By Neal Pollack
Last July at the Park West, Fernando Luevano fought a 147-pound bruiser named Glenn Hudson from Robbins, Illinois, for the welterweight kickboxing championship of the world. Fernando had been fighting professionally for nearly four years. His record was 13-1, with six knockouts. Hudson, the champ, was undefeated at 15-0 and also had six knockouts. But Fernando
wasn’t nervous. If he’d been better informed, he might have been.
“It was supposed to be the championship, but I didn’t know about it,” he says. “I didn’t know I was fighting for the world title.”
Fernando likes to look good, so before every bout he chooses a different hooded sweatshirt in which to make his initial appearance. That night he came out of the locker room waving his gloved hands in the air, wearing a sleeveless gray jersey with black and gray stripes down the middle. He did a little dance for the crowd, which was definitely on his side. Then he allowed his cornermen to remove the shirt.
The first round finished even. Early on, Fernando demonstrated his patented move–spreading his arms wide and moving in close, leaving his chest open and daring his opponent to hit him, he swings his right hand from far behind his head and brings it down hard, whether the other fighter has attacked or not. He calls this his “hammer punch,” and it’s designed to destroy. But Hudson wasn’t fazed by Fernando’s first hammer punch, and they both danced around for the rest of the round.
Hudson’s a southpaw, and Fernando thought this made him vulnerable. In round two he threw punch after punch at Hudson’s left side. “It would work if I knew what I was doing,” Fernando says, “which I did.” He pushed Hudson against the rope and punished him with combinations. He was beginning to dominate. But with about 30 seconds remaining in the round, panic set in at Fernando’s corner.
Kickboxing rules differ from those of regular boxing. The most important difference is that fighters have to kick each other above the waist eight times each round. Colored lights on poles at opposite sides of the ring inform fighters on the number of kicks they’ve delivered that round. For every kick under eight, a point is deducted from the fighter’s score. Landing only five kicks means three points will be subtracted. Seven kicks means losing one point. The fighter can make up lost points with extra kicks in the next round. Missing one kick can cost a fighter a round and, quite possibly, a fight.
With 30 seconds left, Fernando had two kicks to go.
“Two kicks, Fernando!” came the screams from his corner. “Get your kicks in!”
“Kick, Fernando, kick!”
“C’mon, Fernando! Why aren’t you kicking?”
Fernando still had two kicks to go when the round ended. He wasn’t worried; he still had three rounds left to knock Hudson out.
He didn’t come close in round three, though he threw a couple of hammer punches. In round four Hudson began to look tired, and by round five Fernando was pummeling him with solid combinations. He was also landing good kicks. It seemed like he had a lot of energy, and Hudson, while hardly finished, was plodding around the ring. Fernando danced away, moved in, threw a few punches, brushed off a couple jabs, and danced away again. He was in control of the fight. He let Hudson back him into the ropes, took a couple of body shots, and then extended his arms wide. He exploded from the ropes. His right arm was whirling and wild. The hammer was coming down.
The punch glanced off Hudson’s left shoulder, and 15 seconds later the fight was over. The judges handed down a unanimous decision in Hudson’s favor: 49-471/2; 491/2-471/2; 491/2-47. If Fernando hadn’t missed those kicks in the second round, he might have taken the title away.
“I don’t know what happened,” he says. “I don’t know. I just forgot about my kicks.”
Ten years ago Fernando was a street tough from Campeche, Mexico, living in Tijuana with a friend and halfheartedly looking for work. He’d wanted to be either a professional boxer or a martial artist since seeing his first Bruce Lee movie at age nine. His friend told him that he should go to a boxing gym instead of finding a job, because he seemed to have a natural talent for beating people up. “Since I was a little kid,” Fernando says, “I was going to fight.”
Over the next year Fernando became more proficient as a fighter, but he ran out of money and had to return to Campeche to live with his mother. He told her that he wanted to go back to school. She replied that he wasn’t any good at school–instead, he should get a three-month student visa and go to work in the United States. His older brother Juan was already in Chicago. Soon Fernando joined him.
He immediately started looking for a place to train, even before looking for a job. One day while riding his bike down Lincoln Avenue just south of Lawrence, he saw an enormous advertisement for a martial-arts school painted on the side of a building. The place was called Degerberg Academy; the ad showed a bald, goateed boulder of a man in a karate outfit, standing with his arms crossed. That looked good.
Fernando pulled his bike over and walked in. The desk attendants said he could look around. The place was enormous. Two levels of weight and training rooms. Mats and mirrors everywhere. All around him, men, women, and children, young and old, in white, blue, and black belts, were learning how to kick ass. Best of all, a third of the top floor was devoted to punching bags, speed bags, and boxing dummies. A sauna had been converted into storage space for boxing equipment. A regulation-size boxing ring was the room’s focal point. Two guys were going at each other, but not only with their fists. They were wearing padded shoes and throwing kicks at each other’s midsections. Fernando had found his Cibola.
“Man,” he whispered to himself. “I wanna kick!”
When Fernando first arrived in 1989, Degerberg Academy was already a world-famous martial-arts school. Fred Degerberg, the boulder on the billboard, was at the very pinnacle of his profession. Degerberg was born in 1945 and as a young man had a close friendship with his grandfather, Rocco Jannuzi, a professional boxer who fought out of Racine, Wisconsin. Rocco told Fred that in the old days every bar in Chicago had a little ring in the back for impromptu boxing matches. An up-and-coming fighter, or one on his way down, could easily get two or three fights a night. A fight on the north side would be followed by one on the northwest side. A south-side bout might precede a west-side one. Chicago was a boxer’s paradise, maybe the best fight town in the country until about 1950, when the action began to drift toward the east coast and toward Las Vegas and California.
In the 1950s, Fred and his friends lifted weights and boxed with grandpa in his parent’s basement at Aldine and Halsted. Fighting was Fred’s equivalent of playing in a garage band, and he and his friends took their training seriously. Once a year, they fought for a two-handled trophy, a loving cup that Degerberg had salvaged from the attic. They put a piece of masking tape at the bottom to pencil in the winner of each tournament. The best overall fighter was anointed “Mr. Freddie’s Basement.”
While a student at Lake View High School in the early 60s, Degerberg started attending a karate dojo at 3324 N. Clark called the Way of the White Tiger. One of his fellow students was Robert Beal. The man was a legend. Though only seven years older than Degerberg, Beal had been boxing since 1945. He had a great pedigree. His uncle Ray Beal, a firefighter who fought under the name Ray Vegas, had once battled heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey to a bare-knuckle draw. His mother was a Native American from Minnesota, and her family had a reputation as vicious fighters. Beal was born to box.
