—fiction by Alan Swyer

For the first time in all his years as a trainer, Hugs Hartman was hoping a decision would go against one of his fighters. Waiting was an inescapable and often painful part of boxing.  Whenever a bout went the distance, especially if it was close -- and, sadly, sometimes even when it wasn't -- there was excruciating suspense until the winner -- hopefully the correct one -- was announced.

But this time the verdict was not to be rendered by three judges seated at ringside, nor would the decision be announced by Michael Buffer or Jimmy Lennon Jr. intoning, “Ladies and Gentlemen -- Senores y Senoras...” Indeed, it wouldn't even involve any action that took place in the ring.

It was a medical examiner who was keeping everyone on hold, since his assessment would determine whether Hugs' fighter Eddie Garcia would be licensed for a fourth fray against Antonio Vargas.

Scar tissue around “East LA” Eddie's left eye was likely to be the physician's primary focus, given that everyone in the boxing world was aware that further damage could spell significant loss of sight. But it was other problems that troubled Hugs, indicators that to him were infinitely more disturbing. Though perhaps not immediately noticeable to the doctor, whose focus, understandably, was the forthcoming fight, for some time Hugs had observed alarming signs in his fighter: moments of forgetfulness, slurred words, a blank expression in the middle of a thought, and every so often a tremor or a twitch.

To Hugs those were precursors of what once-upon-a-time resulted in ex-pugs being labeled punch drunk or stumble-bums. Though those terms had largely faded, what made it tough for Hugs to go to gatherings of retired fighters was the certainty of seeing too many guys afflicted with maladies ranging from Parkinson's to what's now known as pugilistic dementia.

Hugs understood all too well Eddie's hope for one more serious payday. The book on fighters --They fight their way out of the street, then party their way back to where they began -- was all too true in Eddie's case.  Because of what had become celebrated as the Garcia-Vargas Trilogy -- three bloodstained battles that would have been the stuff of legend during the days of Sugar Ray Robinson oreven Sugar Ray Leonard -- the bout being promoted as G/V4 would give Eddie a stake that, managed even adequately, could keep him from ever winding up broke or homeless.

That was a kind of dilemma that Hugs, when he was boxing, never had to face, his longstanding joke being that he knew his days in the ring were over when they paid him not to fight. The consequence was that despite a cauliflower ear, a badly deviated septum, and arthritic knees thanks to which he could predict rain, Hugs still had his wits about him -- if, that is, it can be said that anyone who chooses to fight for a living has any wits at all.

It was because he was often picked on as a scrawny kid that his uncle George, who had fought as a welterweight in the Army, gave him his first lessons. That led Hugs to the Police Athletic League, where instead of simply being a means of self-defense, boxing immediately became an obsession. Soon, the combination of daily workouts, tutelage, and above all camaraderie transformed a kid who was tired of being victimized into a rising star with spark, spunk, and swagger: a somebody. 

Moving up into the ranks of Golden Gloves, where he made a rapid leap from trophies to
amateur titles, the young slugger acquired the nickname “Two-Fisted” Tommy Hartman.  But that moniker disappeared rapidly when, at eighteen, he made his pro debut. 
Learning instantly that most of his new opponents were not merely older and more experienced, but also quicker, faster, and stronger, the young fighter realized that to get anywhere, he would have to rely on what trainers and boxing writers call smarts.

And advance he did, by creating a style that frustrated boxers who, on paper at least, should have been able to whip his ass in record time. Rather than fighting their fight, he found ways to force them to fight his. Instead of going toe-to-toe against a brawler, or trying to out-box a guy known as a stylist, he figured out how to control the tone, the tempo, and even the pace within the ring. Playing peek-a-boo, he would dodge, weave, and backpedal for large chunks of each round, occasionally counter-punching when his opponent tried to attack, then suddenly exploding with an unexpected left-right-left combination. Then, having used the element of surprise to inflict some harm, he would exasperate his foe even more by tying him up in clinch after clinch.

Though later boxing fans, especially those too young to have seen him in his fighting days, assumed that his nickname was cute -- a pleasant anomaly in an otherwise violent world -- the truth was that the moniker “Hugs,” initially at least, was anything but. Stemming from his constant clinches,it was, if not a total knock, at most begrudgingly respectful.

