Shadow Box

Daniel Santos, of Bayamon, Puerto Rico, via Pembroke Pines, is on his way to the top. Maybe.

Part of Santos' difficulty is his position as a minor champion in boxing's alphabet soup. Time was, 50 years ago, that eight weight classes recognized one world champion apiece. The old National Boxing Association morphed into the WBA, then the WBC broke off in 1963, then 20 years later the IBF came along, and 16 years ago, the WBO. Weight divisions ballooned from eight to 17, so now junior welterweights and strawweights and junior middleweights all receive belts (as you well could, if you save enough proof-of-purchase labels). Even though we continue to careen through the cosmos as one lonely world, the number of so-called world champions, depending on how they're counted, can surpass 60. For Santos, who moves quickly but not ninjitsu fast and hits hard but not falling-anvil hard, the task is to prove that he isn't just another very good fighter.

"He's the next big thing at 154 pounds," says Santos' sparring partner, a Cuban émigré named Sergio Garcia. This is the general sentiment of Santos' friends, family, and well-wishers, because Santos has yet to get his shot at the brand-name fighters, and because for them, Santos' success is the only option.

Diplomacy has failed Daniel Santos and Michael Lerma.
Samantha Dunscombe
Diplomacy has failed Daniel Santos and Michael Lerma.
Sergio Garcia, age 21, sweats in a wet suit at Warrior's Gym in Hollywood, hoping to follow in the footsteps of his sparring partner, Daniel Santos.
Colby Katz
Sergio Garcia, age 21, sweats in a wet suit at Warrior's Gym in Hollywood, hoping to follow in the footsteps of his sparring partner, Daniel Santos.

Garcia can be forgiven for his gushing -- he's on his third tequila. "I haven't had a drink in seven months," Garcia says after Santos adjourns to his room. "But my training is over. And everyone deserves a vacation."

The lank brunet behind the hotel bar presents him with four shot glasses full of José Cuervo with jagged salt smattered around their rims. Garcia licks the salt chunks, pounds the liquor, and chases it with slices of lime. He's built like a bantam, this 21-year-old Cuban, with a broad upper body and slender legs. His short hair is the same black-brown as his eyes, one of which has an inch-long pink scar along the top of its lid. (Rule one in boxing: Protect yourself.)

He and his parents twice tried to raft from Cuba in the early '90s, and both times, boats scooped them up from the water and returned them to Fidel Castro's lap. The dictator deported them to Garcia's father's home country, Venezuela, from which the family managed to migrate to South Florida. For half a year, they slept in cars and buses. Garcia came to know Santos because Garcia sought the tutelage of Pupi, once a trainer and talent scout for the Cuban boxing team.

These days, Pupi trains only Garcia and Santos. To prepare for this fight, they analyzed tapes at the Pembroke Pines townhome where Pupi and Santos live. They saw that Lerma fought a little flatfooted and wasn't quick enough with his counterpunches.

In the ring at Warrior's Gym, when Santos and Garcia sparred in the weeks before the title fight, the younger boxer played Lerma, leading with his left. The bouts stayed friendly and included the diagnosis: You're getting hit with this punch. Let's work on that. In one session, they tangoed around the blue, spit-stained canvas as Pupi looked on and Tupac's greatest hits blared on the house stereo and the old-socks odor of stale sweat stuffed the room. They traded love pats on their headgear, taking breaks to discuss footwork. As the faux bout wound down, Garcia goaded Santos in Spanish: "I bet you can't hit me." Suddenly, Santos was Cuisinarting his fists around his protégé's face and torso, crying, "You think you can hit me? You think you can hit me?" until the electric bell signaled an end to practice. Afterward, Santos lingered to offer pointers on footwork and body blows to the young boxers training around him.

At home, Santos was no less intense, though quieter. One early afternoon, he and Pupi walked from their back patio, past the fat kids splashing in the pool, to the complex's racquetball court. There, Santos plugged in a small stereo and spun an MTV Ultra Trance 3 CD, which echoed in the claustrophobic foyer and off the hard walls of the racquetball court. Standing in just his shorts, Santos offered his trainer his arms, thighs, face, calves, and back. Pupi massaged them with Albolene, a greasy, makeup-removal cream that supposedly opens the pores and promotes unfettered, weight-shedding sweating.

Racquetball lasted an hour or so. Then he headed to the exercise room, cranked up the stereo, and hit the treadmill while watching skiing on ESPN. In this state, the boxer stared ahead and said nothing as the trance music pulsed. The sweat ran as hard as he did, down Santos' face, slinging off his shorts, spraying onto the wall behind him, onto the mirror beside him, trickling in rivulets on the treadmill itself. Santos had the look of having been Turtle Waxed. When Pupi was satisfied, Santos sprang off, emitted a long "AaaaahhhAAAGGGHHHH" and paced. Then he hit the pool.

"This feels really good for me," he said as the water spilled over him. He returned home, where he and Pupi ate strawberries and oranges (which Santos was consuming at the rate of 20 per day). On the carpet was a plastic bag full of the wadded gauze that wrapped the boxer's fists at yesterday's sparring. In the evening, Santos headed back out for two more hours of running. He fights at night, so he runs at night.

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