BROWNSVILLE — It would be tempting to insist, as most of those in attendance did Saturday night, that the scoundrels should be run out of town on a rail, followed closely by the doctor who arrived an hour late to the fight and then made the fateful decision that ended Raul Casarez’ chance at the IBA Continental Americas title belt. First the scoundrels, second the doctor, and third “El Tigre,” in that order with a few feints thrown in for good measure.
Resolved: first a digression.
Now outdoor boxing used to be a staple in the business, from the bare-knuckle days of yesteryear to the great brawls at Yankee Stadium (where Joe Louis was 10-2 lifetime), Comiskey Park (where “The Brown Bomber” defeated “The Cinderella Man,” James Braddock in 1937) and even Havana, Cuba (where the 6-foot-6 Jess Willard knocked out an aging Jack Jackson in 1915). Cannot leave out the Polo Grounds, which legendary writer Red Smith once called the “sweltering funnel,” and where Luis Firpo knocked Jack Dempsey through the ropes in the first round before taking the gas a round hence. That was 1923.
Indeed, something about pugilism under the sun and/or stars conjures memories of the good old days of the sport, though we know that even those days were not so good if one factors in the fixes and Mob control back then.
So it was that the Brownsville Sports Park was the sight Saturday night of the latest card put on by promoter Julio Marines. Despite the lack of a dressing room - which resulted in the fighters sitting on picnic tables outside a rest room for a full hour before the evening began, with fans filing past on the way to relieve themselves - it was a nice atmosphere, cool breeze supplanting the sweltering Valley late summer day and a solid crowd on hand to see the bouts.
As the card commenced, the fighters having been moved to a distant fieldhouse, the onlookers nestled snugly in their bleacher seats with beers in hand, it was time to do this thing. Not even an hour’s worth of delay for a late-arriving physician could unduly dampen the spirits of the gallery, though a number of wags kept the emcee on his toes with raucous and clever insults, thrown mainly in Spanish.
And there was a reward for the patient, in the form of a couple of lightning rod first-round exits via the KO and a pair of well-contested undercard matches; these whetted the collective appetite for the controlled mayhem and violence that is and will always be boxing’s main drawing appeal.
Soon it was time for the two main events, featuring Edinburg’s pride (Casarez, 14-2 coming in and the holder of a minor Texas Title Belt) and Sergio Perales, the darling of Brownsville, an ex-Olympic Trials competitor who had made mincemeat out of all comers in his 10 previous professional tries.
Before Casarez climbed into the ring against the former champ of Tamaulipas, Adan “Bam Bam” Morillo, his trainer, the veteran James Gogue, noted that “El Tigre” was in tip-top shape, sometimes a maybe in the past for the 22-year-old who started in the fight game at age 16 and has on occasion been known to train only in spurts.
“This time the guy has really gotten after it in the gym,” said Gogue, who has worked with a passel of world champs in his long tenure. “He made weight the right way, a couple of days ago, and in the past, sometimes he’s had to lose a bunch late in the game, and it hurt him. But right now, he is ready to go.”
Casarez, alternately clowning and blustering before most of his prior bouts, was impassive as the night began, perched quietly on the table, watching the rooters walk by and occasionally saying a few mumbled words to his gathered cadre of family, training staff, and hangers-on. The man has matured.
Would it be different fighting outdoors, he was asked. “El Tigre” has done the wide-open spaces gig before, for his third pro bout (in 2003 at Plaza de Toros in Reynosa) and in May 2008 at Edinburg Baseball Stadium for a KO in the second of journeyman Brandon Wooten.
“Nah, I would fight in my own backyard if I had to,” said the handsome slugger, orange tiger stripes freshly emblazoned on his scalp as has been his fight-night pattern for years now.
He went on to note that his pending opponent was a veteran of almost 30 fights, a taller, older challenger who was going to give him the biggest test he’d faced yet. And true, this would be the Edinburg star’s initial chance at 10 rounds. As Gogue says, once you get into a 10-rounder - as opposed to the 4- and 6-rounders that young pros usually are weaned on in the early stages - you have arrived . . . but you’d better be ready.
“Maybe I will do a little more thinking in there, my approach might be different,” said “El Tigre” as he waited to get his hands encased in hitting attire. “But I’ve never trained harder, and I want that belt.”
Looking leaner than recent memory recalls, seeming more focused than ever, it was all out in front of Casarez. A win here and he would be catapulted out of the small-town scene and into the land of more lucrative paydays in fancy distant venues, with an infinitely better chance at a title. Any fighter who ever laced on the gloves will tell you that the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow isn’t the cash, though it’s sweet to get . . . it’s the belt. Winning a title on the major-league level is the Holy Grail.
