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Monty Does Mexico: Day One

(Photo © German Villasenor)
(Photo © German Villasenor)


According to Wikipedia, “Mexicali (Spanish pronunciation: [mexiˈkali]) is the capital of the State of Baja California, seat of the Municipality of Mexicali, and 2nd largest city in Baja California. The City of Mexicali has a population of 689,775, according to the 2010 census, while the population of the entire metropolitan area (as well the municipality) reaches 936,826. Located in the Salton Valley near the Salton Sea, it is approximately 209 kilometres (130 mi) east of San Diego.”
 
According to boxing fans, some promoters and TV execs I’ve spoken to (and even my colleague Steve Kim), Mexicali- well, Mexico in general- is a place 130 miles east of San Diego that is to be avoided at all costs. All afternoon on Thursday as I prepared to head off to Mexicali to catch the return of Alfredo “Perro” Angulo that Saturday at the Nido Sports Center, I received well wishes, good lucks and prayers for a safe return.

The way I see it, I’m a boxing writer and Angulo is a fighter I’ve covered diligently since he made the junior middleweight scene, logging a few live fights and in-depth interviews along the way. It would be irresponsible of me to not cover this fight. So drug cartels be damned, I made preparations to hop a train to Oceanside at 6:05 the following morning to rendezvous with my contact, a 30-year veteran named Ray Torres. Ray would be covering the fight as a photographer for pound4pound.com and 3morerounds.com.
 
Friday
 
The plan was to meet in Oceanside and cross the border together in time for the weigh in at 1:00 PM. However, I had some trouble at the Amtrak.
 
I don’t wake up early. It’s just my cross to bear. I’ve always been a night owl who needs little to no sleep and it’s not uncommon for me to work on a story for 36 hours straight with nothing but a Red Bull in me in the end. However, when I do sleep, it’s like a vampire going to ground. By the 3 AM mark Thursday night, with my bags packed and last-minute writings being polished, I knew I was screwed. If I slept now, I’d be down for the count well past 5 AM, which is when I was planning on catching the subway to Union Station in downtown L.A.
 
In this absolutely sleepless state, I arrived at Union Station, oddly bright-eyed and bushytailed. The station’s live display of times put my train leaving at 6:05 on Track 10-B. I followed the sign up the ramp and onto Track 10-B 30 minutes early. Like most fighters, I am notorious for cutting it close to appointments (on this criteria alone, I think I missed my calling) but today, I was ahead of schedule. I wanted to catch this weigh-in and more importantly, not piss off my ride who would also serve as a guide, seeing as how he had been to Mexicali before. When I was nine, I stayed in Ensenada on the beach with my family inside a tent we had brought the wrong poles for. We got the thing up but it was so oddly shaped, tourists took pictures of it. This would be my first trip to Mexico as a non-Spanish speaking Mexican-American male.
 
6:11- and I am sitting on the train typing away the start of my Angulo interview, which was due later that evening. I’m hoping the internet works in the Hotel Araiza where I have a room booked. If not, I was going to have rewrite this beast on my iPhone, which I have switched over to Mexico service for the time being.
 
6:20- The train’s conductor announces that this train, bound for Riverside (?!) will be leaving now. I ask the guy in front of me if this thing goes to Oceanside.
 
“No. Riverside, like the guy said,” he replied.
 
I don’t have time to punch him for his insolence as I gather my things and haul ass out the train as the conductor is locking things down. I’ve jumped off an Amtrak before but that was nearly 20 years and a ton of mileage ago. Thankfully, the guy lets me pass and tell me to go to Track 11 where the Oceanside train, which is now gone, leaves from.
 
After a lot of “WTF” questions from me, the Amtrak worker on Track 11 explains that it must be a mistake (You think?) and that I should stay put. The next train leaves at 7:20, putting me in Oceanside around 9:30. This was going to be close.
 
The train finally arrives and I board, finding a great seat with a table and plugs for my phone and laptop. By the time I get to Mexico, a first draft of my Angulo story is done. I leave the editing and rewrite for after the weigh-in, which at this point, I may or may not make.
 