In the best of times, Hugs' style would have prevented him from being a fan favorite. But just his luck, his peak came during a period when there were no charismatic heavyweights, which meant that more attention than usual was being paid to the lighter weight classes. And that, coupled with the fact that stars like Tommy Hearns, Marvin Hagler, amd “Boom Boom” Mancini were no longer on the scene, meant that boxing, both in the ring and in the stands, was becoming not just a sport with Latinos, but a Latino sport.

Consequently, chauvinism played a greater role than ever both in ticket sales and, in the case of what were perceived as marquee match-ups, in the new world of pay-per-views.  The definition of a dream match was no longer Ali-Foreman or Mike Tyson vs. Lennox Lewis, but rather a Mexican against a Puerto Rican. Or in second position, a Mexican national versus a Mexican-American. Or, with the rise of Manny Pacquiao, a Mexican against a Filipino whose fights resulted in national holidays.

In sheer monetary terms, there was little to be gained for a champion or top contender to risk a bout against a guy like “Hugs” Hartman who, aside from having no discernible fan base of his own, could make even the best of fighters look ugly over the course of ten- or twelve-rounds. The sad truth was that despite having held a share of a title for a while, Hugs never stood a chance of seeing either the bucks or the glory from what's known as a must-see unification bout. Or of ever benefiting from the acclaim, riches, and respect reaped by the likes of Oscar de la Hoya, Julio Cesar Chavez, or Tito Trinidad.

Above and beyond the money to be earned if G/V4 went forward, Hugs knew there was another reason “East LA Eddie” didn't want to hang up his gloves any sooner than he had to.  Like most fighters, boxing wasn't simply part of Eddie's life. It was his life.

Far more than other sports, boxing was, is, and always will be first and foremost a discipline -- one that consists of early morning roadwork, daily sessions in the gym, attention to nutrition and weight, plus a constant awareness that carelessness or complacency can be damaging or even lethal.

That's why boxing will always remain the domain of those who are poor and hungry--men, and now women, too, who are literally trying to fight their way out of poverty.

Since a gym in a crime infested area is a refuge from the streets, offering status as well as a dream, it often becomes a magnet for tough kids who don't know the meaning of words like dinner. It becomes a surrogate home where they log as much amateur experience as possible so as to be invited toturn pro, which then becomes a way to put food on the table. Almost always, that means little chance for formal education, and even less of an opportunity toobtain any real knowledge of the outside world.

Not surprisingly, once their careers are over, far too many find themselves adrift -- lost souls without a pension, medical coverage, or even the entourage who surrounded them during their glory days.

Hugs had been through it himself. Never having had the time or energy for reading, chess, or anything resembling a hobby -- and lacking either the means or the exposure to cultivate indulgences  such as golf or fine wines -- he found himself, once his fighting days were over, with empty hours that seemed endless.

Sitting in his living room -- watching TV, listening to old Ray Charles records, or simply staring at the walls -- was lonely beyond his wildest imagination. But being out in public was worse.  After many tastes of the spotlight, it was tough for him to be amidst a crowd feeling invisible. Yet being spotted was often more painful.

“Didn't you used to be somebody?” he was asked on too many occasions by people who were certain that they recognized his face, but couldn't quite manage to place him.
Growing more and more uncomfortable among those he called civilians, Hugs started popping into different gyms around town: Freddie Roach's spot in Hollywood, the Azteca in Bell, the Eddie Heredia Gym in East L.A., and others. Occasionally it was just to say hello, other times to catch up on news and gossip, or simply to be acknowledged. But every so often an appearance led to helping out, wrapping a young fighter's hands or donning the pads to assist with an up-and-comer's workout.

Having been away for a while, the visits made Hugs realize that despite the ever-present
violence generated by sparring and work on the bags, gyms were the friendliest places he knew. Only within their confines did everyone -- those who were old friends as well as those who had been foes; those he knew and those he didn't know at all -- shake his hand both when he arrived and when he, or they, took off.

Gyms provided Hugs' only real sanctuary, a place where he felt welcome and a part of something that for him felt like life.

