The Lure of the Ring

Former champ Frank Otero needs to sell real estate to make a living. But he needs boxing to live.

Friday night fight time has arrived, but not without a last-minute crisis that leaves Otero wondering just how he survived. At 10:00 p.m., less than 48 hours before the fight, he got a call informing him Rafael Merran was fighting that weekend in Tennessee. Funny, Merran already had signed a contract with Otero for tonight. He was to go against Patrick Simeon, a Haitian American and popular Miami junior lightweight. Seething, Otero jumped in his white Pontiac and drove straight to the Liberty City home of Jose Delgado, a Nicaraguan fighter. Delgado was home, and Otero wasn't about to let him think anything over. He signed him up on the spot. Delgado and Simeon will be the first match on the card.

Now it's about 8:00 p.m., and Delgado has just arrived at the auditorium on Ocean Drive. Since the first fight is to begin at 8:00, that makes him a bit late, and Otero has to decide quickly which pair to substitute for the first fight. Having changed from his usual jeans and Reeboks into a gray suit and red tie, Otero bustles from trainer to trainer, his face placid as always, but with a hunted look in his eyes.

Meanwhile, Telemundo's Tony Tirado and Rene Giraldo stand ringside, waiting to ignite the Explosion on the Ocean. Seen from the television monitors placed at press tables, it's an elegant scene: the two announcers in tuxedos, overhead klieg lights making brilliant stars against the blue canvas in the ring. Off-camera, bearded, bearlike Enrique Encinosa leans his elbows on a rickety press table snug against the ring, chain-smoking Kools and emitting flurries of coughs. Next to him, in a light gray business suit that matches his prematurely gray hair, Ramiro Ortiz (no relation to Jorge) adjusts his headphones. These two long-time friends, contemporaries and fans of Frank Otero, have been asked to tape an English-language color commentary of the fights, which will later be sold to cable companies. Tonight is a reunion of sorts for them. Both have a long involvement in local boxing; Ortiz, a vice president at SunBank, occasionally makes matches, manages, and promotes.

The auditorium, originally built for events such as community theater presentations, has a small stage where chairs are now being set up. Backstage four minuscule dressing areas have been designated, one simply a corner. These will be shared among the ten fighters on tonight's card. According to Telemundo's inviolable timetable, the co-feature bout must start shortly after 9:00 p.m., when Tirado and Giraldo go on the air live. The main event must begin at 10:00. If there's time in between or after, one or more of the preliminary bouts will air.

Otero is frenetic. He has to find more gauze for the fighters' hand-wraps; he okays three muscley South Beach types to act as bouncers for the night; the 500-seat auditorium isn't filling up very quickly, but he doesn't have time to worry about that. As the card has materialized, Tommy Torino's big heavyweight will not be fighting tonight; there's been a mixup over a prior contract.

Rico Ortiz won't be on the card, either. His opponent canceled late yesterday, and Otero wasn't able to find a replacement. It's a blow for Ortiz, the third time in a row he's been knocked off a card because of problems with the opponent. Nevertheless Ortiz has come as a spectator, carrying a thick black appointment book full of business cards. "I need to let people see my face," he explains. "Everything is in the presentation." He is wearing a purple double-breasted suit and patterned tie, the unmistakable focal point of his more modestly attired entourage, which includes his father, son, girlfriend, and brother. "They told me, 'It's canceled, kid,'" Rico says, shaking a sharp-edged jaw that ends in a fine square at the chin. "I stayed up till midnight hoping for a call [with word of an opponent]. The third time you're so frustrated, it really takes a lot out of you."

Juan Arroyo and Arthur Clark will fight first. Arroyo has been dressing in a loft area up a flight of stairs. He sits solemnly, surrounded by friends from his Allapattah neighborhood, seeming not to hear the salsa coming from a boombox. His trainer, wearing immaculate white pants and shoes and a blood-red satin jacket, puts one hand on his stomach, raises the other one to the height of his head, and hints at a dance.

Clark is sitting alone in a chipped wooden chair downstairs. He flew to Miami from Nassau without shoes to fight in, but Tommy Torino, who booked him, has sent someone back to his gym in Plantation to find a pair Clark can use. He will also borrow a few cornermen for the fight. After nineteen years of boxing, Clark is accustomed to shuttling in and out of towns, used to being the guy who gets picked to be the opponent for a hometown hero. Sometimes he beats the local boy, but usually he loses. His face, with its jutting jaw and cheekbones, is ageless, but his reddened eyes look old and remote.

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