An hour before Frank Martinez's first professional boxing match, his uncle is chain-smoking cigarettes while his mother, Irene, paces among the gathering crowd at the Great Room in LoDo on January 22, her fight program rolled tightly in her fist. But if these two could see the fighter their Frankie, a 115-pound eighteen-year-old, is matched up against, they would most definitely relax.
Martinez's opponent, Chino Carona, has been brought to the Great Room with one other fighter from El Paso, Texas, by trainer Ariel Conde. These fighters could be in better hands. Conde is a notorious pugilist who has been banned for life in two states--one of which is Colorado--for medical reasons. The highlight of Conde's own career was a draw, according to official records, and he's had to fight under aliases to continue getting in the ring. Even as a trainer, Conde looks a little wobbly, leading some observers to believe that he's been drinking. But Conde isn't drunk on booze--he's punch-drunk.
Another El Paso fighter (handled by a pal of Conde's) goes down seconds into the first round to the displeasure of the crowd of about 250, many of whom are screaming "Get up!" After officials get the ring cleared, Frankie Martinez bounces into the ring for his debut.
Martinez, who according to his family has won three Golden Gloves in as many years, looks sharp as he throws warm-up punches. Carona looks like a kid who got yanked out of third-period gym class. The bouncers prowling the room have biceps bigger than Carona's legs.
The bell rings and the two young boxers circle each other uneasily as Martinez's family hollers encouragement. Carona throws the first punch, after doing everything short of sending a written warning, and Martinez ducks out of the way easily, looking a little surprised by the punch's lack of intensity or accuracy. The crowd groans. Martinez, still cautious, continues to scope out his opponent while bobbing away from a few more of Carona's halfhearted shots. A yell from Irene Martinez finally seems to wake Frankie up, and he obediently plunges through Carona's nonexistent defense. A few punches later, Carona is down and the Martinezes are on their feet. Carona barely manages to get to his knees before the referee's count reaches ten, handing Frankie Martinez his first pro victory. Frankie, following form, climbs the ropes in his corner and waves to his family, but the look on his face betrays the fact that he knows this was too easy.
Carona, his head hanging in defeat, slips out of the ring, while a scantily clad card girl (on leave from a strip joint) teeters around the ring in three-inch heels trying to distract the crowd from the poor performances so far. At the bar, a couple of guys are betting on whether the next fight will even see the second round.
Ricky Norez, yet another El Paso fighter handled by Conde's pal, goes down before the first round is over, suggesting that Conde's bad luck in the ring might be rubbing off. After the fight, referee Woody Kislowski, substituting for the scheduled official, comes over to the ropes to get a drink of water and chat with the judges at ringside. One of the judges laughs and says, "I should have brought my daughter tonight. She could've won a couple fights."
Kislowski, aside from filling in for referees, is also a member of the Colorado Boxing Alliance (CBA), a nonprofit organization formed four years ago to try to revive Colorado professional boxing, the reputation and quality of which, insiders assert, has declined steadily since the state's boxing commission was abolished in the Seventies. A bill sparked by the alliance's effort to re-create a state boxing commission was brought before the Colorado House's State Affairs Committee and passed 12-1 on January 28. The measure has a ways to go before it becomes law, but at least it made it past the first round.
Colorado legislators KO'd the fifty-year-old Colorado Athletic Commission by unanimous decision in 1977. However, a recently passed federal law is putting pressure on lawmakers to revive the state commission. The controversial law has aroused a new sense of urgency among local boxing devotees.
Arizona senator John McCain sponsored the federal legislation in an effort to make what he called "the red light district of sports" a safer and "more honorable" industry. The law makes it illegal to hold an officially sanctioned professional boxing bout without the presence of a state boxing commission. This means that Colorado, along with the four other states that don't have boxing commissions, is now compelled to bring in commissioners from other states to oversee its fights.
This federal intrusion raises the hackles of those involved in Colorado boxing. They complain that such a makeshift system creates inconsistent rules, since each state's boxing commission has different regulations. Some of Colorado's lawmakers are upset about what they see as an unconstitutional foray into state affairs by the federal government.
