By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
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It might help him outlast Lerma. Then again, maybe not.
Around midnight on the Friday before the fight, Francisco Santos, Daniel's dad, finds his son awake, and they and Garcia strike up a game of dominoes. When the boxer gets hungry, he splits a watermelon with a piece of plastic and scoops out the flesh. When he gets thirsty, he pours a Coke directly into a small ice bucket. "I like my Coke really, really cold," he explains.
Below, Santos strides through the ring before the Lerma fight.
"Crazy motherfucker," his father says, shaking his head. Bedtime turns out to be about 3 a.m.
Santos is awake by noon. He throws on an Independent Truck Co. shirt and hat, drops by Garcia's room looking for company, takes a quick drink from the sink, and heads downstairs for a breakfast he caps with an ice cream cone. He returns to the lobby. A woman in the hotel spa recognizes him. "I hope you win your fight tonight," she tells him. He drifts back out near the hotel entrance, where his father meets him and gives him a kiss. The elder Santos is wearing a sleeveless mesh shirt that allows full view of his torso, including an elaborate, jagged tattoo that stretches between his shoulder blades. They walk outside, where Daniel Santos chats on his cell phone. When they reenter the lobby, a large, redheaded man with a tan line in the shape of his sunglasses asks him for an autograph. The boxer retreats upstairs shortly after 1 p.m., ostensibly for more napping.
Daniel Santos' rituals are 15 years in the making. He grew up in Bayamon, a small city of about 200,000 residents on the north side of Puerto Rico and the hometown of world champion Hector "Macho" Camacho. He's the baby of five kids, including three older brothers who were boxing champions in Puerto Rico. The older boys, Javier, now 37, and Edgar, 33, took up the sport after learning their father had been a successful amateur. The father brought the two younger boys, David, now 31, and Daniel, to watch their brothers spar until they were young teenagers and deemed old enough to join. Daniel was a calm child, his father remembers, but scrappy as hell -- a baseball player, a basketball player. Francisco Santos drove an 18-wheeler for a living -- "only ten or 12 hours a day," he says now -- but mornings before the kids went to school, while it was still dark outside, the father would take his sons to the hilly countryside and drive behind them for an hour as they ran. Then the boys would go to school, return home in the afternoon, and hit the gym. There, little Daniel would routinely get pounded by his big brothers.
"It was rough on him," the father recalls. "They used to play hard on him. They tried to change his mind about being a boxer, but they never did."
Edgar, David, and Javier were all Puerto Rican champions at multiple weight classes; Edgar and David both won medals in different Pan American Games. But Daniel surpassed them. He dropped out of American University (with promises to return one day to his studies) to concentrate on boxing before the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, where he won a bronze as a 148-pound welterweight. The Puerto Rican team had brought in Pupi to train its fighters; he saw potential in Daniel and stayed on the island to train him. Santos' professional career began that following September.
He didn't lose for nearly three years, until Kofi Jantuah TKO'd him in the fifth round in Las Vegas. That was the learning-experience fight, his brother David recalls. Chastened, Santos persevered.
Later that year, he got his first title shot, against Ahmed Kotiev, a Russian who had fought his previous 25 bouts in Germany with no losses. By his father's description, that fight was a nightmare. The entourage flew across the ocean about a week before the fight only to be told that the fight was off. They returned to Puerto Rico and slouched. Within a couple of days, the call came that the fight was back on. They flew 17 hours, took a three-hour bus ride, and arrived the evening of the weigh-in with Santos one pound overweight. He had to jog for an hour. He made weight. Then he lost a controversial split decision in 12 rounds the next night that his father refuses to acknowledge as a loss.
Daniel Santos was back in Germany for a rematch six months later. "In the fifth round, he knocked the guy down with his left hand," Francisco Santos recalls. "Danny comes over and says, 'You son of a bitch, I came all the way from Puerto Rico for this shit? Get the fuck up! I want to keep fighting!' He was mad, boy."
It was a telling moment. Out of the ring, Santos seems quiet. Reserved, even. In it, he can be vicious. The ring seems where he's most comfortable, punching his catharsis.
With the win over Kotiev, Santos took his first title belt. In four years, he defended it six times, fighting in Italy, England, Wales, twice in Puerto Rico, and once in Las Vegas. His last fight, a June ago, was a unanimous decision over Fulgencio Zuniga in his native Bayamon that touched off a townwide celebration. As he and his friends wandered the city to celebrate that night, bartenders and restaurateurs greeted them at every turn with champagne. His mother cooked a veritable feast for the victory, and his father dug up from the yard a bottle of something stronger than champagne. The champion turned in shortly after midnight. He rose around 6 a.m. to be in church by 7, with his family, to thank God.