A world super-flyweight champion rises from “some godforsaken town in northern Mexico” and returns to it.
This was the first round. By the ninth, Mijares, who had absorbed hundreds of punches without revisiting the canvas, was trailing so badly on the scorecards that he needed a knockout to win. Instead, Darchinyan landed a straight left, flush on the chin. Mijares fell violently to the mat and remained supine, his eyes hopelessly glassy as the referee’s count reached ten. The woman at Opa’s raised her hands in a show of despair. Then the restaurant manager changed the channel and the room erupted in whistles and boos. Cristian Mijares, the pride of the Laguna and arguably the best boxer in Mexico an hour before, had been knocked out.
ROBERTO BOLAÑO once wrote a story with Mijares’s hometown as both setting and title. “Gómez Palacio” is not a happy tale. The protagonist, a poet exiled from Mexico City to teach a handful of hapless writing students, dismisses the place as “some godforsaken town in northern Mexico.” Much of the city indeed looks as though a stiff wind would blow it over.
Gómez Palacio is one of the principal municipalities of the Laguna (which is actually an agglomeration of four adjacent cities); so is Torreón, where I moved from Chicago in 2005, essentially to learn Spanish. It didn’t feel like exile to me, but there’s no denying the harshness of the environment. The weather is extreme: windstorms, floods, and, for ten months of the year, a desert heat so unyielding that local men call the Laguna La Ciudad de Huevos Congelados, the City of Frozen Balls, for the ice-cold beers they squeeze between their legs. The city’s principal landmark is an open-armed Jesus statue on a foothill overlooking Torreón. With charming disingenuousness, locals describe the statue as a reflection of the Laguneros’ hospitality and decency. No one mentions it’s a copy of Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer.
The Laguna sprang up around a railroad hub about a hundred years ago. In 1914, Pancho Villa and his División del Norte took Gómez Palacio and Torreón from the Federales during the Mexican Revolution. But the fame the city earned for Villa’s exploits quickly dissipated; by the ’80s, the Laguna had little more than its soccer team to distinguish it from dozens of other underdeveloped Mexican metropolises.
Then, a decade and a half ago, NAFTA was signed and the multinationals began arriving, in search of cheap labor and real estate. Today, John Deere, Caterpillar, and Delphi all have factories, and the Laguna has become the ninth-largest metropolitan area in Mexico. As you walk through town in the 110-degree heat, the dusty one-level houses that occupy older neighborhoods suddenly give way to the French wine shops, Brazilian steakhouses, Starbucks, and Crown Plazas found in all the world’s new-money boomtowns.
The drug trade has long been a presence in the Laguna, but even after NAFTA’s passage, this meant only periodic reports of crooked politicians and money-laundering front companies. “Don Carlos” Herrera, a former mayor of Gómez Palacio with links to famous kingpins from Juárez and Sinaloa, kept the peace; his Laguna was more a logistical center than a locus of violence. Then, in 2007, gunmen from the Zetas, a rival drug gang, pumped hundreds of bullets into a car carrying Herrera and his wife. They both survived, but the Zetas succeeded in chasing Don Carlos into his own exile, in Spain, perhaps, or maybe Cuba—no one seems to know for certain.
The Zetas were a more entrepreneurial bunch than Don Carlos; aside from smuggling cocaine and meth northward, they began extorting from local businesses and stealing cars. Turf wars erupted between local dealers; businessmen and police were executed for betrayal, or merely to send a message. Starting last summer, federal troops began attacking the Zetas in Torreón. They also went after the police suspected of protecting them, arresting three dozen officers last September. As in the rest of Mexico, the effects of the government offensive have been
“I debuted in 1980. Twenty years old,” he says.
“How long had you been fighting amateur?” I asked.
“Amateur, no, no, no, I didn’t do amateur.”
“How long did you train before your first fight?”
“About half a year.”
“How did that first fight go?”
“Good, in that first one I knocked him out in three rounds.”
“How much did they pay?”
A sound that captures all of the nostalgia, bemusement, and exasperation he’s feeling escapes his lips. “Aaaayy, I debuted in 1980, in Matamoros, Coahuila, in the Arena del PRI. I made thirty-five pesos.” Thirty-five pesos is less than three dollars. Champ sells his burritos for seven pesos, and in a busy hour he can sell thirty.
If Champ were making his debut today, he’d probably walk away with several hundred or even a couple thousand dollars. Mijares’s promoter wouldn’t tell me how much his charge was paid for the fight with Darchinyan, but I’d be surprised if it was less than three hundred thousand dollars.
PROFESSIONAL FIGHT NIGHTS in the Laguna are smoky,
beer-soaked affairs in run-down coliseums, dragging on past
THE TYPICAL MEXICAN FIGHTER starts his pro career in adolescence. Unlike a talented American prospect, he isn’t protected. He doesn’t build his record against cab drivers but against pros, and even if he’s good, he’ll lose once or twice. After he bounces around, fighting on small cards for five or ten years, maybe he’ll be discovered by a promoter who can secure him big bouts, televised if possible, first in Mexico, then in the United States. Then he not only needs to win, he needs to entertain.