McCain aide Paul Feeney admits that the new federal law doesn't address uniformity, but he calls it a first step in the right direction. "If there is any profession that cries out for public oversight, it's boxing," he says. "We're not trying to impose bureaucracy on the people of Colorado. We're just trying to stop up some of the bigger gaps in the sport."
Woody Kislowski calls the McCain bill well-intentioned, but he says it hasn't solved the problems of fighter safety and mismatched opponents that an independent Colorado boxing commission could. However, until now, the CBA's efforts to lobby for a new commission at the state level have been met with resistance at nearly every turn because of Colorado boxing's smarmy past when it had a commission.
Rex Walker of the CBA calls the House committee's decision "a great victory for Colorado boxing," but others are more cautious. Ed Walsh, a member of the CBA and former writer for Ring magazine, is a bit more hesitant. "I'm very happy," he says outside the hearing room, "but this is just a consideration right now." Unlike Walker, he doesn't think a new state boxing commission is a done deal. Walsh says he's concerned about keeping the CBA intact for now.
Kislowski adds, "When we tried to get a state commission in 1994, one lawmaker refused to vote for it because [he] said [he] didn't like the sport and that it's not safe. I just wanted to scream. I was so frustrated, because that's the best reason to have our own state commission in the first place."
The House committee was ultimately swayed by the testimony of boxers and fans who asked the committee to focus on the well-being of the boxers. And fight fans are doing plenty of moaning. An emergency medical technician observing the fights January 22 at the Great Room conveyed the basic sentiments of many disillusioned boxing fans: "It's like the state of Colorado is so pitiful that an outside commission has to come in to take care of our boxing."
After the original Colorado Athletic Commission was disbanded twenty years ago because of allegations of corruption and racism, boxing in the state was left to fend for itself. At the conclusion of the hearings in 1977, Senate president Fred Anderson said "no evidence was presented to justify continuation [of the Athletic Commission]."
The irony is that those hearings had been called for by the boxing industry itself in an effort to reform the sport. But if Colorado boxing was already in bad shape while commissioner Ed Bohn was running the show, local fans contend that it got only worse afterward.
"The boxers ended up jumping from the frying pan into the fire," Ed Walsh says. "After the commission was disbanded, the sport descended into absolute chaos. You had situations where a trainer's brother-in-law was judging a fight. You had gross mismatches. You had outright fixes. It was a period that made Colorado the laughingstock of the boxing world." The situation got so bad that after a few years the American Boxing Commission, one of the bodies that sanctions and regulates boxing in the U.S., no longer recognized many of the results from Colorado bouts.
After the state went sixteen years without a boxing commission, the CBA was formed by aficionados, most of them either fans or former fighters. The group managed to garner the support of the ABC, which authorized the CBA to act on its behalf during many Colorado bouts. This move helped bring some semblance of order back to the sport. Rex Walker insists that the CBA's number-one priority over the past four years has been to watch out for the boxers.
"If you take care of them," he says, "everything else will fall into place. Most of these kids aren't candidates for Harvard, so somebody has to protect them. For the most part, they're blacks and Hispanics who are very poor and have no financial training--very easy to exploit. It's a disgrace that we don't have more protection for their health and safety."
Walsh says the CBA "takes a lot of pride in the fact that since it has been active, every fighter who has fought in a show sanctioned by us has gotten paid." With one exception, that is. Walsh does admit to one fight in 1994 when the CBA didn't get a bond from the promoter beforehand and he skipped out, leaving the boxers empty-fisted. "But we take full responsibility for that incident," he says.
The CBA, says Walsh, feels responsible for preserving the health of the fighters, but this is often difficult. "The fight at the Great Room was a good example," he says. "These kids come up from Texas, one of which is seventeen years old, and they have absolutely no understanding of neurological damage or detached retinas. Somebody's got to make sure these kids don't get seriously hurt, because in a lot of cases, the trainers and promoters don't give a damn."
Trainer Ariel Conde seems to care more about others than about himself. According to Fight Fax magazine, Conde's career record as a professional boxer is 0-30-1. It's actually worse than that. From his home in El Paso, Conde talks about his sixteen years of boxing, during which he says he's fought in 149 bouts. His record? "Please, don't ask," he says, laughing. "I'm the lousiest fighter on the face of the planet."
