The Louisville Lip, otherwise known as Cassius Clay, was nowhere to be seen, but his presence hovered over the Sheraton's red, white, and blue ring. It was a Tuesday night like this one 42 years ago that Clay wrested the world heavyweight title from the Dark Destroyer, Sonny Liston, in Miami. As Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Joe DiMaggio, Jackie Gleason, and Sammy Davis Jr. watched from the crowd, Clay dodged Liston's heavy blows and landed a steady stream of jabs. Complaining of pain in his shoulder, Liston, the fighter who couldn't be beat, refused to leave his corner for the seventh round. "Eat your words!" Clay shouted at sportswriters who had doubted him.
Clay was 22 years old when he defeated Liston. Juan Arroyo, a local lightweight and crowd favorite, was a month short of 42 at Tuesday's "Night of Future Champions." Arroyo, a compact spark plug of a fighter with deep-set eyes, stood out not just for his age, but also for his story. Like Clay, Arroyo had known greatness early in his career, and now he was trying to relive it, trying to channel a long-gone era.
The Puerto Rican native went pro at sixteen and won the Florida state lightweight title the next year. Arroyo fought nationally broadcast bouts five times, losing narrowly in Australia to Barry Michaels, who went on to become the IBF junior lightweight world champion, and going seven rounds with middleweight Héctor "Macho" Camacho, one of the all-time legends.
But Arroyo dabbled with cocaine and soon moved to crack. He became an addict and serial robber, holding up people with his fists. For the better part of twenty years, he shuttled in and out of prison, narrowly avoiding a life sentence for robbery at one point.
Before Tuesday night's battle, Arroyo swore he has gone straight. He said he has a few more good fights in him. "I'm a sharp old man," he said.
Since returning to the ring in 2004, he has won three bouts and earned two draws. There was a unanimous decision over former IBF super flyweight world champion Juan Polo Perez and an eight-round draw with former IBO welterweight champion Ener Julio.
Arroyo was confident before Tuesday night's headline fight, but at his age, he knew better than to be cocky. He knew that Canadian bruiser Darelle Sukerow's 13-13 record was misleading. The well-tattooed, 30-year-old redhead was nearly impossible to knock out he had hit the mat only three times in 26 bouts and had fought his country's welterweight champion to a twelve-round draw. "He's no piece of cake," Arroyo said.
Though the crowd had grown slowly to about 900 during the night's first six fights, at least a dozen rows remained empty on the hall's perimeter.
From the opening bell, Sukerow seemed unimpressed by Arroyo's 34-4-4 record. He used his reach advantage to land brutal combinations in the early rounds, much the way Liston might have had Clay not floated like a butterfly. Soon Arroyo, his face red, slumped expressionless in his corner as a ring girl in Daisy Dukes jiggled to reggaeton between rounds.
The fight was close, like the Tuesday-night battles of yore, when the suspense of a good match and the drama of a fighter's personal story attracted fans straight from work, said boxing historian Hank Kaplan. "You jump in the shower, put the kids in bed, argue with the wife, and then take a trip down to the local bucket of blood," Kaplan said of the tradition that died out in the early Eighties.
Wandering around the convention center, 70-year-old Leonardo Vallejo recalled a time in the Fifties and Sixties when people would pour out of hotels and stream up Washington Avenue to the Tuesday fights at the 4000-seat Miami Beach Auditorium, now the Jackie Gleason Theater of the Performing Arts. The men wore suits and fedoras; the women cocktail dresses.
That was before big casinos drew away crowds, before the boxing world became cluttered with sanctioning organizations, before the Dolphins, Marlins, and Heat. "There was nothing else back then," Vallejo said.
Back in the ring, Arroyo got up for the seventh round and shook off his fatigue. He stayed inside and close, throwing as many body shots as he could, keeping Sukerow on the defensive. A few flurries brought the crowd to its feet and backed Sukerow against the ropes.
Shouts of "Boricua!" and "You the man!" rained down on Arroyo. Sukerow reeled. As the bell sounded at the end of the eighth, the two embraced, their shoulders dropping.
By unanimous decision, the bout belonged to Arroyo, and, for a moment, the past belonged to the present.