When I visited Mijares at his gym in October, one month before he fought Darchinyan, he entertained even while training. Cumbia and norteña music blared while he worked out, and he stopped short every few minutes to dance a few steps. All around him, adolescents (both boys and girls) and men of varying ability threw their hands at the heavy bag, the speed bag, the double-end bag, the trainer’s hand pads, and one another. Children with oversize gloves kept leaping up to drill the speed bag, oblivious to the serious business going on around them.
Mijares is the scion of a boxing family. Two uncles are trainers and former fighters, and a pair of his cousins also box professionally. “You grow up in that atmosphere,” he said, and you want to fight, “because of my uncles, Vicente Mijares, Ricardo Mijares…. We always went to the gym to sweat when they were training. You are born with that restlessness. You get to a point where you want to be like them or be a world champion. I think all my cousins and I felt the same.”
Nacho Huizar, a veteran promoter who’d had his eyes on Mijares for years before signing him, finally turned him from a mere talent into a contender, sending him to Japan in 2006, where he won in a split-decision over world champ Katsushige Kawashima. But it wasn’t until he fought Jorge Arce in April 2007 that he crossed over into mainstream fame, becoming a recognizable face with a marketable name.
Arce, who bounces into the ring wearing a cowboy hat and sucking a lollipop, was Mexico’s best-known fighter at the time. Being a clownish aggressor is part of his shtick, and he’d predicted a knockout to the press repeatedly. Arce is a slugger; when the bell rang, he wasted no time charging forward with a flurry of punches. Mijares dodged or blocked them all and answered with two, three, four punches of his own, every round for twelve rounds. By late in the match, Arce’s face was pouring blood, and the decision in Mijares’s favor was unanimous. The next Monday, a coworker named Angélica, who’d never once mentioned boxing in my presence, asked me, “Did you see Mijares? What an ass-kicking he gave him!”
After that it wasn’t only sportswriters who wanted to interview him, but the social magazines as well. His circle expanded from boxing heavyweights to political ones. He began making appearances with the mayor of Gómez Palacio and received a gracious tribute from the governor of the state of Durango. He was even feted on the field before a Santos game.
ON NOVEMBER 1 IN CARSON, Mijares was making his ninth defense of the title he had held for just over two years. Vic Darchinyan, the IBF super-flyweight champion, had left one challenger in a coma and knocked out twenty-four fighters in thirty-two fights. I asked Mijares what worried him about the fight. “His strength, nothing else,” he said. “I think I’ve squared off with fighters who punch a lot harder than him. But that’s what they say about him, mostly, that he punches hard.”
Darchinyan, an Armenian fighting out of Australia, had held a press conference in Los Angeles about a month before the bout, and he did his best to get under Mijares’s skin. “They said that Mijares is pound for pound the best fighter out there,” he told the assembled media, “but after I get finished with him, we’ll see what number he is. I'm going to give a lesson to the little boy.”
As I discussed this with him, Mijares became emphatic: “He wants to intimidate by saying a thousand things, by talking too much. I’m not interested. In this boxing you speak with punches, not with the mouth.”
The punches did speak. “What can I say?” Mijares told a local paper after he was knocked out. “I never solved his style. He’s a difficult fighter, it was my time to lose. He’s a strong boxer and there are no excuses.” The Laguna was disappointed, but Mijares was no less beloved. His face remained as ubiquitous as the summer sun, and after a couple weeks his fans, like Mijares himself, simply moved on.
ON MARCH 14, Mijares will gain three pounds and a weight class, making his comeback against Venezuelan Nehomar Cermeño. Cermeño is undefeated, but after only sixteen fights against middling competition, he is as untested as he is unknown. The victor will walk away with a 118-pound championship belt. Should Mijares win, he’ll be the first two-division titleholder in the history of the Laguna. If he falls short, well, he won’t be the only Lagunero struggling through a difficult 2009.
Don Carlos’s criminal heirs have transformed the city into a scene from Traffic. On January 1, scores of federal troops rang in the New Year with a four-hour gunfight featuring automatic weapons and grenades in the streets of El Campestre de la Rosita, Torreón’s toniest neighborhood. After seizing the house where the suspected drug smugglers were hiding, authorities found a small arsenal of AK-47s and AR-15s, a shrine to a Grim Reaper–like figure known as the Santa Muerte, and, in the local paper’s formulation, “a room equipped with chains and articles for the infliction of torture.” A gang of bank robbers known as Las Fresas (the Snobs) have begun operating in the region, assaulting as many banks in January as were targeted in all 2008. In February, an average of two people were killed a day, including eleven in one violent night.
The American recession has hit export-based cities like the Laguna particularly hard. Empty stores abound in the malls. In posh neighborhoods, one house after another is adorned with a “For Rent” or “For Sale” sign. Factories are operating at half speed, and employees dependent on the auto industry are being cut in droves. The thousands of line operators and engineers
who produce head gaskets and drivetrains for Ford and Chevy were as anxious for an American bailout as their counterparts in Detroit. But back on the Boulevard de la Revolución, among the exhaust from the F-150s and Silverados, Champ says the seven-peso-burrito business has never been better.
Photos by Mario Aspland, except Champ (above) and TV by Patrick Corcoran.