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The Boxer with Perfect Ears

ISSUE:  Fall 2007

The Contender

The day he walked into Madison Square Garden, the Peruvian boxer Romerito faced 25,000 Americans insulting him at once. Worst of all, the audience was howling his rival’s name. Or rather, his nickname, which was even more terrifying. The world light-weight champion was named Ray Mancini, but they just called him Boom Boom.

Everyone in Peru was watching that fight on television, September 15, 1983. I was only eight years old, but I remember that the kids were running around excited and hitting each other in the schoolyard. First they hit each other as if they were boxers. Then, they hit each other more forcefully because they all wanted to be Romerito. Eight in my twenty kid class had signed up at the gym to be boxers. We all wanted to play at whatever yielded champions. When Jaime Yzaga went up in the tennis ranks, we bought ourselves racquets. When the national Women’s Volleyball team got to the Olympic finals, the kids stopped thinking of it as a sport for pansies. In 1983, for the first time, boxing was making its way, punch by punch, into Peruvian’s hearts. In April, Ibáñez was knocked down in Tokyo in a world final. In November, Oscar Rivadeneyra would fight against Michael Spinks in the heavyweights. But Orlando Romero, “Romerito,” was the one who raised the most hopes, because he had always been a torpedo.

“I started fighting in the streets, like all boxers,” he says, twenty years later. “In school, the bigger ones love bothering the little ones. When you’re the little one, punches are the only way to show that you’re not a fool.”

Romerito still has a boxy build, as if he were a block of cement. Two ears stick out on the sides of his shaved head so that he looks like a trophy. He brags about these ears, and in general, about that smooth head: no cracked lobes, no nose flattened by punches. “I always knew how to dodge the punches,” he adds, pointing out his face. “This is the proof.”

The day he entered the ring for the first time, Romerito remembers crossing the gym through a long line of broken eyebrows and cauliflower ears, and swearing to himself that he would never end up like that. He was fifteen years old and it was his first fight in the neighborhood Golden Gloves tournament. Until then, he had only seen boxing on TV. He remembered Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier’s fight, Muhammad Ali vs. George Foreman, Muhammad Ali vs. whomever. He had also walloped a few kids in the neighborhood. As a matter of fact, it was clear that he had a better future with his fists than with his studies. And to prove it, he won the tournament.

From then on, Romerito starts to train and build up his reputation with his father’s help and his poor mother’s fear. He sells pastries and studies to be a commercial accountant while the titles come one after the other: Champion of Trujillo, Regional Champion, Northern Champion, National Amateur Champion. At nineteen, he wins the National Professional Championship. Then, what he calls his “golden age” begins.

“I started to win against everyone. Every guy they put in front of me was a guy I knocked down. And that was with me being one of the youngest among the professionals.”

Professional Boxing in Peru has never been a million-dollar industry. Romerito got 200 dollars per fight and a lot less for sparring with other champions. As his reputation increased, he started to charge for wearing Power sneakers or for putting a beer logo on his robe. Besides that, he got very little. The real money was only in the United States and in one fight: the world title. Everything he could do before getting there would be unseen and poorly paid.

With that goal in mind, Romerito starts to train with the South American middle-weight ex-champion Mauro Mina, the most famous Peruvian boxer of the time. With Mina, he won the South American, Latin American and Continental titles. That same day his problems started.

“A good trainer doesn’t tell you “come on, kid, one two, one two.” A good trainer knows about strategy. He gives you ideas. Mina did that, until the Continental final, September 20, 1980. That time, I fought for the title against a Colombian who hit me in the jaw in the fifth round. I spent the rest of the match complaining about my molar. Mina ordered me to keep fighting. I fought seven more rounds and knocked the Colombian down three times. I won the title. But the next day, when I couldn’t eat, I realized that my jaw was broken in two places.”

Three months later, Mina started training him with 155-pound boxers. Romerito was faster, but when he took a punch, it was as if a tank had run him over. He asked his trainer to set up sparrings for his weight. Mina told him not to be a fag and Romerito fired him. He already felt more confident.

“After Mina, I hired Nicolás Cárpena, a Peruvian living in Argentina who brought his whole school from there. He had an impressive gift for gab. He treated me like a world champion. And with him, I began to feel like a world champion.”

He defended his titles enough times to ascend the rankings with 30 wins and one tie. He always came out clean, without any scars, because he used his waist a lot: he weaved in and out, if he couldn’t punch hard, he clinched or used his head. His specialty was half-distance fighting, dodging and blocking in his search for open spaces. And when he found them, he was heartless.

