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In This Version, It’s No Requiem for Bantamweight

The American fight promoter occupies a place in public esteem somewhere between a loan shark and a Communist spy. In Hollywood, he’s usually portrayed as a heartless conniver chomping a cigar and staging fixed fights in collaboration with various gang-types who look like a convention of Al Capones.

The last thing in the world he cares about is the fighter. He’s just a piece of meat to the promoter, a commodity. He is to the promoter what the elephant was to Barnum. A meal ticket. No more.

Richie Sandoval was a bantamweight prizefighter, one of the best. He had won 28 straight fights, 15 by knockout, when he won the world championship in April 1984, stopping the champion, Jeff Chandler, in the 15th round at Atlantic City.

But even for a champion, bantamweight fights are hard to come by, and Richie sat around for a year till his skills got rusty, his timing eroded.

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Bob Arum is a fight promoter who has had to make do with the lighter divisions--another promoter, Don King, has the heavier pugs in his contractual grasp--and Arum thought what was happening to the bantam champion was a disgrace.

Arum had a fight card in Las Vegas that was doing nicely, thank you. It had Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns against stern opposition, and Bob Arum didn’t need a bantamweight title fight on the undercard. He just needed a walk-on fight. Two palookas from Peoria would have sufficed, or even a dog act from the Keith-Orpheum circuit.

He couldn’t offer real money--$37,500 for the champion, $12,500 for the challenger. That’s the kind of money fighters used to fight for back in the days when bread was a nickel and coffee was real.

For that kind of money you ought to be able to fight your chauffeur. Or the guy who owes you the most money. For the champ, Sandoval, they got a guy out of Laredo named Gaby Canizales, the fiercest thing you will see out of a tree--or a cage.

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Hagler and Hearns were getting millions for their act, but the networks turned up their noses at the bantamweights, which infuriated promoter Arum. In a prefight conference, he blasted their lack of interest and announced that he was going to give the bantamweight champ a $25,000 bonus out of his own pocket.

“It might be the best fight of the night,” he predicted.

It wasn’t the best but it was almost the most historic. It certainly was the most tragic. Sandoval, bloated by inactivity, had to pare off 10 pounds in eight days and entered the ring dehydrated, weakened and exhausted.

He absorbed a fearful beating. Five times he was smashed to the canvas. He kept making terrible mistakes. Like getting up.

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In the seventh round, he couldn’t even do that. It looked as if he never would again. To all intents and purposes, he was dead in the ring. Only the swift action of the ringside doctor, Donald Romeo, who stuck a tube down Sandoval’s throat and kept him from swallowing his tongue, kept him alive.

Boxing needs another fatality like Johnstown needs another flood. The fight nobody wanted looked as if it was going to have the ending nobody needed.

Sandoval was rushed to the hospital, where he lay fighting for his life while the big-time, celebrity-packed events were taking place in the ring at Caesars Palace.

The fight is a blank page in Richie Sandoval’s memory.

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One who remembered, though, was promoter Arum. When Sandoval got out of the hospital, there was a letter waiting for him. It was from Arum.

“I am enclosing a check in the amount of $25,000, which is the bonus we have agreed to pay you regarding the Canizales fight,” it said. “Also, starting next week, you will be receiving a check every week in the amount of $500. This is compensation for work you will be doing for us in the public relations field. I have a feeling that you may very well have a tremendous aptitude for the boxing public relations field.”

The public relations field is not without its pitfalls, but brain death is not one of them. The once and past champion has come under the aegis of the genial and canny Irving Rudd, who has been hyping fights since the days when fighters were known as the Belting Brakeman or the Astoria Assassin, and heavyweight champions used to save damsels from drowning or orphans from burning buildings.

“In the ring, Richie needed a left hook, right cross and a jab and uppercut,” publicist Rudd explained sunnily. “Here he needs a stapler, a credit card, tape measure, subscription to 11 daily papers and a 200-watt bulb.”

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The bulb, Irving explained, is because hotel rooms are as dimly lit as Tijuana jails.

Sandoval is the camp’s liaison at Palm Springs between Roberto Duran, who is training to meet Hagler’s half-brother, Robbie Sims, at Caesars Palace on June 23, and the English-speaking media.

For Richie, it’s a whole new world. “It’s nice to do something you don’t have to make weight for or bleed on,” he admits.

Is it also nice to have a promoter care for him now that his fighting days are over?

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“Most promoters didn’t care for me when they weren’t over,” said Sandoval.

For Arum, it’s a betrayal of a trust, the destroying of a well-worn image, the venal grasping fight promoter, and a catastrophe for script writers. Who’s going to go see a movie where the promoter is the good guy?


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