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The Trapdoor

By
December 2, 2008

For Edgard Rodríguez

When Amado Gavilán climbed into the Los Angeles Staples Center ring on the afternoon of May 28, 2005, it was to fight an eight-round match against Arcadio Evangelista, an undefeated Philippine mini flyweight. It was the third match of a long fighting card that would conclude with the 10:00 p.m. main event—Julio César Chávez, the most famous Mexican boxer and the holder of five world titles in three weight divisions, was to battle welterweight Ivan “Mighty” Robinson in what would become his historic last fight.

Few in the audience had ever heard of Gavilán. On the other hand, Chávez—a fellow Mexican who was forty-two and just days away from retirement—, had an impressive 108 victories, eighty-seven by knockout. The odds-makers had made Chávez an overwhelming favorite to reap the financial rewards of a coast-to-coast pay-per-view contract.

While Chávez’s name was emblazoned on his robe, Gavilán wore a thin cape of anonymity. A year younger than Chávez, he had fought forty-one times and lost thirty-two, fourteen by knockout. He had no nickname—in fact, he never even considered calling himself Kid Gavilán (like the legendary Cuban welterweight champ whose real name was Gerardo González), as his part-time trainer Frank Petrocelli had once suggested. His name certainly gave him the right, but he felt it was sacrilegious because there had already been one Kid Gavilán—

To spurn a moniker but stand out just the same, he’d have to be like Chávez. A sportswriter for Tijuana’s El Sol had once called Gavilán “the gentleman of the ring” because of his nice manners and his kind treatment of opponents in the ring. He was a restrained fighter—not a killer seeking a bloody victory—no publicist would’ve thought of putting “gentleman of the ring” on a boxing poster. Another disadvantage was he weighed 108 pounds and fought in the mini fly division, where naturally there were no stars and little heroism. If flyweight isn’t degrading enough, a mini fly is worse.

But I’m digressing.

Amado Gavilán had been born in Hermosillo, Mexico. As a child, his parents had moved to Tijuana where he now lived with his son Rosendo, a talkative and lively young man who hoped to be a radio boxing commentator. His house climbed the bald heights of those rocky cliffs at the edge of a ravine that was used as a garbage dump, just behind Laurel Canyon and next to Playas de Tijuana. His house was actually a rubbish heap, crowned with old tires so if the sea breezes blew, they wouldn’t carry off the laminated tin that formed the roof. His neighborhood was called Vista Encantada—Enchanted View—and his street Calle de la Natividad—Nativity Street.

When the younger Gavilán was asked about his mother, he answered “We live by ourselves. I don’t know a thing about my mother Lupe other than what my father told me: that she grabbed her suitcase one day and went back to Ensenada, from where she came. She wore a Chinese crepe dress embossed with lots of azaleas on the day she left, so says my father.”

So he joined a Mariachi band that snagged customers at midnight in Santa Cecilia Square. He strummed a guitar he had learned to play on his own, but staying up to all hours of the night proved to be another problem.

Gavilán worked for a while as a carpenter’s apprentice in the Bebé Feliz Cradle Factory on New Millennium Avenue. He operated an electric chainsaw, but according to his trainer Petrocelli, the work didn’t suit him—he could sever his hand if the saw skipped track while cutting boards. He became a baker at the Peter Piper Pizzeria on Carousel Square, which also was no good because the temperature shifts could damage his lungs. So he washed dishes at the Kahlua Restaurant on Lázaro Cárdenas Boulevard, though Petrocelli warned him that he’d get arthritis and cripple his fists by sticking his hands in hot water all the time, even if he wore rubber gloves.

So he joined a Mariachi band that snagged customers at midnight in Santa Cecilia Square. He strummed a guitar he had learned to play on his own, but staying up to all hours of the night proved to be another problem. So his son Rosendo dropped out of high school and began working in a butcher shop so his father could simply train. And then the matter was settled when Kid Melo, an ex-boxer, offered Gavilán a job sparring in the Mariano Matamoros gym, which was also where he trained.

“Petrocelli lives in San Diego. For years he taped my father’s hands without thinking about money. He’d bicycle every night across the San Ysidro border to the gym,” Rosendo said. “Kid Melo didn’t charge my father for using the gym even before he hired him to spar, and neither did Petrocelli. They believed in him—they thought he hadn’t had the break he needed, but that in time, he would.”

