By Thomas Hauser
Boxing’s historical record, like most forms of history, centers on the exploits of kings, not foot soldiers. But the sweet science is about more than great champions. Journeymen, faceless opponents, and young fighters with optimism are an integral part of the game.
On Saturday, May 5, 2007, Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather Jr met in the ring after the most extensive marketing campaign in the history of boxing. Five hours earlier, on the same square of illuminated canvas, two unknown fighters faced off against one another in an eight-round lightweight contest. This is the story of those preliminary-bout fighters.
Ernest Johnson is a 27-year-old African-American from Chula Vista, California. His father is a boxing trainer. His mother works for GMAC in foreclosures and loans.
Growing up, Johnson played sports year-round. He began boxing at age thirteen, compiled a 68-11 amateur record, and was good enough to be invited to the 2000 Olympic trials. But boxing was sandwiched in between track (400 meters was his specialty), football (he started in high school as a wide receiver), and baseball (pitcher and centerfield). Ernest also wrestled at 125 pounds, fashioned a 101-19 record, and was offered a wrestling scholarship to Cal State Fullerton. But he turned it down to pursue a career in boxing.
“I decided to take boxing seriously when I got out of high school,” Johnson says. “You can’t make a living wrestling.”
To make ends meet, Johnson manages a gym and works as a personal trainer for fifteen to twenty hours a week. “I want to go back to school someday,” he says. “Get into physical therapy and maybe open my own gym.”
Johnson’s best weapons as a fighter are his speed and his jab. Prior to his May 5th bout, his record stood at 16 wins against 2 losses with 7 knockouts. But only three of his victories had come against opponents with a winning ledger. And on the two occasions when he stepped up in class, he’d lost unanimous ten-round decisions.
“The first loss,” Ernest says, “I took the fight on six days notice and it was close. The second one, I overtrained because of the first loss. I had no snap on my punches and my shoulder was bothering me because of tendonitis and a slight muscle tear.”
After his second defeat (in November 2004), Johnson took 26 months off for physical therapy and to let his shoulder heal. This would be his second fight after the layoff.
Johnson had been in a big-fight atmosphere before. Six years earlier, he’d made his pro debut on the undercard of Floyd Mayweather Jr versus Diego Corrales. Not long after that, he ran into Mayweather at a supermarket in Las Vegas. “I introduced myself and he was nice,” Ernest remembers. “Just to be part of something like this is huge. You never know who might see you or put you on another card. This is a stepping stone that I hope will lead to something bigger.”
On the afternoon of May 5th, Johnson arrived at the MGM Grand Garden Arena at 1:45 PM. He and four other fighters had been assigned to dressing room #2. Ernest was wearing black sweatpants, a black T-shirt, black warm-up pants, and a black Everlast ski-cap. His father, Ernest Johnson Sr, was with him.
There were six rectangular tables in the room; one for Nevada State Athletic Commission officials and one for each fighters’ camp. John O’Donnell and John Murray (two Brits with undefeated records who were scheduled to fight in the second and third bouts) were already there. Johnson sat on a chair and adjusted the earpiece on his MP3 player; then scanned the display window to decide what to listen to next.
A commission inspector came into the room.
“Should we go ahead and wrap?” Ernest Johnson Sr asked.
Johnson began taping his son’s hands.
Eric Gomez (the matchmaker for Golden Boy) entered. “You’re the first fight,” he told the Johnsons. “Be ready to go at three o’clock.” Then Gomez turned to the inspector. “Walk him out at three o’clock sharp.”
At 2:15, the taping was done. Around the room, other fighters were being primed for battle. Johnson found a small square of unoccupied space and shadow-boxed for several minutes.
Referee Vic Drakulich came in and gave Ernest his pre-fight instructions.
The fighter began hitting warm-up pads with his father.
It was 2:55 PM. “Get your robe on, Johnson,” the inspector ordered.
At three o’clock sharp, Ernest left the dressing room and was escorted through a brightly-lit corridor to the arena floor. There was no ring-walk music. When he stepped into the ring, he looked across the enclosure and saw a young man named Hector Beltran.
Beltran was born in Mexico and came to the United States with his family at age two. His step-father is a truck-driver; his mother works for a catering service. A long ugly scar runs across his abdomen. “I was a miracle baby,” Hector says. “When I was two months old, the doctor told my mom there was only a small chance I’d live. My organs were all tangled up, so they did the surgery. I’m here, so I’d say it came out pretty good.”
Beltran began boxing at age twelve. “I was riding my bike past a gym,” he remembers. “The door was open, so I stopped and looked in. The coach asked if I wanted to come inside, but I rode away. The next week, the same thing happened, only this time I went in. It was something to do and it kept me out of trouble.”
A year later, Beltran had his first amateur fight. “I was nervous,” he recalls. “But a few days before, I had a puppy three months old that was stolen. Just before the bell rang, my coach told me, ‘See that guy across the ring. Pretend like he’s the guy that stole your puppy.’ That got me going.”
Beltran graduated from high school and now works as an inventory clerk in shipping and receiving for the Winn Meat Company in Dallas. His record as he stood across from Johnson was 10-and-1 with 9 knockouts, but the numbers were deceiving. The fighters he’d beaten were, for the most part, “professional losers.” In his only bout against an opponent with a winning record, Hector had lost a six-round split decision.
“The fight I lost,” Beltran says, “my son, Hector Jr, was born six days before it. And two days after he was born, I broke up with my girlfriend. My head wasn’t into boxing. I only sparred one day for that fight.”
The loss was followed by two knockout wins, but Beltran was inactive for seventeen months after that. Then, in late-April, he was offered the opportunity to fight on the undercard of De La Hoya versus Mayweather.
