Fathers and Sons
By Richard E. Baker on December 5, 2022
During the summer, dust, rather than rain, falls from the sky. (Photo by Richard E. Baker)
Many boxers grow up leading terrible lives: broken homes, poverty, abuse. They turn to boxing as a way to improve their situation in life. The stories are almost endless. Many trainers have suffered the same conditions.
Three-year-old Jose Benavidez, bewildered and confused, was abandoned to his grandparents in Mexico. The difficulties before him were enormous: poverty, thievery, gangs, homelessness, broken relationships, no family, and a seemingly bleak or nonexistent future. No one would have suspected he would grow from a small undernourished sprout to become nominated as boxing trainer of the year, have a tight-knit and loving family, two excellent boxing sons, Jose Jr., and David, a world champion, a successful boxing gym, be respected by everyone, and be married to a beautiful and supportive woman.
Americans might think that poverty and despair are the chief occupations in the small town of Mexico’s San Pedro Limon where Benavidez was left. The people remain content and happy as do most people from small places who need little for daily life. Because the town is in the mountains, many of the problems caused by the deserts of Mexico are avoided. During the summer, in low-lying towns, dust, rather than rain, falls from the sky. Dust is the principal ingredient of such places and seems to cover poverty with a thin layer of depression the people attempt to dance away. Dust paints the houses, waxes the floors, replaces flour in tortillas, marks out footpaths and roads, and gives the people an earthen look. Anything not covered by the dust is eaten by a relentless, scorching, sun. The sun seems bigger and hotter in Mexico than anyplace else on earth and has an insatiable appetite for moisture sucking every ounce of sweat from skin and turning eyeballs into hot ball-bearings that eyelids will not touch. This is the vision most North Americans have of Mexico, visions they have seen of Poncho Villa or Zapata on movie screens whipping up dust across the cactus-filled plains.
San Pedro Limon, on Highway 2, is high enough in the mountains to have cooler and more comfortable temperatures and, although sometimes dry, is lush with lingering and brittle trees. During the summer rainy season the town is more in danger of water than dust. The rain curls up from coastal waters to condense and fall in the mountains. The trees are round-topped and numerous, the brush low to the ground. The supports of the barbed wire fences beside the roads are broken tree limbs rather than cut poles. Cattle and burros wander the roads and often safely visit the town, accepted as a different kind of inhabitant.
The village holds less than 3,000 inhabitants, half of them children who seldom go past the 7th grade in school. Many adults are unable to read or write. The village’s reason for existence is to exist. Several people still speak indigenous languages. No large technical industry is likely to locate here. No small one, either.
The businesses are in row buildings painted shades of blue, yellow, green, and hues of tan. Girls often stand outside the cafes and play their wooden flutes. There is a yellow and white Shell petrol station in town, and another blue and white petrol station on the outskirts. A soccer field waits for players, the chalk lines seeping into the dirt. A large rounded hanger-like building greets visitors on the way to town and masses of electrical wires hang like coiled snakes from buildings and street corners. An ancient arch, many times faded and repainted, loops over the road and proclaims Bienvenidos, San Pedro Limon. The hardware store is noted for plumbing fixtures and toilets. Bathtubs and sinks decorate the show windows. Several restaurants like Tortilleria Y Taqueria and Tacos Luisito serve local foods. The motorcycle shop does a lazy business as does Zapateria, the clothing store. A red-roofed church encased in white and forgotten by God, forms a centerpiece.
Outside of town, kids jump from high rocks into the nearby river and families often come to picnic here. Rocks appear to be everywhere trees do not grow. The rocks are jagged and oddly shaped like the people, not smooth and round.
The yearly festival features bands playing from the beds of pickup trucks. Horses follow, many horses, decked out with riders adorned with silver trinkets, waxed chaps, spinning spurs, and cloths of many colors, with red being a special favorite. People’s personalities ignite in frolic, laughter, and friendship.