So when he was asked to train some kids, Hugs jumped at the opportunity. In the process he discovered that being a trainer, even more than being a boxer, was his true calling. He loved working with fighters: motivating, teaching, giving tips on nutrition, even doing road work with them. And in contrast to most of the other guys, who had a style they taught or advocated, what Hugs termed dismissively one-size-fits-all, he enjoyed creating individual approaches -- designed to maximize different boxers' strengths, while minimizing their flaws, weaknesses, or shortcomings.

Yet what really separated Hugs from most other trainers was his gift for strategy. Just as he had out-smarted other fighters, he found he could do the same against their corner men, coming up with game plans that gave his boxers, even when seemingly over-matched, the kind of edge that could yield victory.

Once the word started to spread, guys started coming his way, allowing him to pick and choose based more on commitment than on earning power or raw talent. Rarely did Hugs get the can't miss phenoms, the blue-chippers who had the hype from an Olympic gold medal or from having a family member who was boxing royalty. But that was fine, since that kind often had burdensome baggage: managers and/or promoters who thought they knew everything and insisted on getting their way. 

Where Hugs excelled was with the over-achievers, the guys willing to give their all and then some in pursuit of a dream. And when one of them beat a media-darling who had been anointed, that made victory even sweeter.

Eddie Garcia was not his first fighter, nor was he his most gifted. But he was the quintessential Hugs Hartman guy, one whose combination of heart, guts, and willingness to listen brought out the bestin both of them. Plus, like Hugs before him, Eddie had what's known in boxing circles as a good chin -- an ability to withstand not just the physical damage from a punch, but also the emotional and psychological.

From a fourteen-year-old whose primary traits were toughness and what Hugs called attitude, Eddie had blossomed during their years together, never losing the chip on his shoulder, but learning patience and more than his share of the tricks of the trade. In the process, he became the closest thing to a son that Hugs, whose two failed marriages had yielded a daughter who lived in Oregon and called only occasionally, plus another who was stationed in Okinawa and communicated even less, had ever known.

Eddie was never submissive or subservient. “You're killing me, Jefe,” he would often squawk during workouts, threatening to run away and join the circus, then staying for extra time jumping rope and shadow boxing. Plus, as money started coming in, there were periods of too many chicas, too much Tequila, and too much menudo, followed by contrition, then re-dedication.

The medical examiner's decision, when it finally was announced, was exactly what Hugs
feared: Eddie was cleared to fight.

That meant that the task ahead was to come up with a game plan that would create an
opportunity to win, while at the same time shielding the scar tissue around Eddie's eye -- not to mention protecting him, without his realizing it, from blows to the head that could exacerbate the problems that Hugs feared most.

There were, Hugs knew from years of experience, alternate avenues that could be taken. One would be for Eddie to emulate Hugs' own fighting style: playing peek-a-boo, getting in a few shots, then clinching, clinching, and clinching some more.  But in reality, Hugs understood that there was no greater likelihood of getting “East LA” Eddie, who was steeped in barrio machismo, to accept such an approach than there was of getting him to don a tutu and perform Swan Lake.

Another approach would be for Eddie to wage a hard but clever fight for three or four rounds, then for the two of them -- trainer and fighter -- to take stock of the situation. If things were going Eddie's way -- if it looked like he could knock Vargas out, or if, thanks to a knockdown or two, he was sufficiently ahead on points to coast through the ensuing rounds -- he could shoot for a win. But if it turned out that Eddie was losing, he could end the fight prematurely with virtually no one being the wiser.

What few people outside of boxing realize is that it's the one and only sport where there's no such thing as a winner's share. Whereas the victor gets the lion's share of the payoff in baseball, basketball, football, tennis, and golf at the championship level, in boxing the fees are pre-negotiated. So when Roberto Duran shocked the world by saying “No mas” against Sugar Ray Leonard, his payday was already in the bank.

That meant that if Eddie were to lower his guard momentarily just enough to give Vargas one shot at the scar tissue around his eye, he could, without anyone being the wiser, be almost certain of a cut sufficient to force a stoppage of the fight. The result would be what's known as a technical knockout, or among boxing people, a TKO.

Though that notion was fine in theory, Hugs knew that it was likely to be undermined by a
simple but undeniable fact. For Eddie Garcia, the rivalry with Antonio Vargas had become personal. In contrast to his battles against other Latino opponents -- Sergio Corona from Oxnard, for example, or Julio Cruz from Puerto Rico, or Freddie Gonzalez from Texas -- the fact that Antonio Vargas hailed from a boxing-mad state in Mexico called Jalisco made all the difference.