Rosendo spoke with the detached expertise of the commentator he hoped to become when discussing Gavilán’s strengths: “My father was the kind of boxer promoters called at the last minute to fill a hole in the boxing card, knowing they’re getting someone in good shape but who couldn’t knock out a ranked opponent. My father’s chivalrous smile when touching gloves with his opponent at the start of the fight hardly helped in the hellish exchange of blows once the bell rings.”

Small and wiry, Gavilán resembled a kid at his first communion if his face didn’t reflect years of punishment—his son was twice as tall and double his weight. He began boxing late in life in Tijuana, and in 1993 he lost his first four fights, twice by first round knockout. Two years later he received his first contract to fight in San Diego and other U.S. border cities and lost five times in a row, KO-ed or TKO-ed three times.

But they kept on hiring him. A decent, courageous man with no vices always has his place in this kind of business, thought Rosendo. Usually he was paid $2,000 per fight, an even paltrier amount once taxes and commissions are taken out.

With such a small purse, Gavilán couldn’t hire a manager to arrange his fights, so he did it himself. Petrocelli would go with him if the fight was in San Diego or some nearby town, but when he had to fly or take a train, there was no money for a second ticket or another hotel room; often Gavilán would go into the ring with a part-time assistant he himself had hired. While on tour, Gavilán preferred to pay his son’s expenses rather than his trainer’s.

“I accompanied him from age twelve and on,” Rosendo said. “At first my heart tightened sitting at ringside worrying about a severe injury that would leave him deaf or blind. I would close my eyes as soon as the opening bell sounded. The touching of gloves was louder than the ringing in my ears, and I would open my eyes when the bell sounded announcing the end of the round. I consoled myself seeing him return to his corner on his two feet, sit down on the stool, while they took out his mouthpiece and rubbed him down with water. He’d always look for me in the audience and smile to give me courage, even if his mouth was almost swollen shut.”

“When I was bigger I understood I had to get rid of the fear that somehow separated us. I had to be with him, eyes completely open, even if he fell to his knees on the canvas, with the referee’s hand mercilessly counting to ten above his head as if about to decapitate him. I learned to suffer the blows he received and began to develop a taste for boxing as a sport. This way we had a lot to talk about during our trips—the records and feats of world champs; who had knocked out whom, in what year and when; the time Rocky Marciano had cried in the hospital with his idol Joe Louis after demolishing him in eight rounds and taking away his heavyweight crown.”

So Rosendo had a ringside seat when Gavilán got into the Staples Center ring on the evening of May 28th 2005. He knew that he’d have to give up his seat once the main event began because the arena was completely sold out.

Rosendo also explained how his father had been hired to fight Arcadio Evangelista. For the last year and a half, his father’s luck had turned modestly, beginning with his split-decision victory over Freddy “Pug Nose” Moreno in El Paso, Texas in November 2005. Then he TKO-ed Marvin “The Hammer” Posadas in the third round of their Yuma, Arizona fight. Then he lost a close fight against Orlando “Hurricane” Revueltas in Amarillo, fought a draw with Mauro “The Best” Aguilar in San Antonio, and lost a decision against Fabián “The Avenger” Padilla in Tucson who would soon win the WBF title in the lightweight division.

Evangelista, twenty four and with a perfect 16-0 record, was expected to fight for the WBC bantam flyweight title in September against Mexican Eric Ortiz, but he needed one more fight to sharpen his skills. They first considered Alejandro Moreno, another Mexican, but Evangelista had easily beaten him two years earlier and wanted a tougher opponent. Then Top Rank, Inc.’s arranger Brad Goodman thought of Gavilán, who had become a credible boxer. He had a recent good run, trained vigorously, meticulously watched his weight, and everyone knew he didn’t drink. Finding a good contender in a division with few boxers wasn’t easy.

This would be Gavilán’s first appearance at the Staples Center, which in and of itself was something. Further, he would be paid $4,000; double his usual take, plus he’d be given a roundtrip ticket from San Diego and housing in a four-star hotel. From when he signed the contract, he couldn’t sleep thinking about what he would do with $4,000.

“He could buy himself a used car,” says Rosendo.

This test took half an hour. The boxers had to answer simple questions: Who are you? Where are you from? Then do simple math and take a memory test which consisted of remembering the names of three objects they’d been shown minutes earlier.

The California Athletic Commission had to approve the fight. Rosendo explained how. “Dean Lohuis, the Executive Director, had more than twenty years experience in evaluating boxers. He kept records on index cards written in his own handwriting in a shoebox. That’s his archive, which he swears he’ll never trade for a computer. He looked over Gavilán’s and Evangelista’s cards and agreed it would be a fair match.”