From the late 40s through the 50s, Beal cut through boxers like he was slicing soft bread, scoring one-round knockouts in nearly every fight. By the time he was in his early 20s, Beal had pretty much done all he wanted to do in boxing. But rather than retire into nostalgia and a series of disappointing jobs, he decided to transform himself into a superhuman.
He mastered wrestling, judo, and karate, became proficient in aikido, yoga, and tae kwon do, and was no slouch at kung fu and jujitsu. He just kept getting better. He would train six to nine hours a day, maniacally practicing moves until he was absolutely perfect. Boxing had already given him the conditioning, strength, and timing he needed. “He was a perfect specimen,” Degerberg says, “like Jim Thorpe.”
Beal took over the Way of the White Tiger in 1965. The previous owner, Ted Amos, knew that he was losing touch with the martial-arts scene; he couldn’t handle Beal’s style of fighting and instead moved to Kalamazoo, Michigan. Degerberg felt as though Batman himself had come crashing through the dojo roof to take him on as a pupil.
Beal changed the name of the dojo to Bushido Karate, and he and Degerberg formed the Bushido Fighting Society. Bushido was a system of Beal’s own invention, and Degerberg was his main disciple. They blended all the martial arts, both Japanese and Chinese styles, and threw in boxing for good measure. “We were the laughingstock of the industry,” Degerberg says. “Just like Catholics didn’t marry Jews, you didn’t marry martial arts and boxing. Western and eastern styles didn’t go together. They said we were mixing oil and water.”
At the time, Degerberg had taken fourth in an international judo competition and also won a state weightlifting championship. His attempts to win karate tournaments were less successful. He couldn’t pull his punches and consistently knocked guys out. He usually ended up disqualified–he had mixed his boxing and karate moves too well.
Degerberg earned his living as a construction worker and became well-known as one of the toughest and meanest bouncers in Chicago. He worked weeknights at such Rush Street clubs as the Jazz Medium, the Happy Medium, and Figaro’s. On the weekends, he’d do rock concerts at the Aragon Ballroom, Soldier Field, and the Auditorium Theatre. His crew was well-known for wearing yellow jackets and going barefoot, no matter what the weather. Concertgoers would often line up outside the venue hours before the show; if someone left the line to go the bathroom and made the mistake of arguing with Degerberg to get his place back, he was often met with a swift sweeping kick to the side of the head. Thus Degerberg kept the peace.
One academy regular has fond memories of Degerberg at an Aragon show in the early 70s. A half dozen rowdies were throwing bottles and taunting the security guards while waiting to get into the concert. Things got so bad that Degerberg charged them, and they streaked away. He chased them down an alley, running barefoot over broken glass. By the time the other security guards caught up to him, Degerberg had laid out all six on the ground.
In 1970 Beal and Degerberg moved their classes to the Hamlin Park field house. Beal’s style had already gained a widespread reputation. When Degerberg opened his own school in Lincoln Square ten years later, the style had become common, and many of their innovations–like teaching women how to box and playing music while training–were in use everywhere. In comparison to what they were doing, Degerberg says, just plain boxing seemed very dull indeed.
Fernando Luevano paid $70 for his first month’s membership at Degerberg Academy. He was a 19-year-old kid, one month removed from Mexico, who wanted to become a kickboxer and had no idea of the history behind the place. He didn’t make much of an effort to find out, either. Though he couldn’t stretch his legs like some of the guys who’d been training longer, he found he could more or less get his kicks in the air. He already knew how to punch. But he had no patience. He wanted to get into the ring immediately.
A year later, Degerberg Academy sponsored Fernando in his first amateur fight–a two-round lightweight match, which he won handily. He then took his next seven bouts; he turned 21 years old and thoroughly demonic. In his ninth fight, he was given a shot at the midwest amateur lightweight title. It was the first time he’d come up against a quality fighter.
“I fought this black guy,” Fernando says. “His nickname was TNT. The guy, he was taller than me. Taller. He saw my fights a couple of times. He was fighting more like Sugar Ray, you know? He was hitting me, just getting close, and he was up against me. He didn’t knock me down. He was taller than me, long reach. He fight smart. He threw the jab. I was getting close to him to do my workout, and he’d wrap me. So we went the five rounds like that. I went crazy. I tried to knock this guy out, but I couldn’t. He kept moving back and forth.” TNT earned the unanimous decision, but he promised that Fernando would have a rematch soon.
The rematch never occurred. TNT ran with a gang and was killed in a drive-by shooting soon after the fight. His title was now up for grabs, and a promoter gave Fernando the opportunity to win it. On June 22, 1991, he fought a big Polish guy named Jim Zbilski at the Rosemont Horizon. Fernando was high on the card; only three bouts were above his fight, including two pro world-title bouts and a match between a guy from Maywood and a 32-year-old Mexican from Milwaukee named Juan Villa.
Fernando and Zbilski had fought three two-minute rounds. Before the fourth, Zbilski told the referee that he’d injured his hand and couldn’t continue. Less than two years after walking into the Degerberg Academy, Fernando had his first belt.
He successfully defended his midwest amateur title a couple of times, and then he went on a belt rampage. He won the Windy City title, the National title, and the USA title. He captured belts in Saint Louis and Indianapolis. Wherever he fought, he came away as champ. “I won every belt I could,” he says. Fernando was exceedingly proud of his accomplishments. He saved every piece of promotional material from every one of his fights. He had a friend, a Peruvian painter, do his portrait, which he hung in his bedroom. It shows Fernando kickboxing, backed by a waving Mexican flag.
Fernando went 18-2 as an amateur. He beat everyone there was to beat in his weight class. Once he was out of titles, he stayed at the top of every card he fought on. In his mind, there was only one thing left to do–he had to turn pro.
Professional kickboxing, despite rumors to the contrary, developed in the United States. It rose out of the karate circuits in the 1960s, when dojos such as Robert Beal’s began teaching blended forms of martial arts and students started winning belts and money in tournaments. As Fred Degerberg puts it, “The guys who had also done boxing tended to beat the snot out of the karate guys.”
The first kickboxing star was named Joe Lewis, but he was no Brown Bomber. This Lewis was a blue-eyed, blond 200-pounder from North Carolina. He was already a dangerous boxer when he joined the marines. When he completed his tour of duty in Okinawa, he was a fighting machine, having picked up karate along the way. Lewis became a student of Bruce Lee’s and as a hobby entered weightlifting competitions. This made him a “triple threat,” Degerberg says.
