Shadow Box
Samantha Dunscombe

Shadow Box

At the weigh-in before the big fight, Daniel Santos fills out forms with his address and medical history and promises not to sue if he dies in the ring. Then he waits. The Tampa hotel conference room buzzes with people who consider themselves raging badasses. And here, Santos is practically furniture. He is 28 years old, trim, just shy of six feet tall, with curly dark hair under a sleek white cap. He hides his dark eyes behind light shades. For the first time in weeks, he is smartly shorn, sporting a soul patch that fades into a near-mustache. He sits -- yawns, bounces his legs, and wobbles his knees. He looks more like a boy-band frontman waiting for a bus than a champion pugilist.

"Daniel Santos -- does he have a nickname?" Damian Pinto, the public address announcer, asks Santos' manager, Ricardo Maldonado, who is leaning against a wall. "I want to know what to say when I announce his name."

"Danny," Maldonado replies. "Just Daniel."

Santos' opponent, Michael Lerma, goes by the memorable moniker of "The Body Snatcher."

As Santos waits in the front row, his cherubic mother, Iris Peña, in from Bayamon, Puerto Rico, sits in his lap. Wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with her son's likeness, she hugs him.

After a spell, the doctor summons Santos behind a black curtain, then shines a light in his eyes, ears, and mouth. Thumps him on the back. Feels his hands. Gives him a wink and the all-clear to get punched in the face 30 hours hence at the state fairgrounds.

Santos returns to his seat. Legs again bouncing. Again yawning.

His trainer, Alejandro "Pupi" Torre, a brick-jawed Cuban with a Springsteenian shock of black hair and lines in his face that fold into crevasses when he smiles, takes a seat next to the boxer. He puts a hand on the younger man's knee but says nothing. The two have been together for eight years and are as close as father and son. Although they do not speak of such things, they know how much rides on this fight. If Santos loses his World Boxing Organization (WBO) junior middleweight title tomorrow against 14th-ranked challenger Lerma -- a hard-hitting, 29-8-1 Texan -- it would be the Puerto Rican boxer's third loss against 27 wins and a draw. It would likely set his career back a year, maybe two, which could be fatal to his career.

Santos can reasonably expect to box only four, maybe five more years. His shot at better titles and bigger paydays demands perfection from here on out.

The time comes to measure flesh. The crowd collects at the velvet rope before the scale. Lerma steps on: 153 1/4 pounds. Santos strips to his Calvin Kleins (fighters are so often bare) and stands on the scale long enough to register 153 1/2 pounds, then steps off and takes a huge tug off a bottle of melon Gatorade, the first food or liquid he has had today. Then he and Lerma pose for the traditional stare-off. As the men stand nearly nose-to-nose, Santos gives Lerma a little wink with his left eye, out of view of the cameras flashing to Santos' right.

The wink is telling. Santos is smart, confident, and quietly aggressive. You would like him no matter where you met him. Unless you had to fight him.

As Santos puts on his pants, his mother rubs his bare shoulders. Children ask for autographs, and Santos signs. He stands for perhaps ten snapshots before managing to put on his shirt. Then he escapes onto the floor at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, skirts the electronic fireworks of the gaming machines, and heads to the food court, where he hunches over a pizza with wads of ham and burger and pepperoni piled an inch thick. Next, he goes to dinner in the hotel cafeteria, kisses his mother on the lips, and, shortly after 7 p.m., heads to bed.

Santos' current weight class, 154 pounds, has seen its share of stars, from Oscar de la Hoya to Felix Trinidad to "Sugar" Shane Mosley.

Boxing is a business so fractured and fraught with infighting that predictions are about as reliable as a promoter's promise, but a couple of impressive wins this year could propel Santos to the summit of the muddled morass. The WBO is generally considered the least impressive of boxing's four major sanctioning bodies, after the World Boxing Association (WBA), the World Boxing Council (WBC), and the International Boxing Federation (IBF). Still, it carries enough clout that Santos may be able to maneuver his way into bouts for the other belts.

A St. Petersburg boxer named Ronald "Winky" Wright, who at the time of Santos' April 17 fight held the other three, is the largely undisputed junior middleweight champ. Santos' fight against Lerma, in Wright's hometown, marked his first with the promotion side of 3-year-old Warrior's Gym of Hollywood, where he signed in January as the first reigning champion in the company's stable. Both boxer and promoter hoped the partnership would increase the other's profile.

Money obstructs a Santos-Wright or a Santos-Anyone Huge fight, and money grows on devotees. It's like the old Gladiator line: Win the crowd and you will win your freedom. Earn enough fans, get people talking, become a hero and the big dollars, the TV dollars, will follow. Santos is not popular enough to attract the millions of greenbacks required for a fight to be worth the risk to Wright. Realistically, Santos not only has to defeat Lerma but he has to be entertaining too. A boring win would be considered a loss.

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.

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.

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.

"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.

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.

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.

More water, more water! Santos says as his trainer empties a bottle over his dark curls.

The other guy doesn't have anything left, Pupi yells. He's not hurting you with his punches! You've got to beat him!

In the tenth, bouncing on the balls of his feet, Santos reaches in for strikes, uttering a little "huh" as he lands the blows. Now, with every punch Santos attempts, a "ha! huh! hah!" accompanies a series of uppercuts, launching in, slogging, swinging, as Lerma tries to keep his hands in place. Santos' energy only swells with each "Ha! Huh!" on successive jabs and "HUH! HAH! HAH!" on a furious combo to the body, the face, the body, the face, Lerma's face, squeezing tighter as the seconds slip away and Santos dive-bombs him HAH! with yet more HUH! sharp shots to HA HA HUH! the temple and HYAHH HYUHH HAAAA! the body the face the body the face the face HYAAHHHAAHH the body the face the body the body, and when the bell finally has its say, Santos leans back against the ropes, springs off playfully, and gives a short hug to Lerma, who actually manages a smile on the way to his corner. As Pupi gives him pointers after the round, Santos glances away at the ring card girl.

Lerma can make no more inroads in the final two rounds. When the bell sounds after a desperate 12th round, Santos hugs his opponent, who is again bleeding from the tomato that has grown in place of a left eye. Pupi and Francisco Santos embrace the challenger. Still in the ring, Santos hurriedly slides out of his trunks and his foul protector to put on his red-and-gold title belt for the official score announcement. He tells a television interviewer that he wants a shot at Winky Wright. Finally, he retreats past the smell of spilled beer and sweat to the locker room and then to the hotel, where he hustles through the lobby, stopping only for the well-meaning numskulls who approach to shake the champion's battered hands.

He heads to the elevator and back up to solitude. He won tonight, and impressively. A writer for called the bout "a barnburner for Santos," and his brother David later said it was the most beautiful fight he had seen. But Santos may not know how he truly did for days or weeks or months. For Daniel Santos, the waiting resumes.

A month after the fight, the furor's died down. The victory received scant notice in even the local Tampa Bay area papers and the boxing press, let alone the national media.

Santos is scheduled for a fight by July 17, which will likely be on Pay Per View. That would be a step in the right direction for the boxer, but he'll need more if he hopes for a shot at Winky Wright or a million-dollar payday.

For all that Santos has going for him, time is not.


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