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.

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Sam Eifling
Contact: Sam Eifling