In the early 70s, Lewis and some other triple threats began competing in what was then called “full-contact karate.” The sport resembled regular boxing with karate kicks and no-holds-barred grappling. Full-contact karate quickly gained popularity, both in the United States and Europe, and in 1973 the newly formed Professional Karate Association held its first world championship match in Los Angeles. The fights were nationally televised, and attendees included actor Telly Savalas and Linda Lee, widow of the recently deceased Bruce Lee. The bouts were held on a 40-by-40-foot matted stage, with a 20-by-20-foot area taped off for the fighters. Nevertheless, the fights extended beyond their boundaries, and several fighters flew into the first few rows of the audience. Three of the four championships that night were won by Americans: Joe Lewis took the heavyweight title, Jeff Smith took the middle-heavyweight fight, and a Degerberg disciple named Bill “Superfoot” Wallace claimed the middleweight crown.
Soon these fighters were traveling around the world. European and Asian promoters began staging matches, calling this new style of fighting American boxing. The rules were simple. American boxers wore regulation boxing gloves and foam booties. They could kick and throw punches from the waist up. In the United States, fighting under these rules became known as kickboxing.
By 1980, the Los Angeles-based Professional Karate Association was in disarray. It soon folded, but a new organization called the Professional Karate Council was formed in Indianapolis. The PKC promoted a wide variety of new fighting styles. There was Japanese boxing, in which fighters kick below the waist and perform vicious leg sweeps, and the French form of boxing known as savate, in which fighters wear wrestling shoes and are allowed to kick all over the body. The most deadly form was called Muay Thai boxing. Muay Thai fighters wear thin gloves that resemble oven mitts. They are allowed to kick anywhere, and can also use their knees, shins, and elbows. Unlucky Muay Thai fighters are commonly carried out of the arena on stretchers. Only Muay Thai’s popularity rivals that of kickboxing.
Fernando’s first pro kickboxing bout took place on November 27, 1993. He fought a guy named Russell Reiter and won a five-round decision as well as $300. He took a couple of fights after that, and his reputation began to spread. Fernando’s bouts were climbing higher and higher on the card. After he’d won five fights in a row, he was getting first or second billing.
One day, Fernando was walking down the street in Edgewater, where he shared an apartment with his brother. He bumped into a guy he’d known years before in Campeche. Fernando and this guy had once fought over a woman. Neither of them had forgotten her or each other, and their surprise reunion gave Fernando the opportunity to beat the guy senseless.
About a week later, Fernando bumped into him again. This time, however, the guy was with some friends. Fernando nevertheless started whaling on him again, and one of the friends slipped his hand around Fernando’s waist. Before Fernando could react, an ice pick was jammed just below his breastbone, about half an inch from his heart. As his adversaries ran away, Fernando stood on the sidewalk gasping for air. Blood was streaming out of his mouth and nose. He pulled the ice pick out of his chest and collapsed on the sidewalk.
Fernando’s fellow boxers and instructors at the Degerberg Academy sent him a get-well card at the hospital. He had many visitors from the school. But the incident disturbed Fred Degerberg, who’d been souring on Fernando for a while. Rough characters had been stopping by the gym to watch him spar, and Degerberg thought he’d become more interested in showing off than in perfecting his technique. Fernando was also going to other gyms and even trained with Robert Beal. Though Beal was an acknowledged master, Degerberg was upset by Fernando’s lack of loyalty. Fernando also started to wear tattoos up and down his arms and neck–this bothered Degerberg as well. He felt that Fernando’s appearance didn’t fit in with the academy’s family atmosphere.
By this time, Fernando had free access to all the academy’s classes. But rather than learning other martial-arts skills to help him in his kickboxing, he’d fallen into what Degerberg and some other instructors began calling the “Fernando rut,” a term they applied to boxers who seemed lazy about their training.
“The Fernando rut is they just come in, they hit the bags, they spar, and they leave,” Degerberg says. “Maybe they do road work, maybe they don’t. I was pissed off at him. Not that I wouldn’t talk to him, but pissed off because he wasn’t doing his best. I said, what the hell? He’d train a little and he’d go and do the fight. But he’d miss some of the training sessions. You can’t miss them. Not the week before the fight. Maybe six weeks before the fight you miss one or two, but not the last week. He’d miss two or three the week or two before the fight. Well, that’s crazy.”
A 20-year-old fighter named Oscar Bravo started at the academy around the same time as Fernando. Bravo was already close to a black belt in tae kwon do, but he was inexperienced in the ring. That soon changed. He studied savate first, then entered Degerberg’s special “blend” program, which taught all the martial arts in combination. Within a couple of years, Degerberg was calling Bravo his best student ever, and Bravo was winning every award the academy had to give. Bravo’s cross training was impeccable. He started competing in many different fighting arts. He won amateur titles in savate and Thai boxing, and he did well in full-contact fights. Degerberg considered entering him in wrestling competitions. Bravo continued to study, learn, and grow, and soon he was a lead instructor, teaching children and adults. He was an eighth-degree black belt to boot. He got married, had a child, and put a down payment on a house. Oscar Bravo became a model citizen, Mr. Freddie’s Basement.
“He’s the gold standard,” Degerberg says. “Oscar is brilliant, and he’s a genetic freak. You could put him in a martial-arts movie, the guy is so fast. He’s able to do these things where you spin and pivot in midair. He can do break dancing where he spins on his head like a top. He’s phenomenal. The guy is a phenomenon. And he can fight like the dickens. He can take somebody out with one blow, and he’s done it time and time again. In and out of the ring.”
Fernando recovered from his stabbing wound and was fighting again. By the summer of 1995, he was 8-0 as a professional. But he would watch Oscar Bravo in the ring, and though he was impressed he seethed with jealousy. Bravo was 30 pounds heavier and in much better shape, yet Fernando sparred with him whenever he could. In the ring, Bravo always broiled Fernando, but Fernando continually asked for more punishment. “All I want,” he said, “is to knock that guy out.”
Professional kickboxing was on ESPN two or three times a week for a while in the 1980s. Fights were sometimes held in Atlantic City or in one of the smaller Las Vegas hotels. The results appeared on the front page of the USA Today sports section. But when ESPN started to air more mainstream sports, kickboxing began to fade. This made life difficult for promoters. The Professional Karate Council soon dissolved into a series of regional fight circuits, with other organizations like KICK and the International Sport Karate Association operating under their own sets of rules. Each group promoted a different fighting style and tried without much success to distinguish itself from the competition. One Wisconsin-based outfit held annual World Championships of Kickboxing in which all the fighters were from Wisconsin. Another group of promoters called the World Karate Federation tried to make their contests seem international. A Chinese-American would be introduced as simply Chinese; a Japanese-American was, they’d claim, born and raised in Kyoto; a guy whose grandfather had emigrated from Umbria 70 years earlier might be billed as a genuine Italian Stallion. These fighters were mostly from Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana.
