Hanging with Champions: A (Not So) Signature Story
By Antonio Santiago, Doghouse Boxing (June 25, 2009)  
First of all, let me introduce myself: My name is Antonio Santiago, and I am the new writer for the Doghouse family of writers. It is a pleasure to join this great writing family. I have to thank my great friend Sunset Thomas for leading me to this opportunity into growing as a writer and person. Sunset always showing me, well, the Sunset!! She’s the greatest human being a man can come across from.

My journey into boxing fandom began when Muhammad Ali beat George Foreman in what was then Zaire.
I was only 2 years old, but for some reason, the image of Foreman down stuck in my mind like nothing else from that age did. Anyways, when I was 10, I became interested in becoming a boxer myself, and at age 12, I began attending the gym. My dad was a candy salesman who drove all across our nation-island of Puerto Rico on a sky blue Dodge van selling candy every week, so naturally, the next step was for him to begin finding out where Puerto Rico’s world boxing Champions lived at. He then asked the champions themselves if it would be ok if me and some friends visited them later. Among the memorable visits we did were one to Sammy Serrano, two time WBA world Junior Lightweight Champion, and his family, as well as to Ossie Ocasio and his family, Julian Solis, Victor Callejas, and Luis Ortiz, who has Puerto Rico’s only Olympic silver medal. All those boxers were world Champions, except for Ortiz. But in Ortiz’s case, I did get to take a photo with that historic medal on my neck!!

Years after that, I had moved to Phoenix, Arizona, my dreams of being a world boxing Champion but dust in the back of my mind. Brother was following his own sports dream then. My brother Jose was a good baseball player and the Seattle Mariners had sent scouts to check him out, when he was diagnosed with Neutrophenia, a disease in which a simple bump to the head or the stomach could mean your death. Knowing that my brother’s sports dreams were also dashed, my dad set about to raising his morale by taking him to meet some of his favorite baseball players in person, as, after all, this was Arizona, winter baseball heaven. And along I jumped. And I suggested we should try to meet as many other boxers and celebrities from other areas as well. And that, my new friends, began the adventures of a lifetime!

Here are some of my most memorable moments I’ve spent with boxers:

5. Pernell Whitaker, Lou Duva, Mark Breland and Fernando Vargas

Norm Franheimer is a famous boxing writer from Phoenix, who used to cover the sport for The Arizona Republic. He always published information when boxers would be in town, where and at what time. So when we found out that Pernell Whitaker’s camp was coming to a hotel in Chandler, Arizona, along we went with our Sharpies and our bags filled with boxing gloves and photos.

Whitaker, who was training for his super fight with Oscar De La Hoya, did his thing, he boxed there under a tent and did his routine exercises in front of fans and media during his camp’s press day. After he was finished sparring, he said he’d sign autographs for the fans. I went and had my glove signed and wished him good luck. Whitaker took it the wrong way! He looked at me and asked “what do you mean good luck? Do you think I need luck to beat De La Hoya?” Puzzled, I looked at him straight to the eye, and I told him “I just mean good luck!” to which he then said “oh, ok, thank you!”

I was surprised to see Mark Breland working around in the camp and I got an index card off our car and asked him to sign it. Breland was a great guy and he was happy that people still recognize him. Lou Duva was outside the tent, sitting with press people around, answering questions. I asked him if he could please sign another index card for me, and he smiled as he looked up and said “sure!”

The “discovery” of the night for us was another kid who was sparring. He was fighting one of the card’s early bouts, but later on he’d face De La Hoya himself in another super fight. Fernando Vargas knocked his sparring partner out with the first punch he threw that day, and my dad told me: “wow, that kid is gonna be a great one!” I asked him for his autograph and boy am I happy nowadays that I got it!!!

4. Oscar De La Hoya and Julio Cesar Chavez SR.

That same guy, Norm Franheimer, published a note on a Wednesday before Oscar De La Hoya’s first of two super fights with Julio Cesar Chavez SR., saying that the two would hold a press conference at the local Holiday Inn hotel, five minutes away from my house!!! The problem was that the conference was about to begin in only five minutes when I read the newspaper!

So I took two Mexican flag boxing gloves I had and put them on my bag, and off we headed real quick to the hotel. Chavez SR. and De La Hoya both were treated like if it was The Beatles and The Jonas Brothers who arrived instead, hordes of people trying to get to them. Luckily for me, I did spot Chavez SR. at a corner before anyone else did, and I went and asked him to sign my glove. As he did, I told him that he was a pride not just to Mexicans, but to all Latino people. My dad shouted “God bless you, Julio!”. He stood there stone faced, and did not even say thank you! He did sign my glove and shook my hand but that left me with a bittersweet taste. After people saw him standing there, it became virtually impossible for anybody to move and I was worried that a riot of some kind would ensue. Chavez SR. may not have been precisely friendly, but he is truly an icon not just among Mexicans, but to all Latino people.

