Across from the Atlas Gimnasio, the barefoot children were laughing and racing through the litter of Zarco Street. All of the children but one, a 6-year-old wisp they called Pepe, who huddled beneath a cardboard lean-to, waiting with dark and empty eyes for someone to buy one of the few browning oranges he had neatly laid in a line near his naked feet. Smog hung like a smothering gray-black blanket over Mexico City, which sweltered beneath a sun seldom seen. It had rained hard the afternoon before, but rain cannot wash away the stains of poverty.
On the other side of the narrow one-way street, Costenito Gonzalez leaned down and flicked a cloth across his new light-brown shoes, whisking away imagined grime. For most of his 19 years the junior lightweight boxer had helped his father scratch out an existence on a farm in Tapachula. Now Gonzalez had the air of a man who had fought as a professional 19 times, won all his fights and was the proud owner of a red 1974 Ford.
A stocky man carrying a stylish light-blue equipment bag came with purpose along the street. Seeing Gonzalez, the man paused and rasped, "It is noon, Costenito." The man turned and disappeared into a nearby doorway next to a furniture store where you can buy on terms, no interest—su cr�dito es bueno.
A slender lefthander, Gonzalez wore a sparkling gold watch on his right wrist. He glanced at it, assuring himself that it was time to train. His thin smile did not reach his eyes.
He spoke with a tired sadness. "It is not easy to make a living in Mexico. Hunger is not a stranger. When I told my father I wanted to be a fighter, he said no, then he said that if I won my first fight he would give me his blessing. I fought a veteran who had had many fights. I broke his jaw and put him in the hospital for 43 days. It was two days before Christmas in 1973. I was 16 years old. Fighting is hard. But there are harder things."
Gonzalez glanced across the street. If he took notice of Pepe he didn't let on. But a shadow flickered over his gaunt face. He hurried toward the narrow doorway that led to the gym three floors above the street.
There are nine more gyms such as the Atlas running full bore in Mexico City, at least three times that number elsewhere in Mexico. Give or take a dozen left-hookers, there are 7,000 professional fighters in the country and, as of the moment, five of them are world champions.
Two of the champions are bantamweights. One is Carlos Zarate, a street brawler from the time he could walk, 25 and single and no stranger to the jails of Mexico City, a child of the slums praying that a future operation to be paid for by his fists will give back sight to his blind and beloved mother. He's the World Boxing Council champion. The other is Alfonso Zamora, also a product of the violent streets, but introduced to the ring early by an ex-fighter father: handsome, 22, married with two children and spurred by suspicion and bitterness. He's the World Boxing Association champion.
Zarate and Zamora—the Z Bombs—are good friends, ex-stablemates and between them they have knocked out 69 of the 70 men they have fought professionally. One day not too far off they will fight each other.
Together with flyweight champions Miguel Canto ( WBC) and Guty Espadas ( WBA) and welterweight champion Pepino Cuevas ( WBA), they make up the Mexican contingent of the 23 world champions, 15 of whom come from Latin America.