The predominant promoter in the Chicago area is Tom Letuli. He operates the Thai Boxing Council out of his home in the suburbs and puts together regular fight nights, which he calls Weekend Wars, generally held at two locations: the gymnasium of Saint Viator’s, a church and community center at Addison and Kedvale, and the gym of Saint Andrew’s, a Catholic school at Addison and Paulina. These events are attended by crowds ranging from a few hundred to 2,000. “It has its ups and downs,” Degerberg says of the Weekend War circuit. “It’s not like boxing where you get these tremendous fight crowds.” Tickets usually cost between $12 and $25, and martial-arts schools can buy “ringside tables,” which are essentially cafeteria tables near the ring, for $300. These tables seat about 15 people. Sometimes Letuli throws a $5 Fan Appreciation Night, which the best fighters tend to skip because there’s little money in it for them. Letuli has cooked up other promotions, like Hawaiian Night, where every customer of drinking age receives a free Mai Tai.
Weekend Wars consist mostly of amateur and professional kickboxing matches, though there’s usually a Muay Thai bout thrown into the stew. Often, more than one match will feature female fighters. These are very popular with the mostly male crowds. Most of Letuli’s packages also include exhibitions, either vicious displays of martial arts or Ultimate Fighting, which is illegal as a money-earning venture in Illinois. At one recent Weekend War at Saint Viator’s, the audience was treated to a sensei named Matumoro getting hit in the stomach ten times with a Louisville Slugger. Matumoro then broke the bat with his shin. He didn’t appear to suffer any pain.
The money’s not bad if the fighter intends to kickbox as a hobby or side gig. Kickboxers generally get between $75 and $100 per round, with a slightly higher payout for a championship match. The going is rough, however, if someone is attempting to make his living as a kickboxer, since Letuli throws a Weekend War only once every six to eight weeks. Public exposure is nil. The matches are never televised, and the results never show up in the newspaper the next day. Even at the highest national and international levels, it’s extremely difficult to get rich as a kickboxer–the most money that Degerberg has ever heard of changing hands is $100,000, but the usual payday for a champion is $5,000 to $10,000. For this and other reasons, Degerberg discourages professional fighting.
“Pro kickboxers, these guys, they’re mercenaries,” he says. “They’re headhunters. They go out, they want to scalp somebody. They want to see how many guys they can rack up and beat up. They’re tough, because now they’re fighting for money. You know, have gun, will travel. Well, the guys over at my place, we’ve got doctors and lawyers, bank presidents, young moms and dads, computer people up the wazoo. We’ve got every walk of life you could imagine. These guys aren’t pro fighters, and the pro fighters, they’ll come in, stay on the bag for an hour, and then they’ll get in the ring and take the whole ring for an hour or two. Anybody they spar with, they hurt. Beat ’em up. That’s not conducive for the normal guy.”
Oscar Bravo is the exception, Degerberg says. He’s enough of a gentleman and a businessman to know that it’s inappropriate to severely punish a corporate executive in the ring. Degerberg thinks Bravo could be a world-renowned fighter and ambassador of all things Degerberg-related. He’s willing to stake the academy’s reputation on Bravo’s abilities.
“He’s such a good guy, so helpful, and he works so hard. He’s such a class act. Him getting paid 500 bucks is a joke. For Fernando, that’s a good payday.
“When Fernando turned pro, I said, ‘This is your home. You started here. It will always be your home. You’re always welcome here. But I don’t have time to go run around the country training and managing, working your corner.’ We’ve got a million-dollar business here. I got a staff, I got 40 instructors, a dozen employees. I can’t be running around. And there’s no money in it for me at all. Nothing. There’s barely enough for him to get his rent paid. Barely enough to get food. He fights every month or two. At $500 a fight, you can’t live on that.”
Even with an 8-0 record, Fernando found himself at the low end of the respectability curve. Degerberg, quite literally, wasn’t in his corner. To earn extra money, Fernando found himself working for an imposing Mexican named Cesar Izquierdo, a part-time garbage truck driver and full-time building contractor who’d recently moved to Rogers Park and acquired the label of “community activist.” This was because his house was located on Latin Kings turf, and he didn’t like guys running through his alley all night shooting at each other. By using a combination of housing-court visits, community-policing meetings, and bald-faced thuggery, Izquierdo had cleaned up his block. Fernando knew him from Degerberg Academy, where Izquierdo was widely regarded as the toughest mother next to Degerberg himself.
Fernando did odd jobs for Izquierdo, sweeping up and working on his various cars. The money wasn’t good, but at least Fernando wasn’t breaking any laws. “I’m too busy for that shit, man,” he says. “I’d rather make six dollars an hour than steal from someone. You gotta make an honest living, man.”
At Izquierdo’s house, Fernando met Mike Mitchel and Mike Bueker, who had been hired on to handle the plumbing and electrical work. Both were all-purpose handymen who’d been bouncing around the north side for years. Izquierdo gave them a lot of work. The Mikes held him in both utter disdain and utter reverence, because they knew that he could squash their heads like melons if he wanted to. Mitchel says that Izquierdo loves “to head butt and to break noses.” When not in his presence, Mitchel and Bueker refer to Izquierdo as a “brain sucker.” In his presence, they refer to him as “sir.”
Mitchel’s four kids have studied martial arts at Degerberg, and Mitchel is devoted to any Degerberg fighter who can kick tail. “I love it when a guy uses all his weapons,” he says. “I love it when he comes at a motherfucker with all he’s got.” He met Fernando and immediately saw potential; he went to see him fight a couple of times and was amazed. Fernando wasn’t the most skilled fighter, but he was probably the gutsiest.
Fernando began baby-sitting Mitchel’s kids, and he started spending holidays and weekend afternoons at Mitchel’s house. In 1995 Mitchel’s father-in-law, Joe Siegal, purchased the Sovereign Pool & Health Club, a neighborhood gym at Granville and Kenmore. Mitchel signed on as manager, and Fernando got to work out and swim there for free. “I love Fernando,” Mitchel says. “I would give my life for that guy.”
Tom Letuli had scheduled a Weekend War for September 23, 1995, with the somewhat outdated theme of “USA vs. Russia.” He had recruited four kickboxers from an athletic club in Minsk to take on the best American comers. One of the Russians, a lightweight named Vadim Lapin who apparently had won titles in Moscow, Spain, and Portugal, couldn’t get his papers in order, so with one week’s notice Letuli asked Fernando to fight on the Russian team. Fernando was 9-0 at the time but hadn’t been training very hard. Still, he accepted the fight because Letuli offered him $1,000. His opponent was a Puerto Rican named Jose Santiago, with a record of 46-2. Fitting the confused political tenor of the times, USA vs. Russia had somehow mutated into Puerto Rico vs. Mexico. The fight lasted three rounds, and Fernando stayed on his feet. But Santiago took the decision, and Fernando had his first professional defeat.
