The Hardest Hit

There it was, the power right -- blam! -- like a goddamned torpedo launched from Tony's shoulder, through his elbow and out his glove. The blow hit the champion's brow, which immediately parted like the Red Sea, streaming blood into his left eye. No one saw it coming, especially not the champ. The hordes of chanting Puerto Ricans, the judges, the referee -- they were all disbelief and outrage. But Tony believed. So much training, so many smaller bouts, culminating in this one punch, the fight of his life, win or lose. Soon all he could hear was the voice of Denny, his cornerman, telling him to stay off the ropes. And then the bell signaled round three.

Tony Duran loved boxing. And because of that, Mark Fernandez loved Tony. At Adams City Junior High, the schoolyard lessons had come quick and hard -- like an algebra textbook upside the head. "You either had to know how to fight or how to run," Mark remembers. By the start of seventh grade, he'd run marathons from potential ass-whuppings. And then he met Tony. "He became my best friend from day one," Mark says. "I didn't have to do anything, just introduce myself."

Tony asked if he was a boxer.

"No," Mark answered, a little self-conscious. "I'd like to be one, though."

Tony took him to the Commerce City Boxing Club, where he'd been flinging jabs since he was eight. Now, at fourteen, Tony had hundreds of amateur bouts under his belt, some sanctioned, some not. The club operated out of a community-center gymnasium, where Rich Martinez would hang heavy bags from the basketball hoops and coach a dozen teens in the basics: Square your shoulders, punch straight, this is a jab, this is a body punch. Either get in there and fight or go home, Martinez would say. He didn't waste time with kids who were afraid of getting hit. And while Mark left the club that first evening with a bloody nose, he continued training there with Tony every day after school.

Both inside the ring and out, the boys had no greater allies than each other, especially in the daily battles of adolescence. Tony was the second-youngest of five kids and was quiet, sometimes sullen, with his family. He'd call Mark, looking for an escape, and the two would meet on the train tracks between their houses in the DuPont area of Commerce City, tramping along the wooden ties, past the junkyards, warehouses and power lines. Their meetings were usually marked by a calm silence: Tony did most of his talking in the ring.

Tony's athletic ability -- in wrestling, running, football -- was excellent, and boxing seemed to focus all his energy. Boxing was a sport of brutal extremes, physical risks and unlikely monetary payoffs, but it was also the stabilizing factor in his life, as it has been in the lives of so many young men and women. After one of their friends was stabbed to death at a roller rink and another buddy thrown in jail following a gun battle with two Denver high school students, Mark and Tony became even more committed to the ring. When they weren't selling candy door-to-door for extra money, they were training together. And as their skill grew, so did their reputation. They became known among neighborhood scrappers as a two-for-one special: Mess with one, be prepared to mess with the other.

With its oil refineries, acid pits, manufacturing facilities and railyards, Commerce City wasn't a place of permanency. It was more a city of conversion, where the rawest of materials arrived to be processed, tempered and refined, then sent away. It was a place of beginnings. Like those soon-to-be products that rumbled by inside freight cars each day, Mark and Tony developed their talents on the amateur circuit, fighting their way through local opponents and ringers.

This wasn't the best time to start a boxing career. In 1977, the year Mark and Tony met, the Colorado Legislature had disbanded the fifty-year-old Colorado Athletic Commission amid accusations of racism and corruption. The commission had overseen all money matches in the state; once it was gone, professional boxing descended into twenty years of near anarchy. But the boxing culture continued to thrive where it mattered most: in neighborhood gyms and at local tournaments.

Every summer, Commerce City would host Derby Days in its small downtown area. And every night through the event, the Commerce City Boxing Club would hold amateur exhibition matches called "smokers" to raise money for traveling expenses. Martinez would erect a makeshift boxing ring on the gymnasium's stage, and people would pay two bucks each to watch their neighborhood fighters take on boxers from rival teams. The speed Mark had developed to avoid fights as a kid worked well inside the ring, earning him the nickname "King Cobra." Tony was short, but he was a smart right-hander and wicked powerful in the gloves; he was dubbed "Dynamite" because that's what he had in his fists: explosives. The Derby Days match-ups didn't count for any stats, so the fights sometimes lacked spark. But Tony always fought with a rhythm and diligence that won over the audience. Every fight was like his last.

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Jared Jacang Maher