As far as De La Hoya, once the crowd frenzy over Chavez SR. was over, that same frenzy turned to De La Hoya. Luckily for me, one of his bodyguards was Puerto Rican and he recognized my Puerto Rican Spanish accent, so he picked up my boxing glove and had Oscar sign it, it says “Oscar ’96” now! He was not Mr. friendly either, but as we read later in his book, he allegedly was frustrated by Chavez’s antics during their press tour, so I give him the benefit of the doubt. And besides, he didn’t have to sign my glove in the first place, which he did!

3. Roberto Duran

In 2003, Roberto Duran came to town to hold a fight featuring another Latino great, Joel Casamayor. I wanted to meet both Duran and Casamayor, being that I admired them both for their pugilistic history. We heard through the local television news that the weight in was going to be carried at the Marriott Airport hotel, so we headed there after Casamayor‘s fight was over on ESPN2. To my disappointment, Casamayor decided not to stay at the hotel after the fight, instead going to a house Duran had rented. Duran wanted to live in Arizona because his father, who is actually Mexican, lived here and they were connecting, father and son.

Roberto Duran, the Panamanian-Mexican and all around great, was one of the greatest persons you can imagine. Upon recognizing mine and my dad’s accents, he asked if we were Puerto Rican. When he found out we are, he exclaimed “Arroz Goya!!” Arroz Goya is a very famous rice brand in Puerto Rico. In fact, all Goya Foods are very famous in my country. That showed me he remembers Puerto Rico fondly and has Puerto Rican fans in his heart. Duran told us Puerto Ricans were the toughest boxers he ever fought (no surprise there, he lost one of three to Esteban De Jesus, he lost twice to Hector Camacho SR., was pushed to the brink twice by Edwin Viruet and lost to Wilfred Benitez!) and we engaged in a conversation that evolved from boxing to the cultural ties between his Panama and our Puerto Rico. A great champion and a great guy overall, Duran made us have a great experience!

To finish it all in befitting style, before we left the hotel, David Tua showed up out of the blue! This was when he was on the comeback trail so he was with Duran’s promotional company, and although I was unprepared for him to show up, I did give him an index card which he gladly signed for me. I tell you, those index cards sure come in handy1 You just can’t leave home without them because you don’t know who you will run into!

2. Sugar and Roger Leonard

Right about the same time Pernell Whitaker came to town to train for his bout with Oscar De La Hoya, a few weeks before or after (I can’t remember whether it was before or after) Sugar Ray Leonard came to use the same hotel that Whitaker and the Duva team used, to train for his fight with Hector Camacho SR. So we went there on press and fans day, and met the man himself. It was beyond incredible.

As a diabetic, after Sugar Ray did some of his training, I headed to the hotel’s restaurant to eat a meal so my sugar would not go low. I only had three dollars on myself, so I ordered the cheapest item, a French Toast and a glass of water. I should have known. My dad, at the same time, had begun working his magic with the Leonards and told them how much I had admired them and followed their respective careers since I was about 7. So when I went to pay for my food, the table guy told me it was not necessary, that Mr. Leonard said to put it all on his account! I should have ordered something expensive!!!!! But I felt great and I was not hungry anymore so I did not want to abusive of Ray’s goodwill.

When I returned, Roger Leonard approached me and told me that Sugar Ray had heard I had some amateur boxing experience and he wanted to spar with me. He looked at me dead serious. I looked at him back dead frozen. My teeth teetering, I told him that it was over 12 years since I last had an amateur fight. Roger broke up laughing and told me it was just a joke between him, his brother and my dad. Boy did I feel like I was back in Heaven once he told me that!!

You remember Sugar Ray Leonard from the 7-UP and Popeye’s Fried Chicken commercials? The one with the wide laugh and smile and charm? That’s the Sugar Ray Leonard I met. We spoke boxing, and not just about his career, but about the careers of others who were on his team in the past. From Roger’s t-shirt that day, I recognized, among others, Derrick Holmes, who valiantly fought Wilfredo Gomez for the WBC world Super Bantamweight title. I also asked Sugar Ray about that infamous commercial he did with Derrick’s brother Larry 9whom some of you may recognize as one of the greatest Heavyweight Champions of the world in history), where he and Larry Holmes could not stop laughing while recording the television commercial for Chevy. Leonard still laughs about that when reminded of it, and that day was no exception.

A warrior inside the ring, a man with a gentle heart outside it. That’s Sugar Ray Leonard for you all.

1. Hector Camacho SR., Hector Camacho JR., Wilfredo Gomez and Laura Serrano

When Hector Camacho JR. was a hot prospect, he came to town to fight Argentina’s great little boxer, Omar Weiss. He lost that fight, but the night before, it was all party at the airport Hilton hotel, where the Camachos were staing at. Once again, the local press tipped us off about their location, and there we went with a few boxing gloves and also my book, “The Ring: Boxing in The 20th Century”, which I love to have different boxers sign it on the pages they are pictured beating someone else up. I only planned for Hector Camacho SR. to sign my book that time, through.