As for the fighters he trains today, Chino Carona and Julian Romero Contreras, Conde feels that they have promise despite their poor showing at the Great Room--though Conde's reasoning seems a little scrambled. "I don't know what happened to them," Conde says. "I think maybe they were too cocky. Cocky because they were probably scared. For Carona, it was his first fight in the States. But they're good rookies, they looked real good when I saw them down here [in El Paso]. Most importantly, they have the dream, and they're training hard again like nothing happened. I'm advising them to go back to Mexico, sort of like a training camp where there aren't such tough guys. They didn't make much money at the fight [in Denver]. Enough to buy gloves, some headgear, maybe a month's rent--but one day they're gonna be rich. We're gonna be rich together."
The enthusiasm that Conde expresses about the futures of his fighters is not shared by others. Walsh, who has been following boxing in Colorado for eleven years, has harsh words for what he calls the "Mexican slave trade." According to Walsh, as well as several others who testified before the House committee last month, unscrupulous trainers and promoters often bring young, inexperienced fighters up from Mexico who have dubious credentials. Their fight records often mean nothing. "Twenty dollars can buy you ten wins in Mexico," Walsh claims. "These fighters get in the ring and are victims of what amounts to child abuse at the hands of experienced boxers."
The question then arises: Why were these young, inexperienced fighters allowed to participate in the January 22 show, at which several members of the CBA were present? Woody Kislowski explains that the CBA can do only so much. "The CBA is a private corporation," he says. "Our volunteers have done a good job, but the truth is that we have no teeth to enforce things like payment, rules and medical supervision. All we could do [before the McCain bill passed] was not sanction the fight, and without our sanctioning, the results didn't count. A lot of the responsibility fell on the respectability of the promoter."
Promoter respectability has been a hit-and-miss issue throughout the years. Members of the CBA say that although they don't always see eye-to-eye with Andy Lee, one of the biggest promoters left in Denver, they have found him to have the best interests of the fighters in mind. However, as Dan Goossen of America Presents (a promoter that relocated to Denver from Nevada six months ago in hopes of cashing in on the city's high-profile sports market) pointed out before the House committee, there are plenty of shady characters in the boxing game. "One hundred and fifty dollars can buy you a promoter's license," Goossen testified. "You can get into this business with a song and a dance."
As for the boxers themselves, they're primarily concerned with getting more exposure and having their Colorado bouts officially sanctioned by someone--anyone. Lavon Lopez, wife of 13-0 middleweight Manuel Lopez, says the lack of a commission is hindering her husband's career. "Boxing has no recognition in Denver," she explains while sitting ringside at the Great Room between rounds of her husband's bout. "Sponsors just don't seem to be willing to take a chance on a Colorado boxer." She thinks a commission would help, but she is skeptical after her past efforts to lobby for a commission were met with defeat. "It seems almost pointless to ask for it," she says.
Manuel Lopez doesn't feel as strongly as his wife does about how his career is being negatively affected. While his trainer unwraps his fists in the basement of the venue after his six-round victory, he says he's getting plenty of fights. He doesn't worry about a commission, he says, because "I have no control over it. All I want to do is fight."
Two-time Olympic Festival champion Shane Swartz, a native of Fort Collins, pointed out to the House committee that the lack of a boxing commission is detrimental to the future of fighters based in Colorado. However, Swartz added an element to his testimony that other boxers didn't bring up: Not only is he worried about his financial security and chances for national recognition, he's also worried about his physical well-being.
Swartz testified that he fought in Mississippi the previous week and felt much more at ease because a state official supervised all the pre-fight taping of his and his opponent's hands, examined their gloves and verified his opponent's weight and record. "I felt safe," Swartz testified. "I knew it was me against him...I knew who I was fighting."