That’s how he made it to Madison Square Garden. And that’s how he made it to his last obstacle, Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini.

The Champion

Boom Boom was born in Youngstown, Ohio, the son of another boxer, but not just any boxer. In his heyday, Lenny Mancini had defeated various world champions, and it was a general prediction that he would take the lightweight belt in the near future. But a future was exactly what Lenny didn’t have. He had to serve in World War II and was wounded at the front. When he returned, he kept fighting, but he never recovered his game.

This war veteran, of Italian ancestry and profound American beliefs, became obsessed with the idea of taking revenge on life: he signed Ray up at the gym at a very young age, went with him, instructed him, indoctrinated him. Ray went professional the same year as Romerito. There’s no need to explain where the sonorous sobriquet Boom Boom came from. But it’s not easy to figure out where he got the strength to hit so hard. With surprising alacrity, Ray beat his way to the world finals.

Boom Boom’s first attempt as a contender for the title, against Alexis Argüello, was pronounced one of the best fights of the eighties by ESPN and Ring Magazine: they fought 14 brutal rounds before Argüello’s experience prevailed. But his second attempt, against then champion Arturo Frías, was the beginning of a deceptive glory forged by strange circumstances.

Days before the fight, while Mancini trained in Tucson, three armed men appeared at his hotel asking for him. They were told he wasn’t there and they left. When he found out, the boxer called the police and continued his physical preparation under police watch until the end. The episode was never resolved.

When he finally faced Frías, Mancini pulled a first round out of his sleeve that was considered history’s best. Basically, he was a beast. An initial blow fifteen seconds into the start of the fight almost took the Venezuelan out of commission. A straight right split his eyebrow open. A surprising combination took him first to the center of the ring and then against the ropes. Boom Boom had been punching for a good long time without any response, concentrated on demolishing his rival, when the referee declared the fight over. Frías had taken thirty hits in less than three minutes. Lenny Mancini’s blood had been crowned, one generation late, lightweight world champion.

His first defense of the title, against Ernesto España, was almost routine: K.O. in six rounds. But the second one would change Mancini’s life and the face of boxing forever. It happened on November 13, 1982 at the Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. The challenger was Korean Duk Koo Kim.

The Korean had come to the fight through one of those obscure WBA designs. Nobody knew any of the eighteen opponents he had beaten in his previous Korean fights, nor the only one he had defeated away from home, in the Philippines. His chief attributes were that he was a southpaw fighter—and not every pugilist, not even the champions, was prepared to fight against a southpaw—and big. Too big. He had to make a great effort in the weeks leading up to the fight to lose weight and get down to the category limit. But he did it because he knew that this was his first and last chance to be the world champion. He was so obsessed that, days before the fight, he wrote on his hotel mirror, “Kill or die.”

On the day of the fight, Kim faced up to Boom Boom Mancini. They were even in the first rounds, but as the fight wore on, the American’s greater experience in long battles became evident and, above all, so did the fact that he had learned his lesson against José Luis Ramirez, another southpaw. Nonetheless, Kim was relentless. In Round fourteen, Mancini knocked down his obviously worn-out rival and the referee had to stop the fight to avoid a beating.

Five minutes later, the Korean slipped into a coma from cerebral lesions. Surgery couldn’t prevent his death, five days later, from fulfilling the prophecy written on his mirror.

The fight between Mancini and Kim led the WBC—and later the rest of the boxing associations—to reduce the fights to twelve rounds. But it didn’t prevent the champion’s depression. After going to the funeral in South Korea, Mancini decided to take a vacation to deal with the emotional impact. The worst thing, according to his own words, was being recognized as the boxer who killed Duk Koo Kim. He thought of it as a terrible accident in which he regretted taking part. After many months he went back to fighting, but all of his fans, all of America and particularly his father Lenny, thought Mancini wouldn’t be able to recover his spirits.

And then Romerito arrived.

The Fight

Sometimes, the lives of two men intersect for a moment, mirroring each other. In that moment, either one of them could break the barrier and change places with his reflection. Fortune’s whim can arrange for them to be directly across from each other. Sometimes, that moment lasts nine rounds.

“The screaming spectators and the bets against me, it was all the same to me,” Romerito recalls with his perfectly preserved ears, “I was going to win that match. The majority of Americans didn’t even know where Peru was, but I was going to make sure they wouldn’t forget.”