Over the next 22 months, Fernando fought only four times. The fact that he won all four fights didn’t keep him from losing confidence. Degerberg had stopped promoting him, and the loss to Santiago hurt his reputation on the circuit. Mitchel, who had become Fernando’s best friend, watched him spin into depression. “At the end of his amateur career and the beginning of his pro career, that’s when Fernando really had the fire,” Mitchel says. “There’s something missing now. But he can get it back. It’s just that something’s gotta light it.”
Degerberg had more or less given up. He would occasionally throw a bone to kickboxers who didn’t have any real karate training by awarding them a black belt in kickboxing, which involves memorizing some terms and perfecting some relatively easy moves. Fernando had told Degerberg that he wanted a black belt. “But even the real basic stuff that we asked him to do, Fernando couldn’t hold it together,” Degerberg says. “It was kind of all talk.”
Fernando went into a full tailspin after his July 1997 loss to Glenn Hudson. He was working for a construction company but stopped showing up regularly. His workouts grew more infrequent and more laconic. He was running out of money, and his brother threatened to send him back to Mexico.
One Tuesday night last October, Fernando went to the Tropicana de Cache, a nightclub on Milwaukee near Armitage that holds boxing exhibitions. The fights last from midnight to 3 AM, during which a kickboxing and a boxing champion take on several fighters each. If a challenger can knock out the champ, he takes home $1,000. That night, Fernando faced a slick black guy named Shonie Carter, who fights in these kinds of settings several nights a week. Carter tends toward fancy clothes on the street and fancy dance moves in the ring. He’s known to be difficult to take down, and he’s at least 30 pounds heavier than Fernando. Yet Fernando claimed a partial victory, if only a moral one, because he stayed on his feet. He left the Tropicana with no money and a big shiner.
A couple of weeks later, Fernando was at a nightclub on Rush Street, dancing with a beer in his hand. A security guard told him that he couldn’t bring a beer on the dance floor. Fernando ignored him, so the guard told him again. When the guard told him for a third time, Fernando gave the guard a head butt. Within seconds, the security crew had Fernando on the floor and beat him with their flashlights. Fernando woke up the next morning with a black eye. He was also in jail. Someone had finally knocked him out.
Phil Smeja started boxing at Saint Andrew’s gymnasium in 1958, when he was 13 years old. Five years later he took over coaching duties from Al Pressinger, who was a major Chicago boxing guru. By then, Smeja, who was 5′ 7″ on a good day, had become somewhat famous for setting a world quick-lifting record in the 148-pound weight class. This occurred at a state high school meet in Alton, where he benched 2541/2 pounds; the previous record was 252. As far as Smeja knows, his record still stands, because a few years later that style of lifting was eliminated from world competition.
The 1960s were a good time for Smeja. He remembers that Jack Dempsey came to career day at Lane Tech high school, where he was a student. Because Smeja was the only boxer, he got the champ all to himself at lunch. He recalls Joe Louis–the Brown Bomber–stopping by the gym one day and telling him that he was stretching too much on his left jab. In 1964, Smeja was named runner-up in the Mr. Teenage America competition; in a separate contest he was crowned Most Muscular Teenager in America. In 1965 he won the national amateur middleweight weightlifting title. He became acquainted with Fred Degerberg, but Smeja stayed with boxing while Degerberg drifted toward martial arts and the future of fighting. In 1966 Smeja captured the north-side sectional Golden Gloves championship in the 147-pound weight class. All the while he was coaching boxers, becoming the best teacher of what was then a dying science.
Smeja went to college. He helped Chicago State develop its corrections counseling program and eventually graduated from Roosevelt University with enough credits for a master’s degree in psychology. He worked with street gangs in various city programs and taught them boxing at a gym down at the old Navy Pier. If gang leaders gave him trouble, he would invite them into the ring. “I used it as a tool. See, when you walk out on the street, you have to neutralize and utilize the leadership. And certain hard-nosed guys are hard to get next to. But you say, ‘Hey, you’re pretty froggish–you wanna leap? Let’s step in the gym and see what you got.’ I did a lot of this. You put the gloves on and take one guy after another. You break them down to size. Suddenly you get all kinds of cooperation out of everybody because they find that you’re for real. Humble them a little bit so they’d have some respect. Then it’s easier to work with the rest of the group.”
After beating gang leaders for a living, Smeja’s subsequent work as a parole officer was a snap. But his life took some bumpy turns. Many of the guys he’d worked with got hooked on drugs and ended up overdosing. Smeja himself became a drug addict. When the Degerberg Academy opened, he hung around there on the pretense of teaching boxing. But mainly he stuck around because one of Degerberg’s students was John Belushi. Degerberg was also Belushi’s bodyguard and friend. When Belushi was storing a golf-ball-size rock of coke in his gym locker, Smeja helped him putt it out of existence. After Belushi died, Degerberg told Smeja to get lost.
For the next decade, Smeja struggled with his habit. He was in and out of rehab and on and off the stuff. Degerberg would occasionally take him back, but Smeja would backslide and get kicked out of the gym again. Amazingly, Smeja stayed in good shape and never really lost his chops; he was still strong, still fast, and still very much a master of the game.
A couple of years ago, Degerberg brought back a drug-free Smeja when Fernando started having trouble. “He really made a massive effort to try and get his life back together,” Degerberg says. “He needs training these guys as much as they need him. In fact, he needs them more than they need him. But he’s a tremendous fight coach. Tremendous street-fighting coach and boxing coach. Just phenomenal. Everything he doesn’t know, I’ve picked up the other side. If he’s getting high, I told him, I don’t want to see him. But if he’s off drugs, and we could be of any help, that’s what the academy’s there for.”
On the day they met two years ago, Smeja invited Fernando to step into the ring. Smeja was 50 years old, but he worked Fernando up and down the canvas. “I didn’t hit him hard, but I hit him at will. And when he did work on me, I beat him to the punch and staved him off. He had no effect on me. Afterward I said, ‘Look, now, I want to show you some things. First of all, I want to start with your timing and your defense. I want to show you some stuff.’ That’s when I began to work the parrying, the timing, the cross training, the slipping, the footwork. Little by little, just in that one night, he said, ‘Wow, I didn’t know any of this.'”
Smeja had a more positive opinion of Fernando than Degerberg did. He says Fernando may not be the most intelligent fighter but he’s reasonably humble and listens to advice if it’s repeated often enough. If someone Fernando respects says his form is sloppy, he will accept correction.
Fernando reminded Smeja of himself as a young man. “He’s not a big guy,” Smeja says. “He may only weigh 140 pounds. But he’s got more hair on his ass than any guy who weighs 140 pounds that I know.”
Still, Smeja found Fernando’s reliance on the hammer punch to be amateurish. A real fighter, he says, works his opponent gradually and doesn’t need to throw the lethal blow. “You pile up the points. You work the angles; you work from all sides. You find that vulnerability in your opponent, and that’s when you begin to pound away at him. This is kickboxing, but it really isn’t that different. You just throw a few kicks.
