Miguel Espino is one boxer a mother could love

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Nobody would fault middleweight boxing champion Kelly Pavlik for being a bit overconfident going into his match Saturday night. He might think, after all, that he is fighting a mama’s boy.

Boxing: Bill Dwyre’s column in Tuesday’s Sports section said Saturday’s Kelly Pavlik-Miguel Espino fight would be an HBO pay-per-view event. It is a Top Rank Productions pay-per-view event. —

At least that could be one perception of his opponent, Miguel (Mike) Espino, the boxer from North Hollywood, who has been given the chance of a lifetime.

The fight, an HBO pay-per-view event, will be in Youngstown, Ohio, Pavlik’s home. The winner will carry off title belts for both the WBC and WBO, belts currently owned by Pavlik.

“If I win, I’ll sleep with the belts,” Espino says.

He knows his chances of that are slim. He knows he is an “opponent,” boxing-speak for somebody who has been set up to lose, who is there for a nice paycheck and for the enhancement of the record and public appeal of the bigger-name fighter in the other corner. Espino, 29, knows that nothing is impossible, but that beating the skilled and popular Pavlik in his hometown is about as close as it gets.

“I know what they did,” Espino says, pointing out that Pavlik needed an opponent quickly when an injury postponed his scheduled fight with Paul Williams and Williams decided to fight elsewhere. “They looked at the top 10 (Espino is No. 3 in the WBC rankings). Then they looked at my knockout rate, said I’m not a big puncher, and gave me a call.”

Espino is 20-2-1, with nine knockouts. If he is merely an “opponent,” then he can at least enter the ring knowing he hasn’t lost in four years and 11 fights. He got the call, once Pavlik’s hand injury had healed, because Williams had opted out and Pavlik needed a fight to keep his belts.

“I was in Mexico, working in the Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. camp for his fight on the [Miguel] Cotto-[Manny] Pacquiao undercard,” Espino says. “I was just sitting down to eat. Plate of tacos and a Coke. The phone rings. It’s [Top Rank promoter] Bob Arum. He asks if I want to fight Pavlik on Dec. 19. I say, of course.”

So, Espino signed on for his 15 minutes of fame, and the $100,000 purse he will be paid as the “opponent.”

But this time, boxing got a little more than a one-shot-and-see-ya fighter. This time, boxing fans got a new story, and a heartwarming one.

Espino lives with his mother, Ana Garcia, in a less-than-swank apartment complex in North Hollywood. He moved back in four years ago, after she split with her husband in a divorce. Espino did so, partly, because Ana is legally blind. Also partly as a show of support, both emotionally and financially. He had been out on his own and had some money earned from fights and an appearance as part of the TV boxing show “The Contender.”

Espino is young, single, obviously athletic and now just one great punch away from the kind of wealth and fame he could never imagine. He has had many girlfriends, including Marlene Nandrino, who will be in Youngstown with him.

“I tell them all,” Espino says, “with me, comes my mother. They need to know that up front.”

Ana Garcia is 49. Her first signs of retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disease of progressive vision loss that often includes tunnel vision, occurred at age 15. She has an older brother and a younger sister who also have the disease.

She walks with a cane, but appears to get around better than somebody with a limo. When rides are not available, she uses the train or the bus. She goes to L.A. City College three days a week, working toward a degree as a counselor in human services. She goes to the Braille Institute, where she has books read to her for her studies and tapes them. She goes twice a week to an occupational center in East L.A., and she volunteers at various area churches on Sundays, where she cooks for the parishioners.

“She’s out of the house more than I am,” Espino says, proudly.

Espino’s younger sister, Kathy, also came home to support her mother during the divorce process. Kathy was attending Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., a prestigious, private liberal arts school about as easy to get into as Harvard. Kathy now shares the other bedroom in the tiny apartment with her mother. She lost a year of school credits from Carleton when Cal State Northridge wouldn’t transfer them, and she continues at CSUN, working toward an eventual goal of a doctorate in psychology.

Ana says she is proud of her children and doesn’t mind that her son is in such a dangerous sport. “I like it that he is happy,” she says.

She also should like it that he is so well-grounded and sensible.

“I am hoping this fight leads to some more, and I can increase our income,” Espino says. “We come from modest circumstances. All I really want is a little house or a cool little condo, maybe a nice Camry. Then get out of this career with my speech OK and my brain intact.”

Espino’s mother has seen him fight only once, back in his days as a top amateur. She will not travel to Youngstown and won’t have the fight on TV. She wouldn’t be able to tell her son from Pavlik. Or, for that matter, from the referee.

When it is over, no matter the outcome, and when he is back in the locker room with longtime friend and trainer John Bray, Espino will make a phone call. He will let his mother know he is all right. They may not even talk about whether or not he won.

“It’ll be about two minutes,” he says. “That’s all she needs.”

With a son like Espino, it is, indeed.