Somewhere it is written that professional boxers I must adopt a nom de ring, no matter how trite or ill-fitting. Thus the pugilistic landscape is littered with ponderous Cheetahs and gelatinous Rocks. There are more Rockys than there are Rocky sequels.
Then there is Ricardo Mayorga. The welterweight champion might be nicknamed El Matador—it's even tattooed on the side of his neck—but the handle could scarcely be less accurate. Matadors succeed with a combination of grace and precision; Mayorga does so with sheer power and aggression. If anything, his moniker should be El Toro. He is rash and impetuous, while matadors are calculating and poised. Perhaps most telling: While matadors merely flirt with death, Mayorga all but stalks it.
These first 30 years of Mayorga's life are replete with near misses. As a teenager in Nicaragua he spent sue years in a gang and twice stared down the barrel of a gun. Both times, he says, the weapon jammed. He has a half-dozen scars commemorating various Sharks-versus-Jets knife fights; a scar on top of his head was produced by a lead pipe. He is a drag-racing fiend whose preferred pastime is Via de la Suerte (the Street of Luck), a "game" that involves gunning his tricked-up Honda coupe and speeding through the red light at a busy intersection. As if we need further evidence of a self-destructive streak, he has a notorious pack-a-day smoking habit. And, of course, his line of work isn't exactly OSHA-approved. "I know I push the envelope of danger, but God has been very good to me," he says with a shrug. "I should probably be dead by now."
Instead he is breathing life into his moribund sport. A slugger whose wildly entertaining style, such as it is, entails unleashing a hail of punches from bell to bell, Mayorga is suddenly one of the hottest acts in boxing. Last year he KO'd highly-regarded Andrew (Six Heads) Lewis in a mild upset. Last January he needed only three rounds to clock Vernon (the Viper) Forrest—previously undefeated and the 2002 Fighter of the Year—in a considerable upset. When he decisioned Forrest in an exhilarating July rematch, he had proved his mettle. " Ricardo Mayorga is the truth, and that's no lie," says his promoter, Don King, "Plus, he has the adrenaline to meet the prophecy."
Translation: Mayorga has a personality that, by comparison, renders Ali an introvert and Tyson a Calvinist. Mayorga isn't from another era so much as he's from another planet. The night before his rematch with Forrest, Mayorga was on the floor of the host casino at 3 a.m., a cigarette in his hand, a woman on his arm, a diminishing stack of chips in his grasp. When he retired to his room shortly afterward, he fell asleep in his street clothes, woke a few hours later and won the fight. Last month, while sparring at his training camp in Fort Pierce, Fla., he beseeched his corner to ply him with rum between rounds. The following morning at breakfast he gave his order to a perky waitress and promptly announced to his dining companions, "It's a good thing I don't speak better English or I'd [romance] all your women."
Though Mayorga speaks through an interpreter, he has become boxing's reigning champ of the ritual prefight smack-talking. According to Mayorga, Oscar de la Hoya, a logical future opponent, is a maricon (a homosexual) in need of a set of cojones. Another likely candidate for a future fight, Shane Mosley, is a payaso (clown) who should be shining Mayorga's shoes. Mayorga's message to Cory (son of Leon) Spinks, whom he fights Dec. 13 in Atlantic City: "This will be the biggest purse—and the biggest beating—you'll ever get."
About the only thing Mayorga filters are his cigarettes. In addition to the obligatory nickname, every boxer needs a shriek—and the "fistic fumigator" is a good one. But Mayorga is not merely blowing smoke when he blows smoke. "I don't do it to show off," he says, dragging on a Marlboro. "I'm addicted." Yet contrary to all conventional (and unconventional) wisdom, he has the stamina of a marathoner, running five miles a day and often sparring for more than an hour. In his last fight (the decision over Forrest), Mayorga endured 12 rounds and looked little the worse for wear.
His endurance is all the more remarkable given the way he fights. When Spinks characterizes Mayorga as "kind of unorthodox," he is guilty of felony understatement. Mayorga looks like a fighter who has defiantly disregarded his corner and abandoned all traces of technique—except that is his technique. At once predictably aggressive and aggressively unpredictable, he swings away awkwardly, uncorking punches from every conceivable angle. If he catches a few shots coming in, so be it. "Look, I'd love to be the prettiest boxer," he says, "but the only thing I know how to do is hit hard."
Already enraged by Mayorga's prefight insults, even the most disciplined of his opponents abandon their game plan and engage him in a street fight. An inability to resist the urge to rumble with Mayorga can be disastrous—particularly for a fighter like Spinks, a defensive southpaw who lacks power.
The same recklessness that defines Mayorga's life outside the ring is manifest during his fights. In the fourth round of the Forrest rematch, Mayorga dropped his gloves and offered free shots. When Forrest obliged, Mayorga slapped his own face as if to say, Harder. Forrest unloaded again, and Mayorga barely flinched. "I wanted to show I was the boss, I was his father," Mayorga says. It was stupid and it was reckless and it did exactly what he intended, changing the complexion of the fight.