“I was coming up with something the other day. I was explaining something to the guys. Each punch is like a word. You put a series of words together, you have a sentence; you have something meaningful. From that sentence, if you put another combination on top of that, you’ve got two, three sentences–now you’ve got a short paragraph. You’ve completed something. A piece of work accomplished. You’ve got a small idea put together. But maybe that wasn’t the complete story. Then you can step back and take a look and see what your next approach is. You’ve gotta come at it from another angle. A good professional fighter works in a series of combinations, or paragraphs, and at the end of the story hopefully you’re the one who won.”
Under Smeja’s tutelage, Fernando’s fighting improved. Then in late 1995 Smeja backslid again, and Degerberg banished him. Fernando returned to throwing the hammer punch.
Last December Fernando got a call from Tom Letuli. There would be a Weekend War at Saint Andrew’s on Saturday, January 31, and Fernando had been booked for a five-round light-welterweight bout against a guy from Saint Louis. Also on the bill was Oscar Bravo’s first professional fight. He’d be going up against Shonie Carter–the guy who’d beaten Fernando at the Tropicana–for the midwest middleweight title. That meant Fernando and Bravo would be training for their fights at the same time. Fernando thought maybe he’d get a chance to prove his superiority, or at least his equality, to Bravo.
If Fernando wanted to beat up Bravo in a sparring session, Bravo had other ideas. One of his many exercises involved hovering, push-up style, above a boxer laying on the ground; a third boxer would grab Bravo’s ankles while he hopped over the first boxer, using only his hands. He performed hundreds of these hops without error. Fernando had trouble doing even five. Bravo ran everyone through a vicious cycle, several times a week–there were push-ups, single crunches, double crunches, twists, weights, leaps, skips, and various contortions. Fernando struggled. Bravo, who spends his entire life at the gym, didn’t.
“Whoever works harder is better,” Fernando said in early January. “Whoever trains harder. I don’t know how good you’re going to be if you don’t train hard.” Fernando pledged to train at the gym at least four days a week. Much of that training, he said, would involve sparring with Bravo.
Mike Mitchel didn’t think that was such a good idea. Fernando had hurt his right wrist before the last fight at the Park West because he’d been sparring with Bravo too often. “I kept telling him to stay away from Oscar, but he didn’t want to,” Mitchel says. “Man, no one should be going into the ring with Oscar.”
On January 19, at 7 PM, 12 days before the fight, Fernando came into Degerberg looking a little woozy.
“I almost didn’t make it today,” he said. “Maybe it was the couple of beers I had with Mike last night. I was feeling kind of lazy, you know? But then I fell asleep for a while and I felt better. Had a couple of glasses of carrot juice that I made in this chopper thing that I have. No, no more beers for me.”
Fernando announced his intention to spar with Bravo.
“I’ll spar with you, man,” said another kickboxer named Kevin, “but I’m not getting in the ring with Oscar.”
“I wanna box a round or two with Oscar,” Fernando said.
“What kind of mood is Oscar in today?”
“I don’t know. I’ll find out.”
Bravo and Fernando went into the ring. Fernando seemed hesitant. Phil Smeja watched ringside. “You’re always on the attack, Fernando, but you’re not throwing any punches!” he shouted.
Fernando was laboring desperately by the second round. By the third, he was nearly comatose. He hung in for a fourth round, but it was obvious Bravo was doing everything he could to avoid knocking Fernando down. Still, Fernando went to a round five. Bravo blistered him, left and right, knocking him against the ropes.
Fernando was having trouble breathing. He let out a desperate, wounded sound. “Whoooooo!”
Bravo leaned in on him, grabbed him, and threw him around the ring. Fernando decided to go a sixth round. Bravo got into a crouch and exploded upward with a jab. Fernando stayed up only by virtue of the ropes. After six rounds, the sparring ended.
“Did I look tired?” Fernando asked between gasps.
Bravo pounded his gloves together. He waited for the next pigeon.
Smeja took Fernando into a side room, where the speed bags were. “Gotta throw your cross off your jab. You throw your jab and you get in. You like to come in close. Oscar’s not making you pay as much as he could. Once you lay into him, you’d better lay in. You like to work inside…” Smeja began to shadowbox with feisty speed, “Just gotta keep busy–boom, boom, boom, boom–busy with straight jabs and crosses. You like to spar with guys who are taller than you because you don’t have that range.”
Smeja later explained, “This is reality therapy. I find training techniques that transfer to the real world. My idea is that it transfers. I got my degree in psychology, and in the field of learning theory they have a particular area called transference. In transference, they believe that anybody who does some type of activity that closely approximates their goal, it will transfer more beneficially to what their goal is. For instance, if you’ve got a girl who learns how to play the piano when she’s five, and she starts taking typing at 14, she’ll usually learn the typing more readily than those who don’t have the eye and digital dexterity worked out.”
Fernando wasn’t thinking about transference on January 19. He was thinking that he’d strained a muscle near his elbow and that his neck was killing him.
“Man,” he asked, “is there anyone around here who can give me a massage?”
Later that week, Tom Letuli called Fernando with some bad news. The guy from Saint Louis had fractured a couple of ribs and wasn’t going to be able to make the Weekend War. Letuli said he’d try to find another fighter for Fernando, but he couldn’t promise anything.
Fernando tried not to get depressed, but it wasn’t easy. He’d crashed his car on the way to a construction job and thereafter stopped going to work. He told his boss he needed a couple of weeks to train for his fight, and so his boss laid him off. Fernando was counting on the fight money to pay his rent.
“Fernando needs this fight, man,” Mike Mitchel said. “Since he turned pro, things have been rough. He’s had all kinds of bad luck. He needs a fight bad. Sparring just ain’t the same thing at all. This time now is crucial.”
Four days before the fight, Fernando got another call from Letuli. He would be fighting a guy named Juan Villa from Milwaukee. Fernando had never heard of this particular fighter, so he decided to stop training four days before the fight. He said he didn’t want to hurt himself. “I’m just gonna take it easy, man.”
It was decided that Smeja would be in his corner, along with Mitchel and Bueker. The Mikes considered this a high honor indeed.
Fernando arrived at the Sovereign Pool & Health Club at 3:30 on the day of the fight. Mitchel wouldn’t be off work until 5, but Fernando was tired of hanging around the house and waiting. On the wall by his office, Mitchel had put up a large poster advertising the Weekend War, which was also being called the Assault on Chicago. He had written on the poster the word “Tonite!!” and had circled Fernando’s picture and labeled it “The Man.”
Fernando sat on an exercise bike and acted nervous. “I could knock him out in 30 seconds,” he said, “or he could knock me out. I don’t know this guy.”