“This caught me off guard,” Hector acknowledged one day before the fight. “I took some time off from boxing to get my life in order, and I have responsibilities to my son. It’s hard to work nine-to-five, share custody of my boy, and be in the gym, all at the same time. I’ve only sparred for a week for this fight. But I’m a much better fighter than what I get credit for. I’m young [22 years old]. I have good power and mental toughness. This is a break-out opportunity for me.”
“By the way,” Beltran added. “My puppy that was stolen; it was a pitbull. I don’t want anyone thinking it was a poodle.”
The first time that Johnson and Beltran saw each other was on Friday afternoon at two o’clock when they reported for their pre-fight physicals in Studio 1 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. They sat side-by-side, filling out forms at a Nevada State Athletic Commission table and barely glanced at one another. Each man is likeable, soft-spoken, and polite, but they didn’t speak.
“It’s a little awkward,” Johnson said afterward. “You know you’re going to fight this guy tomorrow, so you kind of size him up. Anyone who says he doesn’t is lying.”
What did he think of Beltran?
“They say he’s a puncher, but I’ve never seen him fight or watched tapes. He’s taller than I thought. I was expecting a shorter fighter.”
After their physical examinations, each man weighed in at 137 pounds. The highlight of the day for Beltran was that he got to shake hands with De La Hoya when Oscar came in for his own physical. “Oscar is my hero,” Hector said. “I grew up watching him fight, and I admire the way he has control of his whole life. When we shook hands, he seemed real nice.”
On the afternoon of the fight, Beltran entered dressing room #4 at 1:20 PM. A “participant” credential hung from a chain around his neck. Trainer Dennis Rodarte and assistant trainer Pablo Cortez were with him.
The dressing room was empty. Hector sat on a straight-backed chair and text-messaged a friend. Then he lay down on the carpeted floor, put a rolled-up towel beneath his head, and stared at the ceiling. Several minutes later, he crossed his arms across his chest, turned his head to the side, and closed his eyes.
Each of the five fighters assigned to dressing room #4 was an underdog. The fights had been made for their opponents to win.
At two o’clock, Hector stood up, took a pair of worn red boxing shoes out of a red gym bag, and put them on. The room was beginning to fill up with other undercard fighters and their cornermen.
Rodarte taped Beltran’s hands. When he was done, Hector put on his red velvet trunks and gloved up.
At 2:35, Eric Gomez entered the room. “We walk at three,” he told Rodarte. “You’ve got 25 minutes.”
Beltran went into the adjacent shower room and began hitting warm-up pads with Cortez. After he fought, Hector would take a shower. Thereafter, the shower room floor would be wet and useless to the other fighters for warm-up purposes.
Rodarte put Vaseline on Beltran’s face.
Ring announcer Lupe Contreras came into the dressing room and asked Hector how he’d like to be introduced.
“Handsome Hector Beltran?”
“Out of Dallas?”
The doors to the arena had yet to open when Beltran and Johnson made their way to the ring. There were no paying spectators in the stands. The only people present were HBO technicians, ushers, Nevada State Athletic Commission personnel, and a few others with jobs to do.
Contreras took the microphone. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he intoned. “Welcome to the MGM Grand Garden Arena for one of the most anticipated nights in the history of boxing.”
Beltran was introduced first: “In the blue corner, fighting out of Dallas, Texas, Handsome Hector Beltran.”
Johnson’s introduction followed. At precisely 3:05 PM, the bell for round one rang. The doors were now open. There were fourteen paying customers in the stands.
Beltran came out firing power shots early in round one, while Johnson tried to establish his jab. Hector won the round on each judge’s scorecard. Then things fell into a pattern. At the start of each round, Beltran was an effective aggressor, but he would tire at which point Johnson fired back. Ernest should have forced Hector to work harder. By not pushing him, he allowed Beltran to rest when he needed to.
Each man’s corner shouted encouragement throughout the fight, but the crowd was silent because there was no crowd. Beltran was the harder puncher. Occasionally, he turned southpaw, looking for different angles. After round six, Rodarte put a big gob of Vaseline on Hector’s cheek, possibly hoping that Drakulich would order him to wipe it off, thereby giving his fighter an extra ten seconds of rest. But the referee let it go.
Round seven belonged to Johnson. Then Beltran dug deep and rallied to win the final stanza. The decision of the judges was a draw.
In his dressing room afterward, Johnson was disappointed. “His switching back and forth caught me off guard,” Ernest admitted. “I didn’t know he did that. And I was anticipating his getting tired, but he did and then he didn’t.”
In dressing room #4, Beltran was in a happier mood. “I know I should stay in the gym more,” he acknowledged. “But when you don’t get a fight for a while, you don’t train like you should. This was good. It’s something to build on.”
A commission inspector approached with pen and paper in hand.
“Hector, do you want to sign for your check?”
A smile crossed Beltran’s face.
“Yeah, I do want that.”
Across the room, Lorenzo Bethea, a junior-welterweight from Atlantic City, was readying for battle. Bethea had lost four of his previous six fights and, in a matter of minutes would enter the ring to match his skills against John Murray (who was undefeated in twenty bouts and being groomed for stardom). An hour later, Bethea would be in an ambulance on his way to the hospital with bleeding in his brain.
Meanwhile, upstairs, a mass of humanity had entered the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino. The passageway leading from the hotel registration desk to the casino floor was like a subway platform at rush hour in Times Square. Every gaming table was full. Bettors were lining up to walk into the sports book and move within view of the odds boards and giant television screens. The big fight was four hours away. The MGM Grand was the place to be.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org