He’d mark each boxer’s card with a letter from A to E in upper case. He nixed matches if any fighter had more than a two letter advantage. An A can’t fight a D because the D has no chance whatsoever to win and he’s just being used. To set his ratings, he took into account the times a boxer has been knocked out or how many KOs he has or if he had serious cuts or some other grave injury. According to his system, Evangelista was a B and Gavilán a C, so he approved the fight.

Amado Gavilán made the trip by train with his son one day before the fight. Top Rank would cover Petrocelli’s expenses, but since he was a heavy smoker, emphysema was eating up his lungs and he was on oxygen all the time.

When they got off the train at noon in Union Station, no one from Top Rank met them, so they took a taxi to the Ramada Inn, the designated hotel, on De Soto Avenue. An hour later, at the weigh-in, Gavilán came in at 106 pounds and Evangelista at 108. The neurological exam followed.

This test took half an hour. The boxers had to answer simple questions: Who are you? Where are you from? Then do simple math and take a memory test which consisted of remembering the names of three objects they’d been shown minutes earlier. The neurologist also checked their arm and leg reflexes and their eye movement. If everything was normal, he’d certify that the boxers were in reasonably good shape to fight.

But you can’t detect a subdural or epidural hemotoma, the result of years of accumulated injuries—fighters are always beating each other in the head, hoping to knock each other out. These effusions cause many irreversible injuries, capable of reducing or destroying mental or motor faculties as well as blocking the urinary sphincter or tract. No test can foresee them, though they can lead to death.

On May 28th, the following day, father and son arrived at the Staples Center at 2:30 PM. Amado Gavilán had a new traveling bag where he stored his black, red-lined trunks, his shoes, his blue silk robe, an old gift from the Tecate Beer Company, with his name emblazoned on the back and which he wore to every single fight.

The huge parking lots were empty and the street vendors had hardly begun putting up stalls where they sold Mexican flags, banners and pictures of the Virgin of Guadalupe and souvenirs of Chávez—mugs, glasses, pennants and tee-shirts with his image. Neither the doormen nor the ushers had arrived, and it took them a long time to find someone who could direct them to the dressing rooms. Gavilán showed his ID to a guard who made a few phone calls before letting them in. Later the professional handlers provided by Top Rank showed up and began to bandage his hands for the fight.

Two hours later it was time for Gavilán to fight in an almost empty arena. The boxers came to the center of the ring from their corners, and Rosendo saw once more his father listening to the litany of rules that the referee recited in English, nodding his head with enthusiastic obedience, even though he didn’t understand a word.

While echoes of scattered voices buzzed in the stands, the electronic bell rang—for Rosendo it was like seeing a very old film. He didn’t foresee any surprises or excitement, expecting the decision to be in the scorecards in the judges’ hands. “My father was a master bobber and weaver, but his punches lacked imagination and his opponent could predict where they’d land—he took few risks and fought by the book. He moved well, with skill, but that’s worthless if you can’t punch,” he said.

Five rounds passed, without pain or glory. Nothing happened in the ring to excite the sparse crowd. The TV technicians checked the mikes and cameras—they used the boxers in the ring as stand-ins for their picture trial runs, for the pay-for- view main event between Chávez and Robinson later that night.

Ben Gittlesohn, Evangelista’s manager, sat next to Rosendo and openly expressed his disappointment with his boxer’s performance, not knowing who was sitting next to him. He yelled that Evangelista lacked the killer instinct when the bell rang otherwise he’d have liquidated that sick old Mexican much earlier. Rosendo saw out of the corner of his eye that Lohuis was sitting at ringside and writing on a card that would end up in the shoe box that the fight was “spirited.” It was a victory for Gavilán because a draw opened up the possibility of more boxing deals in the future for amounts greater than $2,000.

The colorless gray of the fight started to fade, however, in the fifth round when Evangelista scored a few uppercuts that made Gavilán totter. “He left a big hole in his defense, and was no longer moving skillfully across the ring to avoid the many punches to his head. I didn’t like one bit what Gittelsohn was saying about my father, but it was true, age isn’t forgiving and after five rounds, fatigue is a heavy load for anyone over forty,” Rosendo said.