Romerito likes to remember the fight while he sits at the bar of the restaurant he manages in Madrid. If someone asks him, he puts the DVD in the bar television set and explains his fighting strategy and that of his opponent, step by step. He stops the images and speaks at length about a position or a punch. He sends free beer around. The more people listen to him, the more animated he becomes. The waiters smile as they pass, and some look bored. Here he goes again with the fight.

The fight against Mancini started a long time before Romerito entered Madison Square Garden. The New York Times had written that Romerito was a “pushover.” The bets were 5-1 against him. At night, Boom Boom’s fans went to the Sheraton, where the Peruvian was staying, to harass him. He received dozens of calls to his room telling him to lose in the first rounds to assure the winnings. Some threatened him with death. His agent decided to cut the boxer off from all contact. He wouldn’t take phone calls from anyone, not even his family, unless it was approved. And forget about looking at a newspaper.

The challenger was calm anyway. On television, it always seemed like the champion was a giant, solid, with arms as wide as legs, an image that had been reinforced with the death of Kim. But on the day of the press conference, Romerito realized that they were the same size, and he felt confident. Ray’s arms weren’t so thick. His body weighed barely a quarter of a pound more than the challenger, but he did, Romerito admits, have one hell of a back.

“From that moment on, I thought of the fight as just another one. The reporters asked me, ‘What did you come here for?’ I answered, ‘I came to win.’ The reporters laughed. And I laughed. Because I was going to prove it to them.”

The day of the fight, 25,000 people were challenging at him to prove it. In the audience were Marvin Hagler and “Stone Hand” Durán, who would fight a month later. And, of course, Lenny Mancini, the champion’s father, chased down by all the cameras.

“Boom Boom was a killer. He usually won the matches in the early rounds, without giving one a chance to catch his breath. And he expected to do it again this time. To surprise him, I had to make sure I didn’t ever stay in the same spot. Weave. Dance around the champion, always to the right, and with my left hand in front of me, jabbing non-stop. That’s also how I would avoid the heavy punches.”

When the bell rang, the champion did what was expected and came charging like a bull. Romerito concentrated on changing his pace. He covered and moved around to attack. At one point, Mancini got him over to the ropes, but Romerito counterattacked and escaped again, always to the right. Mancini persisted in the second round, but he was slightly dazed. He couldn’t adjust to the weaving and even though he got in a few punches, he also had to clinch more when Romerito came in close. In the third round, the champion made the Peruvian’s eyelid bleed and he got in a low punch. When the bell separated them, the judges gave two advantage points to Boom Boom.

“But that approach couldn’t last long. Since he was expecting a quick victory, Mancini exhausted himself more quickly than I. In the fourth round, he lowered the intensity and I clocked him with a left punch to the face. You see? Here’s the replay. When I went back to my corner, the trainer said to me: now, two of the referees will make you the winner.”

The following rounds were much more aggressive. A dangerous right hook by Mancini could have decided the fight but a return hook left him with a dangerously swollen eyelid. Mancini suffered an awful seventh round that further slowed him down. At the end of the eighth, he looked tired, he was breathing through his mouth, and both he and the pretender were sporting matching wounds on their faces.

In the ninth round, it was clear that Romerito’s chances were increasing as the fight wore on. But he needed to get close, and this left him vulnerable to the champion’s arm. Confident in his strategy, he kept spinning to the right, trying to dodge and find gaps in the defense. In minute two, Mancini tried to land a straight right. Romerito thought that the next punch would come from the left. He blocked and stuck his arm out to counterattack, but his arm collided against the one coming in the opposite direction.

“And then I felt the collision: Boom Boom, in the jaw.”

A miscalculation. One of Mancini’s maneuvers. Romerito only remembers the blow to his head as it bounced against the floor. By the time he got up, the fight had ended.

The Return

When my Peruvian photographer suggested I write about Romerito for a magazine for immigrants in Spain, I wasn’t very interested. For me, it was just another one of those stories about Peruvians who almost win, about whom, in my country, a litany of ready-made phrases has been coined and repeated ad infinitum: “we played better than ever and lost like we always do,” “it’s still mathematically possible,” “God is Peruvian,” those kinds of things.

With the passing of time, however, the subject of Romerito came up once and again in immigrant get-togethers. My photographer was also my roommate, so our home became a gathering spot for beer-drinking, nostalgic Peruvians. Everyone who visited us remembered Romerito perfectly, the expectations, the Peruvian flags, the mythical fight. But everyone had a different version of what happened after. Some said that Romerito had had drug problems, that he’d been checked into a rehab center. Others said he’d been in prison. Some speculated that he’d been hired as a bodyguard for mobsters and politicians. In any event, it seemed clear that his real fight hadn’t been against Boom Boom, but against his own position as the idol of a country too familiar with defeat, addicted to it.

