Mexican boxing fans eager for fight but wish it had one of their own

Mexican boxing fans eager for fight but wish it had one of their own
Floyd Mayweather Jr., left, and Manny Pacquiaowill fight for the WBC welterweight title on Saturday. (Isaac Brekken / Associated Press)

The Azteca Boxing Club is wedged between a bail bond business and a sewing machine repair shop in the center of working-class Bell. And each weeknight the gym fills with dozens of neighborhood kids.

Many are sent by parents wary of the dangers of the surrounding streets. Others wander in on their own, drawn by the sound of jump ropes slapping the hard rubber floor or the staccato thwack, thwack, thwack of small hands pounding the heavy bags.


Once through the door, though, few kids turn around and leave. In Latino communities such as Bell, East Los Angeles, Cudahy and Huntington Park, the roots of many families reach deep into Mexico, where boxing is almost a religion, one that rivals soccer in both passion and popularity.

As a result, Saturday's super-fight between Filipino Manny Pacquiao and American Floyd Mayweather Jr. is being met with both excitement and disappointment in places such as Azteca.

Excitement because it's the most anticipated fight in more than a generation. Disappointment because neither fighter is Mexican.

"Es una lastima," trainer Mario "Yuca" Morales confessed after watching one of his fighters dance through a brisk shadow-boxing exercise in the gym's blue-canvas ring. "It's a pity but what are you going to do?"

The U.S. is the only country that has won more world titles than Mexico, according to the boxing encyclopedia Add in the championships won by Mexican Americans such as Oscar De La Hoya, Danny "Little Red" Lopez, Fernando Vargas and Victor Ortiz, and that number swells considerably.

But the closest a Mexican boxer will get to Saturday's spotlight is a televised undercard non-title bout between unbeaten super bantamweight champion Leo Santa Cruz of Michoacán and Tijuana's Jose Cayetano.

For Israel Vazquez, a former super bantamweight world champion from Mexico City who owns a boxing gym in South Gate, that's doubly sad because the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight is on the weekend before Cinco de Mayo.

"It's significant," Vazquez said in Spanish. "Especially considering it's an important date for many Mexicans. It's regrettable that's it like this. But everyone's expecting a great fight."

Danny Mota, who manages Azteca, the gym his father founded 35 years ago, agrees, saying Saturday's bout is good for boxing regardless of who's in the ring.

"Nationality is always a big plus. Especially if they're Mexican. But this fight, it doesn't really matter," said Mota, who plans to watch the fight on TV.

"You have two fighters who are the best in their era. This fight, it's just about who really is the best boxer in the world right now. To a true fan, this fight had to happen. It's just great for the sport, period."

The true fan also wants someone to cheer for, though. And for most Latinos, that someone is Pacquiao, whose quick-punching, straight-ahead approach mirrors that of Latin American icons such as Nicaraguan Alexis Arguello, Puerto Rico's Hector "Macho" Camacho and Mexico's Julio Cesar Chavez.

"I believe more Mexican fans are coming to my side," Pacquiao said. "We're really thankful. They always support boxing."

Mayweather's backpedaling, defensive style, conversely, is considered timid by Latin American standards.


However, that doesn't mean he won't win, which is why most boxing fans — like the oddsmakers — have Mayweather as a heavy favorite.

"There are more people here pulling for Pacquiao," said Edgard Rodriguez, sports editor of La Prensa, the leading newspaper in Nicaragua, birthplace to 11 boxing world champions. "But they're afraid Mayweather will win."

Morales, the Azteca trainer who worked with Venezuelan Edwin Valero, an undefeated world champion, and former two-time titlist Daniel Ponce de Leon of Mexico, has spent most of his life in boxing. For Morales, a mega-bout such as Saturday's is rare, which is why he's invited his boxers over to watch — and learn — from the fight.

"No Mexicans? No importa," he said. "The people that love boxing, that care about boxing, they've wanted this fight for a long time to call attention to the sport."

Unfortunately, he adds, it's also calling attention to what many consider a low point in Mexican boxing. Although the country has six current world champions, only one — junior lightweight Emanuel Lopez — is bigger than Santa Cruz, who fights at 122 pounds. The money and media attention grows as the fighters do, which is why Pacquiao, who started as a flyweight (112 pounds), is now boxing as a welterweight (147).

And lately Mexico's bigger fighters, such as light-middleweight contender Canelo Alvarez and former middleweight title-holder Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. have stumbled, with Alvarez dropping a one-sided decision to Mayweather and Chavez Jr. losing two of his last four fights as well as his crown.

"I think we're going through an interruption. The few champions we have aren't very active," said Vazquez, who hopes the hype around Saturday's fight will change that.

"What happened is one era has ended. But now another is coming," Morales added in Spanish. "The best fighters — Chavez, Canelo — they haven't been the revelation that we've been waiting for. But we're going to have some good fighters before long."

Read the Los Angeles Times' special edition Flipboard digital magazine Mayweather vs. Pacquiao.

Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11

Times staff writer Lance Pugmire contributed to this report.