Crime against local citizens is at a minimum: there is little to steal. There is enough larceny, however, to keep boys occupied with the petty thefts needed to grow them into men. Crime here is on an international level, not local. Poppy flowers grow through the area and this area of Mexico produces 90% of the heroin smuggled to the U.S. Poppies are more prosperous than beans. Rival gangs, Guerreros Unidos and La Familia Cantel do battle in the area for control of the lucrative drug business. The citizens on San Pedro Limon claim to know nothing. They speak, see, and hear, nothing. For a simple life, some activities are better left alone. Blindness is the best policy.
The village has produced no great thinkers, no inventors, no writers or musicians, no athletes, nothing except a few subsistence crops that fight their way through the tough earth each year and allow the people to continue year, after year, after year, without the burdens of the modern world attempting to sell them something they do not need to make them happy. The people are happy and content without the burden of prosperity.
Jose’s mother, after remarriage, returned to get Jose. He had fallen into the trap of gangs and looked upon them as his family. They used him because of his diminutive size. He easily slid through small openings in buildings and was able to get away with what small offerings lay inside.
The reconstituted family moved to Phoenix. Jose did not get along with his stepfather. Two men in a house is always trouble, almost as much as two women in a house. “The problem was not him, it was me,” said Jose. “I had been on my own and resented anyone trying to tell me what to do. I was still getting into trouble.”
At the age of 15 he and his girlfriend had Jose Jr. He was now faced with the prospect of being a kid and attempting to raise a kid. Having Jr. brought on new responsibilities and Jose decided to turn his life around. He wanted to become a decent example for his son. He now had the family he had always wanted. Several years later they had David. Jose got a job at one of the most prestigious hotels in the country. Due to his good nature and hard work he moved through the organization quickly and he thought of a career in the hotel business.
Generally in this world life does not proceed as expected. He came home one day only to have his girlfriend say she did not love him and that she was leaving.
“I said to her the only thing we really have are the boys. Let’s part without animosity. If you want the boys you can take them. If not, I will be happy to raise them.”
They left the decision to the boys. They chose their father. Because he wanted to do the best he could by them, he started them in sports. He let them try every venue. They eventually gradated to boxing, the one sport Jose knew nothing about.
“I did not choose boxing for them. They chose boxing. They seemed to be naturals for fighting. I was at a loss. I knew nothing about boxing and did not know how to help them.”
That did not stop Jose. He is a quietly determined man. He started learning everything he could about boxing, from the history to various techniques. He watched the way different boxers fought, the way each one threw jabs or hooks or uppercuts. He watched their body movements and the way they moved their feet, from dancers to plodders. One thing he knew for certain: discover the way a fighter wants to fight and do not change it. Work with what he has. Attempting to change him will only cause problems.
Jose went even farther with his boys. He started working with various trainers and learning from them. He noticed how each one trained and he learned as much from their faults as from their proficiencies.
“Freddy Roach is a good trainer. His biggest fault is he wants to make everyone fight like Pacquiao. That does not work with a fighter who wants a different style. Abel Sanchez is a tough man and wants his boxers to be tough. He is not much on style. His fighters come ahead looking for war and bring out the heavy guns fast. Robert Garcia is very patient with his fighters. He never yells or berates them. All trainers have their own ways. I knew if I learned the many ways they trained then I could adapt all their techniques without using just one style.”
Jose wanted to find a top trainer for his sons, then he realized he had acquired as much knowledge as most trainers and he could train them.
“Top trainers are always working with 4 or 5 boxers. My boys needed a full-time trainer. I took on the job. I could help them and keep an eye on them. I gave up whatever I might have wanted for me to concentrate on them. They have always been my life.”
