By Thomas Hauser
You see them in every sport; the young athletes who dazzle their peers with performances and physical skills beyond their tender years.
At age 18, Wayne Gretzky led the National Hockey League in scoring and was designated the league's most valuable player. He repeated that dual achievement for eight consecutive seasons.
Magic Johnson led the Los Angeles Lakers to the NBA championship when he was three years out of high school. In the final playoff game against the Philadelphia 76ers, he started at center in place of the injured Kareen Abdul Jabbar, played all five positions, scored 42 points, and pulled down 15 rebounds.
Tiger Woods won three consecutive United States Amateur titles by the age of 20. Now, at age 26, he is acclaimed by many as the greatest golfer of all-time.
These young men had greatness stamped all over them. But so did many other "can't miss" athletes who ultimately failed. Until this past weekend, the latest "can't miss" phenom was Francisco "Panchito" Bojado, who was considered by many to be the most promising young prospect in boxing.
Bojado was born in Mexico on May 11, 1983. Two years later, his family moved to Commerce, California, 10 miles southeast of Los Angeles. As an amateur, Bojado compiled a 168-15 record with 85 knockouts. At age 17, he was a member of the 2000 Mexican Olympic team. Then he turned pro under the guidance of Shelly Finkel and Joe Hernandez. Said Finkel, "Within three years, he'll be a world champion."
There's something incongruous about a fighter the age of a high school senior in the ring with grown men. Boxing is different from other sports. It eats its young. Mike Tyson, Wilfred Benitez, and Edwin Rosario are examples of fighters who had extraordinary early careers but burned out early.
"What you have to understand," says Teddy Atlas, one of boxing's most astute observers, "is that boxing is different from other sports. In all sports, young stars learn the fundamentals and develop their bodies early. But boxing requires more. It demands that you give up a normal life, which is very hard for an adolescent to do. It's not like a 16-year-old playing baseball during the baseball season or basketball during the basketball season. In boxing, there are no seasons, and that's a hard commitment for anyone to sustain over time. To be there year after year, to do what you have to do; you need physical gifts, you need proper training, and most definitely, you need mental toughness and a certain kind of character. It's not about age. It has to do with maturity, mindset, and -- I'll say it again -- character."
Still, at age 20, Sugar Ray Robinson sported a ring record of 31 and 0 with 25 knockouts including victories over Sammy Angott and Fritzie Zivic. At the same age, Roberto Duran was 29 and 0 and a mere 10 days away from a title bout with Ken Buchanan. Ezzard Charles had 27 wins in the bank before he turned 21. And on his 20th birthday, Willie Pep decisioned Vince Dell'Orto to run his record to an astounding 51 and 0.
As for Bojado, the early signs were promising. His professional career began with nine knockouts in nine fights that lasted a total of 14 rounds. Onlookers praised his speed and power. Outside the ring, he was poised and polite. The fact that he's light skinned and bilingual added to his potential crossover appeal. More than one supporter heralded him as "the next Oscar De La Hoya."
Then, on February 17th, Bojado's journey to greatness was interrupted. In his 10th professional bout, he was dominated by journeyman Carlos Rubio and lost a unanimous 10-round decision. Now he must deal with the perception that fight number 10 tarnishes the first nine.
What went wrong for Bojado? Teddy Atlas thinks he knows the answer.
"To be a prodigy," says Atlas, "no matter how physically gifted you are, you need an environment that will bring out your talent. That means you need to surround yourself with people who won't coddle you. But too often, the way it works now is that young fighters are surrounded by people who do what's comfortable. It's about concessions and friendships and pretend friendships; anything that's necessary for the hangers-on to keep their business relationships in place so they can make money. What's really going on is, these guys are protecting themselves; not developing the fighter. It's a con. No one forces the fighter to deal with reality and develop the character and skills to do what has to be done. That's what happened with Bojado. Bojado has the physical tools to beat Rubio, but he hasn't been forced to develop what he needs to be great. He might have thought he was getting it, but he wasn't. He was never hardened for battle and, as a result, he wasn't prepared to deal with a game opponent who didn't submit. I honestly believe that, if Rubio was a puncher, he would have knocked Bojado out."
One might expect a wail of protest from the Bojado camp over Atlas's comments. Thus, it's refreshing to hear Shelly Finkel say, "To a degree, Teddy is right. We have a kid who, up until the Rubio fight, had been incredible, and we all got caught up in the thing about his being a superstar. Panchito got caught up in it. The rest of us got caught up in it. And what happened was, we all relaxed a little so, when Panchito got lazy, we didn't push him as hard as we should have."
Bojado concurs. "Before the fight," he acknowledges, "my weight went up almost to 170. That meant my whole training camp was concentrating on weight. I had to lose 25 pounds in four weeks; and because of that, during the fight, I got tired earlier than I expected. I also made mistakes in the fight. I thought Rubio wouldn't be able to take my punches, so I was aggressive when I should have boxed and fought smart."
"It bothers me," Bojado continues. "Nobody likes to lose, but I've lost before. I lost in the Olympics; I lost other amateur fights. The greatest fighters in boxing have had losses. So I have to look at it as a learning experience that will help me in the long run. I wish it hadn't happened; but if it had to happen, better now than when I'm going for a title. Hey; it was my fault, and I'm not blaming anyone else but me."
That's an honest approach; one that augers well for the future if Bojado means it.
Also, as Atlas notes, "Let's not forget; we're talking about an 18-year old kid. He still has the ability to be special; he's just not there yet."
In other words, Francisco Bojado still could evolve into a special vessel. Time will tell whether he does or not.
Comments are welcome. To contact the author of this article, please email thauserthauserrcn.com
Photo: Tom Casino/Showtime