By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
Had the Lerma fight been held in Puerto Rico, Santos wouldn't be able to leave his hotel room. But in Tampa, he emerges from his room totally placid by 5:30 p.m., then dawdles. No one notices him.
Shortly before 8 p.m., he walks to the valet area in front of the hotel. Women stare as the lithe boxer, in a sleeveless white T-shirt, squats and stretches and rocks against a bench outside. He is silent. Then he drives with his trainer and managers the five minutes to the fairgrounds, where 2,500 fans and the Body Snatcher await.
Below, Santos strides through the ring before the Lerma fight.
The expo building at the Florida State Fairgrounds is a high, open, no-frills supershed that usually holds boat shows and scrapbook meetings. Tonight, despite the half-capacity crowd, it's a raucous, roaring echo chamber after the lumbering heavyweight undercards mercifully finish whomping on each other, with an oaken Lance Whittaker TKOing the undersized Friday Ahunanya and Syd Vanderpool winning a slow dance with Tito Mendoza.
Around 11 p.m., the lights go down and the crowd wakes up. Thumping hip-hop blares and blue-lit smoke billows as Lerma stalks into the ring, wearing a black, hooded robe. Santos enters half a minute later to a shrieking operatic mix, his own black hood up. The announcer, Damian Pinto, revs his voice like a 1975 Chevelle at a stoplight and introduces Lerma, then Santos, as Santos' shirt rolls off to reveal heavily tattooed shoulders and back. Santos licks his bottom lip. At center ring, Lerma looks at Santos as Santos looks at the canvas. They touch gloves. Then, the bell.
Lerma wades in swinging. Santos, the quicker, dodges and guards. The men clench and separate, trade glancing shots, clench and separate. As Lerma backs out of one such hug, Santos pops him in the lip. Lerma counters with arms out like spears, pushing Santos into the ropes. Santos counters with speed. His feet never seem to hold his full weight, as if he's stutter-stepping around a frozen pond on a warm day. At the end of the round, his father dabs Santos' face and holds a towel beneath his chin while Pupi pours water over his head and spews instructions.
"When he finishes the combinations, he comes with the overhand," Pupi yells in Spanish, motioning a downward punch with one latex-covered fist. "That's all he's got." Santos nods to his trainer.
The second round is more of Santos' fists speed-testing Lerma's mug. The flesh under the Texan's left eye swells pink. A round later, it opens red, and Lerma's cornermen hustle the blood away from his eye to make way for a small bandage. A chant of "PUER-to RI-co" rises from the crowd, amid the constant overtures for Santos to attack: "Boricua, el cuerpo!" ("Puerto Rican boy, go for the body!") Their screams carry the lust of family pride, making the crowd sound far bigger than it looks.
The Puerto Rican is sharp, circling Lerma, swooping down with three and four and six quick blows and fleeing the counterattack. In one barrage, he pummels Lerma against the ropes but draws too close to the Texan and absorbs a jaunty uppercut to the middle of his face. He leans against his opponent and the ropes, suddenly blinking hard, and wipes his nostril with the thumb of one glove. The ref pulls them apart. Lerma works Santos against the far ropes and peppers his face with short bursts before the bell.
Santos appears to be cruising. Until he errs in the fifth. As he flits around Lerma and dabs him with jabs, the Texan, moving as deliberately as a barge, maneuvers in close. Santos swings hard with a right hook, but Lerma ducks and replies with a combo to Santos' cheeks. Santos backs up to regroup. Lerma pursues him to the corner and begins blasting. He knocks Santos' head back with a right to the forehead, and as quickly as Santos can remember to put his hands up, Lerma's bringing the left around, then the right.
Santos splays against the ropes and for a split second is completely exposed. Lerma tries to carve into him, and for ten seconds, Santos can defend himself only as a tetherball would. He ducks and oozes around Lerma's punches and the wet slap-pap of leather on sweat until he finally manages to throw an arm around the aggressor's neck and the ref pulls them apart. Santos' corner is screaming. Garcia, sitting in the first row, watches agog.
Santos takes one step back, glaring at Lerma. He thumps his pectorals with his gloves and says through his mouthpiece, "C'mon!" He pushes Lerma into the corner, where the ref separates them again. With 15 seconds remaining in the round, Santos puts his fists by his sides and repeats, "C'mon! C'mon!" Lerma, his guard up, freezes. Santos charges and misses two more punches before the bell.
Back in the corner, Pupi screams over the din of the howling fans: Don't get caught up in the ropes! Santos looks up from his stool, nodding, panting.
Santos returns to his jab. Despite his brief rally, Lerma, needing a kill shot to turn the fight around, will neither offer an opening nor abide Santos' sniping. But the Puerto Rican cannot stay content to win on points if he wants this fight to bring him larger fights. He strides in to meet Lerma, punishing the body, then the head. In the eighth round, Lerma tries to counter one such flurry with a right cross that Santos ducks entirely. The Texan appears drained.