Both the CBA and local promoters complain that the McCain law has caused a whole new set of problems in Colorado boxing. Since the law was passed last July, the CBA can no longer act on the authority of the ABC. The law requires that a representative from a state with a sanctioned boxing commission be present, but individual promoters can decide which state commission they bring into town. According to Andy Lee, this choice can depend on any number of things. Lee says he brought in a representative from Arizona for his show at the Great Room because the airfare between Phoenix and Denver was cheap. Officials at other fights have been brought in from New Jersey, New Mexico, Nevada and California. And each state brings with it its own boxing rules.
"Take AIDS testing, for instance," says Rex Walker. "One week you could bring in a state commissioner that requires boxers to be tested, and the next fight, you've got a different commissioner who doesn't."
Other problems were demonstrated last December during fights in Ignacio, in southwestern Colorado. Kislowski calls the boxing situation that night "as bad as anything that's ever occurred in Colorado--the type of thing that wouldn't have occurred if we had our own state commission."
For the Ignacio show, the promoters contracted with the New Mexico boxing commission, which sent commissioner Stan Gallup, who seemed to have enormous difficulties determining who was eligible to fight and who was not. One fighter, Ricardo Galvan, was allowed to fight even though, according to Kislowski, he had been knocked out in front of the same New Mexico commissioner a month earlier during a Fort Collins bout. (Most fight doctors say that a fighter who has been knocked out should not even spar for at least thirty days to six months, depending on the severity of the blow, to avoid permanent brain damage.) "Apparently they didn't recognize him this time," says Kislowski disgustedly. (New Mexico commissioner Gallup didn't return phone calls seeking comment.)
There were also two other fighters who were allowed to participate even though both of them had been banned from fighting in Colorado. One of these boxers was Ariel Conde.
Fighting under the name Henry Perez ("He'd fight under the name 'Harry Truman' if it would get him into the ring," Walker jokes), Conde managed to lose yet another fight. (Conde admits to fighting under aliases. He confirms that he knew he wasn't supposed to be allowed to fight in Ignacio, but he says, "I'll do whatever it takes to get in.") Kislowski claims that the out-of-state commission allowed Conde to fight over the protests of others at the show who knew of Conde's banishment and could see through his alias. "First of all," says Kislowski, "if people pay good money to see a fight, they should see something legitimate. Conde is not a legitimate fighter. If I paid for a ticket to see him fight, I've been cheated. But more importantly, what about Ariel? What if he got hit and went down and stayed down?
"Boxing is a dangerous sport, so you need to take precautions to protect fighters, and it's just not happening when we bring in all these different commissions. It's too inconsistent."
The fight in Ignacio is not the only instance in which fighters were allowed into the ring without going through the proper pre-fight screening. At the Great Room show, Ariel Conde's second fighter, Contreras, was originally scheduled to fight only in an exhibition bout. However, as a way of placating the crowd after the first three fights ended in the first round, the Arizona commissioner supervising the bouts, Steve Freedman, allowed Contreras's fight against Steve Valdez to count for the record. Although their fight went the distance, much to the delight of the crowd, Ed Walsh was amazed that the visiting commissioner allowed the fight to happen in the first place. Walsh contends that there had been no official weigh-in, and neither of the fighters had been given a pre-fight physical examination because it had been scheduled as an exhibition. "They danced with the devil on that one," Walsh says. (Andy Lee refutes Walsh's assessment of the situation, saying that the two fighters did in fact weigh in. He says there was a six-pound discrepancy, and the lighter fighter agreed to go ahead with the match.)
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But Lee is no fan of the current system, either. "Sometimes," he says, "no commission is better than some commissions."
But with no commission, there's always a chance that an Ariel Conde will wind up fighting and getting his brains knocked out. Conde himself doesn't sound concerned about it, although he says he's trying to phase out his own career and focus on being a trainer for other fighters.
"I'm not a mean guy, but I've been fighting since forever," he says, "and when people ask me to fight, I can't help but say yes. But now I have a beautiful baby girl, my first child, and I realize what losing all these fights was doing to me. I used to be the craziest fighter in the world. I loved to fight, I loved to hear the people in the crowd. And when you win, you forget all about the pain. But now I'm gonna be a trainer, and because I know all about love and pain, I'll be a good one. I just hope that Denver opens the door for me again, because I'm having my nose operated on next month, so next time I come to Denver, my nose is gonna be straight.