Inside the ropes at Johnny Tocco's Ringside Gym, where boxing savant
One fighter throws punishing jabs at an imaginary foe, each as lethal as any predator's strike, as another pummels a leather bag with the wrath of a son defending his mother's honor.
But trainer John Roberts isn't impressed. He enters the cramped office of the ancient gym near the Stratosphere tower. "I need a fight," he says wearily.
In two weeks, Roberts and the rest of the boxing world will have a fight, all right.
On May 2, hometown hero Mayweather will face Filipino
Oddsmakers favor the American in a bout that will earn the fighters a combined $200 million for 12 rounds of nonstop fisticuffs at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
At Johnny Tocco's, a one-story building that reeks of man-sweat, violence and hard work, the athletes who live to punch have their chosen one: It's Mayweather, whose 47-0 record includes 26 knockouts.
Many bruisers here are ex-pros who know the awesome power of the well-timed blow. But they're fans too. On fight night, they'll join boxing America to watch the bout on pay-per-view.
When Luis Monda speaks of Mayweather, his reverence borders on religious.
"It's hard to hit the guy — harder to hurt the guy. Doing anything to him is difficult," said Monda, 36, the gym's general manager. "He's like a football team — tight defense, tight offense — but it's all in one man."
There are boxing ghosts in this three-room gym, which lies sandwiched between a tire shop and bail bondman's office. The great fighters who trained here, some immortalized with towering outdoor murals, include Sonny Liston,
Some worked with owner Johnny Tocco, a tough-guy trainer who took hundreds of fighters under his wing. In the 1950s, he turned an old mobster hangout known as the Zebra Lounge into his gym. He knew operators like Frank "Blinky" Palermo, an underworld figure who fixed fights, including the Jake LaMotta-Billy Fox contest in 1947, immortalized in Martin Scorsese's film "Raging Bull."
Tocco made his gym the center of the boxing world: He brought in Sonny Liston. The place keeps the monster truck tire Liston would pound with a sledgehammer to stay in shape. Bars cover the windows. On hot days, the place becomes a blast furnace.
"No fighter in his right mind would work out in an air-conditioned room," Tocco once said. "Air-conditioning is murder. That's how you catch colds. Fighters want to sweat."
Tocco died in 1997, but the joint still embodies his bravado. Fighters still chase the dream here, even if the big names have moved on to million-dollar training facilities.
Roberts has trained his punching proteges here for years. He likes its back-in-the-day vibe and posters of memorable fights featuring those ring surgeons delivering their pain. Boxers revel in their history like they do in delivering a knockout punch. Roberts likes that the gym is older than he is.
A decade ago, he painted a mural of three dozen boxers surrounding old man Tocco, who's giving a thumbs-up. Next to it, he painted another showing a snarling Ali, hovering over a downed and beaten Liston. A sign reads: "Home of the World Champions."
"This place is real," he says. "The masters of the '30s and '40s trained in gyms like this. Now it's all yuppies with their conditioning coaches. Those guys would eat the new boxers alive."
He likes the old-time gloves that hang in the office — made of horsehair that soon gave way, "so you were really hitting a person with your bare knuckles."
Monda says the gym savors its grime and dirt like trophies. It's rough-and-tumble: "Boxers like that they can still get their butt kicked just walking in here."
Like the kid from California who waltzed in a few years ago when Mayweather Sr. was coaching here. The guy suggested he could take the older boxer, and they went at it in an impromptu event posted on YouTube.
Monda wasn't impressed with the kid. "He was 140 pounds soaking wet with a brick in his pocket," he says. "Not a muscle on him."
When the challenger sucker-punched the veteran from behind, other boxers threw him to the floor in a lesson against dirty fighting.
At Johnny Tocco's, fighters throw punches in the ring. In Monda's office, they toss out opinions: mostly about boxing's alpha wolf — Floyd Jr.
Roberts arrives. He coaches Johnny "J Flash" Nichols, a Floyd Jr. sparring partner. Nichols returns with updates on the champ's condition. "Floyd's looking good," he'll say, a phrase that strikes fear.
Another trainer smiles. "Mayweather all night long," says Merqui "El Corombo" Sosa, 49, a retired Dominican fighter who can still smell a winner. He won 34 fights, 27 by knockouts. But he carries the legacy of violence, slurring his words like a barfly.
There's talk about what makes Floyd Jr. so good. Is it the ability to take a punch?
"Take a punch?" scoffs trainer Chris Harris. "He don't get hit. And that frustrates the other fighter. That's when Mayweather's right unexpectedly comes to get you."
Monda predicts Mayweather will win by a split decision: "There's going to be a second fight, maybe a trilogy."
Harris offers a brand of pugilist philosophy dispensed here for decades: "It's boxing. Anything can happen."