Fernando, the Mikes, and several friends arrived at Saint Andrew’s a little after 6. Phil Smeja was waiting for them at the front door. He was full of nostalgia, he said. He’d trained at this gym and lived in an apartment building across the street. His mother would stand at the window while ironing and watch him box through the gym’s overhead windows.
A large crowd was expected. There were rows of metal folding chairs surrounding the ring; 20 cafeteria tables were set up in front. Saint Andrew’s has expansive bleachers, which would fill up as well. The snack bar selling hot dogs and burgers had opened for business in the school’s kitchen.
The locker room was tiny and old-fashioned. Rumor had it that the other dressing room was even smaller.
Smeja looked at Mitchel and Bueker, who were restlessly walking around in Degerberg Academy T-shirts and long warm-up pants designed like the American flag–stripes down one leg, stars down the other.
Smeja asked Mitchel to hit him in the stomach. “How’m I doin’?” he said. “Like a rock. Not bad for an old man.”
They discussed Fernando’s problem wrist while Fernando glowered in the corner and took deep breaths. On the opposite bench was Oscar Bravo, doing the same thing.
“I’ve seen Fernando fight many times,” Mitchel said. “He wants to knock a guy out, he should knock him out.”
“It needs to come from behind the head like a hammer,” said Smeja. “You can throw it anywhere. It’s the body. Use the body. It’s like the fist can pop an eye.”
Smeja smacked Mitchel’s fist from just behind his right ear. “That’s all it is,” he said. “It doesn’t look like anything….When I was a kid I learned to box, and I popped everything. Like throwing a log off the end of your knuckles. You know, bam. I said, boom! And that jab becomes quick! It doesn’t look like anything, but if somebody comes into it, holy shit! Where’d it come from? Just like the power a baseball player has when he throws that baseball. Never imagine how much power a baseball player has?”
“Hundred miles an hour? Sure!”
“Let that ball go. Swing! Bam! It’s the same thing. I mean, from back here”–Smeja moved his hand way behind his head–“you just get smaller, smaller, smaller until you go…bing! Like that, it’s a knockout. Poof!”
At 6:45 all the fighters met with Letuli and the referee, who was wearing a karate uniform. They went over the rules, which the fighters had heard before. The most important rule, they stressed, was that fighters had to throw eight kicks per round.
Eight kicks per round, they repeated.
Fifteen minutes before the fight, the gymnasium had filled with fans, and with smoke. Letuli informed everyone that he’d sold more than 2,000 tickets. This was the biggest Weekend War ever. The crowd was ethnically mixed, as were the fighters for whom they were rooting. Many of the fans were from martial-arts schools in Illinois or Wisconsin. Degerberg himself purchased eight ringside tables and could count about 300 of his students in the stands alone.
Fernando and Bravo were taped up and rubbed down. Fernando tied a red bandanna around his head. This was a new thing he was trying out tonight. “How do I look?” he asked.
“I wish I was younger, man,” said Smeja to no one in particular. “You know, I don’t feel old. But I’m fat.”
“You’re hard like a rock!” Mitchel said.
Fernando and Bravo were silent.
“You guys got the stamina, you got the endurance,” Smeja said. “Whatever anybody’s got on ya, strength or size, you guys got the heart to go all the way. Stamina. It’s not always the guy with the firstest or the mostest. That’s the thing you count on. You hang in there as long as you can. You weather the storm. You come through, man. Whatever it takes. You see that opportunity, you can’t be too weak to capitalize on it. You’ve gotta kick yourself in the ass and go for it. Don’t matter if you’ve been hurt. Go for broke. That’s what your training was for. You’ve got your stamina. Force yourself to come on back. Force yourself. Don’t lay back and feel sorry for yourself. Nobody else will. Go for broke.”
The early bouts–the amateur two-rounders–were entertaining. A 195-pounder stopped kicking, and eventually fell to the canvas, after getting smacked repeatedly in the head by another lummox. He got up with a goofy smile on his face. “The lights are on,” said the ring announcer, “but no one’s home.”
There followed a featherweight bout between a couple of 130-pounders who attacked each other relentlessly. One took the decision because the other, who was only 18, came up three kicks short in round two.
The Mikes watched and drank beer. They figured Fernando didn’t need them until the fight started.
“I’ve been dyin’ to see this guy Fernando’s fightin’!” Mitchel said. “I want to know what he looks like. I’m dyin’, man! I’m dyin’! But we don’t need no help. He’s gonna do this guy. Watch, some big humongous motherfucker comes out–holy shit!”
The announcer informed the crowd that the girl who carried the numbered signs before each round was also available for bachelor parties and private gatherings. The announcement was followed by a female kickboxing bout.
In the locker room, Mitchel tied Fernando’s shoes. “I’m getting excited,” Smeja said, shadowboxing. “I feel like I’m goin’ in tonight myself.” Bravo began using him as a punching bag.
“Boy,” Smeja said, “this is great! I love this! It’s been a long time since I’ve been back here with you guys.”
Fernando breathed deeply. He was wearing a colorful striped poncho he’d selected especially for tonight. It came from his home state of Campeche.
The time came for Fernando’s bout. The Mikes and Smeja followed him out of the locker room. Mitchel finally got his look at the opponent, and his worries dissipated. The guy was old, short, and kind of fat.
The ring announcer began: “Ladies and gentlemen, coming up next…five rounds of professional kickboxing. Let me introduce the fighters for you. In the blue corner, he’s 39 years old from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, standing five feet four inches tall. He weighed in at 131 pounds. His professional record is 20 wins, 4 losses, 6 of those wins by the knockout. Welcome, please, in the blue corner, Juan “‘Pancho’ Villa! Villa!”
Villa danced out. The crowd barely responded.
“And his opponent, in the red corner. He’s from the Degerberg Academy. He’s 27 years old. Standing five feet eight inches tall. He weighed in at 140 pounds. His professional record: 13 wins, 2 losses, 6 of those by knockout. Welcome please, in the red corner, Fernando “Gato” Luevanoooooooooo!”
The crowd cheered madly. The Degerberg tables were especially vocal.
“Shit,” said Smeja, “that guy’s 39 years old!”
The first round was even, but it was pretty sloppy. Villa had a habit of telegraphing his kicks, which were usually wild. Fernando had little trouble dodging them, but he wasn’t landing much in the way of his own punches, either. Both fighters flailed, and each fell to the canvas during the round, but neither was hurt. After the bell, Fernando stood in the corner.
“Where’s the stool!” Bueker shouted to Mitchel. “Where’s the fucking stool!”
“I don’t fucking know!” Mitchel shouted back.
The stool was under the spit bucket, which the Mikes also could not find. Smeja was trying to give a pep talk to Fernando, who spit on the mat.