Keeping an eye on them in Phoenix occasionally caused some hard feelings. Fathers and sons always have their problems. His boys started hanging with the wrong crowd in Arizona. He knew it would not be long before they succumbed to drugs. Jose Jr. was even shot in the knee, an injury that would have ended the careers of most fighters. Jose decided to move to the safest place he could find: Burien, Washington. By now he had married fitness expert Daisy Delgado. She was instrumental in reducing David’s weight. David started training at 267 ponds. She worked him down to 165 pounds. The strength he had at the heavier weight stayed with him and has made him a devastating puncher.
Jose not only learned about boxing, he also learned about the management of boxing. Boxers are constantly screwed. Chicanery in the game seems to be the normal. He was not going to let that happen to his boys. They eventually signed decent contracts with Top Rank and with PBC.
“David does not enjoy working out but he loves to spar,” said Jose. “I must stop him or he will keep going, fifteen rounds or more. His brother, Jose Jr., does not like being in the gym as much and I must constantly push him. This often causes problems between us. He is a bit lazy and he must be pushed.” Because Jr. can be such a problem, Jose has often kicked him out of the gym for his own good.
Saying a fighter loves to train is a common boast with trainers and seldom always true. Fighters must be built up in the eyes of the public. In the case of David, Jose was not lying.
That certainly was apparent as soon as David moved against his first sparring partner of the day as he prepared for his upcoming fight against Caleb Plant. He wants to work and to work hard. Whenever a lull in the action appeared, David encouraged his partner to move forward and to give him a fight. After 4 tough rounds, the next victim was called into the ring. He was a tank and moved forward like a T-34. David was now warm and he removed his shirt. David knocked him about the ring. The opponent continued to crawl forward, always steady, always tossing hard rights.
Jose has found finding fights for David difficult. “No one wants to fight him. We are lucky to get this fight with Plant.”
David has had to content himself with fights against lesser opponents: David Lemieux, Kyrone Davis, Ronald Ellis, NAME Angulo, and Anthony Dirrell. Jose understands the fans are not always happy with such bouts but he must keep David as busy as possible. At least his recent opponents had the guts to fight. Alvarez has been running for years. If David beats Plant, Alvarez must face him in a mandatory fight. Rather than fight David, Jose thinks Alvarez will vacate the title and move to a different weight.
The fight with Plant will probably be lopsided. Plant is a media fighter. A boxer with a good story often overshadows a boxer with superior skill. Plant has the story. He is a decent dedicated warrior but lacks the prowess of a champion. The media wants a reality show, not decent fights.
Between rounds, Jose watered David and gave him advice. David listened intently and respectively. The sweat was flowing freely. One can feel his energy, the breezes from his punches like a desert wind.
David is a remarkable athlete. When he was about 14 years old, he weighed 267 pounds, not exactly in fighting trim. He understood that if he wanted to be a successful boxer he needed to get into better shape. “I took off 100 pounds,” he said. “I intend to keep it off.”
When the sparring was over David had gone 12 rounds. He wanted more. The statement is no bluff. Work is the thing he likes best. He has a grin the size of Montana on his face. Every round has given him increased pleasure. Jose will not let him go another round. Enough is enough. Besides, a reporter is waiting for him. David is a nice and personable man but not a great thinker. He is shy around the press. He is easily led and sometimes makes poor decisions. Various factions are constantly attempting to get him away from his father. He was even talked into using a different person to regulate his diet for a fight, leading to his being overweight for his bout against Angulo. Jose shrugged his shoulders. “He is an adult and makes his own decisions. He does not always make smart ones.” David needs to remember who got him where he is and remember the old saying “Dance with the one who brought you.”
David sat on the ring apron as Jose wiped him down and removed his gloves and wrappings. The reporter can wait a few minutes. He was all smiles as Jose offered him advice, what he has done correctly, what he has not. David moved over to meet the writer, slouches in a chair, speaks clearly and loudly. Jose watched with pride. Moving his family to Washington was the right choice. He has now been here 5 years and his gym has been drawing potential boxers from around the country. He looks toward the future and is training a group of teenage boxers. Presently they are all undefeated. He plans to open a second gym in Phoenix. Jose has never looked back.