We immigrants tend to fight against the stereotype of the winner. Even when we don’t get our papers or work, our families back home are happy about how well things are going for us; they congratulate us and assure us that we did the right thing in leaving Peru. Apparently, we’ve won just by leaving. When you can’t take it anymore and you go back to your country, you become a failure. Maybe, in Peru you can buy a car, have a house and start a family, but it was supposed to be easier in Europe—everything is easier in Europe—and you didn’t do it there. You’ve given up on your dreams. You’ve lost the fight against destiny. The immigrant lost in an elusive European paradise is dying of success. The one who returns goes on to live as a failure.

I suppose all stories—real or not—interest us for personal reasons. That part, the return, is the one that interested me most in Romerito’s story.

The day after the fight at Madison Square Garden, Romerito boarded the first flight home. Many of the reporters who had mocked him congratulated him on his performance, but he felt like he had let down his entire country. To his surprise, his country was waiting for him at the airport, chanting his name. From the time of his arrival, Romerito received one homage after another, in the capital and then in his home city of Trujillo, which named him its favorite son.

Amid these celebrations, his bad mood gave way to the desire to fight for the belt again. The last Peruvian pretender to the world title, Oscar Rivadeneyra, also lost in November. Romerito felt moved by national pride. He kept fighting in Latin America and he kept winning. He was still young. He trained to try again against Mancini. He became obsessed with him. When he felt ready again he asked for a rematch, but the champion wouldn’t agree to one.

In 1984, Boom Boom lost the belt to Livingstone Bramble. After the fight, he spent the night in the hospital with 71 stitches around one eye. The next year, after fifteen hair-raising rounds, he wasn’t able to recapture the title and he decided to retire from boxing. He didn’t know—he still doesn’t—that Bramble had also defeated Romerito, to whom life would always deny the satisfaction of a rematch.

“I felt like the lights in my career went out with Mancini’s defeat. Soon after, my rhythm was thrown off by an infection in my tonsils and my sinuses. I had to stay in bed, I stopped training, and then I couldn’t go back to it with the same gusto. I had lost my will. The next time I lost a fight, I retired. I only had two defeats in my whole career. A Peruvian hasn’t fought for the world title again since.”

With the $100,000 he earned from the fight, Romerito bought a house in Lima and another one in Trujillo, enrolled his children in private schools, paid for his entire family’s medical bills, made loans that were never paid back… When the prize money ran out, for the first time in his life, Romerito had to consider a life at the margins of boxing.

From that moment on, the almost-world champion turned into a salaried worker. He took marketing courses and, capitalizing on his public image, got a position as the sales rep for a beer company. But the company was acquired by a larger one and Romerito lost his job. Later, he worked for a toothpaste company, but that company was also acquired and with it, his job. Due to the worsening recession in the late nineties, it became harder to get a job. Romerito sold toys. He worked as a wholesale chicken vendor in the markets until the retailers stopped paying him. He got himself a gig fishing cod on an industrial boat. He worked as a city watchman. Through all of these jobs, television crews sought him out constantly to broadcast the champion’s decline, in color, for the whole country.

“I just wanted to work, like anybody else. But when I was a watchman, every time I stopped a thief, someone would call the press and the cameras would be there to cover it. In the middle of the arrest, I’d have a microphone in front of me asking: Romerito, how did you stop this malfeasant? Did you hit him? Could you describe the fight? Is it really hard to have failed after almost becoming the world champion?” The thieves themselves were the most surprised. Some tried to take advantage of all the confusion to escape, and then the whole chase appeared on national TV. But that was rare. The majority of the guys I arrested just asked for my autograph.”

Fed up with the harassment and the lack of money, Romerito tried to find his fortune in the United States, but he never got a visa from the country that had defeated him. Until the day he met Mario Broncano.

The Escape

Broncano was a boxer a generation younger than Romerito. He had learned to fight on the street and also at Maranga reform school, where he served time for minor crimes and house burgling. As a fighter, he was so fast and talented that the Boxing Federation asked for him to be pardoned. The kid was really promising. From his first competition, he kept winning until he was crowned Amateur South American Champion, becoming the new great hope for the national gloves and reviving the spirits of Romerito and Mauro Mina.