By this time Mitchel was a wreck. He grabbed a water bottle, put it between his legs, and for some reason squirted water all over the mat. Watching the fight later on video, he said, “It looked like I was taking a leak! A goddamn leak right there in the ring!”
“Clean that fucking water up!” shouted the referee.
Bueker cleaned the water with a rag, while Mitchel got tangled in the ropes. After a last-second scramble to find a clean mouthpiece, Fernando was sent back into the ring for round two.
“Come on, Fernando! Now, now work, work, Fernando! Punch, Fernando, punch! Soften him up! Come on, Fernando, you’ve got it! Yeah, yeah! Yeaaaahh! Yeahhhhhh!”
Fernando unleashed his hammer punch. Pancho Villa went down.
“Insanity!” said Mitchel.
Villa got up on the count of eight. Fernando brought down another hammer punch. Pancho Villa crumbled. Fernando ran around the ring, whooping, his hands in the air. He whipped his punching hand around in a circle. He thought it was over.
He returned to the center of the ring, where Pancho Villa was wobbling back and forth but still willing to fight after another standing eight count.
“I looked around,” Fernando said later, “and there was that guy.”
“You got him! Little more, Fernando, he’s goin’! Work him, he’s goin’! Now, keep him on the ropes! He’s goin’, Fernando, he’s goin’!”
Somehow Villa survived the round. All Fernando had to do now was get his kicks in and not get sideswiped.
In round three Villa came out spinning. His kicks were missing by a mile. He whirled himself to the floor several times. “This guy’s useless,” Smeja said. “Bad man can make a good man look good.”
Fernando got his eight kicks in round three, and in round four he got them in before Villa landed any. Mitchel noticed this, but became confused.
“You ain’t lightin’ for us!” he yelled at the guy who was counting kicks for Villa.
“I’m for the other side,” the guy said laconically.
“Spin and miss,” Smeja said. “If they tried this in the street they’d get the shit kicked out of them.”
Villa survived the fight, but the decision went to Fernando, 50-451/2; 50-47; 50-481/2.
“Oh man!” Mitchel said. “I pulled a muscle in my leg just rooting for him!”
In the locker room, Fernando examined his welts, which were minor. Oscar Bravo was breathing heavily, waiting for his fight. Fred Degerberg stood next to him. Degerberg was going to be in Bravo’s corner.
“Can I be the first to buy you a beer, champ?” asked Mitchel.
“Let me cool off,” said Fernando.
“You did good,” Smeja said. “Either you’re too far or you’re too close. That’s what you wanna be. Generally, you were too close. That’s where you wanna be. What I’d like next time is if you get him over to the ropes, that’s when you work. I know you were tired. He was tired, too. But you never let him back you to the ropes. Never look like you’re laying for him.”
“Not too, too, too, too wild?” Fernando asked. “How I look?”
“No, you didn’t look wild. But you know what? You gotta forget about how you look up there. Forget about it and go for the kill. If you’re worried about how you look, you’re gonna be preoccupied with that shit and you’re gonna lose. Never worry about how you look. It’s all automatic once you’re in there. Oscar knows that, too. Never worry about the way you look.”
“Shit,” Bueker said. “You won the fight. Now I can go have a cigarette.”
Smeja had only worked with Oscar Bravo twice in the last two years. Bravo was always too busy teaching classes or training other fighters. Smeja, like everyone else, saw Bravo as a superman and didn’t think he really wanted his help. A few minutes before his fight, Bravo approached Smeja in the locker room.
“Phil,” Bravo said, “will you look at this? What do you think?”
Bravo reached into his gym bag and pulled out a yellow piece of paper. He had scrawled out his training schedule for the last six weeks. It included hours of sparring, miles of road work, 1,200 sit-ups a day, and equivalent numbers of push-ups.
“He looked at me with those little-boy eyes,” Smeja said later. “He was like a five-year-old boy. I said, ‘Oscar, you paid your dues, man. You’re gonna do real good tonight. This is what it’s all about. Paying dues.’ Then I realized how fallible and vulnerable he actually was in spirit.”
“Oh man!” Smeja said to Bravo. “I wish I was in there with you! I’m 53, but I still got somethin’! I still got stuff, man! This is some night, I tell you!”
Degerberg was standing nearby.
“Phil,” he said, “please chill out.”
There was no way Bravo was going to lose this fight, but Degerberg wanted it to go the full five rounds. He’s trying to get Oscar a reputation as a fighter who can go the full 12 or 15 needed to be a national champion. But it’s been difficult. Two fights ago, Degerberg wanted the bout to last five rounds, but Bravo’s opponent insulted his mother, and Bravo knocked him out in 32 seconds. The next fight Bravo’s opponent was throwing elbows and knees and was quickly disposed of as well.
Shonie Carter, on the other hand, behaved quite nicely, despite doing a show-offy somersault on one glove before the fight. Bravo let him go the full five but came away with the unanimous decision. “If the guy had become an asshole, Oscar would have pulled the plug and would have started to try to take the guy out,” Degerberg says. “Maybe he couldn’t have knocked him out, but I’ll tell you he would have beaten the shit out of him.
“There’s a whole group of guys who have been in the martial arts for 20, 30 years. They were sitting on the other side of the ring with the promoter. One of them said during Oscar’s fight, ‘Did you see what I just saw?’ Oscar threw three punches in about half a second. Every one of them landed, and every one of them was perfect technique, and they were the fastest punches, individually, that they’d ever seen in their whole life.”
Fernando was watching Bravo’s fight from ringside. He’d already been offered two more fights as a result of his win over Pancho Villa, one in Minnesota on April 10 and one at the Park West on April 18. The promoter from Minnesota wanted him to lose three pounds, and the one from the Park West wanted him to gain four. As Fernando fingered an envelope containing $800 in cash, he considered accepting both offers.
The referee wrapped the midwest title belt around Bravo’s waist. The crowd chanted, “Bravo! Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!”
Fernando sipped his beer and grumbled. “My fight,” he said, “was better than Oscar’s.”
Afterward Fernando, Mitchel, and Mitchel’s wife, Lisa, went out to party. They walked toward a neighborhood bar.
“You’re the fucking champ, man!” Mitchel said as he hugged Fernando. “Teamwork, man! You’re the fucking best! I knew you was gonna be the champ tonight! I knew it.”
“Yeah,” Fernando said, “I’m the champ. I am the fucking champ!”
Later, while Fernando was buying a round of drinks at the bar, Mitchel said, “You don’t understand. If Fernando had lost tonight, you would have seen a catastrophe. He would have gone back to that little Tijuana town that he came from, and we never would have seen him again. Fernando could’ve died tonight. Oscar may have been fighting for a belt, but Fernando was fighting for his ass. If he’d have lost, he would have disappeared from this earth. No more Fernando. No more.” o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photographs by Randy Tunnell.