row aisle reserved for Top Rank VIP’s next to my friends, the Moretti security detail. The match between the two undefeated fighters lives up to all expectations: eight rounds of hand-to-hand, toe-to-toe, glove-to-face combat––and neither fighter gives an inch.
In one flurry of punches, it looks like Diaz has the advantage. “He’s got him, he’s got him, he’s got to finish him,” the guy next to me shouts. Then Lopez comes back with ten unanswered punches to the face. “He really tattooed him that time,” he admits.
By the sixth round, Lopez is bleeding from cuts to his eye, ear and right cheek. Diaz’s nose and mouth are both open sores and a welt is rising under his right eye. Their white trunks are smeared pink and there are trails of blood across their gloves. By the eighth and final round, both are exhausted. But that doesn’t keep them from searching for one last piece of untouched skin to bruise.
My three friends from New Jersey all think Diaz won . . . narrowly. Indeed, by a 74-72 count, the judges unanimously give Diaz his 13th straight win, a first rate TV performance that somehow, in the alchemy of the sport, will bring him that much closer to fighting for the world Super Bantamweight Championship.
Trouble in Paradise
While the Diaz-Lopez fight is going on, however, there is trouble in the locker room. Big trouble. A state boxing examiner is insisting Carl Drumond rewrap his wrists before putting on the gloves. Just as loudly, Drumond’s manager is insisting he won’t fight. The problem, as the Florida boxing commissioner see it, is that the tape Drumond’s manager is using is a nylon synthetic instead of the cloth-based adhesive Florida mandates. The first examiner approved the wrap, but a second has asked for a change.
Tampering with the fist wraps is a storied way fighters can gain an edge in a boxing match. In South America, some trainers weave little shards of metal — called “a margarita” — into the tape just above the glove so if a punch to the head misses, the blow nonetheless opens a gash when it brushes against an opponent’s face. Synthetic nylon wraps offer the same opportunity for glancing blows. But forced to unwrap, Drumond has changed back into his street clothes and sulks in the corner while his manager screams in protest. The examiner sends out a frantic call to his boss Tom Molloy, the executive director of the Florida Boxing Commission.
Meanwhile, in the Fox Sports control room, the director needs to fill time. And that time now belongs not to Jorge Diaz but to Glenn Tapia. Tapia’s little four round warmer-upper is suddenly live on national TV. And Tapia not only looks good on television –– he punches his opponent so hard in the second round the referee has to stop the fight so the fighter can put on another jock –– his opponent throws in the towel after three rounds.
So Fox Sports has plenty of time to talk with the winner, and Tapia turns out to be as comfortable in front of a camera as Sarah Palin at a turkey farm. He shucks and jives and smiles a lot. He yammers on about how grateful he is to God, and his managers, and his parents, his friends, his pet lizard, whatever. He can say anything he wants to say, for as long as he wants to say it, because, as the interviewer can plainly see, no heavyweights are walking out the locker room door.
To Fight or Not to Fight
Tom Molloy told me later he definitely did not tell Carl Drumond “You’ll never fight again.” He just reminded him that he had the power to indefinitely suspend his license, and that suspension would become widely known throughout the boxing world. He also informed him he had the power to withhold his $100,000 purse and call any number of friends to describe the circumstances. But at no point, Molloy contends, did he ever threaten the fighter. Carl Drumond decided on his own to rewrap his wrists and step into the ring.
A Bust Out
Odlanier Solix, the Cuban who calls himself La Sombra, or “The Shade”, listened to Drumond’s excuses through the thin walls of the locker room (a converted theater dressing room) and entered the ring ready to kill him.
Like an angry bull, he advances straight out of his corner at the first bell, tucking his head low behind his gloves, but using his shoulders ripped by years of conditioning to pop his fists into Drumond’s face. Drumond manages to dance from them for three rounds. As the third round ends, however, Solis unfurls a punishing combination of blows that sends Drumond to his corner reeling just as the bell sounds. And he never comes out. As quickly as it started, the match is over. And the TV boxing gods are not sated.
In the crowd afterward, the Pound for Pound boys are celebrating their dual victories. Tapia poses with a girl who came down from New Jersey to watch the fight. Diaz stands quietly in the background, his eyes covered by wrap around shades. When I ask him to lower the shades for a picture, it reveals a black and blue mark under his eye the size of a baseball.
I saw Si only briefly after the fight. He was back at Teasers, in his usual post by the door, greeting friends as they came in after midnight. He was in one of those hard to read moods, still running on the fumes of a successful night, all promoted out, but already thinking about how next year can be better.
The next morning at the Hotel Key West, Ron Peterson and his boy Scotty Ball are lying out poolside when I check out. They have decided to stay down in Key West for a few more days before heading back to Minnesota. Ball says he’s not sorry he came. He got an all expenses paid week in Florida and $4,000 out of the deal. But this is probably his last fight. He only went back to boxing because he was laid off last year at the auto parts plant outside Rochester where he worked as a machinist. “They let go 230 people, but they’re starting to hire back,” he says. “I’m tenth in line on the rehire list, so I should be back there by June.”
The Gold Ring
Since the fight, I’ve been paying a lot of attention to the HBO documentary series “24/7 Mayweather-Mosley” leading up to their title fight last Saturday night. [Ed note: Mayweather won a unanimous decision, earning a $22.7 million purse.] This is the Gold Ring of Boxing –– two world class fighters, one living in a mansion in Las Vegas, the other training with his entourage in the California foothills outside Los Angeles. The cameras capture every waking second, all the details of father-son relationships, the opinions of the fight managers, the training, the meals, the partying down. One contender says he is only in it for the money, the other professes pride is on the line.
No matter. It’s a made up story. A television story shaped and shifted into a “reality” TV documentary that celebrates the glamor of boxing, the same way television shapes so much of what we think is reality in America.
The reality for these lower card fighters in Key West is that no one is watching until the end of the journey. For the Scotty Balls, Damian Friases, Glenn Tapias, Jorge Diazes, and yes, even, Mr. Fast Hands, the “Busy Bee” Brad Solomon, it’s a life of discipline and perseverance, little money and no guarantees. Every fight could be their last. And I can’t get out of my head what Sal Alessi told me that first day: “When you love the game, the money is the back end. It’s getting there. It’s the ride. Trust me. Even for a hard core businessman, it’s the ride.”
We return you now to your regularly scheduled programming.