“I am going to follow the path ‘La Amenaza’ took,” he mouthed, referencing Weslaco’s Robert Garcia, a former title-holder who will go down in history as one of the Valley’s greatest in the ring. “He won the IBA belt and then he was off and running from there. I want to do the same thing, and this is my chance.”
The wait before a fight is interminable, especially considering the many obstacles to overcome by a sport that is long on pomp and circumstance but often short on organization. The card was supposed to begin at 7:30, but it was nearing 8, without one of the doctors scheduled to work the bout, and with a handful of other snafus needing to be taken care of. It’s just the way it works (or doesn’t) in the fight game. Its principals have gotten used to complaining to no avail, and just having to make the best of it.
Lo, as the patrons fussed in the general direction of the ring, set up on the artificial turf at the Sports Park, the wayward sawbones arrived, amid a smattering of ominous threats from the multitudes. By this time, as stated, “Tigre” and Company were huddled in the fieldhouse, waiting for destiny.
Destiny, like the doc, would arrive, but its message to be heard was not going to be one iota to the liking of the Casarez camp, or the throngs of Valley mavens who had gathered to usher their hero into glory’s hall. Destiny, well, it listens not, choosing instead to grind out its clarion call and move coldly, surely on…into the endless night.
REQUIEM ON THE WAY, BUT FOR WHOM?
The crowd had already witnessed a parcel of knockdowns, one of the referee (on accident). But they were going to get some more.
Casarez came out smoking from the opening bell, taking the action to Morillo and landing a mammoth right hand 30 seconds in which rocked the Mexican challenger to his shoes. “El Tigre” paired that blow with a sharp left hook and a right uppercut, pinning “Bam Bam” on the ropes and banging away. There is always that moment in a fight when the sense is that one of the men is in trouble, and this was it. Right now.
“I had him hurt from the beginning,” Casarez would say later, and it was obvious to everyone that this was the case. Despite 22 wins and a south of the border title, Morillo was a block away from Queer Street, and the patrons were on their feet, howling to the high heavens made more accessible without a ceiling to shield them.
What do you do when the roof falls in, even if there isn’t one? You hold, and that is what the challenger attempted to do, looking like a drowning man trying to grab onto any driftwood nearby. Problem was, “Tigre,” smelling blood in the sea, would simply not allow his prey to budge. Using his forearms to shove the beleaguered Mexican out of the clinch and back into the line of fire, Casarez kept him In the corner, teeing off with accurate abandon.
Somehow, Morillo finally managed to get away, and with 30 seconds left in the opening round, maneuvered into the center of the ring, eyes blinking and legs wobbling. The pair exchanged near the visitor’s corner and then the bell. And then The Shot.
After it was over and all the laughter had died in sorrow, Casarez would admit that he’d fetched the flagging fighter a flip a beat too late. Down in a heap went Morillo, courtesy of a whanging left hook planted right on the button.
Here is where it got spotty, and the promised part about the so-called scoundrels can finally be told.
After being rudely deposited onto the canvas, Morillo rose to a knee, dazed but lucky. How lucky, it remained to be seen.
Casarez paced in a neutral corner after the referee waved him back, and pandemonium ensued. Observers on the scene report that the Mexican’s cornermen were wildly gesturing for their man to stay down. His trainer suggested that he, Morillo, lie down on his back, and a second nearby yelled for him to “roll around a little.”
It was plain to see what was happening. As the referee consulted with the three ringside judges, the Morillo people screamed for him to bring the doctor into the ring. For his part, Morillo took a quick glance around the ring, fell backward with a dramatic thud onto the apron, and began auditioning for a theatrical role.
Casarez stood poised against the stanchion at the corner of the ring, eying his opponent with a menacing glare, the fever pitch accentuated with bellowing shouts from the crowd.
“Get up, get up, you cheater!! . . . fight and take it like a man!”
Trainer Gogue, who has been around long enough to see everything the zany sport has had to offer, instantly figured it out, maybe even before the Morillo people.
“I knew from the beginning that they were trying to get the DQ,” said Gogue, meaning a disqualification of Casarez for having hit late. “It was obvious that their guy was licked, he didn’t have a chance. They were trying to take the easy way out, the guy had one, maybe two rounds, left, we would have put him out of there very soon. He was getting his ass whooped.”
Into the ring came the doctor, as Morillo began to perfect his routine, rising and falling like clockwork, shaking his mug dizzily with a flourish, all the while stealing hangdog looks this way and that, to see if everyone were watching. They were, and hooted and catcalled at him with a vengeance. “Nombre, guey!! GET UP!!”
At this point, “Tigre” and his crew had gathered in their corner, as the doctor, he of the tardy appearance arrival, examined the actor . . . er, the fighter. He shook his head, did the physician, and called for the paramedics.