When the fifth round ended, Gavilán went to sit down on his stool. Rosendo could see his mouth was split open and a few threads of blood hung down from his nostrils. His corner man put in his mouthpiece, washed him down, and stanched the bleeding. When he got up for round six, everything seemed back to normal for the fight to continue being competitive. Only three rounds were left. Gavilán was going to lose by points, but still standing on his legs.

But a minute after the round began, Gavilán suddenly turned his back on Evangelista and headed to his corner, indicating with his arms to the referee that he was finished. The Philippine, surprised by the sudden surrender of his opponent, backed away, sure that his blows to Gavilán’s nose had been so hard that he couldn’t breathe any more, so he said later.

Rosendo approached the ring and heard his father complain that his head really hurt. One of the corner men translated for Paul Wallace, the ringside doctor, who looked into his eyes with a flashlight. He asked him to breathe deeply and ordered an icepack be put on his forehead. Gavilán stayed seated for a few minutes, while Gittelsohn yelled to Evangelista: “Next time keep punching till the referee holds you back. You should have cornered him, even if he had turned his back on you. Boxing isn’t a stroll through the park!”

While Evangelista was congratulated by his trainers and a few sparse claps from the public, Gavilán stood up and tottering, tried to get out of the ring, having forgotten to put on his blue robe. Rosendo met him on the floor. “I think I’m going to faint,” he told him. Rosendo helped him back to the locker-room, but after a few steps his legs gave out and he started convulsing severely as if he had epilepsy. Dr. Wallace prepared to give him a shot. He called for a gurney, but before the paramedics arrived, the convulsions had stopped.

Instead of going back to the locker room, he was brought straight away to the nearby Trauma Center at the California Medical Center Hospital. According to boxing commission rules, no fight can take place without an ambulance and a paramedic crew on standby. When the ring announcer Barry LeBrock told the public why the next fight had been delayed, the people in the stands, some already waving Mexican flags, started booing and jeering. Chávez’s fans also booed, making their way down the aisles wearing huge cowboy hats.

A preliminary MRI exam revealed that a clot was forming in his cerebral cortex. Gavilán was immediately sent to surgery for a three and a half hour operation. Then he was put in an artificial coma and on a respirator in the intensive care unit to control his bodily movements and permit the swelling of his brain to recede.

Evangelista visited the hospital that very night, with a bouquet of flowers wrapped in cellophane. “The joy of victory has left me,” he said to Rosendo. “All my family in the Philippines is praying for him.” A couple of Gavilán’s uncles who lived in Compton had no idea that he was in town till they saw the news later that night on television and came to the hospital.

In the days that followed, messages of support were sent to the patient, among them one from Mexico’s President Vicente Fox. Rosendo answered the call from the president’s assistant. “Suddenly my father existed,” Rosendo said. “He had escaped anonymity through a trapdoor.” Once released, Gavilán returned to his house on Nativity Street in the Enchanted Vistas of Tijuana.

Months later, on September 10, 2005, Arcadio Evangelista captured the WBC crown from Eric Ortiz in the first round of the Staples Center main event, sending him to the canvas with a vicious right hook to the chin that knocked out his mouthpiece.

As the boxers were announced and before the usual touching of the gloves, LeBrock told the crowd that Evangelista wanted to dedicate the fight to Amado Gavilán, “the gentleman of the ring,” who was his special guest that night sitting at ringside with his son.

Gavilán exhibited the same youthful thin, wiry look. He wore a baseball cap (his hair had yet to grow back in after the operation), a long sleeve white shirt which still showed the folds from the packaging, and a polyester tie emblazoned with a large map of California.

Rosendo helped him up when his name was announced, but he rushed to hold his father when he started plodding aimlessly down the aisle as if his tennis shoes weighed tons. He had a bulky rear end because he wore diapers due to incontinence. A glazed look was in his eyes. He had no idea where he was going.

Translated by David Unger

Nicaraguan Sergio Ramírez Mercado has published more than twenty books of fiction, short stories, and essays, and is considered among Latin America’s most important living writers and intellectuals. His 1998 novel Margarita, How Beautiful the Sea, which focuses on the life of poet Rubén Darío, won Spain’s prestigious Alfaguara Fiction Prize. He served as vice president of Nicaragua under the Sandinistas in the nineteen eighties.

Guatemalan-born David Unger is the author of Life in the Damn Tropics: A Novel, which was translated into Spanish and Chinese, and the recently completed novel In My Eyes, You Are Beautiful. He has translated or co-translated fourteen books from the Spanish and teaches at the City College of New York.

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