IT WILL be a trip down a previously travelled road when I take my ringside seat on Saturday under the stars on yet another grand Mexican night at the fights.
There were 132,247 paid fanatics in 1993 at the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City for Julio Cesar Chavez, the king of the Mexican ring. A man so adored that people in his presence lowered their heads and just reached out to touch his garment. It was weird to witness, a bit overwhelming. There will be half that on Saturday when Saul Alvarez jogs from the shadows, through the noise to the raised and glowing ring. It will not look real, trust me.
Chavez was unbeaten in 84 fights that night and the American sacrifice – selected for his mouth and his bravery – Greg Haugen was never going to change that fact. He was there to suffer and satisfy the crowd.
Don King put on the night of history. He grabbed his Mexican and American flags and played King of the carnage and blood on a truly incredible night. It was savage on both sides of the ropes.
“This American dog had no chance to beat me,” said Chavez to the roars and screams from the 300 people at the post-fight press conference. Haugen had appeared, holding ice to his broken face and scuffling like a hostage forced to give a witness statement in the middle of the night. He was abused again. Chavez had finally stopped punishing Haugen in round five; at the conference, Haugen was still under attack. Man, it was blood thirsty.
It had been a long, long day in Mexico City. I visited the Azteca on the afternoon of the fight. It was vast, a giant sloping colosseum. There was a moat patrolled by dogs and just the occasional wobbly plank to serve as an unsteady bridge to walk from the field to the stands. The dogs, I swear, hovered under the planks, frothing and hoping for something to eat. Their guards had machine guns. This was at about noon in the crisp sunshine, by the way. I climbed to the very top, a giant, slow trek; at altitude the price of the beer was scribbled on the walls, and it was just a few pesos more than the cheapest ticket. Don King knew what he was doing – he was building the most hostile crowd in boxing history. And the biggest, by the way.
It gets dark quick in Mexico City and that night the darkness was total in the streets just away from the shadow of the Azteca. The flickering neon was losing the battle to illuminate the stadium as it filled with noise and fans and hope. As it filled it felt like nothing I had previously experienced at a fight, a mix of anticipation and dread. It was magical.
I have no idea if I got there at four or five and no idea who was first on the bill. But the fights just kept coming and at some point, the empty seat next to me was occupied. I looked round and it was Mr T. Yep, that Mr T. I was in the front row, but the ring was so tall that I had to stand to catch the action when the boxers were on the far side of the ring. My new pal, Mr T, had to stand on his flip-flopped toes. He’s not a giant. He was wearing a massive series of gold chains, tiny swimming trunks and flip-flops. I made a note in my pad that just the week before I had been at the Schoolboy quarterfinals at a school hall in Wembley.
And in many ways, the night is a blur, one I will never forget. King kept smiling and kept waving those flags. The Mexican flag had blood on it.
It was a great night of fights, Michael Nunn needed one round, Gerald McClellan two, Terry Norris two and Felix Trinidad four. At the end of each fight, a shoeless worker jumped in the ring to scrub the blood off the canvas. He was a busy man. Also, on the classic King bill, Azumah Nelson narrowly retained his title with a win over Gabriel Ruelas. Norris stopped Maurice Blocker – a quality fight on paper, but Norris right then was a very special fighter. Nunn destroyed Irish Dan Morgan in just 179 seconds; the Nunn win was expected and, as the ref waved it off, I heard the great Pat Putnam of Sports Illustrated, but who started his career as a newspaper man in Miami with a kid called Cassius Clay, pick up his phone and start to file his copy: “Over 132,000 showed up for Irish Danny Morgan’s wake in Mexico City on Saturday night…” I thought it was the greatest intro I had ever heard and then there was a deathless chuckle from the equally brilliant, Ed Schulyer. It was a joke.
I remember how empty and silent it was near the Azteca when I eventually left the brutal conference. It was the same type of stillness leaving Wembley Stadium long after Tyson Fury or Anthony Joshua had fought.
The following day, in the typical chaos of a post-fight morning, I spoke to Haugen in the fight-hotel lobby. “They covered me in piss and spit on the way to the ring and the on the way from the ring,” They had, I had seen it the night before. Haugen was fine, just bruised and cut and beaten. He had played his part, accusing Chavez of beating Mexican taxi drivers. He was a smart bad guy.
That lobby was a departure lounge for the uncertain future of a lot of great fighting men. Haugen has his demons. Nunn served 16 years of a sentence for cocaine possession. King is still promoting and waving flags. Murphy was a volunteer at a gym in Minnesota. Nelson remains Africa’s greatest boxer. Norris has suffered terribly from his boxing. McClellan required emergency surgery to remove a blood clot from the surface of his brain. And Chavez has fought some savage public battles with the enemies in his head. The Mexican King is still fighting.
I stayed an extra day and night. It was worth it. I went to the bullfights with Angelo Dundee and Richie Giachetti. It was the same arena where John H Stracey had beaten Jose Napoles. We sat on cushions, drank beers and laughed. Dundee tried to study form, judging the chances of survival as each bull set its feet to fight. “Ang, it’s a leftie.” It was priceless. Giachetti picked the method of death. It was the oddest afternoon after the greatest night.