It was uncomfortably warm inside the Maple Avenue Boxing Gym on Friday afternoon, and the air wasn't moving despite the industrial-sized fan rattling loudly in a corner. No one noticed. They didn't pay any mind either to the bags hanging motionless from the ceiling or the or the TV news camera set off to one side.
Their eyes, maybe 40 pair, are turned instead to the empty ring, at the edge of which a flatscreen TV is perched. The video feed, streamed from the Internet via a laptop, is occasionally choppy, but they don't mind that either. They are all fixated on 23-year-old Errol Spence Jr., the Maple Avenue Boxing Gym fighter done good and America's last remaining hope for an Olympic boxing medal in London, as he prepares to fight in the round of 16.
The outside windows are graffitied with "U.S.A." and "Go Errol" and "R.I.P. Manny" in red white and blue. Hanging from the ceiling is a banner announcing Spence as a 2012 Olympian. When he appears on the screen there is applause and shouts of "EJ." Gym owner Arnie Verbeek creases his lower lip with his fingers and lets out a piercing whistle.
"A lot of kids have a lot of talent, but nobody's as serious as Errol Spence," Verbeek tells me. He points to a spot a foot in front of us that Spence's dad occupies during every workout.
Spence is fighting Krishan Vikas, from India. His trainer wears a yellow turban and thick white beard.
"Is this guy he's fighting good?" someone asks.
"No. 3 in the world," is the answer. Vikas won the silver in Beijing. There are no illusions Spence is going to waltz his way to the quarterfinals.
The first round bears that out. A hush falls on the room as Vikas takes a definite edge. He's not dominating, but it's clear that more of his punches are falling. There are cautious murmurs of approval when Spence lands a solid blow, but otherwise, silence and creeping apprehension.
Spence is different in the second round. He seems lighter on his feet, more aggressive. He lands a flurry of punches on Vikas' torso, then his head. Vikas swings to counter, but hits only air and lunges awkwardly forward as Spence ducks out of reach. The Maple Ave. crowd jeers when Vikas' mouthpiece falls onto the mat, requiring a pause. Spence lands another flurry of punches when the bell rings, and the mood in the gym has turned.
"He's doing well," says Jesus, the head trainer. "I think he just evened the match out."
A man named Fabian agrees. "He's like watching a ballerina," he says admiringly. I ask if he's ever fought Spence, and he shoots me an "Are-you-crazy?" look. Sure, they box at the same gym, but Fabian's an engineer who boxes to keep from getting fat. Spence is -- well, just watch the TV. He's an Olympic boxer. World-class.
The third round plays out much like the second, with Spence taking and keeping the offensive. Vikas might get in a punch or two more than in the previous round, but he might not. It's hard to tell, but it's easy to feel the anticipation building on Maple Avenue as it becomes clear that Spence has taken the advantage and isn't going to let up. A collective cheer wells up in the crowd as the final bell rings and the ref takes Spence's arm and begins to raise it. Suddenly, the joy is gone, and Vikas is standing with his arms raised in victory. The Indian won, 13-11.
"Bullshit!" Verbeek yells, as do several others in the crowd.
"They're not judging. They're just punching buttons," a stout, elderly man says dismissively. For the entire fight he had stood stock-still with an American flag resting musket-like on his left shoulder. In his shin-high socks and nylon cap, he looked as if he just stepped from a Palm Beach retirement home, but he introduced himself as Dickey Cole, with the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation.
He last stepped into the ring as a fighter in '52, but he knows the sport, and to him, there was no question: Spence won the fight.
There was disappointment, but also pride that one of their own had proved himself on the world stage.
"There's absolutely nothing to be ashamed of when you lose to the best," said Jesus, the head trainer.
Still, there the disappointment is as the crowd disperses, some to go back home, some to grab beers at Herrera's next door. A crew packs the TV in its box and loads it into a white van.
No one was around, then, when the International Amateur Boxing Association that the ref had screwed up. Vikas should have been given two warnings for holding and, rather than losing 13-11, the organization said that Spence had actually won, 15-13. That decision sends Spence into the quarter finals, which means there will be another opportunity on Tuesday for his supporters to convene in the sweltering gym on Maple Avenue to cheer him on.
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