But Broncano lived in different times and came from streets that were more violent. He spent all the money he won in the ring on base—unrefined cocaine. A television program offered him a monthly salary to save him, so he could concentrate just on boxing, until they discovered that all they had done was finance his nights out. They cut off his funding. When he exhausted his savings, he started robbing again so he could keep smoking.

Broncano roundly and repeatedly rejected any charitable opportunity. He said he had grown up on the streets and would die there. He didn’t want to be the world champion; he just wanted to get high. The press mocked his wasted life—he was fighting less and worse every day—to which Broncano responded loudly, “Leave me alone and go to hell.” Now, some say that he didn’t even fight that well, that the media made it up because Peru just plain needed a winner. In anything.

Around that time, Romerito was still a city watchman. The press had relented a bit, but his dream was still to get a visa to the US. One night, while he was on duty, he received a report about a burglary. When he got to the scene of the crime, he found an unexpected spectacle. The thieves were usually submissive, their heads down, but this one was screaming rudely at a policeman and threatening to punch him. The policeman was clearly terrified. Romerito’s pugilistic abilities were necessary.

When he approached the thief and turned him around, he recognized Broncano.

The kid also recognized him. He smiled and said,

“Romerito, brother! Don’t jail me, now, man.”

Romerito gave him a good scare, threatened to shut him up for life, stuck him in the city truck and then let him go at a beach in Chorrillos district. A long time after, in a brawl that happened while he was trying to rob a fruit stand, Broncano lost an eye.

After that incident, Romerito increased his efforts to leave the country, and, for the first time, he was lucky, as if the young boxer had given him his own squandered luck. The municipality where Romerito was working got a fellowship offer to train boxers in Spain: twenty-two days, all expenses paid except for the plane ticket. None of the small time trainers could afford the trip, and the selection of important trainers had dwindled or died; Ricardo Valdés had been killed, Ricardo Buga was in prison, and others had given themselves to drugs. The scholarship was about to go unclaimed. Romerito convinced the city government to pick him by offering to pay for his own plane ticket. His name still provided some good publicity: they would arrange a big press conference to announce his return to boxing in a new era. The return of the champion, the phoenix of Peruvian boxing, the new dawn of national sports. Now, Romerito remembers it with a smile:

“I got the fellowship, we did the press conference and I got a leave of absence for twenty-two days. They’re still waiting for me.”

In Madrid, he worked as the bouncer at a nightclub and a painter. As time went on, he found that Peruvians—about 100,000 of them in the city—still remembered him fondly. So he decided to open a business selling food from his country. Now he runs two restaurants and a bar frequented exclusively by immigrants. And he remarried.

Boom Boom himself made a few attempts at returning to boxing. He fought against Hector Macho Camacho in 1989 and lost by a few points. He tried it again against Greg Haugen in 1992, but he was knocked out in the seventh round. He retired definitely in 1993, with 29 wins (23 by K.O.) and five defeats. Since then, he started a career in Hollywood. He was in the action movies “Iron Eagle III” or “Thirty Minutes to Die.” Yahoo’s guide to movies provides a summary of “Lethal Combat,” one of Mancini’s box office hits. “Charlie is a boxing star… in his hometown. He’d like to become world champion. What he doesn’t know yet (he’ll soon find out) is that the mafia loves to fix fights, making his dream no easy thing. Telefilm right in the ring, it has intense fighting scenes.”

It sounds like Romerito’s story, with Hollywood standing in for Peru. In any event, it’s all the same now. Romerito spends his day at the bar with photos of his boxing successes on the walls. Among these images is one of him posing with the Peruvian goalie Teófilo Cubillas, with the King of Spain, with Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo, with comics and musicians from his country. He likes to be recognized.

And Peruvians like to recognize him. The day of the interview, the photographer for this piece brought three other Peruvians so they could serve as an audience. Romerito answered all of my questions talking to the improvised gallery. When I sought him out again to watch the video of the fight, he asked me to invite my friends. The fight with Boom Boom is still the moment of his life for which everyone will remember him, the moment which he will remember for the rest of his life.

Only a few years ago, after decades of requests, did the U.S. Consulate give a visa to Spanish resident Orlando Romero to see Madison Square Garden at last. During the trip, Romerito looked for Boom Boom so they could take a picture together twenty years later. The ex-champion wouldn’t see him. As a matter of fact, in Mancini’s Internet biographies, the Peruvian seems to have disappeared. Some say that he defended the world title without specifying against whom. Others mention Kim, España, the British George Feeney and the Mexican double champion Bobby Chacon. But none speak of Romerito. History has defeated him by points.

Translated by Anna Kushner


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