Having always been a local favorite, Eddie Garcia showed up for the first of their bouts, at LA's Staples Center, assuming that the fans would be both abundant and vocal. That proved to be right on both counts, but in a way that he hadn't expected. Though the crowd was numerous and noisy, they all, with the exception of a few of Eddie's family members and close friends, seemed to be routing for his opponent:  the Mexican from south of the border.
Even neighbors from his block in East LA took part in the resounding cries of Me-xi-co! And when Eddie looked around in dismay, he was denounced by strangers and homies alike, many of whom yelled, Pocho!

There was nothing Hugs could do or say to diminish Eddie's pain and shame at being called a bootleg Mexican -- a poached egg rather than a real Mexican huevo -- so he used the slur to motivate his fighter. “Gonna let him be the guerrero?” Hugs screamed after the third round when Eddie was rattled by a shot to the liver. “Gonna let that scumbag be the real Mexican?” he hollered after the seventh, when Eddie was shell-shocked by a Vargas overhand right.

Those questions, coupled with a game plan that largely neutralized Vargas' stalking style,
resulted in a TKO in the ninth when Eddie knocked his groggy opponent down for the third time.

The boos and hisses that filled the arena when Eddie's hand was held up in victory set the tone for the rematch eight months later, which Vargas won thanks to a controversial decision. Then they grew ever louder, a year after that, for Part Three of the trilogy, which ended with Eddie knocking out his arch-rival.

What Eddie Garcia, wanted, Hugs knew too well, was not just the money that was within his reach. He wanted desperately for the bout to be the most decisive win of his entire career.

Other than women, with whom his Won-Loss record was far worse than his career as either a pugilist or a trainer, Hugs' toughest opponent, throughout his life, was sleep. Though he had no problem taking a cat nap on an afternoon when he tried reading something more taxing than Ring Magazine, nighttime meant tossing and turning, then dealing with what he called the hamsters that run nonstop inside my head.

Under the best of circumstances, bed time for him was more like dread time. And the upcoming G/V4 was hardly the best of circumstances. To lull himself to sleep he would lie in bed imagining how he would prepare one of his fighters from the past against different champs of yesteryear:  Thomas Hearns, for instance, or Ruben Olivares, or Mando Ramos.  But even when that tactic worked, by 3 AM he was usually wide awake once again, in a cold sweat, thinking about the walking wounded of the fight game. It wasn't just Muhammed Ali and Bobby Chacon who came to mind, charismatic champs who'd been damaged by careers that went on longer than they should have, but also countless contenders and journeymen who wouldn't or couldn't give it up when the time came.

With most of those situations, however sad, he had little or no direct involvement. With Eddie Garcia, in contrast, that was hardly the case.

Yet trying to reason with the pride of East LA -- whether by pleading not to go forward with the fight, or urging him to wage a defensive battle, or worse of all, suggesting that he simply go through the motions -- was far from the answer.

Eddie Garcia, he knew too well, would cut him off abruptly. And if pushed too hard, Eddie might even decide to go to war without a trainer, which would mean no one in his corner to protect him.

It was a no-win situation that was worsened by the fact that Hugs himself could sorely use the cash he would get as his share of Eddie's payday. Even though, with the exception of a visit to a Korean massage parlor when one his fighters was victorious, he led an almost monastic life, his financial situation was far from cozy. Worse, he knew that more and more boxing was becoming a younger man's game, especially for someone like him who did zero self-promotion and had less than stellar command of Spanish. So unless he could somehow make the transition from trainer to cut man in the years ahead, his ability to continue working corners would likely come to an end sooner rather than later.

To Hugs' surprise, Eddie, who prided himself on his guts and willingness to brawl, did not
immediately denounce or reject the notion of a style that would protect the scar tissue around his eye.

“Let me think about it,” he said one morning before a workout.

And two days later, after Hugs wisely did not bring it up again, Eddie waved him over.  “You know that approach you were talking about?” he asked.

“What about it?”

“Let's give it a shot.”