We got there and waited for a while, until Camacho SR. appeared coming out of the elevators, wearing one of his wild disguises as a Martian or a soldier or the other things he puts on before a fight. He had a tough look to his face, but when I approached him and asked if he could sign one of my boxing gloves, he also recognized my Puerto Rican accent and by magic, the tough look disappeared. Camacho SR. and his entourage sat down with me and my family after he signed my glove, and we all joked and sang the night away, singing our favorite Puerto Rican songs. We talked about everything, from his fight with Jose Luis Ramirez down to his fights with Julio Cesar Chavez SR. and Oscar De La Hoya. We were loud. In fact, we were very loud because here were the two wildest Puerto Ricans ever born, meeting each other. We hit on women, we spoke about the old country and we literally brought the house down! During part of the conversation, he stopped to dial up an old buddy on the phone. I gave him space so he could talk. He claimed he had just called Julio Cesar Chavez SR. again and spoke to him about a rematch. I give him the benefit of the doubt, since he always claimed on Puerto Rican news anyways that he was on constant telephone calls with Chavez SR. to ask for a rematch. Indeed, he and Chavez SR. became behind the scenes real good friends after their fight. Camacho SR. also got to sign my book, right on the page where he is pictured beating on Jose Luis Ramirez.

Hector Camacho JR. was super accommodating too. He was sitting at the lobby with his trainers, but since I’d already gotten his autograph (and missed getting his dad’s) before he fought Phillip Holliday in 2000, I limited myself to ask him for a signature for my friend, Paul Willmore JR., who was coming with us but due to a family emergency could not attend. We saw Omar Weiss entering the hotel’s tourist shop to buy some presents and mementos, but I decided not to go and ask him for an autograph because his rival for the next day, Camacho JR., was sitting just next to me.

The big surprise of the night to me came when Nick Acevedo, the great contender of the time, told us Wilfredo Gomez was there too! Wilfredo Gomez, my all time favorite fighter along with Wilfred Benitez! Wilfredo Gomez, he who I thought of all people I wound not see there because he and Camacho SR. had a feud when they were both in their world Championship, super fight days. Wilfredo Gomez, who many consider the greatest Puerto Rican boxer of all time and the greatest puncher ever! I went over to my dad and told him Gomez was there, to which dad answered with a “wow!!” Gomez came along a bit later, he joined us at the fun table at the lobby and started singing with us and also talking about the old country. He felt overjoyed that some other fans, which I presume were Mexican or Mexican-American because they did look Latino, recognized him and asked him for an autograph. Gomez does not speak English well, so he asked me to help him at the hotel’s restaurant, for which he had a free food brochure, surprising me at the irony that here I was, helping one of my greatest child idols, at such a simple task like getting food at a hotel’s restaurant!

Later that night, we found out that Laura Serrano, the great Mexican woman boxer, was staying at the hotel in front of the airport Hilton, so we made the short trip there and met her. I always admired Serrano because she put on a brave legal fight to have women’s professional boxing legalized in Mexico. And, besides that, she had been a world Champion already and the WBAN’s female boxer of the year. She was a great person to meet, and when she found out I’m Puerto Rican, she told me she was engaged to a Puerto Rican man. It spoke volumes to me, that despite the venom that sometimes boxing fans from both sides, Puerto Rico and Mexico, spill over the internet, here was a Mexican fighter who felt the same as me, in the sense that trying to take sports rivalries personally is just non sense. And it made a perfect ending for the greatest day I ever had getting boxing autographs!

Of course, all the other chances to meet boxers and boxing personalities were memorable. When Muhammad Ali came to town to have a section of a hospital named after him, and I shook hands with him, that was memorable because instead of being thrilled of meeting The Greatest, I felt a deep pain in my heart after he could barely sign my glove and shake my hand, and that with extreme difficulty. And a deeper sense of admiration towards Ali the human being. When Jorge Paez came to town, he gave me rabbit ears when we posed for a photo! Vassiliy Jirov lived in Scottsdale, and the San Francisco Giants were spring training there at the same time, so me and dad decided to take a drive and get his autograph as well as Willie Mays’ the same day. Jirov was not at the gym that day but we met his manager, who told us to return the day after. So when we did, Jirov already had a photo signed by him, inscribed with my name on it, ready for me to take home! Yori Boy Campas was also extremely nice to hang with and very accommodating. Mike Tyson and I both have big heads, so when we took a photo after he signed my glove, we came out looking like conjoined twins!!

I guess every autograph experience I’ve had with boxers have been special in their own way. That’s mostly because, most people think of boxers as vile men and women who probably go around with a baseball bat beating people up all the time. Nothing is more wrong than that perception. In fact, boxers are, 99 percent of the time, the most nice and down to earth celebrities you can meet! I’m still looking forward to meeting many more, like Alan Minter, Alexis Arguello and Matthew Saad Muhammad, for example!

However, due to how they developed, those 5 have been my all time favorite autograph experiences. I only hope you enjoy reading about them as much as I did going through them!

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