Like that, the IBA belt disappeared into oblivion. Poof.
SOMEWHAT SATISFACTORY EXPLANATIONS
The ref in the ring was David Avalos, a 30-year veteran and local from Edinburg. He said that he didn’t think Casarez hit late on purpose, and that referees are not privy to instant replay like in other sports, such as football.
After the fight, Avalos elaborated.
“It was so close, it was hard to tell how soon after the bell the punch came,” he advised. “I just did what I am trained to do, the fight was temporarily stopped and the doctor came in. At that point, the fighter has five minutes to collect himself and the doctor has to see if he can continue.”
Fair enough so far, as the veteran arbiter did what he was supposed to do. He added that it wasn’t an egregious violation of the rules, but a violation all the same. One of the ring judges, Freddy Ledesma of Mission, noted that when such a foul occurs, it is up to the discretion of the referee to decide the next course of action.
“He can give a warning, or take a point away, or he can disqualify the fighter who punched late,” said Ledesma, like Avalos a long-time professional on the Valley boxing scene. “But the bottom line is, the kid hit him late. Keep that in mind.”
“El Tigre” acknowledged as much, to his credit. But he insisted that the after-party happened in the swing of things, so to speak.
“It was in the mix, definitely, I wasn’t trying to be dirty or anything like that,” he said, unwinding tape from his hands and shrugging his shoulders at various supporters and onlookers who approached him in the confusing and tumultuous aftermath. “As far as I am concerned, it was accidental, and happened right after the bell. I was controlling the fight and the guy was hurt, and I mean hurt. That’s why he did what he did.”
Now it was center stage for one, John Hovorka, dressed in green medical garb with all the requisite equipment. Slightly built, stoop-shouldered, he examined the fallen fighter and rendered a verdict.
He decided that Morillo could not continue, saying for the record that the Mexican’s “pupils were not reactive.” An interesting diagnosis, and one must put one’s faith behind medical science as far as it goes. If the pupils are not reactive, it suggests that the fighter they belong to would not be able to be reactive either to the assault of the opponent, thereby opening up the possibility of injury. And in boxing, injury does not refer to a hangnail. Too many men - Benny Paret in 1962 and Duk Koo Kim 20 years later immediately come to mind - have been killed in the ring for anyone to suggest that a fighter should be forced into re-entering when not able to defend himself.
Still, the possibility also exists that the veteran boxer’s pupils were not reactive because they have not been functionally able to be thus for years. This would be a simple case of being punch drunk or permanently brain damaged, and there are numerous examples of this situation down through time. So, having not examined the fighter beforehand, it stands to reason that the doctor might have missed the earlier chance to see how his pupils were responding, without having even fought.
But we are picking specks of pepper out of fly refuse, because a decision is a decision. Morillo was judged unable to continue. Hovorka was asked if it were possible for a fighter to take a dive under duress and be able to convince the ring doctor that he was through, when theoretically he was not indeed out.
“I suppose it’s possible…” he said. “But from a medical perspective, I can tell you that a person cannot control his pupils, and they are the key to the whole thing. And actually, when a doctor is summoned into the ring, it usually means forget it. Then it becomes a case of whether the fighter can get himself to ER or does he need our help. That’s it.”
It was trainer Jack Jacobs, back in 1932, who witnessed his man Max Schmeling lose a title bout to Jack Sharkey after a controversial split decision, declaring afterward to the Long Island faithful that, in a famed catchphrase that will live forever, “We Wuz Robbed!”
Ring history is full of bad decisions, fighters in the tank, and hometown gifts. Here, Saturday night, Morillo was the beneficiary of the latest “Somebody Up There Likes Me” award for best actor, apologies to Paul Newman here rendered. How smart is that? Live to fight another day. Makes sense. Although in terms of honor…well.
He didn’t get the DQ he was undoubtedly angling for, but did receive the consolation prize, the dreaded NC, or “No Contest.” This meant that the fight was worse than the tie that’s like kissing your sister (so-called by Paul “Bear” Bryant once upon a time); it didn’t actually happen at all. Or that is what the record books will inscribe. NC means it’s as if the boxers never wandered out of their non-dressing rooms to climb into the ring. It means one big, fat do-over. Maybe.
Gogue, still growling long after the night was over and the possible title belt was lost, was able to divine a silver lining on a cloudless night.
“No contest, like it never happened,” he said, shaking his head. “But you know what. This fight ended in controversy. One round. I mean, even though my guy was about to take Morillo out, it ended bad. So that means a rematch. Controversy sells man, it sells.
“I hate to see ‘Tigre’ get screwed, he was in the best shape of his life. Everything worked for him tonight, he was landing everything he had. But we’ll get that belt sooner or later, just wait and see.”