Iron Twin

A Colombian boxer, training in the subtropics, squares off for a championship

By 6:00 a.m., they have all piled into a rented Chrysler Pacifica cluttered with gauze, promotional flyers, first-aid kits, melons, Gatorade, gym clothes, mouthpieces, and gloves. Weeks earlier, in an act of boredom or curiosity, Urango autographed the vehicle's center console with a black permanent marker: "Juan Urango: Champium."

"What was I gonna do?" Tortuga asks as he takes to the road. "Fight him?"

On an average day, Tortuga drives 100 miles, bouncing like a pinball between Miami and Broward — beach, doctor, food, physical therapist, home, gym, food, church. In the course of this journey, Urango DJs an uninterrupted soundtrack of Christian salsa, Christian reggaeton, Christian ranchera, and light Christian rock. The music seems to follow him wherever he goes. When Urango is not in the car, Tortuga flips on the radio to bask in a moment of loud commercial rap.

Rabah nurses his injured hand
Jacqueline Carini
Rabah nurses his injured hand
Rabah grins with promoter Sampson Lewkowicz, Urango, and Urango’s manager, Luis Navarro
Jacqueline Carini
Rabah grins with promoter Sampson Lewkowicz, Urango, and Urango’s manager, Luis Navarro

The first stop is Golden Beach. Every morning the boxers go for a run shepherded by their trainer, Alejandro "Pupi" Torre. Pupi is an odd splice between Desi Arnaz and the Marlboro Man; his face is dark and rugged, marked with the boundaries of his broad smile. When he's answering even the simplest questions, Pupi's whole body comes alive, hands cocked, shoulders shrugged — he points, leans, swaggers, and grins.

Once on the beach, Urango smears his body with sweat-inducing goop and dons a wetsuit top. Abril puts on pants and a long-sleeve shirt. At dawn, the temperature is already in the low eighties. The two bite down on their mouthpieces and set off at a trot along white sand and surf. Pupi and Tortuga return to the car to find an angry Golden Beach Police officer. "You can't park here!" he barks.

"I'm not parking," says Tortuga with a scoff, as he hands the cop a flyer. "We're training for a world title fight. Here you go."

As the sun cuts through the salty dawn mist, Tortuga and Pupi drive two miles south and park. By the time they have filled a couple of sports bottles with ice and Gatorade, Urango and Abril appear over the horizon, drenched.

Pupi hydrates them and points south. They continue. Tortuga and Pupi get into the car and jet to the next pit stop. This morning Urango and Abril will run for five miles in the soft sand. Yesterday they ran eight.

Tortuga mocks Rabah's name whenever it comes up. But the inspiration for all of this running is clearly a sense that the Tunisian will keep Urango marching and punching for a solid twelve rounds. Urango's only twelve-round fight ended in a draw, so the conditioning is vital.

At the finish line, the boxers strip down to their underwear, wipe the slime from their skin, and head to Urango's townhouse in Davie for a nap. His wife and her children are out of town. The house is cool, quiet, and sparsely furnished. Urango and Abril head directly upstairs.

Tortuga sits wearily at the kitchen counter. "I go through the same thing he goes through, except he gets hit," says Tortuga, his lids heavy in the blue glow of the cracked laptop screen. Someone sat on it in the car. The Blackberry he answers is his second. The first met its end in a corner spit bucket.

One day in 2003, at a fish market in Colombia, a friend of Urango's named Manuel Espinosa proffered a chance to get to Spain. He said his brother Jairo managed a stable of fighters there. There might be money. Days later Urango gathered his papers, packed his bags, and left for the madness of Madrid.

Soon the young fighter found himself living in a room with four other boxers in an industrial suburb of the Spanish capital. After Urango floored his first opponent during the opening round, Jairo and his son Gilbert signed him in August 2003. That contract was to last four years.

Money was scarce. Urango's managers wired 200 euros to his kids every month, but he spent his share of the 2000- to 3000-euro purses quickly. Life was uncertain. "There were times when I didn't have anything in my pocket," Urango says. Booze and girls were everywhere, and he recalls waking up one morning curled up in an ATM kiosk.

The fighting world of Spain was savage. When Urango weighed in at 147 for his third bout, he ended up squaring off against a Ghanian super-middleweight who was ten pounds heavier. Urango limped away with an achy six-round decision.

Then pain began creeping into his left hand; a wad of scar tissue swelled beneath his middle knuckle. X-rays showed nothing, but the pain grew and grew. He fought through it.

The money situation worsened. He relied on his managers for everything and won't speak much about the nature of their arrangement. On a spring morning in 2004, a swarm of Spanish cops with guns drawn surrounded their car. They seized Jairo and threw handcuffs on him. "But I'm supposed to train," Urango protested as they put him into a police car. "I'm supposed to fight!" (Gilbert Espinosa confirms the arrest but won't name the charge. He argues that his father is now out of jail and preparing to sue Urango for breach of contract.)

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