Friday, July 4, 2008

Putting the Gloves On, Taking Them Back Off

Boxing may be a declining sport, but boxers have long been cultural icons in Argentina. It all started with heavyweight Luis Ángel Firpo, the "Wild Bull of the Pampas," who knocked Jack Dempsey out of the Madison Square Garden ring in 1923, as depicted by artist George Bellows at the time. The first reports of Firpo's punch triggered euphoria in the streets of Buenos Aires but, unfortunately for Firpo, Dempsey recovered to score a second-round KO. Firpo still became a legend and, with the help of his wealthy patron Félix Bunge, the working-class kid even managed to finagle a niche in Buenos Aires's elite Recoleta Cemetery.

Other Argentine boxers may have had greater success in the ring, but had worse luck - or self-imposed misfortune - outside it. High-living heavyweight Oscar Bonavena contended for the title against both Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, but died from a gunshot wound at Nevada's notorious Mustang Ranch brothel in 1976. Light heavyweight champion Víctor Galíndez retired from the sport after suffering two detached retinas; switching to stock-car racing, he died in 1980 when struck by another vehicle as he waited in the repair pit. Imprisoned for killing his second wife, former world middleweight champion Carlos Monzón executed his own death sentence in an automobile accident while on furlough in 1995.

Argentine boxing may be making a comeback, though, as the flamboyant U.S. promoter Don King visited Buenos Aires this week to watch Hugo Garay defeat the Ukrainian Yuri Barashian for the light heavyweight title. King, in a TV interview at the first link in this paragraph, spoke highly of Galíndez. As his own career advances, Garay may want to ponder the fate of his predecessors.

Last night's fight took place at Luna Park, a landmark covered stadium seating some 8,000 people. It also hosts an extensive calendar of concerts, basketball games and other events; international performers who have played here include Frank Sinatra, James Brown, Luciano Pavarotti and many others.

At Luna Park, more than 2,500 porteños paid 50 centavos admission each to listen to the Dempsey-Firpo fight - such broadcasts were a novelty in the 1920s. Later, in 1944, Eva Duarte maneuvered to meet Juan Perón at a political meeting here, and the rest is history. "Evita" may not have been a boxer, but she certainly became a fighter.

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