I don’t notice how shady the Oceanside train station is because Ray is there to greet me even though the train is earlier than estimated. He appears to be a man in his 50s, Mexican, who looks a little bit like my dad. I immediately like him and like the bad passenger I am, inform him I will be passing out on the trip down. Sleep was needed if I was going to survive the heat and the long time before I can actually grab some real sleep. I had a weigh-in at 1 PM and a story due by 8 PM. This was not going to be easy without a catnap.
 
By Noon or so, we are in Calexico, the last border town before crossing over. Ray wisely buys some Mexican insurance for his cherry-red Prius. Nothing could save us from the Federales but he could sure as hell protect himself from what would turn out to be one of the craziest drivers I have ever seen. It was here where I noticed the heat.
 
As Ray went in to do his thing, I stepped out of the air-cooled Great Red Dolphin to have a smoke. As I opened the door, my contacts, already dry from sleeping with them in, dried up and about popped out of my eyes. Smoking felt redundant but I went ahead anyway.
 
“But it’s a dry heat,” Ray said as we got back into the car.
 
That must be code for something. I hope the beer was extra cold in Mexico because everything else felt like the surface of the sun so far.
 
We crossed the border with no incident and didn’t even get checked out. The female border patrol officer was talking on her cell phone as she looked in the bed of the truck in front of us. As we passed, the conversation must have turned particularly exciting and she just waved us on by.
 
“Going in isn’t the problem,” said Ray. “It’s leaving.”
 
It’s pretty clear you are not in the US anymore once you cross the border. Everything looks older, save for some new hotels. Buildings dating back to the ‘60s and earlier line the streets. The place is downright bustling. Everywhere, people are working, whether selling items on the street or working in the endless row of businesses as we made our way to the hotel.
 
We stopped at the Crown Plaza where Ray had booked a room he would eventually cancel. The media rate at the Araiza made it possible for us boxing folk to actually come to this event and it was not to be passed up. The staff at the Crown actually told us how to get to the Araiza, which was apparently blocks away from Rodeo, the club where the weigh-in was to be held.
 
12:38- I get a text from Lucy Haro, who was coordinating everything for the promotion. It’s safe to say that without Lucy, I would never have interviewed “Perro” from Mexico and would not be making this trip. She informed me that the weigh-in would begin at 1:00 sharp, so hurry up. Ray and I are hopelessly trying to follow the directions given to us by the Crown staff. We’ve hit the Araiza but are now trying to find the damn weigh-in. Finally, we decide to take a cab.
 
“They’ll know where it is,” I say.
 
1:10- and I am in the back of the world’s tiniest taxi, with Ray in front and an old-as-time cabby making our second go-round of the neighborhood. This guy makes Glen Johnson seem like an adolescent. He’s talking to some dispatcher on the damn CB and while I don’t speak Spanish, I understand enough to know that person has about as much of a clue about where the Rodeo is as I do.
 
1:20- We finally arrive at the club. There are all kinds of folks milling about outside but not fighters, so we figured we should go in and try and cover what we could. Leaving Father Time behind the wheel with the meter running, we sped into the Rodeo only to be hit dead in the face with what I can only describe as the smell of old puke. Ray and I looked at each other like, “Do you smell that?” We did.
 
Making our way through the smell and heat of a room filled with sweaty boxing fans, young and old, I didn’t even have time to process that I was now in Mexico chasing down a story. Like my first time in Vegas covering a fight, I arrived slightly late and completely confused as to what to do. Where was “Perro”? He had already weighed in at 154 pounds, so Ray missed both the weigh-in shot and the final staredown. We being the only American journalists in the room, save for Scott Hale of Halestormsports.com, felt obligated to get something.
 
I spied Angulo up on the balcony, looking weary, surrounded by a bunch of people including Victor, the young man who would hold Angulo’s belt as well as his signature dog collar around his neck while Angulo fights.
 