Having to overcome not merely his own innate tendencies, but also what's known among
kinesiologists as muscle memory, Eddie did his best to follow Hugs' instructions during workouts and sparring. That meant keeping his hands higher than usual, counter-punching rather than initiating the action, and even adopting some of the bobbing and weaving associated with guys who were considered, and not always approvingly, boxers rather than punchers.

“I'm getting pretty in my old age,” Eddie joked several days later after frustrating a brawler
brought in as a sparring partner. 

“No,” Hugs responded hopefully. “Smarter.”

“I like that,” Eddie said. “IQ Eddie, the Whiz Kid of East LA.”

That became a leitmotif during the weeks of training that followed. “Am I still smart?” Eddie would ask from time to time. Or:  “Am I getting smarter?” Or even:  “Am I nearing genius yet?”  

Soon the banter was picked up by other guys in the Garcia camp. “Way to go, Einstein,” was heard for the first time ever at the Azteca Gym, as was, “Next stop, Harvard!”
Seeing Eddie not just grow, but also begin to glow, Hugs found himself doing what for him was unthinkable:  allowing his virtually impenetrable guard to drop. Though as always he chose not to share his thoughts with Eddie or anyone else, his trepidation slowly started dissipating, replaced by something that starting to resemble hope. We've got an outside chance was slowly giving way to We've got a good chance, and then even to With any luck we just might be able to do this.

Late one night Hugs went so far as to pull out a tape of an old fight that was always special to him, one in which a seemingly over-matched fighter of his from Pomona, a journeyman with a so-so record named Hector Zamora, upset the pride of Guadalajara, undefeated Angel Barba, who was being touted at that time as boxing's Next Big Thing.  

It was arguably Hugs' defining moment as a trainer, a testament to preparation over power, and brains over brawn.  Instead of getting involved in a slug-fest as he'd done most of his career, Zamora surprised Barba by changing styles not just from round to round, but even within rounds.  Starting the bout by fighting, for the first time in his career, as a lefty, Zamora switched every so often to righty, then back again, while also making use periodically of what's known as the Panamanian Weave, lulling his opponent, then suddenly catching him off-guard with three body blows followed by an uppercut.

Though Hugs was known to deflect the credit given to him that  night by the HBO
commentators -- A brilliant strategy devised by Hugs Hartman, is how Larry Merchant termed it -- he did, on occasion, acknowledge that the on-screen praise brought him new boxers to train. What he never told anyone else, however, was that in moments of doubt the memory of that evening's success gave him confidence at times when it was needed.
So despite his initial fears and misgivings, as days turned into weeks, Hugs found himself
sensing that instead of a disaster, G/V4 could wind up a victory.

But on the morning of the long-awaited weigh-in, after exchanging Spanish-language insults with Vargas about everything from the blood coursing through their respective veins to the dimensions of their treasured dicks, Eddie pulled Hugs away from everyone else assembled for the event.

“I'd rather die in the ring than fight that motherfucker like a pussy,” he snarled.

“That's what he's hoping you'll say,” Hugs tried to explain.

“And know what? I'm sayin' it!”

“Eddie, please. You're smarter than that.”

“Not another word,” Eddie stated icily.  “Not one more fucking word.”

Unable to sleep, Hugs wrestled first with decisions, then with something rarely encountered in the world of fisticuffs: his conscience. 

On the one hand there was the question of what it would mean not just within the fight game, but worse, to Eddie and to him, if he refused to work the corner. Trainers, simply put, do not quit, especially on the eve of a fight.

That reality was balanced against the fears he had managed to keep at bay about Eddie's future well-being.

Seeing his favorite fighter lose sight in one eye would be devastating. But far worse would be permanent brain damage. For Hugs, the thought was unbearable.

Cursing the medical examiner whose go-ahead made the fight possible, Hugs found himself filled with hate. He hated the macho posturing that was so much a part of boxing. He hated Vargas for doing such an effective job of goading Eddie. And he hated Eddie for accepting the bait.

But most of all, Hugs hated himself. He hated himself because he knew that instead of walking away, he would be there for the fight, working Eddie's corner. He would be there partially out of loyalty and partially to protect his reputation. But he would also be there because, despite his belief in what he called principles, he wanted the bucks. After all the time spent training, giving pep talks, and devising a strategy that could protect his fighter and potentially yield a win, he knew that there was no way on earth that he would, or could, walk away from the money that should be his.

