They didn’t know who Sugar Ray Leonard was. They had never heard of Roberto Duran or Thomas Hearns or Mike Tyson or Riddick Bowe or Evander Holyfield. But in the soft light of a cold winter morning in Beijing, they stood and waited for the one boxer they knew, the one boxer that everyone knows. And when the police escort blasted down the tiny street and stopped in front of them, the 2,000 schoolchildren erupted, waving white silk handkerchiefs and sending the words echoing through the city: “Ali, Ali, Ali.”
Within seconds, Muhammad Ali was among them, and the children swarmed to his side, their faces aglow, their hands outstretched. In the crowd were boxing promoter Harold Smith and former light-heavyweight champion Jose Torres.
“I’ve been around Ali for a lot of years and I know what moves him,” Smith said. “That day, that morning, he was moved. He was deeply touched. I remember looking over at Jose Torres and seeing tears running down his cheeks. It was a moment I’ll never forget.”
Two days later, on Feb. 27, nearly 17,000 Chinese packed the Capitol Gymnasium in downtown Beijing to see the first boxing show held in their country in 40 years. What they saw were a group of aging and long-ago faded fighters — Mike Weaver, David Bey, Bert Cooper and others. And they loved it. And every time Ali rose from his seat to wave to the crowd, the building shook.
Smith and Arum are going back.
Smith said he has reached agreement with Chinese officials to hold a second show in Bejing at the end of July, a show with real fighters, including Oscar De La Hoya, James Toney and Michael Carbajal. Smith said he will travel to Beijing in two weeks to complete arrangements.
Before China, Rochester: De La Hoya will fight another punching bag, Mike Grable, Tuesday night in Upstate New York. It will be the 1992 gold medalist’s sixth pro fight.
A real test, however, could be on the horizon. Talk has begun for a bout matching him against either Jorge Paez or puncher Freddie Pendleton, who are scheduled to meet in July. Despite the onrushing De La Hoya bandwagon, there are a few who don’t believe he is ready for the best.
“When he can walk through guys like the guys he’s fought, he’s overwhelming,” a veteran member of the California Athletic Commission said. “Maybe he could handle Paez, but I think a guy like Pendleton would hurt him or knock him out right now. He’s a one-dimensional fighter with only a left hand. Until he learns to hit with his right, the really good fighters, the world-class guys, would take him out.”
De La Hoya, however, has already struck gold. Again. He recently signed a management contract with New Yorkers Steve Nelson and Steve Mittleman. Up front, De La Hoya received half the cost of a four-bedroom home he wants to buy in Montebello, $500,000 in cash, a car, a van and a few other perks that bring the total to more than $1 million.
“I’m happy with life,” De La Hoya told the Associated Press.
At least his shoes didn’t match: Just when you think that all the color has been erased from boxing, Craig Payne shows up for a fight with the fingernail on his left pinky stunningly polished in shades of red and violet.
Payne, who defeated Mike Tyson and three-time Cuban Olympic gold medalist Teofilo Stevenson and then retired for six years after one pro fight, is on a George Foreman-type comeback at 30. The only difference is, he’s not very good anymore. He came back at 380 pounds 18 months ago but is down to 295.
Payne took a beating from Lionel Butler last week at the Country Club in Reseda, quitting after the seventh round when he complained of blurry vision, although doctors found no injury. Then, after admitting that he would have continued in the bout “if it was for a lot of money or meant anything,” he pulled off his gloves and revealed the delicately enameled fingernail.
“It’s just something he does,” said trainer Paul Soucy, who has known Payne for 15 years. “I never really asked him why.”
When a reporter asked him about it, Payne said: “I’ve been doing it for years. That’s all.”
No mas . . . dinero: Roberto Duran, who weighed 135 pounds in a previous life, has a new team of advisers. The panel’s first advice to their client, who is broke: Pull out of a $500,000 payday against Vinny Pazienza. Duran did so. The reason? His new friends told him he could make $7 million by fighting Julio Cesar Chavez.
Such a fight would be mocked — even in this sport — mercilessly. And technically speaking, it could never happen. Duran explodes to 180 and 190 pounds between fights and couldn’t come close to Chavez’s 145 pounds.
So, Duran, who earned nearly $4 million after taxes for only one fight — his second against Sugar Ray Leonard — continues on the skids.
“They spend money like you can’t believe,” a Duran associate told New York’s Newsday. “Like they only got three days left on Earth.”
Note: This article was originally published on April 3, 1993.