We made our way upstairs, saying hello to Robert Diaz from Golden Boy Promotions, who made the trip down to see his company’s newly acquired contender. I said “Hi” to Lucy, who was happy we finally made it. She took us over to Angulo, who sat before a partially-eaten pizza, looking like he wanted to do anything but pose for pictures or talk to me.
 
I’m not a pushy writer. If a subject looks like Angulo did, pale and tired from making weight, I’m not going to go all Jim Grey on him and ask questions. He shook my hand weakly and nodded an acknowledgement that felt like equal parts “Thanks for coming” and “Please, no questions.” Ray and I took quick photos and he turned and sat back down, overlooking the rest of the weigh-ins. This being the inaugural card for “Perro Promotions,” the “Perro” in question was obligated to stick around.
 
“We have that old man with the taxi waiting,” said Ray and we made our way outside, coordinating with Lucy and running from the puke smell, which surely had stuck to my sweat-soaked clothes by now.
 
After settling with the ferryman and getting our rooms straight, I caught up with Angulo’s strength and conditioning coach, Darryl Hudson, Scott Hale and Bebe, Darryl’s brother, with whom he shares the company “Speed and Power.” We all headed to dinner in the hotel restaurant and begin doing what boxing guys do, talk boxing. Bebe tells me about how he is working with Andre Dirrell, whose jab has become a dangerous weapon apparently.
 
“[Arthur] Abraham was his coming-out party,” said Bebe who began working with Dirrell for that fight. “When things are new, it takes time to get used to them.”
 
Bebe assured me Dirrell would return and when he did, he will be a problem for anyone. I’m still wondering how he will get around the whole MRI/brain damage thing.
 
After a fine dinner of a taco, an enchilada and a chile relleno, (yes, I went to Mexico and ordered the combo plate), all of which were superb, Lucy offered Scott, Ray and I the main course: an informal sit-down with legendary trainer Ignacio “Nacho” Beristain at nearby café Slow Down.
 
8:00- Ray, Scott, Don Nacho (or “Master” as Bernard Hopkins calls him), our translator Lucy and I are sitting in the private room at Slow Down. For two-and-a-half hours, Nacho sat back, smoked his Salvadoran cigar, drank his coffee and told us of his beginnings as a mini-mosca (junior flyweight) boxer back in the ‘50s, his early days learning from the likes of Raton Macias, the glory days of Jose “The Indian of Gold” Lopez, and his love for classical music. Nacho surprised us all by saying Bernard Hopkins “is his idol.” He cracked us all up by showing us just what he loves about Hopkins. Rising, Nacho said he loved how when the ref was over here, gesturing to his right, Hopkins is punching you on the thigh with his right. When the ref moves, Hopkins switches. Beristain’s face lit up as he said he loved how Hopkins could win with his elbow, his head and low blows in combination with the ref never catching on.
 
“‘I learned that in prison,’ Hopkins told me,” said Beristain with a smile.
 
It was cool to learn that his gym in Mexico City, Romanza, is named for his two favorite pupils and first world champions, Gilberto Roman and Daniel Zaragoza. He spoke of the differences in character and personality of the Marquez brothers and of his ultimate desire, to push his record 22 world champions to 25 (Multiple articles forthcoming).
 
It was a glorious night where no question was turned away and nothing was held back. Somewhere, Jose Sulaiman’s ears were burning.
 
When it was over, Scott and I dropped our stuff off at the hotel and went back out for some local color and beers. After a year of talking on Twitter, it was nice to finally meet the writer who was the first to interview Angulo following his return to Mexicali and subsequent 13-month layoff. The rest is reserved for my memoirs.
 
You can email Gabriel at maxgmontoya@gmail.com, follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/gabriel_montoya and catch him on each Monday’s episode of “The Next Round” with Steve Kim. You can also tune in to hear him and co-host David Duenez live on the BlogTalk radio show Leave-It-In-The-Ring.com, Thursdays at 5-8 PM PST. Gabriel is a full member of the Boxing Writers Association of America.


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