It was money that would make it easier for him to visit his grandson in Oregon from time to
time. And money he deserved. And most importantly, if he couldn't get the satisfaction to which he was entitled, he damn well wanted to get something.

Yet that's what hurt most of all, since money had never, ever, been a driving force in his life.

On the night of the fight, the strained silence between fighter and trainer in the Staples Center dressing room, unprecedented in all the years they'd been together, was broken only when Hugs started taping Eddie's hands.

“What if I try it your way, Jefe?” Eddie asked, catching Hugs off-guard. “That make you


“Want to make me happy?”

“Ain't that my goal in life?”

“Then make it through tonight without getting hurt.”

Eddie winced, then studied Hugs for a moment. “Willing to help?”

“If you let me,” Hugs replied. “That asking too much?”

“C'mon --”

“That a yes or a no?”

“You're a pain in the ass.”

“What else is new?” Hugs asked, drawing a chuckle from Eddie for the first time in what felt like ages.

For the first three rounds, Eddie skillfully employed the taunting defensive style devised by Hugs, frustrating his opponent and incurring the wrath of the fans, who wanted a bloody, no-holds-barred, old-fashioned brawl. Then, to the surprise of everyone but his trainer, midway through Round Four, Eddie exploded with a left-right-left combination that knocked Vargas off his feet.

The crowd favorite took the mandatory eight-count, then stumbled for a couple of moments with a glazed expression on his face before trying to force a clinch.  And when the bell saved him, Vargas was greeted by catcalls and boos rather than the usual cries of Me-xi-co!

Elated, Eddie went back to his corner, where instead of praise, Hugs urged caution.
“Great stuff,” Hugs began, “but don't get carried away. Stick to the game plan. Stick to what's working.”

Though his fighter nodded, Hugs, knowing Eddie, remained concerned.

As Hugs feared, Round Five opened with Vargas provoking Eddie by getting dirty. First came a blow that, if not technically low, was at best marginal. Then, after a clinch, came an elbow to the head that went unobserved -- or at least unpenalized -- by the ref despite loud protests from Hugs. A moment later, as they came out of yet another clinch, Vargas nailed Eddie with what Hugs was certain was a deliberate head butt.

“Have some goddamn guts, for Chrissake!” Hugs bellowed at the ref.  “You can't let that shit go!”

As blood spurted from a gash on Eddie's forehead, Vargas attacked with a vengeance.
Instead of retreating, Eddie stood his ground and fired back like a man obsessed. 

With the crowd going wild, the two fighters went toe-to-toe, exchanging punches thrown with all their might.

At the sound of the bell, Eddie had to be forced toward his corner, his adrenaline pumping wildly.

“It's no good, Eddie!” Hugs yelled as their cut man tried valiantly to stop the blood flowing from Eddie's forehead. “You've got to fight your fight!”

“Bullshit!” was Eddie's retort. “I'm gonna kill the motherfucker!”

And when the next bell sounded, he bounded toward Vargas in search of vengeance. Often, when words and phrases enter popular culture so as to become figures of speech, their origins seem lost until someone manages to return them to their original usage. But it was to protect his fighter, not to venture into the realm of linguistics, that Hugs Hartman did something bold. Though Eddie Garcia was seemingly holding his own, trading jabs and uppercuts to the delight of the fans, Hugs looked around the arena, then deep into his own heart and soul. 

Knowing that his actions would be deemed unconscionable by the crowd, by the media, and especially by his own fighter, Hugs bit his lip then grabbed a towel and threw it into the ring. There was a hush as it was seen by one and all, then bedlam when the referee, taking the cue sent by throwing in the towel, stopped the fight.

As a startled Antonio Vargas took stock of the moment then raised his hand in victory, and an even more surprised -- and infuriated -- Eddie Garcia turned angrily toward his corner in search of an explanation, Hugs Hartman patted the cut man on the back, then walked slowly away from the ring.

Though he knew full well that his action might be not just a defining moment, but also the end of his career, he walked with his head held high, proud that he'd done what he considered to be right.

Alan Swyer was once a boxer himself. Plus, he recently made a documentary about boxing: